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Mixtapes, T-shirts and even a font measure the rise of hip-hop

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

Last year’s celebrations of hip-hop’s first five decades attempted to capture the genre in its entirety, but some early stars and scenes all but disappeared long before anyone came to celebrate them. Three excellent books published in recent months are responsible for cataloging the relics of hip-hop, the objects that embody its history, before they disappear.

In the lovingly assembled and carefully arranged assemblage ” Do not forget ! The golden era of New York hip-hop mixtapes”, Evan Auerbach and Daniel Isenberg wisely taxonomize the medium into distinct micro-eras, tracking innovations in form and content – ​​starting with live recordings of party performances and DJ sets and ending with artists using the format to self-distribute and self-promote.

For more than a decade, cassettes were the centerpiece of the mixtape kingdom, even after CDs usurped them in popularity: they were portable, durable, and easy to duplicate. (More than one DJ raves about the Telex cassette duplicator.)

Each influential new DJ has found a way to push the medium forward – Brucie B talks customizing cassettes for drug dealers in Harlem; Doo Wop remembers putting together a slew of exclusive freestyles for his “95 Live” and in one memorable section; Harlem DJ S&S explains how he obtained some of his most coveted unreleased songs, sometimes angering artists.

The book covers some DJs known for their mixing, like Ron G, and others known for their new music, like DJ Clue. Some, like Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito, whose late-night radio shows were widely bootlegged before they began distributing copies themselves, managed both.

Picturea series of pages from a book shows nine cassette covers (on the left side) and a small stack of cassettes on the right, with the lyrics of a notorious big song printed above.
Left: A collection of original Ron G mixtape covers. Right: Lyrics from the Notorious BIG shouting out mixtape DJsCredit…Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Kid Capri handwritten mixtapes. Credit…Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Mixtapes were big business — a striking two-page photo documented a handwritten inventory list from Rock ‘n’ Will’s, a historic Harlem store, that showed the extent of the stock on display. Tape Kingz has formalized and helped export mixtapes around the world, and more than one DJ says he was shocked to see his tapes available for sale during his trip to Japan.

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Mixtapes were the site of early innovations that proved crucial to the industry as a whole, whether proving the effectiveness of promotion on street corners or, via mixed tapes at the end of 80s and early 90s, to pave the way for hip-hop. the cross-pollination of hops with R&B.

Eventually, the format was co-opted as a way by labels like Bad Boy and Roc-a-Fella to introduce new music, or by artists like 50 Cent and the Diplomats to release songs outside of label obligations. (The book actually ends before the migration of mixtapes to the Internet and does not include contributions from the South.) Even today, the legacy of mixtapes lives on, the phrase being a sort of shorthand for something immediate , unregulated and perhaps ephemeral. But “Don’t forget!” » clearly shows that they also belong to posterity.

This same path, from informal to formal, from art casual to big business, has been traveled by hip-hop promotional items, particularly the T-shirt. This story is told again and again in “Rap Tees Volume 2: A collection of hip-hop t-shirts and more 1980-2005”, by famous collector DJ Ross One.


A collection of Public Enemy merchandise; the group was one of the most forward-thinking when it came to marketing its brand. Credit…Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

A collection of Harlem Diplomats team merchandise. Credit…Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

It’s a pocket history of hip-hop conveyed through how people wanted to show their dedication and how artists wanted to be seen. By the mid-1980s, logos were stylized and stylish. Public Enemy, in particular, had a strong understanding of how merchandise could increase awareness of the band, illustrated here in a wide range of shirts and jackets.

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In the 1980s, hip-hop wasn’t yet completely divided into thematic strands: tours often featured unexpected bedfellows. A tour shirt for the jovial Doug E. Fresh shows that his early shows included the angsty agit-rap group Boogie Down Productions and the icy stoics Eric B. & Rakim.

Most of the shirts in the book were made by record labels for promotional purposes, but there’s also a strong bootleg section – see the hand-painted denim trench coat featuring Salt-N-Pepa – reflecting the demand untapped that remained well before hip-hop. fashion was considered an unassailable business.

This collection features some of hip-hop’s indelible logos: Nervous Records, the Diplomats, Loud Records, Outkast; folders for long-gone radio stations and magazines; impressive sections on Houston rap and Miami bass music; as well as promotional ephemera like Master P boxer shorts, Biz Markie trinket toilets and a never-before-seen Beastie Boys skateboard. The fact that “Volume 2” is as thick as its essential 2015 predecessor speaks to the likelihood that there is still much left to discover, particularly in the era when archiving was not a priority.

Some of the earliest hip-hop T-shirts in the “Rap Tees” category feature flocked letters that are familiar on the backs of Hell’s Angels and B-boy groups. Aesthetics is the subject of “Passionate words: in search of a mysterious font” by Rory McCartney and Charlie Morgan, a heroic work of sociology, archival research and history that traces the evolution of the style from its historical antecedents to present-day locations in New York where young people had their t-shirts personalized by contemporary streetwear trends. -embracing the form.

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Custom t-shirts with flocked lettering for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5. Credit…Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

A demonstration of how lettering is impacted by heat and force when applied to other surfaces. Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York Times

This typeface, which, as the authors discovered, has no agreed-upon name (or fully agreed-upon history) conveys an “instant legacy,” typographer Jonathan Hoefler tells them. The lettering derives from black letters or gothic fonts, but the versions that adorned clothing throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were often more idiosyncratic and, sometimes, handmade.

The lettering style flourished thanks to the ease of heat transfer technology, which allowed DIYers to embellish their own clothing at will. It was adopted by car clubs and motorcycle gangs (and, to a lesser extent, some early sports teams). Gangs were also a kind of team, just like breakdancing teams. Shirts with these letters became de facto uniforms.

McCartney and Morgan spend a lot of time detailing how the letters themselves came to be and tracking down the places where they were transformed into fashion – highlighting a store in the Bronx where many gangs bought their letters, or the store of ‘Orchard Street in Lower Manhattan. East Side which provided letters for the Clash as well as shirts for Malcolm McLaren Video “Double Dutch” and the cover of a local newspaper, East Village Eye.

“Heated Words” is relatively light on text: it makes its connections through images, both professional and amateur. The book is an impressive collection of primary sources, many of which have not been seen before, or which have been public, but which have not been seen through this particular historical lens.

It’s a good reminder, with “Do Remember!” ” and “Rap Tees,” that some elusive stories aren’t so much buried as they crumble into barely recognizable pieces. Dedicated researchers like these can follow breadcrumbs and piece together something resembling a complete story, but some details remain forever out of reach, evaporated into the past.