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The Sneakers of Hip Hop’s Golden Age

MC Eiht
1994 – MC Eiht, Compton, California

Chi Modu is responsible for some of the most enduring sneaker imagery from hip hop’s Golden Age. From Eazy-E flashing his adidas Campus atop his lowrider in Compton to Snoop Dogg lacing the Cortez in South Central LA, Chi Modu was out shooting joints before the understanding of sneaker culture had even developed. We linked up with the legendary photographer to discuss which sneakers owned the airwaves during hip hop’s fledgling years.

You grew up in New Jersey back in the 1980s. What were you wearing back in those days?

I mean, New Jersey and New York, they’re really side by side. So by 12 or 13, I was riding my bike across the street to Manhattan. Everything blends in because of proximity – you’re always triggered by the same styles. We had the mixtapes as they came out in Harlem, and that’s what ended up being modern hip hop. Back in those days it was early, early Nike stuff. I remember when Waffle Runners came onto the scene. I remember when the Jordan 1s came out with the matching sweatsuit because my roommate in college had the full red and black sweatsuit with the shoes. He wore that shit every day in 1984. Every day. He was the man on campus for a minute. It was like, ‘Oh, you got the Jordans?’ Who knew that all these years later it would still be here and even more popular.

I know Snoop loved the Cortez, and Biggie was obviously tied to the Timberlands, but what else were people wearing?

You see Snoop with the Cortez in your face. You see Eazy-E with the Campus, which I think they started calling Comptons because of him. I mean this whole sneaker culture is relatively new. What I mean by that is as a culture. We wore them because sneakers are like our shoes. We were the ones that really turned sneakers into something acceptable. Now you’ve got Louis Vuitton and other high-end labels jumping in. Prada were the first. We were all rocking the Pradas to show you we were doing it – we’re buying $300 Prada sneakers, two or three pairs. Everybody’s wearing those shoes in the streets, in New York for sure. That’s dimmed down a lot. You don’t see the Prada sneakers really like you did. We were really the first generation to turn sneakers into almost formal wear. Prior to that, if you were dressing up you were wearing dress shoes. So it was really more a part of our fabric. We didn’t study them to the level that people do now.

What’s your view on the super luxury sector these days? Do you vibe on any of the sneakers?

The Louis Vuitton and all that? No, I’m not feeling that. I’m actually an athlete. I played soccer in college, so my sneakers actually still have to be sneakers. For me, there’s a little bit of a limit with my kicks. I need my sneakers to be more focused on function over style. Honestly, I’m a photographer so I’m out in the field, so I need things that actually work but look good from bar to boardroom.

What other athletes were you guys into?

You could find a lot of Shawn Kemp’s shoes. Allen Iverson was huge. When Reebok had Iverson, they had a lot of juice. He was a cool representative with a nice looking shoe. You can’t really disconnect the two. You can have a celebrity endorser but the shoe really has to work. Take the Jordans. The designs were good early on, and then he ended up being a game-changer on the court. It was the perfect storm. Remember, this was all happening at the same time as Mike Tyson, as hip hop. It was like jumping to another era. All these movements were happening simultaneously. It was the first time people were actually wearing sneakers to work because of what we were doing. We were really very disruptive.

Do you think sneakers still have those cultural affiliations?

Footwear was more anti-establishment back then. That’s how it began. But the way it’s going, sneakers are becoming almost establishment footwear, which I think is not necessarily to the benefit of real sneaker wearers. It’s become a bit more of a game rather than just what you’re comfortable in. It’s almost like, ‘how many of the run were released? Did you catch one?’ That’s sort of an odd concept, if you really think about it at its core. If I like something, I’ll buy it. The rarity of it, I don’t really care as much. Do you know what I mean by that?

Are you suggesting that hype and exclusivity is more important than the actual integrity or design of the sneaker?

Well, I mean, I’m a photographer. I’m a pretty technical person at my core. How things fit matter. My shoes matter, my jackets matter, everything I wear is a thought process based on what I do. So, for me, sneakers are my tools with some nice elements of style, but I actually have to wear them. So I wear all my shoes man, I do.

Do you get sent a lot sneakers?

It’s funny. In my career, I never really got sent a lot of products. I just buy the shoes that I like. If I like it, I buy it. So I’m not really biased. I don’t really owe anybody anything. I mean, I get a lot of the ACRONYM shoes from Errolson. He always makes sure that I catch everything he does. So, that’s cool. No one else sends me product, so it’s nice to be down with ACRONYM. In fact, I’m wearing the zipper Air Force 1s on my feet right now.

Just on that – the idea of brands linking up with artists. Did you ever think it could become such a lucrative relationship?

Well, the collaboration between adidas and Run- DMC was huge. That was mega. No one has really hit that level of really breaking the ceiling, crashing the ceiling. So even now, even with the Travis Scott sneakers, I’m not sure if they ever reveal how many pieces were ever made, but I guarantee you it’s a very small number. That’s how you’re able to maintain that high price point and rabid fan base. I mean, I don’t really wear things because celebrities wear them. I think celebrities, to a certain extent, follow the streets. So they’re almost the secondary market, because it’s the pulse of the street that they copy. They don’t trigger the streets. The streets actually trigger them. That’s where their stylists get their research. That’s where it all comes from. I think artists add a little more spotlight on a hot item, but they’re not the driving force. It’s the streets.

If the streets are the driving force behind the sneaker industry, what are you seeing at the moment that is an insight into what’s coming next?

I think it’s going to be all about comfort and people actually wearing their shoes, not praising them at an altar. I think that’s the next trend. It has to get back to actually wearing sneakers and not wiping them down every night. You sort of want them to be seen. That’s why we roll our pants up a little higher, you feel me? It’s all part of the culture. That doesn’t work in the box. That’s the root mentality of it; back to a bit of normality.

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