The history of hip-hop music and denim jeans


The love affair between denim and rappers is one that goes back to the earliest days of the explosion of hip-hop on the music scene. We take a look at the history of denim and its relationship to

A durable fashion staple that is always in style, denim is a common go-to look among many rap artists.

In fact, the love affair between denim and rappers is one that goes back to the earliest days of the explosion of hip-hop on the music scene.

We take a look at the history of denim and its relationship to rappers and the hottest styles worn by hip-hop artists today.

The Appeal of Denim

Whether it was fate or just a mere coincidence, the emergence of denim as casual wear coincided with the rise of hip-hop music in the late 1970s.

Classic straight-leg jeans were the rage with young fans of the emerging hip-hop scene. The always versatile fashion icon offered ease of movement and a high degree of versatility, which meant they could be rocked with just about everything.

The 1970s

Unlike the rise of glitzy fashion in the late 1970s that would go on to dominate the 1980s fashion scene, denim represented an opportunity to present a more rebellious and bad-ass persona.

Run-D.M.C. and Big Daddy Kane were rap stars who embraced the bad-assness of denim, choosing to rock straight-legged jeans with a variety of sneakers, a look that is still popular today. 

Run-D.M.C. were trendsetters in so many ways, including their affinity for denim jeans. (Pinterest)

On their smash hit “Can I Get A Witness”, Run-D.M.C.  raps “in jeans, leather jackets, my Adidas, and gangster hats.” The weaving of fashion into the lyrics helped pave the way for other artists to sing about clothing in their songs.

The band members made the bucket hat, Adidas sneakers with no laces and straight leg jeans an iconic hip-hop look in the 1980s. It’s appropriate that trendsetters Run-D.M.C, one of the biggest names in the history of rap music, sported Levis’ legendary 501 and 505 jeans in their videos and on the streets.

The 1980s

Denim lovers upped the ante in the late-1980s/early-1990s with the advent of the head-to-toe denim (aka Canadian Tuxedo) look. Whether straight-on denim, military camouflage or other designs, denim jackets with denim jeans was the hot look of the day.

Many pioneering rap groups on the Sugar Hill Records label, including Funky Four Plus 1, are credited with making denim jeans and denim trucker jackets an authentic look.

In the latter half of the decade, the in look pivoted toward what became known as the “Canadian Tuxedo,” the meeting of denim tops with denim bottoms. Although this look had existed elsewhere in pop culture, hip-hop artists, especially those on the West Coast, took to this trend. The late Eazy E loved this look as did Cuba Gooding Jr., who appeared dressed this way in the “Boyz in the Hood” movie.

The “Canadian Tuxedo”, denim with denim was a look popular in the 1980s and has made a comeback in recent years, as worn by Kanye West. (Pinterest)

The 1990s

There was quite a contrast in denim styles during the 1990s.

The first half of the decade gave rise to the rough look of Carhartts, corduroy and bib overalls as worn by some of the genres most ferocious rappers, including Tupac Shakur and DMX. These rappers gave overalls a hard edge by wearing them without a shirt on underneath or with one strap undone.

Hip-hop clothing was also characterized by oversized workwear and lots of denim.

Baggy light jeans draped over a pair of Timberlands would go on to become another classic rap style. This was especially true with the New York hip-hop scene, where a mix of hard-wearing, blue-collar staples and repurposed military and outdoor gear, worn with heavy parkas, was in vogue.

In contrast to the first half of the decade, the late 1990s witnessed the advent of designer jeans and luxury brands, which had the effect of legitimizing the genre. Tupac donned jeans for a 1996 Versace fashion show, and Snoop Dogg helped make Tommy Hilfiger jeans a household name.

The rise of designer jeans gave birth to a wealth of new brands and labels that became a part of the rap scene and contributed to the birth of such streetwear brands as A Bathing Ape, Stussy, and Supreme.

While fashion normally changes over time, the baggy jean is the definitive hip-hop look that never lost its appeal with musicians and fans alike. Sagging jeans worn without a belt exposed boxers and parts of the anatomy that heretofore remained covered.

An unintended consequence of this phenomenon led schools to incorporate mandatory uniforms since it was believed that sagging jeans lead to delinquency in youths. Some states, especially in the southern portion of the United States, attempted to pass laws that banned baggy jeans. The New York Times wrote in an editorial, “Not since the zoot suit [of the 1930s] has a style been greeted with such strong disapproval.”

Some 40 years after they made their mark on rap music, the influence of Run-D.M.C. and the denim they wore had an impact on hip-hop fashion. Daymond John launched F.U.B.U (For Us, By Us) in 1992, taking baggy jeans and other clothing and turning it into a $350-million-plus business.

Although the popularity of F.U.B.U. would fade, it was one of the first rapper-owned brands and the forefather to other artist-inspired labels like Drake’s October’s Very Own and Jay-Z’s Rocawear. Today, it is a common occurrence for hip-hop artists to have their own line of streetwear.

Baggy jeans ruled in the 1990s, an expression that irked school officials who tried to claim the look contributed to delinquency in their students. (Pinterest)

The 2000s and Beyond

As the calendar flipped to the new century, the hip-hop world witnessed a new trend – the evolution of Japanese wear, especially in jeans.

As noted by Complex: “Japanese denim brand, Evisu, was a favorite of rappers at the beginning of the Millenium. The labor-intensive process, making the jeans on narrow shuttle looms, justified the $300 price tag for many guys… Everyone from Jay Z (“Jigga That Nigga”) to Young Jeezy (“Bury Me a G”) and T.I. (“ASAP”) have shouted out the brand on songs.

Hong Kong’s Red Monkey jeans got a following from Jay Z, Diddy, and got a shoutout from Ghostface Killah on “Ghost Is Back,” while Jay Z was spotted rocking a low-slung pair of Samurai jeans with a Hundreds hoodie during the 2006 Hangar tour.”

The past 20 years have witnessed the advent of skinny jeans and the advent of jean shorts as an acceptable fashion statement. While denim styles have swung from rugged back to high fashion and expensively priced pieces, one thing is certain: the appeal of denim jeans never goes out of style.

Check out some of the hottest hip-hop artists and their favorite brands of jeans.

Jeans produced by Japanese streetwear companies were a hit at the beginning of the new Millenium. (Lucas Lenzi)

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