Hip-hop and sports footwear are practically related. I’m not enough of a tracksuited, beatboxing, uprocking doofus to proclaim them the ‘fifth element’ of the culture because, well, that’s irritating bollocks, but they’re pretty incestuously linked across-the-board. As a result, I gave into a to a Ghostface ‘Beat The Clock’ style self-challenge to out-nerd anything I’ve blogged so far.
I used to love hearing references to brands on tracks. Then the excess of payola-led tracks and blatant seeding for shouts dulled things a little. Namechecking SBs or DMP boxsets on your umpteenth mixtape, over a recycled Toomp beat lacks the spark of Willie D commanding you to ‘Read These Nikes’. I yearn for what feels like a simpler time, when I (naively) believed rappers would drop a spot of random brand endorsement for the purpose of wordplay. And not just Nike, adidas or the usual suspects. My all-time favourite sneaker line is actually an un-endorsement – “My fist is more nastier than Travel Fox/My silhouette inside intensive care, because I like to shadowbox” by the Children Of The Corn’s Bloodshed (RIP) on ‘Harlem Nights’.
But after brand-hopping Mr West instigated a blog-level buzz via a wise sartorial choice for Paris Fashion Week with United Arrows’ 997.5 – a 997 upper on a 998 sole unit, it reminded me of New Balance references of the past. Mentioning the brand always seemed to split those in the know from the scores of pretenders. I jettisoned a couple of this top 10 during the selection process for being a little too nondescript. I kind of regret the non-inclusion of Bubba Sparxx’s ‘Deliverance’ “Why’d you have to keep it Polo and New Balance?” line, but hey, something’s gotta give.
Oh yeah, and while Lord Jamar’s solo lyrics, “All numbers repeat, just add the zero/Cipher is a circle, three hundred sixty degrees/Knowledge 120, Wisdom 120, Understanding 120…” could be mistaken as NB model numbers, they’re actually Supreme Mathematics. Don’t get it twisted.
“A real short play is called a skit/And New Balance sneakers are legit…”
Biz Markie ‘Me Versus Me’ (‘The Biz Never Sleeps’ 1989)
The Biz knows shoes, and gives them his stamp-of-approval right here. He’s the kind of hoarder who would claim have James Worthys on ice and suede 576s in all the colours of the rainbow like rap’s own Willy Wonka.
“You wanna diss the Phifer but you still don’t know the half/I sport New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path…”
Phife Dawg from Tribe Called Quest – ‘Buggin Out’ (‘The Low End Theory’ 1991)
Phife is a constant sports namechecker, and this reference is no surprise. Most Native Tongues members and affiliates were strong on the shoe front. I’ve seen the Jungle Brothers wearing some weak atrocities lately though.
“I warm up any room like a heater/Bringin a New Balance to the speaker like a sneaker…”
KRS One – ‘Bring It Back’ (‘Rhyme and Reason’ OST, 1997)
The Teacher is using the brand name as a metaphor, but he’s publicly worn the brand before. In fact, he proudly wore the dullest, plainest tennis design pair known to man during the ‘Self Destruction’ video shoot, which was actually a vertical drop from his Air Max and AJIII heyday.
“Bless the turns I step up off these New Balance 580’s on…”
Big Juss from Company Flow ‘Blind’ (‘Funcrusher Plus’ 1997)
A super-specific 580 reference. That reinforces backpacking stereotypes, and falls in line with Co-Flow’s penchance for intricate wordplay. The ? remains as to whether they’re talking the commonplace US version, or the Rollbarred Japanese Mita ‘MT’ variation that might have been copped through cult appeal in the Far East via the ‘Funcrusher EP’.
“Yo, so how you want it, you want silence or violence? Plus, me and my crew shine like the ‘N’ on New Balance…”
El Drex ‘The Life’ (with Kurupt) (‘Kuruption’ 1998)
I associate Kurupt with blue Chucks but this reference from his associate El Drex, who also appears on a Ras Kass track with him before vanishing, singles out the powerful properties of the 3M ‘N’. The only other memorable thing about the album this is lifted from is that it really didn’t deserve to be split over 2 CDs.
“The N.O.R. hit the mic just like I perform, I be hyped up/New Balance kicks and hyped up…”
Noreaga ‘Block Party’ (with Kid Capri and Big Pun) (‘Soundtrack To The Streets’ 1998)
Gibberish or not, you can’t front on NORE. Were NBs a staple in LeFrak? I’ll never know. He is, however, a master of the random reference. And as Juan Epstein listeners can attest, he’s hugely entertaining when he’s just left to ramble. Perhaps athletic shoes were instrumental in his recent weight loss.
“Green Huaraches, unattached shit, 575 blue Bals, blue Bals/Bo Jacksons grey and black, ready to throw my hands flashin’…”
Raekwon ‘Sneakers (‘Immobilarity’ 1999)
A shoe fanantic since day one, and a frequent NB wearer if you check the Wu’s history of press shots, this Pete Rock production, the sole highlight of the ‘Immobilarity’ LP covers pretty much every brand ever, singling out specific models and makeups. Blue 575s from the late ’80s seem to leave the Chef feeling particularly nostalgic.
“Cop the Eagle, started jackin’ with the green New Balance shit/I’m feelin’ clean, I was only thirteen/With the heavy starch, on my Bugle Boy Jeans”
Ol’ Dirty Bastard ‘Pop Shots’ (‘Osirus: The Official Mixtape’ 2004)
Dirt McGirt had style, and this track, taken from the troubled Roc-a-fella deal, conjours a mental image of him rocking money green 574s and wielding a Desert Eagle. According to my figures, he would’ve been 13 in 1981 – the Desert Eagle didn’t come out until 1982 and the 574 wasn’t released until 1988, but hey, it’s my mental image, and it doesn’t need to be historically accurate.
“The New Balance king, first to buy brown leather in ’91/Running through malls with Diadora tongues we kept the guns…”
Goretex from Non Phixion ‘Patta Exclusive 3’ (‘Patta Mixtape’ 2005)
On this great mixtape version of Ghostface’s ‘Run’ for Gee, Lee and DJ Edzon at Amsterdam’s Patta, ILL Bill, Goretex and Sabac trade running shoe themed lyrics that focus on boasts of owning performance pieces, and the ensuing sense of oneupmanship. They trail the never-released ‘Nuclear Truth’ LP too. But Gore opens the second verse by declaring himself an NB monarch for leading with a leather pair. Not entirely unlike Rae’s ‘Sneakers’, the use of a RZA beat and their Wu-style wordplay draws further comparisons.
“Automatic is nasty, raspberry colour/My shit bloody, with mud on my New Balance…”
“New shit, New Balance clique, true blue sixes burst…”
Raekwon ‘Dangerous’ (‘The DaVinci Code: The Vatican Mixtape V2’ 2006)
A brutal situation leads to Raekwon’s shoes getting sullied on this mixtape cut to precede the no-show ‘…Cuban Linx 2’ just before my attention waned. He still makes references like this seem natural rather than frivolous namedropping – this in turn makes his narratives more vivid.