It’s a Thursday afternoon in Manchester, England, and I’m smoking a cigarette outside of a pub on a side street. Men with Top Dawg Entertainment T-shirts are pushing me away from a black van, concerned about the smoke that’s entering the vehicle and invading the air space of the person inside. That person is Kendrick Lamar.
He’s in the North of England to help Reebok, with which he recently signed an endorsement deal, communicate the story of its Classic Leather shoe. He jumps out of the van in a pair of black-and-gum-soled sneakers, which he’d soon switch out in favor of a pair of white Reebok Classics before talking to a crowd of international media about his style, his hometown, and his sneaker deal.
The first shoes Kendrick and Reebok released were designed to represent unity between Bloods and Crips, the notorious West Coast gangs; the theme of the shoes made headlines. Not only was he making a product that looked great, but he was also bringing the message of his music—full of social commentary and a heartfelt conscience—to footwear.
He seems excited about working with the brand. When we speak after his presentation, he notices I have on a pair of army green Reebok Aztecs and points to them says, “I need to get a pair of those,” motioning over to his people. He’s not the only rapper with a sneaker line these days, but it shows that he's genuinely interested in his partnership with Reebok.
Coming off a Grammy for Best Rap Album for To Pimp a Butterfly, the world’s interested in what Kendrick is doing, whether it’s sneakers or songs. But we got the chance to talk to him about the impact of his Reebok sneakers and how the brand got behind a design that made jaws drop when they first saw it.
You recently got the chance, via Reebok, to take kids from your high school in Compton to the Grammys. What do you feel is more important: doing the shoes or using this project as a platform to enable people?
I think it’s both. We always want to continue the idea of art and creation, and Reebok has been doing that for a long time. Continuing that and helping people is a win-win factor. Why not do both?
Sneakers are inanimate objects and a lot of rappers slap their names on shoes and call it a day. Were you ever worried that people would think this is how the process would turn out?
I wasn’t worried because I already knew what I wanted to do. I’m only worried when I don’t have preparation. When you don’t have preparation, that’s when the nerves and the jitters come in. The idea from the start was to have a back story and have the red and the blue. I couldn’t just slap my name on a shoe say, “Hey, go buy that.” It doesn’t have a connection. The connection comes from the people first. They make the decisions; I don’t make the decisions. We create it, but the foundation comes from the people accepting it.
When you came up with the red and blue theme, was there ever any concern at Reebok that the subject matter was too provocative?
There wasn’t any concern because I knew that Reebok always stood for something. So I furthered that and brought something to the table that they already had, which was being original and having a back story. They did just that and that’s something I will always respect. To be real with you: A lot of brands wouldn’t push something with that type of back story, because it’s all about generating dollars and how many people buy it. Reebok took that leap of faith, and you see the outcome.
Do you have a personal stash of pairs left over to give your friends?
I got a personal stash for myself [laughs]. I already gave all the pairs out to my friends and family. I got an emergency stash, though.
I’m not going to name the shoe, but you said you were only going to wear one sneaker going forward on “Control.” What changed that?
What made that change is that I actually have someone that would put an idea out there that I could keep it original and classic. The timing made sense. Reebok is just that classic idea, and it just made sense.