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No Country for Old (Rap) Men: Shirt Biz

Should rap t-shirts be reserved for 'real fans'?

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Band t-shirts have been a means of teenagers proclaiming their identity to their peers ever since an unidentified manager twigged that there was a rich revenue stream as yet unplundered. Over-priced, silk-screened tees began to be sold outside of rock concerts in the sixties, while more affordable garments were available to support up-and-coming acts still working the pub and bar circuit. By the time the ‘awesome’ eighties rolled around, band shirts had become a badge of honour for metal heads and mall rats everywhere, as well as a handy marketing tool disguised as a fashion item for the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood (‘RELAX’) and Wham (‘CHOOSE LIFE’).

Around this point, the lines blurred between wearing the t-shirt of a band or artist who you were a fan of and just being a fashion victim. The iconic Run-DMC logo took on a life of its own as folks who had never heard a rap song in their life began sporting t-shirts adorned with the design – one that is so powerful in its simplicity that it continues to be co-opted and ripped off to this day. Visit a chain store such as K-Mart in 2017 and you can pick yourself up a $10 tee sporting the Nirvana logo, regardless of your interest in the Seattle grunge scene from 25-odd years ago.

Yesterday I read about a kid who proudly dons a DOOM tee at work but is unable to name a single album from Dumile. When queried about this, he explained that he just listens to the Metal Faced Villain on Spotify. This is hardly the crime of the century, but it does raise the issue of whether this young whippersnapper purchased the shirt before even having heard a lick of the music just on the strength of the logo and then figured he may as well check this DOOM character out. If I had a dollar for the number of times I’ve witnessed a non-rap fan stroll into a record shop and ask if they have anything from “DOOM or Dilla” I’d now be in possession of at least two bucks. Which reminds me, how in the H-E-double hockey sticks did Stones Throw Records become the beacon of hope for releasing rap records for people who otherwise hate rap?

On one hand, it’s surely more beneficial to an artist to have people spending their hand-earned (parents’) money on official merchandise, where the profit margin is significantly higher than the earnings on a record, CD, tape, mini disc or 8 track, and it’s a sort of free advertising (although mileage may vary, depending on how much of a doofus the kid wearing said shirt happens to be). While the other, far more negative, side of the coin says that anybody wearing the t-shirt of a musician, band or rapper dude that they haven’t been following since they were a starving artist nobody had heard of is a poser, fake, fraud and a phoney. Of course, the only people pushing that agenda are over-zealous fans who prefer said artist to be their very own best kept secret so that they can sound edgy at parties.

Here’s what DJ A-Trak had to say on the subject when I interviewed him in 2007:

“It all started with t-shirts to sell on the tour, but I didn’t want to do an A-Trak shirt, because I have this whole conception that most self-respecting men [laughs] – not to get on some macho shit – but not a lot of guys would want to wear a shirt that says another guy’s name on it. You really have to be a fan. There’s nothing wrong with that. But to me, it closes a lot of doors. If you make a shirt that has your name on it, you’re like, ‘OK, I’m gonna sell this to someone who likes what I stand for so much that they want to wear it on their chest.’ That’s beautiful if you want to do that for me. Thank you. But I would rather make a shirt that I think looks good and that my friends and I would want to rock and that I hope other people out there want to rock. They’ll know it’s from me because people know that ‘Sunglasses Is A Must’ is my name, but you can wear it without being like ‘Hey! I went to this show last night and bought this shirt!'”

Much like the Fool’s Gold founder states, I’m not personally all that keen on walking around with some dude’s name on my shirt, nor advertising that I attended the Justin Bieber/Adele/Panic! At The Disco show last night and stumped up $50 for the privilege. Truth be told, the only rap t-shirts I own are for Queens-based indie label Hydra Entertainment, Un Pacino’s old group Hard White (which could be misconstrued as some particularly problematic Alt-Reich propaganda in the wrong hands) and the Ultimate Beats and Breaks octopus shirt I was gifted the week before last. If only I’d stocked up on those Sleeping Bag records fanny packs, scored one of the infamous Tommy Boy Carhartt jackets back in the late eighties or taken the time to sew that Public Enemy patch onto the back of a bomber jacket, perhaps my life would have turned out very differently…

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