"It’s an amazing visual reminder of an era when hip-hop was in a more pure place."

2015 began with Rihanna claiming a victory over Topshop as a Court of Appeal ruled to uphold a ban originally placed on the high street chain two years prior; selling tees bearing a 2011 image of the singer, unbeknown to and without the approval of the CFDA Fashion Icon winner, in 2013 a judge claimed the ‘passing off’ illegal. In February the brand was ordered to pay the BBHMM star (ironic?) upward of £1 million to cover the bill.

It’s a far cry from the contents of Ross Schwartzman’s new book, ‘Rap Tees: A Collection of Hip-Hop T-shirts 1980-1999’, a fervent account of the merchandise-as-collector’s item born of a pre-Instagram/Depop/Wavey Garms generation.

A self-proclaimed “rap nerd” recently signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation Management (under the professional moniker DJ Ross One – he travels 200,000 miles a year and was requested by Prince to jockey his private after parties), Schwartzman is an avid collector, a characteristic that prompted the arrival of the new publication. “I come from a long line of collectors,” he tells Clash. “Minnesotan antique-r’s. I collect a lot of hip-hop ‘stuff’, from boomboxes to early flyers and of course records. I went to school for photography and I’d say photo books are also a problem for me.”

“I had been collecting hip-hop shirts for years,” he continues, asserting how he initiated the project. “I reached a point in the collection where it was getting a little out of hand, so I thought I should somehow document the entire thing before I started to downsize a bit; little did I know it would have the opposite effect and the collection would explode.”

The extensive line-up – sartorial tokens from the genre’s biggest players and some of their most iconic moments – isn’t all Schwartzman’s however: “I definitely used up every favour I could just to get in touch with a lot of the artists and photographers,” he recalls. “Guys like Russell Simmons, LL Cool J, Rick Rubin. Once I had a foot in the door and was able to show people the project, the reaction was usually instant. These shirts bring back a ton of memories for people who were in the industry at that time; it’s an amazing visual reminder of an era when hip-hop was in a more pure place,” he decides. “A lot of the designers and artists hadn’t even seen the tees in 25 years.”

Describing the book’s production as a one man show – he took exclusive responsibility for shooting, retouching, reaching out and organising everything featured, while Pres Rodrigues assisted with the final design and layout – Ross sums it up as the definition of a passion project akin, presumably, to being a music fan in an era when streaming was but a far flung concept.

“Especially before the Internet, being a fan was a lot more work,” he says; the book’s introduction paints it in part as “an homage to the ways that classic hip-hop asked its fans to work for inclusion.”

“Limited access meant you had to go to places to find the music you loved – driving to other cities and meeting likeminded fans,” he offers. “I think it felt more like something you could own, that it was a special thing you had to earn. This was true for punk, hip-hop, all genres of music.”

Unlike hip-hop, these ‘other’ genres have long had their merch rebranded for mainstream consumption; the high street donned cheap Nirvana and ACDC fakes before yellow De La Soul pieces took hold, while for many the term ‘band tee’ conjures up images of rock before rap, an association emphasised when fashion editorials play that card.

“Rock is just older and has had a merchandising element from early on,” argues the DJ. “For the first few years, hip-hop T-shirts were more about getting the names out there and promoting yourself than selling merch. It took visionaries like Russell Simmons to decide that hip-hop had the potential to be just as big as rock, and to market it as such. Rock also does a better job of holding on to the recent past, where hip-hop tends to focus on what’s next.”

Considering the book is essentially preoccupied with the tangible elements of a culture’s fleeting moments, what’s his take on mass reproductions? “I’m fine with it as long as they aren’t trying to trick people into thinking they are vintage or original,” he responds honestly. “Obviously just making exact replicas of old tees, especially without the artist’s permission, is lame, but designers have been lifting the elements of these logos and graphics for years as the basis for their clothing designs.”

Focusing solely on the first 20 years of hip-hop merchandising – “starting in its infancy when groups were just trying to get their names our there, to the end of the 90’s when it became a multimillion dollar industry” – like many of us he has an opinion on Yeezy in the context of the genre’s contemporary scene (and respective rap tees).

“Kanye is definitely on another level when it comes to marketing his tours,” he explains, elsewhere noting that, “Jeezy’s snowman tee will become iconic in its time. The late 90’s and early 00’s was the dawn of the disposable promo tee era, so you had a lot of 2XL/3XL bed sheet sized shirts that essentially functioned as mobile billboards for new albums. Not exactly the same design aesthetic as the early days.”

Like Sacha Jenkins’ ‘Fresh Dressed’ that preceded it, the bulk of ‘Rap Tees’ prescribes a male identity for the most part, perhaps not on purpose, but subconsciously; the artists are predominantly male, the silhouettes of the shirts while unisex, likely categorised as male in a retail setting, the viewpoint (naturally) of a man; playing devil’s advocate, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect more to find in the men’s department of Urban Outfitters than the women’s.

“Pretty much all dudes aged 30-50 have some memory of 80’s or 90’s hip-hop that will immediately draw them to certain tees,” notes Schwartzman. “There is an element of nostalgia that hits you right away, not to mention the music was great. Girls love the shirts as well, but they tend to gravitate more toward the 90’s R&B and hip-hop acts: TLC, Lil Kim, Bone Thugs. Maybe groups they were too young to appreciate when they were originally released but are rediscovering now.”

A confident documentation of two decades in design that paved the way for Kanye West for adidas Originals and Billionaire Boys Club, A$AP Ferg’s Trap Lord line and Boy Better Know’s noughties tees – to some extent streetwear labels like Palace and Cav Empt too – ‘Rap Tees’ will no doubt make it under plenty of trees next week. And rightly so.

The curator’s personal faves? “I have a lot. The DJ Red Alert jacket is one of my favourite things for sure, but the book is full of my favourite rappers and groups so it’s difficult to choose.”

Words: Zoe Whitfield

'Rap Tees: A Collection of Hip-Hop T-shirts 1980-1999' is out now on powerHouse Books; for more info head here


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