Rap Tees: A Collection of Hip-Hop T-Shirts 1980-1999 (powerHouse Books) is a book by DJ Ross One that honors the first era of hip-hop clothing that fans were able to buy not only as souvenirs but to show support for their favorite artists, just as rock fans have been able to for decades. Why is this significant? Because carrying a souvenir of your favorite music artist brings the fan closer to the artist, or at least sporting their logo on your chest makes it feel like a unique level of support even though that uniqueness is shared by anyone who buys a similar shirt.
DJ Ross One explores the many hip-hop T-shirts that have come over time. When it came to heavy metal T-shirts, its origins were rooted from the surfing and skateboarding communities, showing extra support by displaying their logo or a graphic design in reference to an album or logo. The rock T-shirt became a major part of the costume, especially for headbangers along with their denim fests and specific patches. Some of these traditions would be carried over into hip-hop, specifically when Def Jam became one of the first labels to make shirts for their artists and themselves. It seemed odd at first, for “why would anyone want to wear a T-shirt that said Public Enemy or the Beastie Boys? Why would anyone wear a logo in honor of a record company?” It’s the unusual dedication of “artist and record company pride” and once Def Jam’s clothing became a bit of promotion and hype when worn by other artists (Anthrax’s Scott Ian were Def Jam shirts religiously when he and the band went on tour in 1987 in support fo their Among The Living album), associated artists got involved before it began to open up to anyone in hip-hop willing to share their logo.
DJ Ross One talks about the rise of a hip-hop shirt, whether it’s from through a company catalog or finding an offer in a cassette or 12″ single. Often times, snagging that T-shirt was a one-time thing not because they were thinking of creating limited editions, but because the budget was not big for hip-hop clothing, definitely not for a T-shirt. If you wanted a glow-in-the-dark De La Soul shirt, you had hoped you could get one or lose out. While many artists would have their own line of shirts in the early 90’s, the Wu-Tang Clan changed everything when they made a specfic line of clothing with their logos, originally just the yellow W over a black shirt. You had to hunt down those shirts when they weren’t widely available and once they obtained greater distribution, anyone who wanted to honor the power of the Wu could get one at the local mall. To be able to see T-shirts for everyone from Biggie to 2Pac, Digital Underground to Slick Rick, Queen Latifah to Nicki Minaj is interesting, for it also shows the progress of not only entrepreneurial success but the improvements of the designs themselves.
Rap Tees also touches on some of the bootleg T-shirts that were made not only in the late 80’s/early 90’s but in hip-hop for the last 25 years. If finding The Simpsons or Ren & Stimpy bootleg T-shirts became a trend, you may be able to find a bootleg shirt of your favorite artists at a swap meet, flea market, or corner store, even if the printing on the shirt might disappear after five washes.
Regardless, the hip-hop T-shirt managed to live in, not only for fans to buy but for ways to record labels, management, and the artists themselves to add to their means of promotion. Perhaps that means of promotion may have changed, for better or worse, with the rise of the internet and social media but fortunately if you need to find that specific shirt to sport, you may be able to find it on eBay, Etsy, or any other online merchant. Rap Tees shines the spotlight on believing in the hype from nothing more than a T-shirt and a silkscreen.