“Back then, we wore ski goggles in the summer time, it was part of your outfit. Back then, it was all about being original.”
Sacha Jenkins has been immersed in hip hop culture since, as he notes now, “before it had a name”, he moved to New York from leafy Silver Spring in 1977. In those ofmratic years, as the nascent movement developed, he was running with other kids, listening to music, wearing clothes that were all about being original and, er, fresh, tagging walls using marker pens.
He went on to a career writing about hip hop in all its forms in magazines such as Vibe, Ego Trip and, latterly, for website Mass Appeal, so if anyone is qualified to talk about the history of hip hop, then it’s Jenkins.
His newly-released feature film documentary, Fresh Dressed, charts the form’s relationship with fashion from its early days in the 1970s in the five boroughs of New York to its dominant position as a global brand.
And it’s given further credence by Jenkins’ own credentials. While this writer is firmly in the school of “it’s not as good as it used to be”, Fresh Dressed is a treat for not only scholars of the form, but also for those who believe that nothing is what it once was.
“It’s easy for me to be an old man and say the music was better when I was growing up,” he says at one point during a lengthy chat about the film, “and how it’s inspired and influenced me. I connect that energy with being a kid. There was that sense of community, sense of boundlessness, hip hop gave me. It predates recorded [hip hop] music and the rise of an industry.”
Jenkins is in London, promoting the film which has aired as part of the London Film Festival ahead of its theatrical and video on demand bow (“"we had two screenings at the LFF, the response has been great. Folks interviewing me, I’ve really enjoyed it. First there was Sundance, now this. It’s been amazing, amazing to see so many people might be interested in it, it’s really nice”).
So how did he get into it then? “I moved to New York City in 1977. from Silver Spring they were two completely different beasts. We’d go out and play and everyone else had magic markers. What the hell was all this? It was young people in New York expressing themselves, it didn’t officially have a name, but it was what became known as hip hop and rap music.”
The music, the dancing, the fashion, the graffiti, it was all genuinely, er, fresh. “We didn’t know this language and culture would go far beyond the five boroughs,” he says. “There was no way way any of us knew it would go on to become huge.”
What would he have thought, we suggest, if someone had told him that it would go global? “We were just growing up on the street, we probably wouldn’t have believed you.”
Hip hop is rich in history and an awareness of the “legacy, the background, the history” is, Jenkins says, crucial to not just understanding that, but more too. “Hip hop is a real reflection of how America has treated folk of colour,” he explains. “Identity is very important to folks in hip hop, there are so many things you can’t own, opportunities you can't have, should be able to own your own this. Owning history, knowing history. very important to folks in hip hop.”
Fresh Dressed assembles a cast of big, big names – Nas, who served as executive producer, Kanye West, Pharrell, Puffy and more – as well as legendary characters such as Dapper Dan, the Harlem outfitter to the stars. It seamlessly blends archive footage (“a lot of footage came from filmmakers I personally knew, films I worked on as a kid”) and talking heads interviews. Having Nas on board helped, as Jenkins notes, “Nas can call Sean Puffy Combs and get an interview”, while Jenkins’ own career helped. “All those years of interviewing people, dealing with artists and producers helped.”
Some three years in the making – a third of which was getting funding – and 75 to 80 interviews later (“with my journalism background we got as many secondaries as possible, 35 more people than I needed”), it is as notable for who it doesn’t interview as who it does.
“People say ‘how come you didn’t have Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger?", the folks that created these other brands, but they didn’t want to be interviewed.
“On the one hand, those interviews would have been really interesting. There was a gang called the Lo-lifes, all wearing [Lauren’s] brand. How does he feel about that? There were 30 of them, stealing this Polo stuff, 30 of them going to clubs wearing the same outfit. It inspired other people to spend money, they were actively promoting Polo. Would have been great to hear how they felt about that."
“But not hearing from them also says a lot.”
Despite telling the story of hip hop and fashion, it’s surprising to hear that Jenkins doesn’t see himself as a real lover of fashion, although he does realise its role within the movement.
But there’s no doubt in his mind as to what’s the most influential item of hip hop-wear is. “One universal thing is sneakers and sneaker culture. The adidas Superstar ,the Puma Clyde, those are two shoes that are iconic, they spoke to a very particular time. You think shelltoes, you think Run DMC in 1986. You still get that feeling, sneakers are the signifier."
“Initially for athletics, sport, there was no such thing as lifestyle sneaker wearing. Hip hop created that sneaker culture. And coming off that you had the tracksuits, the hats…”
And while he doesn’t want to sound like the one saying “it’s not as good as it used to be”, he does acknowledge that those early years, when he was around 12 oer 13 years old, as being key. “That’s the prior of hip hop I cherish the most, the most influential.”
Back then, he states, it was all about innovating and being individual, hence the ski goggles story, which is where we came in. “Back then it was all about being original, that’s a vestige of gang culture. It was all about being an individual within an organisation.”
Nowadays, he adds, fitting in is far more important. “With social media and the Internet, there are different social pressures, the way they see the world is completely different. It’s about how many friends you have in the virtual world, versus the real world."
“Growing up, it was all about being individual, showing up with a pair of sneakers no one else had. People would all be asking ‘where did you get those?’ You wanted to stand out and be recognised.”
Before we go, we can’t help but ask him, what’s his favourite hip hip song?
“MC Shan, The Bride.” he says, without hesitating. “Queensbridge is the housing project a mile away from where I grew up, Nas is from there, Marley Marl is from there, a lot of important rappers came out of that project. That song was made for a block party, with MC Shan telling the history of the neighbourhood. KRS One heard that song, he thought MC Shan was trying to say it started in Queensbridge. He used that as the opportunity to go on the attack. And it led to the greatest battle of all time, there’s a great pride in hearing that song.”
The music, he adds, wrapping up the conversation, was all around him in Queensbridge. Hip hop in those days wasn’t about clubs, it was all about the parks. “I was really young, it was outside my window, there was always loud music playing. They had park jams, they’d play until four in the morning, hip hop came from the parks, not battles in the clubs."
“It was young people listening and dancing to music in parks. It’s a simple idea that has gone on to change the world. It’s part of my life, I heard it, saw it, smelled it, you could smell the weed all the way in my apartment…”
Check out the trailer below...
Fresh Dressed is out now in selected cinemas and on vod. It'll be released on DVD on 9th November.
Enjoy this article? Want more?
You can support Ransom Note and independent journalism through our Patreon campaign now.
Become a friend of Ransom Note