Hip hop is more than just the most popular music genre in the world today. It is an art form and culture that grew out of DJ’ing over beats into a global movement with four key elements:
- Rapping or MC’ing
- DJ’ing and Turntablism
- B-Boying or Breakdancing
But there is also the fifth element, and it is commonly acknowledged as being either street knowledge, beatboxing, or hip hop fashion. For the purpose of this guide, we will focus on the latter: hip hop fashion and, in particular, how it has evolved over the decades, what it consists of today, and how you can get fly too.
What is Hip Hop Fashion – The Bottom Line
“You can buy style, but you can’t buy swag.”
If there was one sentence that epitomizes hip hop fashion, this would be it. More so than any particular piece of clothing, hip hop style is about wearing what you want, the way you want, and being damn proud of it.
With this in mind, there are still some items that will forever remain staples of any well-rounded wardrobe. From tees to tracksuits to some signature sneakers like the Nike Air Force 1, we got you covered in this guide.
1. Branded Sneakers
It doesn’t matter if you construct your outfits top down or bottom up. A matching pair of kicks is your jump-off point.
Since Run-DMC came out with the track “My Adidas” in 1986, leading to the first-ever endorsement deal between a sportswear brand and a musician. Sneakers and hip hop have gone together like a fat kid and a candy store.
Suppose we take it back even further to the very inception of the culture in the 1970s Bronx, New York. Converse Chuck Taylor’s, Puma Suede’s, and Pro-Keds were the shoes of choice for break dancers and aspiring MCs.
Given this dedication to sneaks, it’s no surprise that a litany of classic tracks has since been made about the footwear by some of the game’s best. Whether it’s the Pete Rock produced “Sneakers” by Raekwon, Eminem’s Charity Nike Air Max 93 “D12,” or the more contemporary “Air Force Ones” by Nelly. Hip hop’s love affair runs deep.
Besides being a fashion statement, even designer brands such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci are now mass-producing sneakers. They are, to put it simply, some of the most comfortable day-to-day footwear you can adorn, making them as practical as they are fashionable.
My Top Three Sneaker Picks
- Nike Air Force 1 – check out the Travis Scott x Air Force 1 low specifically as a recent hip hop/AF1 collab.
- Adidas Superstar Run-DMC
- Air Jordan 1 x J Balvin
If you spend just a few seconds thinking about what you would throw on if you were just heading out to do some errands or link with a friend down the block, some form of streetwear is the most likely answer.
This means a pair of sweatpants (we’ll get to this later), some sneakers, and a tee. Streetwear style fittingly ascended alongside hip hop in the late 1970s and 80s, incorporating elements of legacy sportswear and workwear brands such as Dickies and Carhartt into their aesthetic.
Since hip hop has its roots in the streets, it would only be a matter of time before early pioneers would begin donning and personalizing the streetwear items they wore by emblazoning their own names and logos on a wide array of items, from jackets to t-shirts and hats.
An early example is the Def Jam record label embroidering its recognizable logo on the back of varsity jackets in the late 1980s, like the kind of amateur sports teams traditionally adorned.
This trend, along with hip hop’s growing influence on popular culture, would directly lead to successful label founders like Russell Simmons (Def Jam), Sean Combs (Bad Boy), and Damon Dash (Roc-A-Fella) starting their own streetwear fashion brands in the late ’90s, in Phat Farm, Sean John, and Rocawear, respectively. All of which would go on to be multi-million dollar businesses in their own right.
Today, certain independent streetwear brands like Supreme and Stussy, both of which started out as t-shirt lines, continue to remain in high demand. Producing seasonal collections and numerous high-profile collaborations with other brands throughout any given calendar year.
Personally, I prefer more under-the-radar brands like X-Large (a streetwear pioneer since 1991) and the more recent Born x Raised brand out of Los Angeles, along with some plain ol’ white tees, but that’s just me.
Oversized tees and sneakers remain the starting point for any decidedly hip hop get-up, but vintage-inspired t-shirts adorned with your favorite artist, concert, or tour, and custom sports-themed short sleeve shirts are all popping at the moment.
My Top Three T-Shirt Picks
- Plain solid color t-shirt from your local department store
- Vintage-inspired artist tees, like the ones shown here in our Tupac merch guide
- Vintage sports t-shirt, like this 1992 Chicago Bulls NBA Championship tee
Hip hop and sportswear have been inextricably linked since the former’s inception nearly half a century ago.
Today, after a brief hiatus from the mainstream hip hop scene, tracksuits are coming back. Whether it’s nylon, polyester, or velour, you can’t go wrong with a matching tracksuit when going for a casual look.
My Top Three Tracksuit Picks
- A classic Sergio Tacchini tracksuit remains a favorite among underground hip hop artists today.
- Pay homage to the late, great Nipsey Hussle with a matching sweatshirt and sweatpants from his TMC x Puma capsule collection.
- Classic Adidas 3-Stripes Tracksuit, just like Run-DMC used to rock.
Now that we have our basic essentials of sneakers, shirts, and outerwear covered, it’s time to round out our fits with some accessories.
Headwear has always been embraced by hip hop culture, from Ladies Love Cool James’ Kangol bucket hats to NWA’s snapback caps to 50 Cent’s fitted hats to Tupac’s bandanas.
Some will point to youth, who are the leading consumers of the genre, as a driver of this. But in truth, hip hop has always been about the individual and experimentation, which is exactly what some well-selected headwear represents. This can be anything from a bandana on your forehead paired with some pants and a beach shirt to a rolled-up balaclava sitting atop your dome alongside a bomber jacket and some Timberlands in the winter.
Most recently, a trend from the early 2000s has been recycled. With New Era fitted caps and snapbacks making a huge resurgence, thanks in good part to retailers such as Hat Club “remixing” well-worn team caps by adding bold new colorways, side patches, and even pins to their designs.
I myself am the proud owner of more than a dozen fitteds and snapbacks, which I always coordinate with my sneakers to create a matching ensemble.
My Top Three Headwear Picks
- New Era fitted or snapback cap. The century-old hat manufacturer has also had many hip hop collaborations over the years, from Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to Fat Joe’s Terror Squad.
- Carhartt Beanie comes in more than 20 colors.
- American Needle or other bandanas.
“Ice,” “bling,” “karats,” whatever name you give it. Jewelry, especially the gold, silver, and platinum variety, have not always been synonymous with hip hop.
You have to remember that hip hop, in its original form, was a counterculture in the 1970s. Railing against politics, as usual, the police, and mainstream music like disco. Artists, even prominent ones like the Boogie Down Productions crew and the Native Tongues collective made up of The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest were afro-centric. Opting to wear rope chains and tribal necklaces over more flashy pieces.
This all changed with the commercialization of hip hop in the mid to late 80s. New acts that were more street centric, like Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, and Eric B. & Rakim, preferred to drape themselves in gold like kings of lore—wearing not only gold pendants and thick rope chains but also four-finger rings and gold-platted grills as well.
The 90s took this to a whole new level. The shiny suit or “bling bling” era is known to quote Cash Money’s BG. It saw artists purchase gaudy custom-made chains and watches from jewelers like Jacob & Co. for upwards of $30,000 or more on the regular. This was definitely a time when the advance money was cascading down like Niagara Falls.
Not much has changed present-day – once the gold chain was let out of its plush box, it stayed out of the box, with artists like Meek Mill and Lil Baby regularly sporting diamond-encrusted choker chains and elaborate pendants.
At the end of the day, whatever your style, no chain, clay chain, or gold chain, keep doing you. There’s nothing more hip hop than that.
If you’ve ever watched a hip hop music video from the early 90s up to the present, you’ll instantly know what I’m talking about.
From N.W.A. regularly repping their hometown LA Dodgers and Raiders apparel to Craig Mack sporting a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey jersey in his “Flava in Ya Ear” video to virtually every rapper in the early 2000s wearing a throwback Mitchell & Ness jersey at some point. Sports apparel and hip hop have gone hand in hand.
As a kid, a Starter jersey, which had an NBA licensing agreement at the time, was a must-have. The Starter brand even featured DJ Jazzy Jeff in one of their early 90s ad campaigns, cementing sports apparel as a hip hop staple.
So whether it’s basketball, football, baseball, hockey, or the beautiful game of soccer for international readers and Cousin Feo listeners alike, don’t hesitate to pair your favorite team’s jersey with a crisp pair of jeans or other full-length pants.
Bonus Number 2: Memorabilia
The Wu-Tang Clan’s never released “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” album recently sold for a cool $4 million. The most ever paid for a recording.
While you may not be looking to drop seven figures on your next purchase, you can still purchase pieces of hip hop history at decidedly more affordable prices. Everything from official tour posters to autographed one-of-a-kind items can be found on one of the largest websites for collectibles in the world.
These are just some examples in a broad universe that includes everything from action figures to photographs, vinyl records and CDs, and my personal favorite – magazines, and autobiographies. There’s a little something for everyone out there.
Check These Out for Memorabilia Inspiration:
Where to Buy Hip Hop Merch
Long gone are the days of going down to your local hip hop shop and hoping and praying they had the shirt you really wanted both in stock and in your size.
Today (almost) everything is at our fingertips online. In this regard, your search should start at:
- Your favorite artist’s official website and store. This ensures both authenticity and the latest releases.
- Sites that license official artist merchandise. There are a few of these around, such as Control Industry, among others.
- Online marketplaces like Redbubble and Amazon are good for some alternative stuff and unlicensed apparel.
Final Thoughts on Hip Hop Fashion
Hip hop and fashion have come a long way since scratching turntables at house parties and wearing bell bottoms in the 1970s. Both will continue to evolve in unknown ways, but if there’s one thing that this guide has taught us, hip hop urban wear or what has most commonly come to be known as streetwear, is here to stay!
Whether hip hop will continue to have as big of an impact on the fashion world as it remains to be seen as the once defiant, counterculture music genre is now widespread throughout the world. This means streetwear-styled items are as accessible on Amazon as they are in your independent local neighborhood boutique.
Collaborations between artists and brands, including high fashion houses, will continue. Still, the spirit of hip hop in its original form will always live on in those independent-minded individuals who opt to rock whatever style they want with hip hop’s trademark swag.
Answer: The correct answer is to be yourself, wear what you feel most comfortable in, and do it while dripping in confidence. But if you want to look like you’re down with the culture, the easy answer is to keep it casual and street since that’s where hip hop originated from.
You can do this by pairing a fitted or snapback baseball cap with a short sleeve tee, some looser-fitting pants or shorts, and some classic Air Force I sneakers.
Answer: Merchbar has exclusive partnerships in place with all the major record labels and thus has a wide array of official tees, hoodies, accessories, and vinyl records/CDs available from most of your favorite artists.
If you’re more into the bootleg and what independent creators are coming up with, then check out marketplaces like Etsy, which has some dope contemporary and nostalgic designs.
Answer: Oversized clothing with bold designs is making a comeback, as are fitted and snapback hats, gold chains with pendants, and to keep things practical and comfortable – slides.
Of course, this could all change a few months from now, so don’t ever sleep on hip hop.
Looking for more interesting readings? Check out:
- Best Tupac Socks Guide
- Best Tupac Hoodies Guide: Which Should You Buy?
- Iconic Tupac Posters Guide
- Best Biggie Smalls Hoodies
- Best Biggie Smalls Shirts
- Best Eminem Hoodies Guide
- Eminem Branded Shoes Guide
- Best Eminem Sweatshirts Guide
- Best Lil Nas X Shirts
- Best Nicki Minaj Posters: Decorate Your Space with The Queen of Hip Hop
- Best Nicki Minaj Vinyl Guide for Collectors and Fans