When we think back hundreds of years ago, a lot has definitely changed. Cars, phones, the food we eat, the ways we speak; all of these have evolved as time has progressed. However, if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed all that much, it’s jewelry.
While jewelry’s appearance and price have changed drastically and will continue to change, the reason behind wearing your bling has always been the same: power. And as hip-hop took hold in the late 1970s, this representation of power became part of a cultural revolution.
Hip-hop jewelry had some humble beginnings, but it always symbolized black excellence and prestige. While this continues throughout the modern day, trends and styles have shifted gears. Let’s take a walk through hip-hop jewelry’s history from inception until this very moment.
History of Jewelry
There’s a reason that engagement rings are so expensive. While they’re symbols of love, they’re equally important as a symbol of status. There’s something high-class about being able to show off a fresh set of ice to those around you.
This has been the case for longer than you may think, as jewelry has been used as a status symbol since ancient civilizations began to take root. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples is African KingMansa Musa, who ruled much of Western African in the 1300s.
Mansa Musa is depicted in a number of paintings holding gold scepters, sitting in real gold chairs, drinking from gold cups, and more. He’s the richest man in all of history, with estimates guessing that his net worth today would be worth $400 billion.
Since then, gold has become asymbol of wealth, class, and elegance. Kings and queens would wear golden amulets, bracelets, and crowns to prove their power and influence over the masses. Even noblemen and priests would get in on the action.
While jewelry has become much more accessible today than ever before, it still has the ability to emanate power. And this is a prominent theme in hip-hop jewelry.
Origins of Hip-Hop Jewelry
The 1970s was a decade of change, both politically and culturally. The era of disco fostered the emergence of a new type of music genre: hip-hop.
The man credited with this musical revolution isDJ Kool Herc. He’d throw block parties in his Bronx apartment complex, often garnering tons of public attention. He noticed that the crowd’s energy spiked during instrumental breaks in the records he spun. So, he started combining the sounds of two records at once into something called a “breakbeat,” which is the backbone of hip-hop music even today.
But, Herc often sported a classic golden rope chain that made him easily recognizable. It’s hard to say if this was a personal choice or if he was trying to evoke the spirit of Mansa Musa himself. Regardless, his style took hold.
As musicians started experimenting with Herc’s sound, they would often try to mimic his personal style as well. Gold chains became prominent fashion statements in fellow artists. On top of that, attendees of Herc’s parties would even start copying his style, which helped spread the chain into more mainstream fashion.
Naturally, the hip-hop genre began to move away from disco and form its own unique sound. Notable names like Biggie Smalls, LL Cool J, and Jay-Z helped mold the genre as it moved through new decades. While their sounds differed, there was one thing that united them all: the golden chain.
Early Styles of Hip-Hop Jewelry
If you take a look at the album covers for any hip-hop artist between the 80s and early 2000s, you’re very likely to see an abundance of gold. From bracelets to chains to rings and watches, there was never a shortage of brassy luster.
In the earlier days following DJ Kool Herc’s claim to fame, most of these pieces were a bit more subdued. Smaller, thinner chains seemed to show that these artists had influence but were afraid to really show it. This is likely because of the fact that the genre had yet to take off, so confidence in the craft wasn’t high. They were scared to prove their influence.
However, as the genre took a turn into the mainstream, bigger budgets, record deals, and bolder lyrics gave hip-hop artists a new sense of pride. With this came bulkier pieces. Chains started to thicken, and artists often wore multiple necklaces at the same time. Rapper Biz Markie took his golden hip-hop chains a step further by addingdiamonds.
Early hip-hop jewelry started off subtle but quickly transitioned into the huge, bold pieces that are so familiar today. However, since customization options were limited early on, most of the rings, bracelets, and chains looked pretty uniform across the board.
Hip-Hop Styles Today
While the gold chain has never gone out of style, there are some new trends that seem to be picking up the pace. During the formative days of hip-hop, jewelry was a tool to exude personal power and influence.
Today, however, there’s a competitive nature among many of the world’s biggest hip-hop artists. Think about some of the newest names in the game, like DJ Khaled, DaBaby, or Lil Uzi. They all seem to be trying to one-up each other at every moment in time, trying to outdo each other with the most expensive pieces. Even long-term mainstays like Kanye West and Snoop Dogg rock custom-made grillz, Cuban link chains, and diamond rings.
In the modern age of rap, being bold and standing out is the main attraction. Hip-hop pendants are often made with solid gold, studded with pure diamonds, and enlarged to an insane degree. They dangle from diamond chains that are nearly as expensive as the medallions themselves. On top of that, advancements in jewelry customization have allowed artists to put their own unique flair on their favorite pieces, even though iconic symbols like diamond cross pendants and ankhs still remain popular.
Even classic pieces like tennis chains and tennis bracelets can be customized with different cuts of stone, swapping out baguette or princess-cut diamonds for the classic round-cut.
Personalization was inaccessible during the beginning days of rap, but it’s now a staple.Custom pendants and chains are evidence of success, especially when those pieces utilize catchphrases that the artists created.
Different gold finishes have also become much more prominent in recent years. While traditional yellow gold still has a classy look, popular variants like white gold and rose gold have steadily grown in popularity to allow rappers to stand out of the pack even more.
Despite the change in style, the reasoning behind wearing iced-out jewelry has not changed. Rappers want to show that they have power, both over their competitors and over society. This is especially true when looking at female rappers.
Since the genre had long been dominated by males, new artists like Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, and Cardi B use their jewelry and clothing as a rightful means of proving that they’re revolutionizing the world of music. They’ve made it possible for women to enjoyicy chains in the same ways as their male counterparts.
The Future of Hip-Hop Jewelry
Jewelry trends can be difficult to predict because of how heavily modern rappers focus on trying to be different. For example, even the most renowned jewelers could have never predicted that Lil Uzi would get a $24 million diamond implanted into his forehead.
With that said, this volatility is exciting. As the sound of hip-hop evolves, so too will its style and essence. Chains might get even thicker, pendants might get even crazier, and artists might start to find new ways to show off their wealth physically.
One thing that is likely to stay the same is what the jewelry represents. From the days of Mansa Musa all the way up until now, pieces of jewelry have evoked a sense of authority and influence. As rappers continue to experiment with new trends, they will always be working towards expanding their societal impact.
Jewelry has always been a symbol of wealth ever since Mansa Musa used gold as a means of flaunting his influence over the masses. And even though jewelry is no longer reserved for royalty, it can still make you feel like one.
When hip-hop rose to popularity in the 1970s, smaller gold chains were the go-to style. But as time progressed through the 2000s, bigger, diamond-encrusted chains became a means of proving that you’ve garnered success.
While these styles haven’t gone away, there’s an emphasis on competition in the modern era. This has made customized pendants more accessible and prominent, as it allows artists to distinctly set themselves apart from the pack.
As for the future, it’s hard to guess where exactly hip-hop jewelry will go. What will remain true, however, is that hip-hop is a cultural phenomenon with a far-reaching influence beyond just music.