The Air Force 1 is 35 years old and was Nike’s first basketball sneaker that had Air in the sole, but it’s much than just a shoe that was worn for its initial purpose on the hardwood and playground courts in the 1980s. It’s known for being hip-hop’s sneaker of choice in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, thanks to Roc-A-Fella Records and their love for the all-white pair, which they were known for only wearing once. Their love affair with the sneaker resulted in a collaboration with Nike on a white-on-white Air Force 1 with the Roc logo on the heel in 2004. And it’s coming back this year at ComplexCon.
Roc-A-Fella co-founders Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke both grew up in Harlem, where the Air Force 1 has made the biggest cultural impact, resulting in it being coined as the “Uptown.” With their signature shoe re-releasing, we had the chance to talk to “Biggs” about what the Air Force 1 not only meant to Roc-a-Fella and Harlem, but to hip-hop throughout the decades.
The “Roc-a-Fella” Air Force 1 will release at ComplexCon in Long Beach, California, this year, with wider distribution happening on November 30.
What’s your first memory of the Air Force 1?
Man, it goes back to junior high school. I seen them at a place in Harlem called KP. It was one of the main sneaker stores [in our neighborhood]. They had one on 125th and Amsterdam and one on 144th. That’s where mostly everyone got their sneakers from. I remember seeing them in the window and not being able to afford them.
Did they give you ambition to get money?
100 percent. It became an aspirational sneaker. You knew you made it every time you got something. It was, like, leveling up.
How does it feel to be from Harlem and have your name associated with an Air Force 1? Is that a dream come true?
It’s funny, because we did so much. And when you’re in the moment, it’s hard to see what’s happening. Once years past, you see the impact on what’s happened and what you’ve done and how it’s changed/helped shape the culture, you can appreciate it in a different way. Dropping that first album in 1996, Reasonable Doubt, yeah it was fun, but to see that 10, 20 years later it’s still a classic, and see that that’s a platform that allowed us to launch fashion, spirits, tech, sports, and films, is a life-changing moment. Looking back on that Air Force 1, I can see it real clearly right now, being in a sneaker with one of those grey sweatsuits with no name with the Air Force 1s right under it. The Air Force 1 is a staple sneaker right now and means so many things to so many people. It’s not just Stateside, it’s global, it’s worldwide. Knowing that we can attach our names to something that’s iconic and something that we hold dear and close to our hearts, with the Roc-a-Fella logo. It’s a win-win for both teams. But I think it’s gonna be legendary.
When did you start wearing a pair of Air Force 1s only once?
There was a friend of mine—rest in peace—Ali Mo, and we were on the block one day in Harlem on 142nd Street and Lennox, and he laughed at me, because he saw me wear a pair of sneakers for the second time. From that, I probably went six to eight years without wearing the same sneakers again. The Air Force 1, especially the white on white, it was so easy to do, because it just went with everything. Once that became that sneaker for us, we could wear it every single day, it didn’t matter what outfit. We’d just buy hundreds and hundreds of pairs from whatever store they had them in. Guys would call us and say they just got them in, however many they had we would just order them. We’d send a truck down there and load it up with 150 at a time, 175-200, whatever they had. We had houses built with sneaker closets. That was put into the architecture. Besides that, we’d probably keep 20-30 pairs in the office. We also had storage units that we’d keep, too.
How did the Roc-a-Fella Air Force 1 happen?
I’m not sure how it came about, but I remember them landing in the office. I don’t remember the exact story, but I remember people going crazy, really happy at the time. We knew what sizes were going to who. We were like, man, this is crazy—a Roc-a-Fella sneaker. At the time you were living in the moment, and you couldn’t wait to put them on. But now to see it as one of the coveted Air Force 1s of all time, you can’t make this stuff up.
How did you decide to bring back the sneakers?
The resale market has been going on and now it’s a sneaker cycle. Now there’s an artistry to fresh. People would buy sneakers and match them to their tops. Now you just do an off-color and let the sneakers talk. When [Nike] contacted us, I was celebrating the 20th anniversary of Roc-A-Fella, it was the perfect time. They were celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Air Force 1. It just made sense to bring things together. It’s like a love project for me.
Have people started to hit you up for the shoes?
Yeah, that’s happened. You go from 20 friends to 100 friends, now it seems like you have 10,000 friends hitting you up, seeing how you’re doing, and saying, “Oh, by the way, when are those sneakers coming out.” Everyone’s hitting you up to see when those sneakers are coming out. I’ll leave that up to Nike and let them do what they do best. Once they release it to the public, I’m sure people will have a chance to get a pair.
Are you surprised that the Air Force 1 has remained “hip-hop’s sneaker”?
I’m not surprised at all. A lot of times, people want something that’s nostalgic, authentic to buy into. I think the Air Force 1 represents that. At the same time, you have other guys putting their twist on it, too. You don’t want to look away from what’s happening in culture right now and what the kids are doing and adding their own twist to it. You always want to pivot and stay in tune [with] what’s going on in the streets. I like what Travis is doing with the Air Force 1s.
Dame Dash’s sneaker collection was recently for sale. What was it like seeing that?
It brought back a lot of memories. I seen a lot of that stuff before. 70 to 80 percent of that stuff, Dame and I shopped for together. In a recording he said he had it in one of his storages [and] that the bill wasn’t paid. They were trying to contact him through his lawyer. It was unfortunate that he wasn’t able to get his stuff back. You see what’s happening in the market, and those sneakers we were buying back in the day, the bulk of them were Air Force 1s.
With so many sneakers, how did you bring them all on tour?
We probably take a bulk with us. We were shopping in every city, too. Tours were easier because we had tour buses. We’d probably bring 20-30 pairs with us and bring it on the road. Being in those different cities, you’d get the feeling of what was going on in those cities and get a piece of what they were doing, whether it was a Jordan or an Air Force 1 in a different color.
When you wore sneakers once, did you just throw them out?
We gave them out to my family. We’d go to the block in Harlem and give out sneakers. We’d call up and have a driver go up there with 10-20 bags full of sneakers and clothes. I’m always for giving back. It’s always a great thing for me. Anything I can do that’s charitable is great, I don’t do it to publicize it. I do it from the heart. If it comes to the light, I’m not mad about that, but I don’t do it for publicity.
Do you still have the sneakers from back in the day?
I definitely held onto a few pairs -- The Black Album, The Blueprint. We always talked about The Reasonable Doubt Air Force 1, too. So we’ll see. Right now we’re looking to see what’s ahead of us. We’re gonna enjoy this Air Force 1 now. I’m open to talking about things now. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about a Reasonable Doubt Air Force 1.