Sneakers That Defined 1980s Hip Hop

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Drake rinsing Kanye West for his Yeezy 350s, Pusha-T busting a multi-million dollar adidas deal, and Travis Scott flipping the Swoosh, it’s easy to take hip hop’s relationship to sneakers for granted. But let’s load the Walkman and rewind to where it all begun: a little Phencyclidine, one track and a million dollars. These are the sneakers that defined 1980s hip hop.

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Run DMC and friends, in Queens, 1984 | Janette Beckman


RUN-DMC’s ‘My adidas’ has a somewhat mythological history. Legend has it that the band’s manager, Russell Simmons, was high on Phencyclidine (PCP) when he pitched the song to RUN-DMC on the corner of 205th Street, New York City.

PCP, also known as ‘Angel Dust’, is a dissociative drug known to trigger auditory and visual hallucinations. Who knows how high Russell Simmons managed to get, but an act of transcendence surely took place because the man managed to forge a connection between capitalism and sneakers erstwhile unseen.

Appearing as the opening track on RUN-DMC’s ‘Raising Hell’, adidas executive Angelo Anastasio threw down a $1 million endorsement deal after he saw the band perform at Madison Square Garden, where the crowd held their adidas Superstars in the air and sang the now-legendary opening lines:

My Adidas Walk through concert doors / And roam all over coliseum floors / I stepped on stage, at Live Aid / All the people gave an applause that paid / And out of speakers I did speak / I wore my sneakers but I'm not a sneak
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RUN-DMC at Hammersmith Odeon in London, 1986 | David Corio

It was a watershed moment for the industry. The Three Stripes now had their very own rap song. ‘I gave them $1 million but they ended up generating sales of more than $100 million over the next four years’, Anastasio recalled in the book Sneakers Wars, ‘at a time when Nike was growing like crazy, the endorsement gave adidas exposure and kept the brand alive in the eye of the public’. A new paradigm was established. Jamaican-born rappers Heavy D & the Boyz fished hard for a Swoosh deal in 1987 with their track ‘Nike’, MC Shan started a beef with LL Cool J (and his link up with Troop), and artists like Doug E. Fresh donned a pair of Ballys while recording (a decision repeatedly called out by artists like 2Pac and RUN-DMC for being bourgeois).

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Breakdancing in New York, 1984 | Michael Ochs, Getty Images


The Big Cat was also prowling the streets during the 1980s, thanks largely to the Suede's loaded political history.

On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith became the first runner to break the 20-second barrier in the 200-metre sprint, the Texas-born Smith crossing the line in 19.8 seconds. Standing on the podium to receive his medal, Tommie Smith raised his PUMA Suedes and performed a black power salute.

The moment is deeply embedded within the sole of the PUMA Suede, the sneaker later transposed during the 1970s and 1980s in the Bronx with an embryonic b-boy scene taking a shine to the Suede’s material durability and deep civil rights roots. The Suede’s thick rubber outsoles and malleable uppers were spinning across New York’s fledgling breakdancing scene, and quickly permeated hip-hop; a moment immortalised on the silver screen in 1984 with Beat Street (featuring cameos by the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Kool Herc) and LPs by the Beastie Boys and MC Shan.

While sneakers like the PUMA Suede and adidas Superstar established strong cultural connections to a grassroots hip hop scene during the 1980s, other silhouettes stepped straight from the basketball courts and into the clubs.

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OG colourway of Nike Air Force shoe from 1982


The Nike Air Force 1 was the first sneaker to be retroed by Nike after being reintroduced in 1986. The silhouette would become legendary, putting more George Washington’s in Nike’s pocket than any other athletic sneaker in history (Yes, the Air Force 1 had the step on the Chuck Taylor and Air Jordan 1).

Dubbed ‘Uptowns’ (for sneakerheads’ willingness to travel out to Baltimore to cop a pair), the Air Force 1 was initially put on the map after Moses Malone took the Philadelphia 76ers to the promised land (going ‘fo-fi-fo’ in the Air Force 1s). But the sneaker quickly picked up steam off-court, becoming the de facto sneaker of choice for Harlem, and appearing on the cover art of tracks like ‘It Takes Two’ by New York hip hop duo Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock.

The legacy of the Air Force 1 continued to be referenced as hip hop transformed, with Jay Z spitting rhymes on ‘Can I live II’ (for all my n****s with the all-white Air Force 1s and black guns) and Nelly following up a decade later with ‘Air Force Ones’.

But the AF-1 wasn’t the only sneaker in Nike’s arsenal getting extended air time during the 1980s. The Nike Cortez, Dunk and Air Jordan 1 were all being laced across America.

Grandmaster Flash repped the Nike Dunk on his fifth album, Ba-Dop-Boom-Bang, the Cortez became linked with the West Coast and Compton (of which Kendrick Lamar would later reflect on ‘Control’), and the Air Jordan 1 gained traction with the hip hop scene after the sneaker was banned from the NBA in 1984 (LL Cool J lacing a pair of Air Jordan 1 ‘Bred’ on 1985’s Radio).

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The Original Six Air Force 1 campaign | Nike


The sneakers across America in the 1980s were as diverse as the tracks spun on the 8-track. Converse permeated the West Coast, NWA donned a pair of black Chuck 70s, and Air Jordan 2s and 3s graced the album covers of Heavy D & The Boyz, Three Times Dope, and The Boys and Kid Play 2. Even more obscure releases like Nike Court Force saw play time on MC Lyte’s Lyte As a Rock, as the Ewing 33 Hi and K-Swiss Tennis Classic stomped the streets.

Hip hop owned the air waves, pushing a grass-roots production scene to its avant-garde edges, and allowing a fledgling sneakersphere to really start finding its voice. In the words of Nas’ ‘Halftime’, New York City and the broader United States had ‘more kicks than a baby in a mother’s stomach’, and birthed the whole new generation of voracious sneakerheads.

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