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Rappers Are Dressing Like 80s Rock Stars and It's Awesome

Rappers have essentially become the new rock stars, a sentiment that has trickled down into pushing the boundaries of hip-hop’s style.

The Outfit, TX / Photo by King David, courtesy of The Outfit, TX

As much as South by Southwest offers a chance to quickly digest a year’s worth of musical trends, it’s also a showcase for far more. Thousands of the coolest people in the country are gathered in the same place at the same time, roaming the streets and showcasing the style trends happening quietly in tandem in cities across the country. And in rap, this year that trend is full-blown 80s rock star. While artists sported a range of styles, every showcase’s stage seemed to be packed out with cut-off denim jackets, ripped jeans, leather, lots of bare skin, and even crop tops. In the streets, where musicians mingled with attendees, it was possible to get an even closer look at rappers’ fashion.


Chance the Rapper / Photo by Rachel Topping

I spotted MCs like Rome Fortune, Chance the Rapper, and Chaz French—rappers who have perfected their rock star appearance—roaming the streets at SXSW. Rome, for instance, gravitates toward crop tops, in the same vein as bandana-wearing Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses. Chance is a huge fan of overalls, sans shirt, like Steven Tyler. And Chaz likes to do the denim thing; I saw him wearing white jeans and a white tee with a light-washed jean jacket on the rainy last night of the festival.

Chance the Rapper and SAVEMONEY / Photo by Kyle Kramer

OG Maco performed in a gothy all-black ensemble at Fader Fort, while Big Sean took that same stage shirtless in ripped jeans. In addition to closing his set shirtless, Atlanta's Raury even brought along a band with a keytar player. It’s an aesthetic that has even filtered outward from the core hip-hop markets: Electrifying Korean rapper Keith Ape rolled through a show that featured a denim-clad OG Maco in a similarly hardcore-inspired denim cutoff look. It’s not hard to see echoes of Kanye West’s Guns N’ Roses style Yeezus tour merch everywhere: Rappers have essentially become the new rock stars, a sentiment that has trickled down into pushing the boundaries of hip-hop’s style.

Keith Ape / Photo by Paul Ramirez

“I think any fashion trend in music is just reflective of a deeper-rooted mentality that’s being shared, a deeper-rooted feeling,” Mel Kyles, of The Outfit, TX, told me. “We feel like rock stars, and that’s what the fuck we are. I look from top down, from [Kanye West], Future, to some of the guys who are on the street grinding, to what you would call the middle class, to the indie SoundCloud rappers. The same shit [is happening]. Everybody’s kind of trying to carve out their own niche with different sounds and try to do their own thing. That’s what makes rock ‘n’’ roll a good thing.”


The shift hasn’t been abrupt, but has had a gradual transformation, based on the evolving landscape of rap. Today, the lifestyle of hip-hop is very indie, similar to that of the 80s rock bands who constantly lived out of suitcases and toured across the country. Hip-hop’s style falls in line with its current shifting paradigm. “I think that we are inching closer and closer,” Kyles also said. “We’re right around the corner from the next iconic period of music, which is hip-hop.”

The Outfit, TX / Photo by King David, courtesy of The Outfit, TX

Chicago rapper KIT cited similar reasoning for hip-hop’s move toward rock ‘n’ roll fashion. Just as rock ‘n’ roll culture was family-based and slightly cult-based, hip-hop, too, is rooted in the family-like fan base, he explained. Many rappers have developed huge ride-or-die fans who are likely to get wild and rowdy during a concert. KIT pointed to the fact that he has begun to view rap shows as rock shows because the energy is so high.

Rome Fortune / Photo by Rachel Topping

But for KIT, his style also shows his personality. For decades, rock ‘n’ roll has been firmly planted in the “no fucks given” state of mind; hip-hop has followed the same path. “I don’t give a fuck what you think about me, so my jeans are ripped,” he said. “Like I wore the same jeans every day for like two years straight.” Rappers’ music reflects their personalities, and the rock star look has become just another facet to the music.

Hip-hop culture is an umbrella term that signifies many elements of style; now that umbrella term will firmly include rock star.

Follow Tara Mahadevan on Twitter.