On the bookshelf
Two books on hip-hop, bling and status
Ice Cold: a history of hip-hop jewelry
By Vikki Tobak
Tasks: 388 pages, $100
Status and culture: how our desire for social rank creates taste, identity, art, fashion and constant change
By W. David Marx
Viking: 368 pages, $30
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When early humans first adorned themselves with stones or shells, they invented glittering status symbols to evoke admiration and/or envy. Centuries later, few contemporary figures have embraced the aspirational potential of jewelry more than hip-hop artists. Kurtis Blow was a trendsetter, sporting half a dozen gold chains on the cover of his 1980 self-titled debut album; these now look like wispy wisps compared to the dazzling concoctions of conspicuous consumption of today. Cam’ron’s philosophy on “Get ‘Em Girls” (2004) said it all: “I’m stylish in my gear…medallions in my ear, whips on my fists, houses on my wrists.”
The desire to wear one’s wealth can cost more than money. On September 12, a group conspiring to steal his jewelry from PnB Rock killed the Philadelphia rapper outside a restaurant in Los Angeles. A few days later, the veteran rapper-actor Ice-T tweeted that prominent local rappers like Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar “don’t wear a lot of jewelry” because “LA is just a dangerous place. … Why test the streets.
Those who haven’t yet achieved Snoop status might still think it’s worth the wait. Vikki Tobak’s new book, “Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History,” chronicles the long affinity between rap artists and their jewelry. It follows his “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop” (2018), an exceptional anthology of hip-hop photography whose influence is reflected in the thousands of images that fill his latest book. Organized by decade, “Ice Cold” exemplifies hip-hop’s arms race to source and produce increasingly elaborate and individualized masterpieces.
What began in the 1980s with Run DMC and Eric B. & Rakim wearing muscular “dookie” gold chains has exploded into a shimmering diversity of knocker earrings, personalized four-finger rings, African medallions in black leather and jeweled dental grids. . “Ice Cold” includes both the iconic – Biggie’s diamond-encrusted “Jesus piece” designed by Manny’s Tito Caicedo – and esoteric – Cardi B’s gold hide and seek Bijules. For a literal moxie, check out T-Pain’s $400,000 pendant from Icebox Jewelers, complete with 200 carats of diamonds spelling out “Big Ass Chain.”
Although “Ice Cold” primarily focuses on the creatives, Tobak also tries to give the creators a bit of a shine, writing valuable, albeit brief, stories about key figures, including the legendary “Jacob the Jeweler” Arabo. from New York, “TV Johnny” Dang from Houston and “Ben Baller” Yang from Los Angeles. Not only are they also artists, crafting with carats rather than rhymes, but Tobak notes how many jewelers, like their hip-hop clients, come from humble beginnings.
While serving as a compendium of opulence and excess, “Ice Cold” powerfully links the symbolism of bling to the lived realities of social marginalization. Contributor LL Cool J writes, “the hustlers I saw parading their jewelry all over New York… were equaling hope.” Slick Rick adds, “When luxury brands fail and don’t serve us, we create our own luxury.” ASAP Ferg’s analogy between jewelry and fine art is particularly provocative: “I see it as buying a painting by Damien Hirst and wearing a Francis Bacon around my neck.”
The risks posed by flashy jewelry are real, but so are the social benefits. As Tobak suggests, these coins are a “statement of doping, power, dominance and wealth.” She would find strong agreement with author W. David Marx. In “Status and Culture,” published last month, he wrote, “the most rational way to climb the social ladder is to convert raw wealth into status symbols.” New rich, drip-draped rappers report success much like a third-generation banker dressing up in Savile Row.
However, as Marx (and many TV series) reminds us: “Old Money hates New Money”. The former’s high status influences the perception that his outrageous spending is tastefully cultivated while New Money’s habits are hopelessly awkward. For Marx, these power struggles of status “perpetual cultural change” by motivating the invention or pursuit of new ideas out of a desire to protect and enhance our social standing.
Marx’s previous book, “Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style” (2015), was an engaging and insightful story of cross-cultural influences between American and Japanese menswear trends. Compared to the niche of “Ametora”, “Status and Culture” is a far-reaching and ambitious treatise. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” or Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail”, it synthesizes years of social science research and claims to unlock simple yet powerful explanations of our social world, in this case via the Status Skeleton Key. .
“We are all in competition for status, whether we like it or not,” Marx insists, but how we do so depends on our current position. He argues that those of lower status have little to lose in advancing new cultural norms; think of the working-class roots of punk and hip-hop and the fixations on “authenticity” and “reality”. Meanwhile, social elites possess enough surplus status to bank on unconventional ideas – haute couture, for example – that others might find too outrageous to embrace.
The middle classes, caught in between and with the most to lose, are likely to be the most risk averse; that’s why average tastes are considered “respectable” but quite conventional. At the end of the 20th century, the break-up of a creative class inspired a new ideal of “competition of taste” emphasizing cultural capital (privileged knowledge). It involves mastering status cues from above and below, whether it’s attending prestigious schools, collecting T-shirts from obscure bands, becoming a whiskey connoisseur, or… write book reviews in major newspapers.
Alas, according to Marx, the information age has weakened the value of cultural capital. The internet has made niche knowledge easily accessible, even as taste control regimes have withered under the popularization of egalitarian principles. All of this makes naked displays of wealth all the more appealing in broadcast status, especially when amplified via social media. New Money, fueled by technology, finance, oil, fame, etc., is creating new markets for ultra-luxurious goods and services, replacing old aristocratic conventions with new plutocratic ones. Yet despite the disruptions in Silicon Valley, the status remains persistent; only the shades change.
What makes status particularly pernicious is that it not only influences cultural trends; it also shapes our sense of personality. We are told, ad nauseam, “just be yourself”, but Marx reminds us that originality is traditionally an “aristocratic privilege”. Even saying “I don’t care about status” is a marker of ancient status, signaling one’s virtuous rise above the material populace.
Again: it’s easy to disavow status when you already have it. In “Ice Cold”, LL recounts how he’s letting go of his dookie chains now that his stature as a famous actor and entertainer frees him from having to “prove to people I’ve got money”. However, for young artists aspiring to reach LL’s level of success — like the late PnB Rock — bling still offers an alluring shortcut to status despite the risks.
Marx does not believe that the influence of status can ever be transcended, but he suggests that we can at least reduce its stratifications by reducing “the evils of social hierarchy” and promoting “radical creativity”. Status inequality would persist, but, according to Marx, at least “creativity is more evenly distributed in society than the ability to create wealth”. Just skim through “Ice Cold” to see this idea unfold in dazzling detail. Hip-hop jewelry may have its roots in conspicuous consumption, but it’s also a form of creative expression, as unique to an artist as flow or songwriting. Anyone with money can buy a gold chain, but before Biggie, no one had thought of ordering a personalized Jesus coin.
Ultimately, if status is tied to our basic need to feel respected or admired, it would be disastrous for us to perceive wealth as the only legible path to it. A call for radical creativity encourages alternative forms of recognition. Past examples abound – Teddy boys in 1950s England, hip-hop PA systems in 70s New York – and new ones are emerging all the time, from TikTok dancers in India to cottagecore adoptees. in Canada.
Many of these trends will prove to be short-lived. Those who last are often disfigured and cannibalized by the mainstream. Few people will ever be truly revolutionary. Yet our status-fueled desire to invent and explore new forms of being and belonging remains fundamental to preventing cultures – and ourselves – from calcifying into stasis. We can all be bound by the gravity of status, but we don’t always have to feel trapped by it.
Wang is a sociology professor at CSU Long Beach.