Jewelry is an integral part of hip hop culture: from the stacks of oversized gold chains to the diamond teeth grills worn by its stars. Hip-hop origin stories point to long-ago battle raps, where rap warriors wore their jewelry, sneakers, and other accessories as a mark of their status and success – and how this was fundamental to the evolution of the symbiotic relationship between hip hop culture and its jewelry.
Below, we take a look at some of the most recognizable hip hop jewelry trends, how they came about, and how they continue to evolve.
Oversized Gold Necklaces
Chunky gold necklaces have become synonymous with hip hop fashion culture – often, the bigger the ropes are, the better. These necklaces may feature the artist’s name, a brand, or a symbol that has a special meaning for the star. Although it seems as if oversized bling and hip-hop have been inseparable partners since the birth of the genre, the advent of the mega necklaces can be traced back to the 1980 album cover of Blow, which featured artist Kurtis Blow wearing several conspicuous gold chains.
This was a deliberate message: Blow was the first hip-hop musician to achieve a certified gold record, and the prominence of the gold jewelry he wore on the album cover is a statement to the world that hip-hop was here to stay: and was gearing up to take the mainstream musical genres by storm.
Other hip-hop artists took up the trend, using jewelry in the shape of a gigantic gold name necklace, for example, or a stack of chunky gold chains to mark the milestones reached in their careers. And thus, the mutual love affair between jewelry and hip-hop culture was born!
From the early chunky gold rope necklaces of the late 1970s, it was a short hop to the prominent watches, pendants, and rings that proliferated in the hip-hop fashion stakes of the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the growing success of the artists that donned them.
LL Cool J became one of the first hip-hop artists to popularize the wearing of four-finger rings in the 1980s, while the value of the gold chains on display on the album cover of Paid in Full by Eric B. and Rakim were estimated to be worth a cool $100,000 each. Rapper Slick Rick took things one step further, adorning himself regularly in stack upon stack of solid gold chains, along with crowns and scepters.
Opulence, decadence, and unrivaled wealth was the stylistic theme, and many hip-hop artists on the scene at the time strove to outdo each other in this regard. As the ultimate culmination of this, Big Daddy Kane’s debut album of 1988, Long Live the Kane, features the man himself being attended on by three women: all are wearing a dazzling array of gold jewelry, and the artist is being proffered a lavish gold goblet.
Rappers with Chains
As the 1980s gave way to the decade that followed, hip-hop culture became entwined with wearable brand names and logos, and this was reflected in the jewelry of the 1990s worn by both major and indie hip-hop artists. Some commentators point to the commercialization of the hip-hop industry during this time as a key reason for the shift, suggesting that jewelry became more closely tied to marketing agendas and opportunities for extra monetization.
Pendant necklaces featuring the motifs of some of the decade’s most popular brands were widely worn by hip-hop musicians during the 1990s. And it wasn’t long before the rappers took matters into their own hands still further by producing jewelry of their own for their fans. Consider one of the most notable rappers with chains: Jay-Z’s high-end $10,000 platinum chains.
Come the mid-2000s, the hip-hop style had evolved, and that included the bling that was synonymous with it. By this point, there were literally mountains of cash in the genre, with hedge fund managers investing in hip-hop and a tonne of corporate partnerships forming, with merchandising and sponsorship opportunities funneling in the cash like never before. As a reflection of this, diamond chains became the standard accessory worn to denote new levels of wealth and success. But rappers weren’t just wearing ice around their necks: this was the time that diamond grills for teeth took off, with Nelly and Paul Wall largely pioneering the trend.
Kanye West, in a chat with Ellen DeGeneres in 2010, revealed that he had had most of his bottom teeth removed so that a diamond-encrusted grill could be fitted in their place. And if you’re interested, the most expensive grills in the hip-hop world belong to Lil Wayne, who forked out an eye-watering $150,000 to ensure his teeth were the blingest of them all.
It’s All About the Bling Bling
And finally, we need to mention the term bling itself. Courtesy of the signees of Cash Money Records, a roster that included Juvenile, Lil Wayne, and Hot Boyz, who took rap jewelry to another level entirely, the term ‘bling bling’ became an intrinsic part of the American lexicon – and in 2014 it made it into the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.