Hip hop’s penchant for remixing cultural touchstones crosses all disciplines – be it music, dance, video, fashion, or art – creating bridges from one generation to the next through shared references. With the new exhibition and book, Fresh Fly Fabulous: 50 Years of Hip Hop Style, Elena Romero and Elizabeth Way look back at half a century of sartorial innovation that began on the streets of the Bronx, and has risen to become a billion dollar global industry.
Spotlighting the originators, Fresh Fly Fabulous pays homage to designers like Dapper Dan, April Walker, and Karl Kani, Video Music Box’s Ralph McDaniels, and The Fever’s Sal Abbatiello, and explores the influence of queer culture, HBCUs, Ralph Lauren, and graffiti on hip hop style. There are chapters dedicated to hair, nails, and nameplates, as well as photos by luminaries including Jamel Shabazz, Janette Beckman, and Albert Watson that seamlessly blend street style with celebrity portraits.
British photographer Janette Beckman remembers seeing Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five when they came to play in London back in 1982. “They looked different from anyone else I’ve ever seen,” says Beckman, who had been chronicling the underground UK music scene for magazines like Melody Maker and The Face.
That Christmas, she visited New York and quickly found a new home chronicling the city’s budding hip hop industry. Working with indie labels like Def Jam, Sleeping Bag, and Next Plateau, Beckman shot album covers and promo photos for artists like Salt -N- Pepa, Gang Starr, and EPMD.
She famous photographed Slick Rick with a gold crown, rope chains, rings, pistols, and teeth. “We hadn’t seen anything like that,” Beckman says, still dazzled by her early encounters with hip hop style.
“The belts with name plates leather hats, sneakers with the fat laces – it was a bit of relief,” she says. “At that time, London was punk, everyone was dressed in black leather jackets, a bit disheveled. It was a new wave coming in and everyone was happy to pose. They weren’t snarling, they were just doing cool poses. It was new and exciting.”
Beckman collaborated directly with artists and groups on the photoshoots, working free from photo crews, marketing teams, and stylists. Beckman points to the way hip hop erased the distinction between the street and the stage, noting how artists donned custom Dapper Dan outfits wherever they went.
“I think that’s when hip hop fashion really began to influence how the crowd dressed,” says Beckman. “I took a photograph of Run-D.M.C. in 1984 and they set a standard that still works today. There were no stylists, no hair or make-up at any of my shoots. I would meet people on the street and they were wearing what they were wearing.”
Beckman points to hip hop’s passion for reinvention, whether it’s A Tribe Called Quest’s love for Afrocentric prints or a jaunt down to Canal Street for $20 Rolex knockoff of her own. “Everyone had their own look and it went with their music,” she says. “They’ve all interpreted it their own way because that’s what style is all about.”
Fresh Fly Fabulous: 50 Years of Hip Hop Style is on view through April 23, 2023, at the Museum at FIT New York.