“Going big is just how we roll. It’s Black swag, African American to the bone,” writes Slick Rick in the forward to Ice Cold. A Hip-Hop Jewelry History, music journalist Vikki Tobak’s exhaustive and extensive TASCHEN book on the music genre’s love of all things shiny, glittering and gold.
“As an immigrant kid growing up in Detroit, I first heard and was drawn to hip-hop in the late 80s,” she tells VICE. “I remember hearing Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in high school and it just made the world make sense to me.” Tobak – the author of 2018’s Contact High: A Visual History Of Hip-Hop and the curator of a touring exhibition of the same name – later went to work at PAPER magazine before jumping into the music business and working with a young Jay-Z and Mos Def during her time at Payday Records.
“You could already see [Jay-Z] was destined for greatness but musically and sartorially,” she remembers. “This was the early 90s, so the hip-hop jewellery world was still either big gold or the antithesis of that, which was the beads and leather Afrocentric medallions that De La Soul and a public Enemy wore. Mos was more in that camp […] When Jay and Diddy got into diamonds and platinum just a short time later everything changed and the stakes got bigger.”
Ice Cold documents exactly that style switch, beginning from the heavy gold chains of the 80s all the way up to the high-concept bling of the 00s and beyond, including Kanye West’s now-legendary Murakami Jesus chain from Ben Baller, the Korean-American designer who once declared himself the “best jeweller in the world”.
“The thing that I found really interesting and surprising is the shared mentality of hip-hop and the jewellers who work with hip-hop artists. Most of the jewellers are either Immigrants or kids of immigrants so they understand the language of hustle, transcendence and aspiration,” Tobak says. “The notions around building wealth, building a legacy, building a community are all things hip-hop and immigrant culture has in common.
“The people behind the jewellery even to this day— Ben Baller, Johnny Dang, Jacob the Jeweler, Tito, Eliantte, Greg Yuna; all household names of the culture— are also largely immigrants or the children of immigrants. I love that part of the story because it speaks to questions around the American Dream and who it's for.”
You can check out some photos from Ice Cold. A Hip-Hop Jewelry History documenting that rich, illustrious relationship between style and music below.
Ice Cold. A Hip-Hop Jewelry History is out now on TASCHEN.