From Wu-Tang to Kanye West, hip-hop artists have changed the sneaker industry.
In the summer of 1973, hip-hop was born in the Bronx. A new-aged form of poetry gave Black America a different platform for expression. Hip-hop has evolved over the last five decades, and with it, its style and impact.
Hip-hop culture, akin to sneaker culture, is as vast as it is today due in part to revolutionaries and trailblazers.
DJ Kool Herc, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Outkast, and many others have contributed to hip-hop’s stake in pop culture. For sneaker culture, many artists have pushed the envelope from storytelling to designing, and even having their own signature shoe.
As hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, we dive into the 10 most important hip-hop sneaker collaborators of all time.
The Adidas Superstar debuted in 1969. Designed as a low-top performance basketball sneaker, the Adidas Superstar entered a different type of game in the ‘80s when it was adopted by Rev Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay.
The shoe delivered a versatile look with its white leather upper, black stripes, and gold branding on the tongue and lateral sides.
Paired with Adidas tracksuits, the Superstar became embedded into the fabric of New York and hip-hop.
In 1986, Run-DMC released its tribute song “My Adidas” and ignited a new era in sneakers and hip-hop as brands would later partner with artists for a new form of storytelling that fans could gravitate to.
“My Adidas and me close as can be / We make a mean team, my Adidas and me.”
What started as an organic partnership transformed into a collaborative operation as the group would later have its own shelltoe colorways and exclusives.
The impact of Run-DMC and Adidas continues as New York City declared August 9 Run-DMC Day – forever etching the group into pop culture.
Valued at over $30,000, the Wu-Tang x Nike Dunk High ain’t nothing to f*ck with. Nike gifted the limited-edition sneaker to the rap group in 1999, along with close family and friends. It’s believed that there are only 36 pairs in existence, with Sotheby’s currently offering a men’s size 7.5 for $36,000 and StockX claiming to have a men’s size 6 for $90,000.
Using the iconic Wu-Tang colors as inspiration, the sneaker has a two-tone colorway with a black leather base and goldenrod overlays. The Wu-Tang logo is embroidered on the heel and also seen on the custom tongue tag.
Hailing from the birthplace of hip-hop, the rap group has remained a force within music since 1992. Wu-Tang’s Avengers-like assembly which includes RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Cappadona, and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, has inspired one of the highest-valued and limited sneakers in the culture.
After Reebok missed out on signing LeBron James, the brand began to search for its newest answer. In addition to bringing in Jay-Z and creating the S. Carter line, Reebok also partnered with 50 Cent and G-Unit.
The Reebok x G-Unit G-6 sneakers created a paradigm shift in the industry as the rap group was selling sneakers at an unprecedented volume for Reebok.
Reebok CEO Todd Krinsky revealed that the pinnacle of a G-Unit Reebok colorway rivaled an Air Jordan release during the same time, with nearly 75,000 pairs sold of just one colorway alone.
The successful sales of the shoes along with their billboard success paved the way for other hip-hop artists such as Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, with his S. Carter collab and never-released Reebok Mascot Trainer line and Pharrell Williams’ BBC Ice Cream series.
Reebok (2004), Adidas (2014)
Pharrell Williams is as seasoned and prevalent in fashion when it comes to anybody in the intersection of sneakers and hip-hop.
Pharrell Williams and childhood friend Chad Hugo formed The Neptunes in 1992. While in Virginia, the group worked with Shay Hale and would eventually form N.E.R.D. in 1999.
The music and style of Williams would connect him with Nigo, founder of A Bathing Ape (Bape) and the duo’s love for streetwear birthed Billionaire Boys Club in 2003. The following year, BBC’s Ice Cream line would launch its skate-centered line with Reebok.
The collaboration was monumental as Ice Cream’s diamonds and dollar signs logos covered the shoe with no Reebok branding in sight – a move almost unheard of for a collaboration with a massive brand at the time.
The BBC Ice Cream line touched other Reebok silhouettes such as the Question Low and BB4000 over the years and opened up other sneaker deals for Pharrell and his groups, like the N.E.R.D. x Nike Dunk High in 2004.
Ten years, Pharrell Williams would go on to create the Humanrace line with Adidas.
In a span of nearly a decade, the Pharrell Williams x Adidas Humanrace partnership has touched on franchise models such as the Samba while also creating new models through the NMD Humanrace and Si?hona models.
Full circle moments took place as N.E.R.D and BBC Ice Cream Adidas Humanrace collabs became some of the most coveted within the partnership’s long list of accolades.
As Pharrell ventures into his new role with Louis Vuitton, we can only begin to imagine what’s ahead.
Nike (2003), Jordan Brand (2005)
Before Eminem and Jordan Brand teamed up to create some of the most elusive retro collaborations to date, Nike worked with Slim Shady on a handful of models like the Eminem x Nike Air Max 93 “Shady Burst.”
Then came the “Encore” series with two black and white Nike Air Force 1 Low, with one pair featuring Shady Records branding and the other donning the album title on the heel counter.
Marshall Mathers also worked with Nike for its “Charity” series that consisted of a plethora of co-created Air Max models from Air Max 1, Air Max 90, Air Max 97, Air Max 180, and others.
Following the Nike collaborations, Eminem became the first rapper to ever collaborate with Jordan Brand.
Not only did it reshape the industry, but it also delivered a true grail with his Air Jordan 4.
The Eminem x Air Jordan 4 “Encore” from 2005 commemorated the “ENCORE” album with a rumored 50 pairs in existence. A blue nubuck upper, red Jumpman branding, and black and grey across the shoe’s Wings, midsole, and semi-translucent heel tab garnered the attention of sneakerheads and rap enthusiasts everywhere.
Although the brand has recently tapped into an Air Jordan 2 revival from collabs to OG colorways, the middle of the Eminem and Air Jordan partnership also created an Air Jordan 2, inspired by the artist’s hometown.
With only 313 pairs in existence (a nod to Detroit’s area code), the Eminem x Air Jordan 2 “The Way I Am” sold out online in minutes in 2008 and even came with a t-shirt, a relic in Jordan Brand’s Lifestyle (LS) era.
Almost a decade after his first Jordan, the two linked up in 2015 as Eminem and Jordan Brand drew from the rapper’s Detroit roots. The final product was a three-part collaboration with Carhartt, the iconic workwear brand. An all-black Carhartt twill upper led the design for the shoe while metallic silver lace tabs, a white midsole, and a grey outsole completed the pair.
In 2017, the “Encore” colorway returned with just 23 pairs made. However, a lighter shade of blue and a switch-up of materials on the AJ4’s Wings and heel tab made it stand out from its predecessor.
The partnership went dormant for a handful of years before Jordan Brand and Eminem took advantage of the rapper’s Super Bowl 56 halftime performance in 2022 where he debuted the Eminem x Air Jordan 3 “Slim Shady” PE, made exclusively for him. The shoe arrived a year ahead of the Air Jordan 3’s 35th anniversary as the pair emulated the “Fire Red” Air Jordan 3 and included Eminem’s backward “E” and blank “Hi My Name Is” name tag, drawing from his records and personas.
Performing alongside hip-hop legends Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliot, and Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and his debut of the Air Jordan 3 reminded us in stunning fashion that he was the first rapper to work with the Jumpman.
Bape (2007), Louis Vuitton (2009), Nike (2009), Adidas (2015)
The Kanye West x Bape Sta Low “College Dropout” commemorated his debut album. His signature bear mascot made an appearance with Bape’s Star logo.
Following his Bape Sta, the self-proclaimed Louis Vuitton Don manifested a collaboration with the fashion house and created the Kanye West x Louis Vuitton Jaspers, the Louis Vuitton Don, Mr. Hudson’s, and the Patchwork. Though the high-end price points (well over $1,000 at the time) made the shoe unattainable for most, the intersection of luxury and hip-hop in sneakers remains the legacy of the collaborative effort.
Then came Nike where he would start to set the bar for entertainers as collaborators in the footwear space with a deal that gave him as much say in his shoe as a high-caliber signature athlete would.
The rollout of the Nike Air Yeezy 1 began at the 2008 Grammy Awards where his all-black leather prototype provided a glimpse of his design prowess. While the shoe drew from Nike classics such as Andre Agassi’s Nike Air Tech Challenge II along with the Air Jordan 3 and 4, Ye’s aesthetic was at the heart of the shoe.
Inspired by “Back to The Future,” the shoe emulated Marty McFly’s Nike Mags. The final product featured a glow-in-the-dark outsole worn throughout his Glow In The Dark Tour. Funny enough, Ye’s original design was a battery-lit outsole that would turn on and off at the push of a button – a feature that made its way onto the tongue of J Balvin’s Air Jordan 2 collaboration nearly a decade and a half later.
The Swoosh doubled down on the design language and took things a step further with the creation of the Nike Air Yeezy 2, which designer Nathan VanHook spearheaded with the help of the artist.
Ye left Nike over creative and financial differences, with Ye seeking mass production, an entire product line, and royalties, which Adidas gave him. In addition to royalties, Ye had creative control throughout the Adidas Yeezy line.
Ye and Adidas would create an abundance of models in broader quantities until the artist began a string of anti-semitic remarks that led the brand to cut its ties.
After a hiatus of releases that lost the company over half a billion dollars, the brand was forced to release its remaining Yeezy inventory with proceeds going towards charities that combat hate.
DJ Clark Kent
Nike (2008), New Balance (2015), Adidas (2016)
A hip-hop and sneaker list wouldn’t be complete without God’s Favorite DJ.
DJ Clark Kent is one of the most prolific collectors of sneakers. Through the decades, Clark Kent has amassed thousands of sneakers from every brand. Whether hyped collaborations or simple general releases, you can always count on him having at least one pair of almost everything.
The Air Force 1 aficionado kickstarted his relationship with Nike in 2008 and has been behind AF1 colorways throughout the years like the “All-Star” version from 2009, Scarr’s Pizza x Nike Air Force 1 Low F&F, and his upcoming “The List” Air Force 1.
But perhaps the Brooklyn native’s most memorable sneaker project is his “112 Pack” which included an Air Trainer 1, Air Max 1, LeBron 7, Nike SB Dunk Low, and others. The collection featured a simple black and grey look across the upper with an elephant print accentuated by 3M details.
Clark Kent’s other hits range from the coveted DJ Clark Kent x Nike LeBron 8 “James Dean Denim” to his “Quickstrike” Superstar 80s and Pro Model with Russ Bengtson, and his New Balance 998, inspired by the Global Spin Awards.
Doomsday was declared in July of 2007 when the MF DOOM x Nike Dunk High Pro SB officially released. This marked Nike SB’s second hip-hop collaboration as Nike previously partnered with De La Soul in 2005.
MF Doom tragically died in 2020, but the underground legend turned cultural icon was beloved for his crisp flows told behind his signature metal mask.
Before becoming the Vaudeville Villain that music critics championed, MF Doom started in a trio known as KMD, which he performed under the name Zev Love X. KMD was inspired by a collective of late ‘80s and early ‘90s hip-hop artists known as Native Tongues, which boasted a legendary roster that featured artists like Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and De La Soul.
With this in mind, the MF DOOM x Nike Dunk High Pro SB is connected to the Nike Dunk High Pro SB “De La Soul” in a way that only real hip-hop heads can understand. While both sneakers were iconic moments in sneaker and hip-hop history, the artistic differences are apparent as MF Doom’s Nike SB takes on a darker outfit that is representative of his enigmatic persona.
The high-top silhouette has a black suede upper with leather overlays and reflective piping on the trim. “Doom” embroidery is seen on the collar which is contrasted with midnight fog suede. MF Doom’s iconic mask is represented on the metallic silver tongue lining and is also seen on the tongue tabs. Red laces add an air of dominance to the sneaker, which is translated onto the abbreviated “super villain” lace dubraes. Finishing details include an MF Doom graphic on the sockliner and a translucent rubber outsole complete with MF Doom artwork.
MF Doom partnering with Nike SB shifted the ideology that hip-hop artists were limited to basketball silhouettes, Jordans, or the Nike Air Force 1. At the time, hip-hop was in a transitional era as the McBling-inspired aesthetics of Cam’Ron, 50 Cent, and even Jay-Z were starting to fade out, and the internet-infused DIY era was starting to fade in. Rappers began to flex alternative sneaker styles which are best demonstrated on MySpace hits like “Bapes” by Soulja Boy and “Vans” by The Pack.
Rihanna is responsible for one of Puma’s most successful celebrity brand partnerships as the launch of her Fenty Puma Creepers carried Puma North America’s revenue to $1.4 billion in 2017, per Barron’s.
“The launch of the first Puma by Rihanna shoe, the ‘Creeper,’ has been extremely successful,” said former Puma CEO Bjørn Gulden, who spoke to WWD in 2015. “Most retailers sold out within hours or days.”
The artist, fashion icon, and makeup mogul officially signed with Puma in 2015 just before the release of her eighth studio album, “Anti,” which included the Summer ’16 banger “Work ft. Drake” and distorted deep cut “Woo ft. Travis Scott.”
The Fenty Puma Creeper actually has a predecessor as the silhouette was inspired by a custom Adidas Samba that was made for Rihanna by Mr. Completely Creepy. Rihanna had also been rocking a Nike Air Force 1 iteration at the time, but she retired both customs when she began her partnership with Puma. Nowadays, Mr. Completely Creepy goes by his full name, Billy Walsh, and is a Grammy-nominated songwriter in addition to being a sneaker designer.
Rihanna’s influence in sneakers isn’t limited to just her Puma partnership though. For her Super Bowl 57 halftime performance, Rih wore the MM6 Maison Margiela x Salomon, which caused Ebay searches for the sneaker to soar over 800%.
After her Puma partnership ended, Rihanna’s influence was still felt by the brand as new silhouettes like the Puma Mayze incorporated design language from the iconic Fenty Puma Creeper.
Earlier this year, it was announced that Rihanna is officially returning to Puma, signaling a new era for the successful partnership.
Just before the announcement, Rihanna had been spotted on several occasions wearing the Puma King Avanti Premium, which was later revealed to have an embossed Fenty x Fastcat logo on the lace cover.
While no official release date announcement for the Fenty x Puma King Avanti Premium has been announced yet, Rihanna fans can expect these sneakers to drop at a later date, most likely in early 2024.
Nike, (2017) Jordan Brand (2018)
For Nike, Travis Scott is the brand’s most important artist partner since Ye.
The Houston-based rapper and rockstar debuted his partnership with the “Sail” Nike Air Force 1 Low, which featured a customizable design ethos with different Swooshes, as part of the AF100 program.
In 2018, his Jordan Brand partnership began with his Houston Oilers-inspired Air Jordan 4 collab, which many point to Eminem’s “Encore” Air Jordan 4 as a blueprint.
Since then, Travis Scott’s hits include one of the most desired sneakers with the Travis Scott x Air Jordan 1 High OG “Mocha” colorway, which includes the rapper’s signature reverse Swoosh – unprecedented on an Air Jordan 1 prior to the release and has since become a mainstay in his artistic portfolio.
The partnership will now evolve into a signature shoe line as Travis Scott and Jordan Brand will release the Travis Scott x Jordan Cut The Check later this year.
The Travis x Jordan relationship showcases the new era of modern artist collaborations with a hybrid of retro releases and a signature shoe.