Let me tell you about my favorite rap-related video of all time. It features Dipset’s Hell Rell, sitting in the studio, laughing maniacally about his haters. “I don’t got a deal?” He says. “I been signed to Diplomat Records since 2004, and I’ve been riding in thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of cars, and been wearing thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry, wearing thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of clothes, and smoking thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of weed.” The video gets bizarrer and meaner from there, as Hell Rell starts naming all of the clubs he goes to every night of the week (he never goes in, he just drives around the block to see what’s up), brags about how he was in a movie that “went platinum,” and talks about how he borrows his friend’s car and therefore is rich. He says the word “stupid” probably a million times in eight minutes. It’s seriously the greatest thing ever.
The rapper Vinny Cha$e and I are in a private studio on 30th street in Manhattan, looking over the clothes that he has brought for me to wear. We start talking about the legacy of straight-faced ridiculousness in New York hip-hop, and this video gets brought up. “Oh, that one. I shot that,” he says casually. Turns out he got his start in the rap game filming stuff for Juelz Santana, and also Hell Rell, evidently. Vinny Cha$e played a vital but largely unsung role in mid-2000s hip-hop—he was one of the dudes working in the pre-YouTube, pre-WorldStar Hip Hop trenches, guys who rappers hired to follow them around and tape them doing stuff and talking shit. This was also the age when mixtapes actually came out on actual CD’s instead of as part of a DatPiff/LiveMixtapes .zip file dump, and they’d usually come as part of a multimedia package. One disc of music, one “Street DVD.” These DVDs were uniformly weird and sort of boring, but still managed to be completely captivating because of the voyeuristic pleasure that certain people get from watching rappers do completely normal shit.
This pleasure of peeking into a rapper’s inner world is also the idea behind Vinny Cha$e’s music—his raps depict life as he lives it, which happens to be well. Vinny seems to have one of the cushier existences in rap, with days full of lean, gargantuan amounts of weed, and clothes. So many fucking clothes. It is these clothes that brought Vinny and I together in our anti-photoshoot of sorts. The idea was this: Vinny Cha$e and Kid Art, two thirds of the Cheer$ Club rap crew, would dress me in their clothes and take pictures of me. It was really “swag.” I know this, because Vinny said the word “swag” maybe a million times in our hour and a half together. Every time I made a joke or some sort of observation about rap music that he found trenchant, he’d give me one of those one-handed bro hugs that dudes give each other and say, “Swag,” dragging out the “a” in the word for a few seconds. It takes a certain level of coolness to pull this off, and judging by our interactions, Vinny’s cool levels are off the charts.
(As an aside, the word “swag” as an entity is fairly played out. I know I’m not the first person to observe this, but it went from a Lil B-dominated, kinda-funny-but-ultimately-probably-not-an-okay-thing-to-say word to a DEAR-LORD-DO-NOT-LET-THAT-LEAVE-YOUR-FACE monstrosity once Justin Bieber said it a million times on “Boyfriend.” Double points off for saying “swaggy.” Somehow, Vinny’s continued utterance of it left me unperturbed.)
So, anyways, onto the pictures. They were shot largely by Kid Art, who along with Cartier Court make up the other two-thirds of Vinny’s Cheer$ Club. The others were shot by my roommate Will, who along with me is not a member of Cheer$ Club (Will is still a really cool dude). Vinny & Co. recently got some sort of generous investment from a private investor, the type of investment that is large, like multi-millions large, and allowed Vinny in the past two weeks or so to buy a Mercedes, an iPad, and according to his Instagram feed spend sixteen thousand dollars on camera equipment. After several proddings, all I could get out of him was, “You wouldn’t know who it was, anyways.” It made me wonder if he was going to pay taxes this year.
Judging from his generous rack of accoutrements, I got the sense that Vinny’s had money for a minute, though. He’d brought along several designer sweatshirts, a glut of vintage NFL shirts, these t-shirts that intentionally spelled designer labels wrong, glasses he’d ordered from Japan, Gucci loafers that didn’t fit me—I rock a size 11, Vinny’s pushing about an 8.5—and a hilarious amount of bracelets. We only had a couple hours in the studio, so Vinny decided to dress me in two outfits (looks, sorry) and leave it at that. The secret to dressing well, he told me, “Is being natural-looking. You’ve got to come across as put-together.” This basically means you should pick one or two things that are super cool, and base the rest of your look around that.
Note my “Before” look. Rolled-up jeans that I bought two years ago. There’s a hole in the left leg, so they’re kind of inconvenient to wear in the winter. A plaid shirt I got at an equestrian supply store back home in North Carolina. Boat shoes. BOAT SHOES. None of these things are swaggy whatsoever. I’m not projecting energy with my clothes. They’re camouflage in a way: I’m not hiding, but I’m not popping out. I’m just there. Vinny and Art look displeased.
Now, compare that to me wearing some other shit.
I’m wearing these drop-crotch sweatpants thingies with a subtly diagonal zipper, along with a shirt making fun of Chanel. I’ve got on the watch that Vinny got along with his Mercedes, and as Hell Rell portended, thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry. The sunglasses I’ve got on are the same ones that Biggie used to wear back in the day. I have a really small head, so I had to keep flexing my face to keep them on. I could be going to the gym, or some club where you have to show your tax return to get in. Look at Vinny. He seems so pleased.
Look Two, meanwhile, completely discards any pretense of subtlety and just goes for it. The pants Vinny has me wearing are perhaps the most absurd formulation of fabric ever created. They were custom-made for him by the designer, made in a way that they’re like a magnet for your eyes. They take patterns found on large mammalian felines, tiger stripes veering off like bolts of lightning. You can’t see it, but in the back they have gold zippers so you can essentially adhere them to your legs. They have buckles right under the knees to make them even tighter. They are amazing and completely fucking insane. They’re hip-hop given rap’s current fashion-drenched aesthetics, but you could just as easily imagine one of the dudes from Poison rocking them. In an abstract way, they’re a signifier of a certain sort of legitimacy for a rapper, especially one such as Vinny, who peppers his lyrics with oblique references to a history of selling drugs. If he did indeed sell drugs, he sure as shit doesn’t sling anymore: when you’re wearing pants that tight, it is literally impossible to run from anyone. You have nothing to hide and nothing to run from, because if you did, you’d be fucked.
The thing about those pants is if you’ve got them on, your shirt has to be basic as shit, or else you run the risk of looking like you’re in a K-Pop group. Vinny decked me in a black shirt from Uniqlo that would have been a polo if it’d had a collar, and then let me borrow his Cheer$ Club chain, which he got custom-made by a dude following his influx of cash. I scrunched my toes up to fit into Vinny’s Jordans, put on these super-old Dior glasses that literally have “Christian Dior” printed on the lenses, and that was that. This is literally the coolest I will ever look.
After it was all said and done, Vinny and I went into the hall to talk some more about rap music. I was still wearing his chain, and for the sake of journalism I asked him if I could keep it. He laughed and said that there was maybe a one in a million chance of that happening. My mind flashed to earlier, when he’d mentioned not wanting to have to go to jail if someone tried to snatch his chain. I returned the thing on the spot. Too gaudy for me, anyway.
Photos by Kid Art