Seeing the charts topped by artists like Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, A$AP Rocky, and Big Sean, it’s clear that there’s a lot more to them besides just their music. Each of these individuals has cemented themselves as a personality, and much of that stems from their iconic gold jewelry and large diamonds.
When we think of hip hop, that bling is one of its most defining characteristics, but where did that word stem from? Has bling always been a hip hop staple, or were flashy chains only introduced because of the Migos?
The history of bling is entangled within the hip hop genre that inspired it. Let’s take a brief journey through the expansive history of hip hop, bling, and black culture at large.
Some of the earliest forms of jewelry date back over 100,000 years, with the first forms being composed of bone, shells, and teeth. Although the reasons why early societies wore these pieces are largely unknown, it is believed that they would ward off evil spirits and bring defense against demons.
However, as time evolved, so too did jewelry’s uses and composition. Most notably,Mansa Musa, the ruler of the kingdom of Mali, epitomized wealth through his jewels. Mansa Musa came to power in 1312 C.E., gaining immense wealth through salt and gold mining. It is believed that he is the richest person to have ever lived, with an estimated modern net worth of $400 billion.
Mansa Musa was renowned for wearing gold jewelry and clothing as a means of showing off his wealth. In fact, he wore so much that the overall value ofgold in Egypt had decreased.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, jewelry began to utilize certain gemstones to align with fashion trends at the time. Although some of these still were worn to dispel evil spirits, most were made of materials that would serve to enhance any given outfit.
Despite jewelry’s uses continuing to evolve over time, Mansa Musa had given it its apparent value. Our perception of jewelry as an image of wealth and prestige can be traced back to him, and as hip hop gained popularity, so too did this opulent imagery.
The Rise of Hip Hop
The 1970s were filled with big hair, positive vibes, and excellent disco music. Early emcees, such as DJ Kool Herc, embodied the spirit of disco as he became the founder of hip hop music.
Kool Herc is best known for throwing dance parties in his apartment, where he invented the concept of playing two identical records on dual turntables to extend their instrumental breaks. But soon after, rapper Kurtis Blow became the first rapper to be signed by a major record label, earning himself the inaugural certified gold hip-hop record. Fittingly, Blow is recognizable for sporting gold chains on the cover of this album.
This spurred a movement in the 1980s, as hip hop legends like Biz Markie and LL Cool J garnered record deals, huge budgets, and even more respected rhymes. The majority of these formative rappers weren’t afraid to deck themselves out with gold and diamonds, helping to cement themselves as respected members of this elite music genre.
As more and more rappers began wearing gold, it started to become a competition to see who could wear the most. This is why you rarely see a rapper wearing just one piece of bling; their bodies are usually covered from head to toe.
A New Century
In the late 90s and throughout the turn of the century, hip hop had become an industry all its own. But with commercial success comes commercialization, forcing hip hop artists to market themselves in new ways. Jewelry became a large part of solo marketing, most notably with Notorious B.I.G’s signature blinged-out Jesus piece.
Since B.I.G’s passing, theJesus pendant has become arguably the most popular pendant of all time. It’s an expression of faith, as well as a commemoration of one of the most prominent artists to ever live. His influence over hip hop was long-reaching, and most of his effects are still felt today.
With hip hop and corporate America becoming intertwined, jewelry had cemented itself as a staple for anyone wanting to become the next famous rapper or anyone wanting to emulate their idols. Since the demand for gold chains and diamond earrings had only increased, so too would the price. As time progressed, bling would only become even more reminiscent of opulence and power.
Not to mention, this is when the term “bling” came into existence. In 1999, artist B.G.’s song titled “Bling Bling” popularized the term, introducing it into Merriam Webster’s vocabulary. The song, featuring Lil Wayne on its chorus, was influential in affixing bling as a hip hop staple.
The Modern Rapper
With hip hop evolving at such a rapid pace, rappers struggled to find new ways to show off their studded bling. Rappers like Nelly began to popularize a new form of jewelry known as the bottom grill to show off their allegiance inside and out. Lil Wayne, who continually pioneers a number of industry trends, is known for sporting the most expensive grills in hip hop history, clocking in at $150,000.
This is evidence that even though jewelry became more intertwined into hip hop culture, it did not necessarily become easier to obtain. Pure gold and diamond chains go for tens of thousands of dollars—sometimes more. Jay Z, for example, is known for his 11-pound Cuban link chain that is valued at $200,000.
Look at the cover art for almost any modern hip hop artist, and you’ll see a similar aesthetic to the notorious rappers of the 70s and 80s. Look at album covers from popular modern artists like Pop Smoke, 21 Savage, and Nicki Minaj, and you’ll see blinged-out icons that aren’t ashamed of their success.
Evolution of Bling
Despite the changing styles and trends of hip hop jewelry over time, one constant has been the immense price tag that gold and diamond jewelry has attached. Pure gold and diamond options are high in value, so unless you happen to be Drake, you’ll need to find a more affordable option.
Luckily, replicating the gods of rap is easier than ever, thanks to new practices in jewelry making. One of the most popular techniques is called gold plating, in which a thin layer of real gold is overlaid on top of a base metal, typically stainless steel and nickel. These have the opulent polish of the real thing, without the thousand dollar price.
This development in jewelry production has made it much more accessible for the mass audience, who may want to enjoy hip hop’s culture without paying hip hop prices.Gold plated chains let anyone look and feel just like the rappers who inspired them.
Similarly, synthetic diamonds have risen in popularity to compete with the expensive jewelry that you see in the hip hop sphere. These are normally made with much more affordable gems, like cubic zirconia, to achieve the brilliant appearance of diamonds in the same way. If it weren’t for advancements in jewelry making such as these, it’d be nearly impossible to utilize bling in our daily lives.
Bling also used to be fairly uniform, with most options being a plain gold chain or simple diamond pendants. But with jewelry becoming such a personalized item,customizable pendants are a must-have accessory to make yourself stand out among a crowd. This is a practice that would have been unheard of during the formation of hip hop in the late 1900s, but this is an easy and stylish option that is widely accessible today.
This accessibility is widely attributed to the vast number of retailers who can supply these products. It’s important to make sure that your local vendor specializes in selling hip hop jewelry and garments if you really want to harken back to the influencers of an entire generation.
While the earliest jewelry was made of animal bones and teeth, ruler Mansa Musa embraced opulent gold jewelry to prove his wealth over the masses. As early hip hop began to take root in the 70s, formative artists would utilize a similar practice to invoke prestige with their styles.
As the genre progressed, artists used bling as a means of competition, resulting in increasing jewelry prices that we still see today. However, thanks to advancements in production, gold plating and synthetic diamonds have allowed the masses to feel just like the legendary creators of an entire music genre.