Dollars & Chains: Hip-Hop’s Long-Standing Relationship With Jewelry
The relationship between jewelry and Hip-Hop is long, and often represents a rags-to-riches story.
Take for example one of hip-hop's greats—The Notorious B.I.G.. The last chain Biggie ever wore was a Jesus pendant created by Tito The Jeweler.
The iced-out chain was one of three that Big purchased for $30,000. According to MTV News, he purchased one for himself, one for Lil' Cease, and one for his best friend, Damion "D-Roc" Butler.
When Big passed away, one of the pendants was set aside for his son, CJ. But it didn't stop there—in JAY-Z's book Decoded, he explained how big of a role Big's pendant plays when he creates music.
"The chain was a Jesus piece—the Jesus piece that Biggie used to wear, in fact," wrote Jay. "It's part of my ritual when I record an album: I wear the Jesus piece and let my hair grow till I'm done.
Over time, the Jesus piece has arguably become one of the most iconic pieces of jewelry in hip-hop.
Of course, Biggie isn't the only rapper with a love for big jewelry—a tradition that began in the early '80s with pioneering groups such as Run DMC and artists like Slick Rick, who was notorious for his large chains.
By the late 90s and into the early 2000s, hip-hop artists were earning more money than ever before, and they showed it on their necks. With more money coming into hip-hop, the lifestyle got bigger—and so did the jewelry.
In the '80s and early '90s, a gold rope chain would cost a rapper around $20,000. In the late '90s and early 2000s, rappers began dropping serious cash on their jewelry spending anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000 on a single chain.
While the gargantuan gold rope chains were still in style, in 1999 platinum and diamonds would swoop in and change the game completely.
Nas's King Tut chain first made its appearance in 1999. The pendant is filled with diamonds and is estimated to be worth $65,000.
During this time, hip-hop artists began turning their record label logos and crew names into pendants that were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jewelry wasn't merely for decoration—it became part of hip-hop culture and marketing.
For instance, when a new artist was signed to JAY-Z and Dame Dash's label, Roc-A-Fella Records, they received a Roc-A-Fella chain to commemorate the occasion. Each Roc-A-Fella chain was designed by Jacob The Jeweler and priced at $100,000.
Death Row Records, Bad Boy Records, Sic Wid It Records, Cash Money Records and No Limit Records, are just a few labels that created distinguishable logos that artists wore as chains to showcase their allegiance.
However, there was a downside to receiving a diamond-encrusted pendant. Wearing so much money around your neck automatically made you more susceptible to being robbed and getting your chain snatched—ask Young Berg, Fetty Wap, or Tyga.
In 2009, Houston rapper Mike Jones was robbed of his famous "Ice Age" pendant, which weighed 100 pounds.
"They stole the [white platinum] chain, the bracelet, and the watch, but I still got my ring though," he said in an interview with Baller Status, in 2009, adding that he was set up by friends. "I'm good. All that was insured, so all that's coming back."
In the video below, Dame Dash confronts a jeweler for creating a Roc-A-Fella chain without his permission. The piece had become so popular in hip-hop that the famous chain was being sold in stores.
As the signature pieces became popular, the jewelers themselves became well-known to the public, especially after rappers started name-dropping them in songs.
Jacob The Jeweler (real nameJacob Arabo), became so popular amongst hip-hop artists that he's mentioned in over 68 songs. In a 1999 New York Times interview, he is dubbed as "the Harry Winston of the hip-hop world." Arabo has created jewelry for Missy Elliott, Foxxy Brown, Busta Rhymes, Diddy, Jennifer Lopez, and Wyclef Jean among others.
He even created Pharrell's bright and blinged out BBC/Ice-Cream chain that is estimated to be worth a whopping $100,000,000.
"I went to Jacob an hour after I got my advance / I just wanted to shine." - "Touch the Sky" by Kanye West.
In 1999, New Orleans rapper B.G. dropped the single "Bling Bling" featuring Big Tymers and the Hot Boyz from his fourth album, Chopper City in the Ghetto. Not only were the Pen & Pixel graphics for the album cover blinged out, the song itself made the term popular in mainstream culture.
While JAY-Z and Dame were giving out chains up north, southern rappers began to reimagine what the relationship between hip-hop and jewelry would look like.
From grills, to over the top pendants, southern rappers were taking jewelry to new heights. When Lil Wayne decided that he wanted some new grillz, he went and purchased a set for $150,000.
Meanwhile, in Houston, Texas, rappers had their own resident jewelry guru—TV Johnny (Johnny Dang). Dang came to America from Vietnam and worked in jewelry repair. He then got into the grill business when he realized dentists couldn't make them fit properly.
"Dentist makes solid gold, they are not jewelers, they don't know how to set a diamond," he told HiphopDX in an interview in 2016. "So they went to me to help put the diamond on the teeth, and that's how I got started."
Native Chamillionaire dropped $100,000 to get his chameleon pendant designed by the famous jeweler. Dang has made custom grills for Nelly, Juicy J, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Paul Wall, Rick Ross, Lil Jon and many other rappers and entertainers.
My teeth gleaming like I’m chewing on aluminum foil/Smiling showing off my diamonds sipping on some potent oil — “Grillz” by Paul Wall
Known for his grillz, Paul Wall teamed up Dang to capitalize on the grillz industry. In the interview below, both Wall and Dang explain how they became business partners.
Beyond the south, hip-hop artists began to think of new and creative ways to express themselves using their jewelry. In 2006, St. Louis rapper Nelly appeared wearing a Nefertiti Chain— its estimated value is $100,000.
The pendants that emerged during this time were over the top. For example, in 2009 T-Pain appeared wearing an iced out chain that said, "Big Ass Chain." The 197-carat chain weighed seven pounds and its estimated value is $400,000. And get this, he purchased the chain on a dare.
Today, jewelry and hip-hop are ubiquitous. The genre of music that largely began with stories of struggle is celebrating its upward mobility. And artists within the genre use jewelry as one of the ways to flaunt their success.
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