The last true American art form is getting old. One way hip-hop historians are preserving the genre’s past is by collecting and wearing rap tees. Most of these prized garments were once promotional items—if you wanted a legit one and didn’t frequent rap concerts or work in the music industry, you were shit out of luck. Today, those same tees we took for granted and washed our cars with are going for a pretty penny on eBay, with replica joints selling for much cheaper at CokeMagic.com and Urban Outfitters. But nothing beats the real deal. Let’s go back in time with Rap Tees author DJ Ross One and a few other notable collectors.
DJ Ross One
DJ, Author, New York
I don’t have one fav, but it’s the groups that I grew up on: A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy. I grew up in Cincinnati as a hip-hop fanatic but my access to T-shirts was limited. I always dreamed of Tribe shirts and other shirts I couldn’t find from my favorite artists. I bought my first Public Enemy shirt in ’92 from the CD mail-order form.
The Big Dig
I used to go to college in Rochester. There’s a place called House of Guitars that had a very high ceiling with vintage T-shirts tacked on there. They also had this huge room with a big mound of shirts in the middle. So I’d go dig for records and then after I’d go in this room. From this mountain I pulled a Kurtis Blow shirt from like ’85.
The shirt that was hardest to find for the book was the Showbiz & A.G. “Soul Clap” shirt that they’re all wearing in the video. We actually had to go to Showbiz’s studio to shoot his—that’s the only one I’ve ever seen—it was a sweatshirt. I begged him to sell it to me, but it didn’t work.
DJ, New York
My De La Soul Is Dead shirt. I remember buying it on St. Marks, where I used to get T-shirts. I wore it all the time, and I never saw anyone else with it. When the album came out it was a big deal.
Lost & Found
The Tribe Called Quest shirt that [DJ] Ross [One] has—I think that came out somewhere between The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. I remember having it freshman year of college, which was in between those two albums. So I don’t know what happened to it. It’s just one of those things; it’s not around anymore.
I lived in the same building as Kurious Jorge and Bobbito. Zev Love X (now MF Doom) used to be there because he hung out with Jorge. Pete Nice lived across the street. I remember seeing him with a KMD shirt on. Fast-forward to now, I’m scoring the Stretch and Bobbito doc, and there’s a pic of Stretch in that shirt. That’s one I wish I had.
Owner of For All To Envy, Los Angeles
Probably the 1986 Beastie Boys “Get off My Dick” tee. I’ve always loved the simplicity of the Licensed to Ill logo and the back print is the icing on the cake. I was too young when it first came out in ’86 but I bought an original one in the mid ’90s. It’s still one of the tees that I wear the most, even though it gets quite the reaction.
Rest in Peace
I sold DJ AM the 1988 Eric B. & Rakim Paid in Full tee. A week later, he emailed me: “Nas was SWEATING the last one you sold me...GOOD LOOKIN homie!!!” After his plane crash, he emailed me because he thought the tee was on the plane. But he found it in his apartment in NY. When he passed he was buried in that tee.
Lost & Found
In 1993, Doggystyle had just come out and I went to the local mall shop called Belly Up and bought the "Beware of the Dogg" tee with the huge Snoop face. I wore it every day for what felt like a year straight. Then one day, it was gone. I've gotten another one since but I regret the fact I don't have the original. I still don't know how I lost it.
DJ, New York
Stretch & Bob Unlimited
The Stretch and Bobbito Eckō shirt was a big deal for Marc. That was the first year that Eckō existed and we were a lot more known than the brand was, so that did a lot for him. We had done a shirt with PNB before, but Eckō had a much more spread-out network and that shirt was all over the place.
I was working with Bob at Def Jam, sending records and promo materials to DJs. No Face was kind of like Queens’ answer to 2 Live Crew. They made a shirt that said “Wake Your Daughter Up, We Wants to Fuck” on the back. We were told: “Be careful where you send this because we don’t want to offend anybody.” We sent it to everybody.
Lost & Found
The KMD Black Bastards shirt, which was the original artwork—the hangman and the Sambo face—that was the cause of them not having that album released. That was around the time “Cop Killer” by Ice-T came out and labels were just shook about doing anything. I gave that shirt away. I just gave a lot of stuff away.
Owner of Procell, New York
When I was younger there was a T-shirt spot on Elizabeth Ave. in Elizabeth, N.J., where I was raised. The big thing back in the day was getting deals on groups of shirts, the bootlegs—four for $12. They mean so much to me because that’s what I was able to afford as a kid. At the same time, that’s what everybody cool was rocking.
When I opened up my shop, I priced my favorite shirts at a ridiculous price. Cara Delevingne came in and bought all of my Notorious B.I.G. shirts that were made before he died. I priced them at an exorbitant amount and then all of a sudden this model comes in and cleans me out of every single one. And she kind of set the wave off.
It was the [Ice-T]Iceberg/Freedom of Speech shirt. Something about it really hit me when I saw it, it was just so intense—the illustration of the guy with a shotgun in his mouth and guns in either ear. My mom didn’t let me buy it, so I got it with whatever money I was able to scrape up. Instead of a Ninja Turtle I got that offensive-ass shirt.
A&R, Producer, New York
[Cypress Hill DJ] Muggs is one of my best friends. They were in New York shooting the “How I Could Just Kill a Man” video by Astor Place and their old road manager tried to give me the [T-shirt] that didn’t have the back part on it. Muggs was like, “Yo, give him the good one!” I’ve been wearing it for 20-some years.
I went to Japan with a bag full of shirts of Mobb Deep, Brand Nubian, Xzibit, Alkaholiks, and basically anything that was on Loud, because I was with Sadat X when he signed there. I slanged every fucking T-shirt I had and made almost $5,000. And the fucked-up thing is I spent it all on records before I came back. All gone.
I literally found the guys at Starter and I made a KMD Starter hat that had the KMD logo on it and it said “Kausing Much Damage.” That and a Pete Rock hat that had the face logo on it, white and beige with a blue brim. And Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s promo shirt. There weren’t that many of those for reasons unknown.