Hip hop isn’t just a genre of music, and it would be a disservice to exclusively label it as one because it’s an art form that is comprised of different mediums. Of course, emceeing and deejaying, which provide the art form with its irreplaceable soundtrack are the obvious two primaries, but the roles that breaking, graffiti, and fashion all play are equally as important in creating a sensorial experience. We’re here to talk about the latter, and zone in on some of the most iconic examples of eyewear worn by artists during the movement’s heyday – the 1980s and 1990s.
Since day one, fashion and hip hop have shared an inextricable relationship. In the late 1970s the relationship was arguably in its strangest phase with its glam rock and disco aesthetic, a hangover from the preceding years with flashy and tight clothes often studded and showing plenty of skin. It was all very eccentric and sunglasses were less of a fixture then, but thankfully the 1980s didn’t disappoint.
Much to the dismay of US politicians due to how rambunctious and politically charged it was, hip hop in the 1980s gained serious headway. After all, it was cool, energetic, fresh and culturally relevant. Its ascendency towards becoming a mainstream and lucrative industry was easily recognisable via the clothing many of the leading artists and groups wore as they veered towards a more streetwear look with touches of high fashion. It was authentic, original and still inspiring to this day.
Run-DMC is a sterling example of this. When the Queens-based group burst onto the scene in 1984 with its eponymous album, Adidas tracksuits, layered gold dookie chains and black fedora hats were sported with oversized, square optical glasses and sunglasses by Cazal, an iconic eyewear brand of the 1980s. These exaggerated frames weren’t worn for functional reasons – instead, they provided swagger and an instantly recognisable look. They were more often seen on Darryl McDaniels than the other two members, but they helped reinforce the band’s mission statement of becoming a standout crew.
The Fat Boys, another east coast-based rap group, were also fans of oversized frames (particularly the late Darren Robinson who understood that they were status symbols that everyone would soon want). In many ways, Run-DMC and The Fat Boys provided the first instances where eyewear and hip hop came together harmoniously, and the combination gave this youthful movement a nod of seriousness and maturity.
Come the 1990s, hip hop had undergone a wardrobe revamp. Sportswear, workwear and militaria worn with a street edge still had their place, but wearing luxury clothing from brands in Europe became signifiers of commercial success. The great Notorious BIG embodied this, wearing Coogi knits with Carhartt cargo pants and Timberland boots, finished off with narrow black Versace sunglasses. Accented with the Italian brand’s iconic gold Medusa that connected the frames to the temples, he wore this pair often and they featured heavily in the “One More Chance” video in 1995. His peer, manager and friend Puff Daddy was then, and still is today, an avid wearer of sunglasses and also wore high-end European frames on a daily basis.
Over on the west coast, another legend of the game, Eazy-E, the wild front man of N.W.A., was also akin to wearing Italian-made sunglasses during the late 1980s and early 1990s. His wardrobe was informed by his deeply-rooted hatred of the police and how brutal they were towards African Americans, and wore a military-like, all-black uniform on a daily basis. This personal choice of self-expression extended to his eyewear, and he was often pictured both indoors and outdoors wearing a classic pair of black Giorgio Armani acetate sunglasses. Known back then as ‘locs’, they were discreet in style but, combined with the overall look and demeanour of Easy-E, they created a bold political statement.
Today, eyewear still plays a key role in rap artists’ wardrobes, but the styles are wildly different and no way near as cool or iconic. 2007 was a low point with Kanye West popularising the shutter shades – a monstrosity of a multi-coloured and utterly useless accessory – and more recently several artists bizarrely have taken to wearing ski goggles with no mountain insight and dainty frames embellished with diamonds. When looking at the history of eyewear and hip hop, the pre-Millenium period is where the iconic moments happened. The aforementioned names and groups are a few of the legends of the old school that wore sunglasses in a way that helped define them as artists and cement their legacies.