The hip-hop world is a less bling-bling place these days.
The music genre has been defined as much by diamond-encrusted watches and platinum chains as its gritty urban lyrics. But in the last couple of years, it has scaled down its flash, a trend insiders say has become more pronounced during the recent recession.
Make no mistake: The industry that made an urban household name out of New York’s Jacob “Jacob the Jeweler” Arabov me isn’t entirely reversing course. (Case in point — Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” one of last year’s biggest songs, which had the rapper bragging wildly about being a “young millionaire.”)
But “the day of conspicuous consumption is gone,” says Tamara Connor, an Atlanta-based stylist who has created looks for chart-topping rappers, including Lil Wayne.
“We’re still going to see some bling, but it’s just not going to be as much,” Connor says. “Instead of four diamond necklaces, it might just be a diamond bracelet — and it’s a piece the celebrity wears all the time. They’re not changing their jewelry out everyday.”
Photo shoots, for example, are being done with fewer of the specialized medallions considered a calling card for the likes of Rick Ross, whose chain with a likeness of his head — complete with black diamond beard — has an estimated value of $30,000.
Instead you might see a rapper in an off-the-shelf diamond cross or wearing lower-quality stones. “You can save $3,000 a carat if you do non-ring quality diamonds for studs (earrings),” Connor notes.
Ben Baller, head of Los Angeles-based jeweler I.F. & Co., says the shift is most pronounced among up-and-coming rappers, for whom a steady income is seeming like less of a sure thing. Rap sales have declined along with the rest of the music industry.
Before, a new artist might spend $25,000 of a $30,000 advance on a chain, according to Baller, who counts Fat Joe as a client.
“Now they would rather try to spend $5,000 and $6,000,” he says, adding, “they’re willing to talk about options by using sapphires, using very, very low quality gold.
“Some people (are) even wanting to mix diamonds with cubics (cubic zirconia) so it would not be completely ungenuine.”
Cost cutting is major for the industry in which the carat-weight of one’s ring could carry more cache than record sales. Ostentatious fashion has been in hip-hop’s DNA since Slick Rick donned layers of opulent gold chains in the ’80s.
The flash reflected the music style born of the streets of New York, its stars often hard-knock kids who christened their new success with thick rope chains and designer sweatsuits.
While over-the-top bling didn’t represent all of rap fashion — gritty gang looks, Afrocentric garb and even preppy styles have all been adopted and embraced as part of rap style at some point — in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, bling seemed to have reached its apex, complete with gold and diamond pimp cups and diamond grills for the teeth. (In fact, its around that time the term bling was born.)
“It was about creating a signature,” according to Memsor Kamarake, fashion director of Vibe magazine.
But in recent years, rap kings like Jay-Z and Diddy have displayed their swagger with looks that were more boardroom than bling, with button-down shirts and designer suits.
Though Young Jeezy may still sport a huge chain at times, flashy jewelry is not integral to his image.
“He’ll wear a scarf and no jewelry, maybe a bracelet, with a baseball hat, a T-shirt and a pair of jeans — that’s not a lot of bling,” says Connor, who has also styled the Georgia artist.
Rappers aren’t giving up glamour altogether, they’re just not wearing it 24-7. In the past, several chains were de rigueur for a grocery-store run, now they’re reserved for a show or nightclub, says Baller, who also is seeing more artists trading in old chains instead of buying new ones.
And rapper T.I. has the A.K.O.O. clothing line, which features military-inspired woven shirts, polos and denim, with most items ranging from $44 to about $200. Ralph Reynolds, who is A.K.O.O.’s creative director, said the clothing label reflects a more price-conscious customer in hip-hop.
“Some of those same people who would reach and stretch and do everything they could to get that Louis (Vuitton) will now say, ‘I already have these two bags, let me pay the rent,'” Reynolds says.
Even Kimora Lee Simmons, the Baby Phat designer known for her extravagant lifestyle, toned down the glitter in her most recent collection.
“Fabulosity is not — the girls are seeing — that $5,000 pair of shoes,” she says.