Shawn Carter was born December 4, 1969, and on April 18, 2003, he would forever impact the sneaker industry. His first sneaker with Reebok, the S. Carter, was released and 10,000 pairs were sold in a matter of hours. Jay Z wasn’t the first rapper to get his own sneaker -- most notably, Run DMC had its own collection with Adidas in the late ‘80s -- but it paved the way for the likes of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Pusha T a decade later.
Jay Z turns 47 years old today, and his influence couldn’t be any larger, whether it comes to the music industry, politics, or still making good, albeit sporadic, music. But 13 years ago, he was the best rapper in the game. He created trends by name-dropping a brand or wearing a sneaker -- think about his obsession with white-on-white Nike Air Force 1s -- and his deal with Reebok was no different. The sneaker itself was a copy of the Gucci Tennis ‘84, a low-top luxury sneaker that was coveted by hustlers. Design wise, it wasn’t anything special or memorable, but it started a revolution with footwear endorsements that would change the way brands do things now.
It’s typical for sportswear companies to align themselves with athletes to help sell products, and they’ve been doing for nearly 100 years. But the idea of entertainers getting their own sneakers was a new concept. As previously mentioned, Run DMC did a have an Adidas line, but it was Jay Z’s deal with Reebok, under the brand’s RBK line, that changed everything. It proved that you didn’t have to be able to slam dunk or win Wimbledon to sell shoes. A stylish celebrity with an important career was enough to drive consumers to stores to buy sneakers. Jay’s Reeboks were a catalyst. It led to 50 Cent and G-Unit getting their own Reeboks, too, which were wildly popular at first. Not only did these deals surprise fans, but they were to the artists themselves. As 50 Cent rapped on “Stunt 101,” “I just can’t believe Reebok did a deal with a psycho.”
While 50 Cent was surprised that Reebok would even work with him, Jay Z was a bit shocked when his sneakers sold out. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he told The New York Post in 2003. “I know what’s good on Soundscan, but here I didn’t really have any expectations.”
Reebok, sadly, wasn’t able to capitalize off of Jay Z and 50 Cent success when it signed Pharrell, Daddy Yankee, Nelly, Lupe Fiasco, and Paul Wall to sneaker deals, which led to the demise of the brand’s RBK line.
But no one could tell Kanye West that rappers couldn’t sell sneakers. His two signature models with Nike, the Air Yeezy 1 and 2, were launched in 2009 and 2012 and became the most talked about sneakers of their day. It led Kanye, through much turmoil, to leave Nike and join Adidas. The result, as everyone is now well aware, is the Yeezy Boost line, which breaks the Internet every time a new version is released. His success has made even Reebok rethink its brand strategy and get involved with Kendrick Lamar, Future, and Cam’ron, all which have had successful sneaker collaborations.
“At the time, Jay Z, 50 Cent, and Pharrell were at the height of their careers, so it made sense. Then we changed business models in terms of having artists stand by shoes and holding shoes in their hands,” Reebok Director of Entertainment Marketing Damion Presson told Complex earlier this year. “After a while, I think that it got oversaturated in the marketplace, and we kind of stepped away from the music space. We were acquired by Adidas, and we took on just a whole different lane. Now, music is back. You can see other brands are doing music endorsement deals, and I think music and footwear goes hand in hand.”
It’s likely that the public is more anxious to see the newest sneaker from an artist than they are from one of the NBA’s superstars. And this has been a long time coming, it just took the right timing and celebrity talent to make rappers influential in sneaker marketing and sales. Fans have long tried to dress like their favorite MCs, and now it’s easier than ever. While Kanye mostly gets credit for this current trend, it’s important to remember how Jay Z opened the lane for him. Oddly enough, Kanye was given three limited-edition versions of the Reebok S. Carter that featured patent leather and the Graduation Bear on the heel. As Jay Z told The New York Post, “It’s for a guy on the sidelines that can’t jump, but still wants to look cool.” That’s always been the guy buying sneakers, whether they’re made for sports or not. It only took brands more than a decade to realize that.