“Being fresh is more important than having money. The entire time I grew up, I only wanted money so I could be fresh.” – Kanye West
The relationship that the hip hop genre has with clothing is glued to its roots; intrinsic to its make-up. Erstwhile music journalist, lifelong hip hop devotee and now filmmaker, Sacha Jenkins, scoured his phonebook, reeled in the great and the good of the hip hop scene both past and present for Fresh Dressed: his feature-length documentary on how hip hop fashion started on the outside, before coming in from the cold and taking over the mainstream.
In an enlightening interview, director Jenkins talked about race, identity, LL Cool J’s revolutionary approach and interviewing Kanye.
‘You’re asking me wether hip hop has sold its ass’, he scolds Supajam’s Greg Wetherall.
How important was hip hop music to you growing up?
First, for me, in 1977, when I first moved to New York as a kid, it was the music that I heard in the park. We didn’t even know what to call it, really. Between ‘77 and the mid-80s, it was just a mix of all different kinds of music.
But, by the early-to-mid-80s you had recordings, and it was about how you put the songs together to create an identity as a DJ. That’s all it was. There was no real science behind it. We weren’t thinking beyond our neighbourhoods.
I’d like to say that hip hop is a reflection of society and the people inside of hip hop looking at society and saying ‘I don’t see my face in any of these things, but I like it. How do I reimagine this stuff that was created by other people and make it wholly unique to me and to my identity’. Hip Hop is a reimagining of one’s position in society and taking control of that.
You’ve seen the evolution of hip hop. How important was being fresh dressed to you? Were you conscious of it as a kid?
Back then, I was just a kid wanting to fit in. And kids just want to fit in. My mum, who was a Haitian immigrant, her whole idea was to get me nice clothes. She’d rather spend a lot of money on three pairs of pants; pants that represent a certain level of class, as opposed to me wearing what all the other kids wore, so it was a real battle for me.
Finally, when I was of age, I said, ‘Mom, I can’t keep wearing this stuff. I want to fit in’. I wanted to be a part of what it was that everyone else was doing. Once I became a part of that, I felt this energy. I felt a part of something. I’m sure that’s universal with young people in various scenes around the world regardless of what colour you are, but for me, as an inner-city kid, when I finally had that pair of suede Pumas, I felt like I was a part of something bigger than me.
Thinking of clothing as identity, how much does our attire exclude integration as much as it might offer association?
I think that the difference between punk and hip hop, for example, is this: punk rock was, initially, young white people saying, ‘Fuck society. We don’t want anything thing to do with it. We’re going to go against society and we’re going to wear things that you find obnoxious’. When you’re dealing with people of colour, they’re already punk rock. Without having to change their appearance, they’re going against society by just being black or brown. Society is already against them. But if you’re punk rock, and one day you decide you don’t want to be punk rock, you can just be white again and have the same benefits of white privilege.
In hip hop, whether your pants are sagging or not, in America or wherever, you’re still dealing with issues of race that affect who you are and where you can go as a person of colour. Hip hop to me, is a reflection of society at large and where folks of colour are in society, and just like punk rock, they go, here is our own world, our own society and our own aesthetics, and here’s how we value and judge one another. Inside of urban culture or hip hop culture, we have an aesthetic, and we also judge each other, unfortunately, based on the way we dress.
When you stop to consider that a lot of these folks that are judging one another are equally poor, and oftentimes spending money they don’t have on garments that they cannot afford, these were some of the topics that I was looking to introduce in the film; just as points of discussion, not because I have the answers, not that I am telling you how you should feel, but just the notion that clothing for folks in hip hop in the inner-city is more than just function. It’s a language. It communicates lots of ideas.
Going off of what you were saying; sure, in other societies and other places, what you wear, whether you’re going to polo club or some sort of high society event, I’m sure fashion has a heavy hand in communicating certain things; so that’s universal, but I know that in hip hop, when you have success it’s seemingly all about letting the world know how much money you have, by way of jewellery, clothing and all these things. I find that, typically, really rich white people are the exact opposite. They’re dressing down. The billionaire doesn’t want you to know how much money he has.
Why is it that the breakout stars and success stories of hip hop music are often so closely associated with the move into big business?
I hate using the term white supremacy, but if you’re a white kid in California and you want to be in a punk band and your punk band wants to make it big, you’re just focused on the music. You’re focused on being the best punk band that you can be and there’s no distractions. When you’re of colour, you’re saying, ‘okay, I’m going to be in the limelight. I have a platform. What else can I sell? What else can I create to create opportunities for me and my family?’ Obviously, there are scores and scores of really poor white people in America, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of poor white punk bands who will never make it.
But if you’re a middle class white kid, who is in a punk band and it doesn’t work out, maybe you can fall back on your college education, maybe your family has a business, maybe there’s a level of social capital that you have access to that can create other opportunities for you. But in the inner city, it’s like, I’m a rapper and all of a sudden I’m interacting with white people in offices in Manhattan and they seemingly have money, opportunities, networking and social capital? I’m going to get in and get as much social capital when I can, while I can. That’s what hip hop has done. It has created platforms and social capital for folks of colour that didn’t exist before.
Do you think that things are better along those lines now than what they were in the ‘70s in terms of opportunity and wider social acceptance?
Where hip hop is different from blues, jazz or rock n’ roll is that the people who pioneered the music and culture have been able to profit from it. You have Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, Pharrell Williams, Kanye and all these guys who came out of the culture who are super successful across multiple platforms touching all kinds of people, so I think that’s the difference between now and the ‘70s. There are more people born from the culture who are able to have a bit of a hand in making money and leveraging the culture to create other opportunities.
How much do you think that the distraction of business might have damaged hip hop?
You’re asking me if hip hop has sold its ass. Rap has been completely co-opted by corporate America. Hundred percent. I think hip hop is more of a sensibility and an approach. I think hip hop is older than 1973. It’s an energy, it’s a spirit. Rap, however, has been co-opted by cereal commercials and loads of products. Artists get endorsement deals on the strength of their ability to promote products.
There’s the clip of LL Cool J promoting Gap in your film whilst also promoting something else at the same time…
Well, that’s a LL Cool J being very revolutionary in technically promoting Gap but also promoting another brand that paid no money that they weren’t aware was even in the commercial. Anyone who watches the film who is from the hip hop generation or understands the language will understand that he is saying very clearly, in English, ‘for us, buy us on the low’.
He is promoting it pretty flagrantly, but because the Gap people weren’t fluent in that language, it went right over their heads. That’s a powerful example of LL doing the Robin Hood kind-of thing. Taking from the rich and feeding the poor: helping another brand get exposure that they normally wouldn’t have gotten if he hadn’t taken that chance.
Going back to the early days of hip hop and people like NWA or Public Enemy, do you think we’ll see a return to politically motivated hip hop?
Yeah, I think that if you look at what’s happening in the United States with law enforcement and the justice system… I don’t believe that, all of sudden cops are getting worse, I think it’s always been this way, it’s just that now everyone has a camera phone. You would think that there would be more music that’s reflective of those times and very crucial, pivotal things happening to people; you know, people getting murdered.
I’m sure that there are people out there making music that’s politically conscious that connects to what’s happening. At the same time, it’s not popular. It’s the music that celebrates excess and celebrates brands that people can’t afford. It’s that kind of stuff that’s more popular in the mainstream. I think, in all fairness, everyday people don’t want to think about depressing stuff. They want music as an escape. They don’t necessarily want to hear music telling them how bad things are, they want to escape from how bad things are and music is capable of helping people to escape.
You can’t really tell any hip hop story without dealing with politics or environment or climate, so it’s inherently there. If a rapper who comes from a really poor neighbourhood is rapping about Versace over and over again, you’ve got to wonder what’s really going on with this person. Why are they so consumed with being a consumer?
There’s a guy (in the film) who says that he can wear a brand new pair of sneakers every day for 7 years and he’s forty-something years old. Well, how did he become that guy? And he tells a story, ‘ah, when I was a kid, my mom bought me these sneakers called ‘Mark Five’ and I thought I was the shit because my name is Mark. Then I walked down the block and what happened? I got laughed at.’
So, here you are. There’s a guy in his forties who has a straight face, and he’s telling you that he can wear a brand new pair of sneakers every day for 7 years – his collection is worth half a million dollars – well, how did he become that guy? He was laughed at. I didn’t just want the film to be a celebration of ‘yo, man, yo, he got all these sneakers holy shit’. No. He has all these sneakers, but let’s look at how he became that guy, and that speaks to a lot of the bigger picture issues that I wanted to express in the film.
I didn’t want to preach, but I wanted a portrait of a guy who got laughed at as a kid, here he is as a grown man talking about kids getting shot and stabbed for sneakers saying, ‘well, when I was a kid we just fought. Now this is crazy’ and then just cut away to his sneakers.
The stereotype that frequently follows Kanye West is that it’s a bit of a circus. What was it like interviewing him for the film? Was it different from your experiences interviewing everybody else?
I didn’t know what to expect. I’d interviewed Pharrell and a lot of the other folks in the film but I’d never interviewed him before. I didn’t think that we were going to get him for the film. We were pretty much wrapped. We got the call the day before: ‘Hey can you go to Mexico tomorrow for Kanye?’ I was like, ‘okay’. So we went to Mexico and we didn’t know what to expect, but I believe that because we were talking to him on the level of ‘come on man, I know what it’s about. I’m not trying to do anything sensational. I’m not trying to exploit you. Let’s have a real conversation about something you’re passionate about’, he connected with that.
They told us that we had twenty minutes and we went well beyond that and I stopped! He was cool. He would have kept going! He showed us his sneaker before they came out. He was super cool because we were talking about something he was passionate about. I think the same could be said for most of the other folks in the film and I think that energy translates.
Maybe it’s also because you’re tapping into his roots and who he was before he was famous?
He says in the film that hip hop inspires his fashion line, 100%, so it’s connecting with who he is. It’s connecting with his identity.
Fresh Dressed is in cinemas from 30th October 2015 and download. DVD is out 9th November 2015.