Once upon a time, a long time ago – people lived nice comfortable middle class lives. They listened to their lovely music which the whole family enjoyed. However this changed in the late 70s early 80s when a new culture began to impact on lives. Initially this was underground culture in the US. However as it grew bigger in the US and grew from underground to niche it began to migrate to the UK, becoming huge in the 90s.
After reading that opening paragraph you might be wondering what the hell I am talking about. Well let me explain.
At last the youth of this era had something they could relate to that wasn’t ageing long haired rockers, thrashing their guitars and screaming like banshees. This was the emergence of urban culture. The most noted rise at this point was actually in Hop Hop culture with b-boys, breakdancers and of course Hip Hop (Rap) music. At the same time though was another strand including House.
The main impact happenned when Grandmaster Flash released the seminal piece of Whitelines, noted for its mesmoric tune and catchy chorus this track took to the airwaves. Granted some radio DJs and music commentators took their time to link to the obvious link to drugs, and maybe that’s the reason for its success. But this was the start.
The culture wasn’t limited to the music, along with the music came the dance. Along with the dance came the clothing. Along with the clothing came a new attitude. An attitude of change and challenge. This new urban culture was all about bucking the trend. This was something adopted very early by youths in the UK, particularly and perhaps understandably by youths of an Afro-Carribean descent. It gave them a powerful voice, that demanded to be listened to. Of course it touched and impacted people from all different types of backgrounds.
The culture has evolved a lot through the years and has touched many areas, including film, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was a chilling tell of life in New York at the time. This sparked a whole genre of films which created new directors and became more challenging Boys In The Hood and New Jack City. It also created a brand of humour through the likes of House Party and White Men Can’t Jump.
It wasn’t just Hollywood that was challenged. Spike Lee appeared in a memorable ad for Nike which transformed the brand from very White Middle Class athletic wear to edgy fashion items. This was carried on by Nike owning the basketball space with launching Nike Air Jordan in 1984. More recently areas such as street tournaments have taken off, which really focusses on bring sport to the real street level.
I caught up with Ortis Deley, presenter on Channel 5s Gadget Show and he summed it up really well for me “I think the two have become synergistic. I can’t imagine one without the other. The eighties have a lot to answer for.” The 80s for me was the real initial link, back to Public Enemy and Troop.
But why did urban culture adopt sportswear? And importantly what does it actually mean?
Why was sportswear adopted in urban culture?
There is no 100% certain answer to this. When the adoption first happenned the figures ‘on the streets’ were generally young men. They played sport both seriously and as a hobby. As sportswear brands such as Nike, Reebok and Adidas took the lead from niche players such as Troop they developed the styles and fashion of their product. Increasingly changing ranges meant youths wanted to gain bragging rights by owning the latest trainer.
Technology was increasing as well. Cushioned platforms in the trainer (that were the preserve of the expensive running shoe) were being put in more trainers, most famously in Nike Air trainers and later with Reebok’s Pump trainers. Purely and simply this made them the most comfortable footwear around. Ideal for kicking about “on the street”.
Perhaps the biggest influence however was when Nike got Spike Lee the symbolic figure in urban culture endorsing their brand. The advert and strong endorsement was seen as a massive step forward, adding the fact that the products appeared by name in the firs t massive hit from Spike Lee “Do the Right Thing” meant that the link was cemented. All Nike had to do was claim the link between culture and its range and the job was done.
Nike (perhaps) more successfully than any of its rivals did more than that. They adopted a massive link to possibly the “greatest athlete on earth” at the time Michael Jordan. The man could do no wrong. He won everything in his sport and due to his text book style to dunking he (and Nike) created a symbol. This symbol and Jordan himself became the must have for any youth.
The film tie-ins continued with Nike again associated in one of the biggest ‘urban’ films of the 90s in White Men Can’t Jump’ the comedy that took the link further and actually made a movie about basketball, street culture and music. Making fun of the apparently ‘clutsy white men’ Woody Harrelson, pumping up his trainers, whilst the uber cool Wesley Snipes starred in is Nikes.
What does it actually mean?
Well sports brands that get the link become part of everyday life within street culture. People often don’t say do you like my trainers, they say do you like my Nikes? Or my Reeboks? The segement are willing to pay top money for the right product as a lot of the focus is on bragging rights and getting the latest and best.
If a brand can capture the audience, they can make them fiercely loyal. I remember in my group of friends growing up, peers that would only buy Nike (even after Jordan had finished) – I myself bought a pair of the second generation Jordans when they were re-released.
The culture is very demading though. Not only do the brands need to keep up its innovation to make the product better than its competitors it also needs to invest in its brands. This investment needs to be in design and notably also in its endorsements.
Again, Nike is particularly good at this. The influence of culture from the states has diminished slightly and the super-icons of the football world are now more prominent again. Nike has the majority of key names in this field including the entire Brazil National Team and did a great job with the likes of Edgar Davids, Ronaldinho and currently Cristiano Ronaldo. However, Adidas reacted in this space and have their own stable of stars including Lampard and Messi.
The connections have become so interlinked that in some people’s minds this the two have fused together. I think this is best illustrated by the street tournaments that various brands have organised. A great example is Usain Bolt racing through the streets courtesy of Puma.
The biggest positive to the whole relationship is that the brands have created genuine role models for people to aspire to. The likes of Michael Jordan was a great positive example during a time when music was creating role models that parents didn’t want their children to aspire to. Nike has had a great reputation of this using the likes of Tiger Woods (although he managed to harm this), Kobe Bryant and now Puma with Usain Bolt
Whilst this is a lucrative market, because of its demanding nature it is as much about fashion as it is endorsement.
In short, if a brand can crack this area and maintain both its credibility and relevance it is on to a winner. If it doesn’t it will have no place to play (where are Troop and Fila now?)