A look at the origin of jewelry in hip hop.
The influence of jewelry on hip hop is as clear as an E-class diamond.
But did you know the origins of extravagant jewelry predate hip-hop by several thousand years? African king Mansa Musa (the richest person in human history) was rather fond of gold. At the time of his death in 1337 he was worth a staggering $400 billion dollars. That’s six times the net worth of Warren Buffet. During his reign West Africa controlled over 50% of the world's gold so, as you can imagine, he wore his fair share of it.
Although your favorite rapper couldn't hold a candle up to King Musa, they'd surely fit in during Medieval times. Much like rappers, noblemen during the Middle Ages were especially prone to flashy jewels and indifference to violence. Harold Hardrada, the King of Norway from 1046 to 1066, was a fan of all gold everything - swords, sheaths, chains and more – and would boast about “killing enemies without compunction.” Not too far off from most rap lyrics.
Kings and nobles weren't the only ones who were fans of ice though. Black musicians during the 1960’s Motown era were fond of jewels as well. It's said this musical "gold rush" had to do with artists regaining control and ownership of their publishing. It was only natural that when DJ Kool Herc introduced hip hop in the early 1970’s, flashy jewelry followed. As rap transitioned from an underground art to a mainstream tour-de-force, the styles evolved with it too.
Slender rope chains of the Kool Herc era were swapped out for chunky, dookie chains a la Run DMC and The Beastie Boys. Simple rings transformed into elaborate four-finger ones. The classic gold tooth cap was swapped out for a mouthful of gold grills. It's impossible to bring up these jewelry trends without mentioning Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane. Soon, rappers started rocking platinum to add even more flash. What followed was nothing short of a platinum arms race were the person with the least ice was the loser.
In 1998 the Cash Money Millionaires coined the now ubiquitous term “bling bling” and extravagant jewelry catapulted to the mainstream. This infatuation with flash spilled over into the 2000’s and soon, rappers were going crazy with it. In 2006 Lil Jon commissioned Beverly Hills jeweler Jason Arasheben to design a five pound gold “CRUNK” pendant laced with 3,756 round-cut white diamonds. In 2007, the chain was named the largest diamond pendant by the Guinness World Records (no surprise there).
This was around the same time when Nelly dropped “Grillz” and the compulsion to flash spread to the world of dentistry. Soon rappers began sporting mouthfuls of precious metals and stones. Some even went as far as replacing their actual teeth for platinum ones. Others who weren't in the market for a permanent set of diamond choppers opted for cheaper, removable gold bottom grill or rose gold grill options.
As you can imagine grillz are nothing new either. Grillz were worn as a symbol of high status up until 100 AD throughout various cultures. Nowadays everyone from Kanye West and A$AP Rocky to Kylie Jenner and Miley Cyrus wear variants of these ancient grillz. But jewelry in hip-hop isn't strictly for flash.
Different style pendants and chains have also been used to showcase rap allegiances and label loyalties. Roc-A-Fella and Death Row are perhaps best known for this but even today you’ll see it. OVO affiliated artists sport simple owl pendants while members of Meek Mill's camp rock elaborate Dream Chaser pendants.
When examining the origin of gold teeth, flashy chains, grillz and other jewelry in hip-hop, one thing remains clear: what they’re meant to symbolize. Status. Although hip hop brought flashy jewelry to the mainstream, artists and athletes across all genres and sports can be seen rocking them (i.e., Olympian Ryan Lochte's USA inspired grillz).
Maybe that's because grillz and jewelry have never been cheap.
Johnny Dang, the grillz legend who made a cameo appearance in Nelly's classic "Grillz" video, offers basic gold sets starting at a few hundred dollars. During a 2011 interview on Jimmy Kimmel, Lil Wayne said he paid over $150,000 for his. Meanwhile, Chamillionaire paid $100,000 for his chameleon diamond chain and according to Upscale Hype, Kanye West dropped over $300,000 on his absolutely massive Egyptian style chain.
Remember Lil Jon’s chain I told you about earlier? He dropped $500,000 on his. Insane. I know. But that pales in comparison to the cost of Nigo's chain. According to a Complex interview with Ben Baller, the creator of Bape is said to have a chain worth upwards of $4,000,000.
Meanwhile, most of have to stick with low priced plated hip hop jewelry. But some aren't fans of wearing jewelry at all, preferring to stay below the radar. What's your take? Massive gold chain and matching gold bottom grill or no ice at all?