How the Beastie Boys Became Sneakerhead Pioneers

The rappers from New York City have secretly influenced everyone through their footwear choices for more than three decades.

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Complex Original

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I learned a lot about athletic footwear via the Beastie Boys. For a child growing up outside of a British big city, being in the Beastie Boys circa the group’s debut album Licensed To Ill, which turns 30 today, looked like living the dream. Compared to the woken mindstates and whimsy of their work over the decade to follow, the hedonism that Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA lived three decades ago was aspirationally wild. In the UK, the tabloids jumped on them when they arrived to perform in May 1987, accusing them of any and every atrocity. Their popularity seemingly led to a number of Volkswagen car badge thefts, simply because fans wanted to wear them around their necks to emulate their bratty heroes. It goes without saying that we wanted to rock the shoes they were wearing, too.

While most rappers were keeping their sneakers pristine, the Beasties always seemed to exist in a realm between worlds. Their fresh three-finger gold rings met scuffed sneakers, sometimes worn ultra loose in a b-boy style, but often strangled at the ankles. It was a party where Run-D.M.C., Minor Threat, and Slayer could co-exist, and the dress code reflected that. And the shoes were usually from Puma or Adidas.

The latter brand had recently signed a pioneering endorsement deal with Beastie mentors and tourmates Run DMC, negotiated by the Beastie’s Def Jam jabel boss, Russell Simmons. Adidas played a heavy role in the trio’s shoe picks, but there were moments of dissent Gleefully blending brands in a 1985 Josh Cheuse shot used on the cover of 2005’s Solid Gold Hits compilation, Ad Rock breaks out a beaten, strap free pair of Nike Air Force 1s with switched out laces.Mike D (who, completely breaking with old school convention, would also go on to wear Air Rifts) was prone to wearing the Nike Sky Force Hi at that point in their career.

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Despite regularly wearing Puma, Superstars, and Stan Smiths before Licensed to Ill, one shoe really defined the band at multiple points in their career: the Adidas Campus. This suede model started life as a favorite of the Boston Celtics— one of the first hoops shoe from the brand to break from white leather or mesh — and in 1971 it was called the Greenstar. It ended up being made into other team makeups under the “Tournament” name during the 1970s. In 1983 a very similar model called the Campus was released as a basketball and leisure shoe, and it became a favorite among discerning b-boys and girls. In the place that birthed hip-hop, New York City, this simple design lost its sheen when the rest of us were just finding out about them. That model was so synonymous with the Beastie Boys that in the sneaker history book Where’d You Get Those?, author Bobbito Garcia makes a point of noting that, “Once the Beastie Boys became pop stars in ‘86 and were seen wearing them, the Campus was quickly deemed played out in New York.”

Ad Rock’s continued wearing of the Campus when shelves were heaving with new sneakers —and even his fellow band members had shifted to the new breed of Ewing-endorsed hi-tops — was an indication that they would wear whatever they pleased. Overseas  fans of the group like me could browse the music press,pause videos and pinpoint the Adidas sneakers they wore: Pro Shells, Rivalry Highs, Forums, Concords, Conductors, and other exotic basketball performance creations.

After exiting Def Jam in 1989, the group put out their apprehensively received but brilliant sophomore work, Paul’s Boutique. In promos for the album, MCA was still wearing his beloved Adidas Stan Smiths for the Shake Your Rump video, when all the footwear brands were trying to oneup each other with new, hi-tech sneakers. It was in the very early 1990s that the preoccupation with past triumphs would really take shape.

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Around 1991, the ascent of “old school” shoe styles was underway. To attribute it entirely to the Beastie Boys would be overstating things — British club culture had created a market for old favorites and obscurities, while Japanese connoisseurs were already stacking boxes. But as far as mainstreaming the appetite for all things old, the group’s influence was significant.

Mike D’s investment in the X-Large brand and its Los Angeles-based store that opened in November 1991 was perfectly timed. The shop would sell the pioneering streetwear  line’s apparel (lest we forget, the group were early adopters of Supreme and A Bathing Ape) as well as a section of workwear and deadstock footwear by Adidas, Puma, and Keds between 1991 and 1993. Dusty Yugoslavian-made Clydes for $60 and German and French-made Superstars and Campus (out of production since around 1987) for $50, sourced from surrounding sports stores, baffled some at the time. But they were bargains in retrospect.

The April 1992 release of Check Your Head, dense with samples like its predecessors, was a surprising success, elevating the strange, ageless patchwork of cultural references — obscure jazz organist Groove Holmes, blaxploitation flicks, retired basketball stars, and cancelled TV shows — with the shoes to match. Here, a 1983 court shoe fitted in with this pre-Tumblr bricolage of now and then.

For that LP’s cover photograph, shot by regular Beasties collaborator Glenn E. Friedman, the group made a familiar three-wise-monkeys pose. For the 1991 shoot, Mike D and MCA wore the Adidas Campus (lead single Pass the Mic sampled Bad Brains, whose legendary frontman HR was prone to wearing a pair, too), while Ad-Rock opted for Clydes. MCA’s Champion hoody, loose denim and shoe combo was definitive then and is relevant now, albeit in slightly slimmed down form.

In other appearances the group completely coordinated their Campus kicks, and some interviews picked up on that. During a 1992 MTV House of Style appearance, Mike tells the interviewer, “We have a certain respect for a certain era of utilitarian design,” tying their choice of footwear and clothing with a back to basics sound. “The stuff that we lean towards doesn’t happen to be in production today,” he continues, extolling the importance of digging for vintage pieces. During that segment, Ad-Rock focuses on his blue versions of the herringbone-soled Campus to explain their superiority over the popular Gazelle model, which the pair wrongly identify as a modernized version of their old favorite.

The Beastie Boys perform at Roseland in New York City on November 7, 1992.

Around 1993, a magazine feature on the Beasties and X-Large mentioned the term “sneaker pimp” as a nameless character the crew paid to dig for deadstock shoes. While it’s attributed to the group, it’s more than likely a writer’s own term or an off the cuff remark from an X-Large staffer. Regardless of its provenance, it ended up inspiring the name of a middling electronic British band as well as Peter Fahey’s traveling footwear event.

Brands like Adidas were paying attention to the mood of the times, and they launched an early incarnation of their Adidas Originals reissue line in 1992 (in France, demand had already led to some retros, resulting in the reissued Gazelles that Eric Koston and Natas Kaupas brought back to the States and helped jumpstart it as a skate shoe). After the Beastie Boys’ tireless endorsement of the Campus, it was available everywhere again by the mid-1990s.

Adam Yauch and Mike Diamond of The Beastie Boys in New York, September 14, 2000.

Ultimately, the group built their own universe that links them to every aspect of streetwear or shoe-related subcultures. Their own irregularly published magazine Grand Royal, which ran for six issues between 1993 and 1997, offered a guidebook to that world, and the 10-page Adidas article by Alex and Dan Field in issue #3 was one of the first ever truly in-depth fan geek-outs on the subject of sneakers ever published.

In subsequent years, age ushered in sensible shoes over sneakers, but the group were still prone to breaking out a pair. By 1998’s Hello Nasty, Ad-Rock was in New Balances while his partners were breaking out sneakers from DC Shoes Co. Given the group’s championing of Adidas, it’s surprising that a full-on shoe collaboration hasn’t happened.

In 2005, a Beastie Boys Superstar set was sampled with a specially made pair for all five performers (including Keyboard Money Mark and DJ Mixmaster Mike) in Mets/Knicks colors as part of the Superstar35 collection. Intended as an official release as part of the project with New York’s boroughs on the stripes in line with the title of their 2004 album To the 5 Boroughs, the sneakers ended up being sold without the Beastie’s co-sign. Still, signed pairs of the collaboration were auctioned for the Jam Master Jay Foundation. A 2010 Campus release in blue and orange as part of a Def Jam partnership was unofficially christened a “Beastie Boys” colorway, despite no involvement from the group.

Were the Beastie Boys the only group to relentlessly wear classic Adidas in 1986? Nope. But the way they persisted with old favorites while remaining defiantly contrarian (never forget Mike D’s Country Mike’s Greatest Hits) made the sneakers part of an overall picture. Run-D.M.C. had the shelltoes, and these guys had the Campus, but they popularized so much more along the way. Whether or not you’ve ever listened to a single song from Licensed to Ill or any of its sequels, if there’s a throwback shoe in your collection that dates back to a time of suede, leather, and rubber, these guys helped lay some of that foundation.

Rest in peace to Adam Yauch and John Berry.