After seeing a baffling amount of YouTube promos for it over the last year and a bit, I just watched DJ Scripz’s factually titled The Haitian Polo Documentary, which is about young Haitian kids in Brooklyn becoming preoccupied with Ralph Lauren’s iconic output. We’ve moved on a lot from the days when I got hyped about a page or so in the Source each month at the turn of the decade to the point where it’s hard to find much on the Lo-Life crew and other boosting squads that hasn’t been told before, over and over again. Continue reading LIFE OR DEATH APPAREL
This blog post is brought to you by BlackBerry and Orange’s failings in giving me a device on insurance that blocked me out of the blog entry I’d written for today. That meant a hasty rewrite on a completely different topic.
I’m excited about the impending rerelease of Akinyele’s ‘Vagina Diner.’ I’ve decried our preoccupation with the old on here before, but one album deserving of a second time in the spotlight is Akinyele’s 1993’s smartly crafted punchline sleaze opus, ‘Vagina Diner’ — I maintain that Spice 1, Too Short and any number of Rap-A-Lot artists (the Complex interview with J Prince the other week was excellent) had the albums I can replay now, and most of the others we get dewy eyed about from the east coast seemed to have excellent singles but many of the ensuing albums are just boasts, horns and bass that outstays its welcome after twenty minutes. Salutes to De La, Jungle Brothers and Tribe for understanding the art of LP structure back then, even if ‘J Beez…’ got fucking slaughtered.
Akinyele’s effort was something different though. Getting Large Professor to produce the whole thing — a privilege of being signed to Atlantic/Interscope — made the whole thing cohesive and a precursor to those one producer and one MC albums that are frequently promised but rarely executed properly. ‘Vagina Diner’s awesome titled could have been justified with some talk of the man being a cunning linguist, but that amazing Ralph Bakshi/REAS/John Kricfalusi-esque cover art indicates that it’s just an album about fucking and some ignorant stuff.
‘Vagina Diner’s playing time doesn’t allow for Akinyele’s hiccup style to drive the listener insane and Extra P goes in. ‘The Bomb’s Carhartt hooded, roomy denim anthemic quality, a couple of twenty-second interludes that could have been stretched to full-length, the smoothed-out keys at ‘Bags Packed’s outro all made this a necessary album. Nobody’s boy hopped on to ruin tracks, and any attempts to get soulful were scuppered with some brutal talk. And that’s where it all went wrong. Ak’s line on ‘I Luh Hur’ about a hypothetical pregnant belly kicking and punching (“I’m fed up, and sorry that I’ve done it /I’m ready to set her up and have my little man kick her in the stomach”) seemed to be taken a little out of proportion — it was an unnecessary and idiotic moment, but Ice Cube touched on a similarly unpleasant matter (“Then I thought deep about giving up the money/What I need to do is kick the bitch in the tummy” from ‘You Can’t Fade Me’) and it seemed to get lost in the midst of other allegations of troublemaking against him. Ghetto Gold Matt reminded me of the December 1993 editorial in ‘The Source’ from Kierna Mayo decrying the lyrics and Akinyele’s letter of response in the February 1994 issue.
Cube was more profitable for his label, but with a lack of commercial success, Atlantic dropping Akinyele seemed like a cost-effective move. For some reason, summer 1993 was a bad time to be dropping an album and getting heard — bald headed rappers with raspy voices, Parliament samples and weed talk took precedence, and while ‘Vagina Diner’ got good reviews, it just got lost in comparison with an equally nihilistic and perfectly produced set like the ‘Intoxicated Demons ‘EP. Perhaps Interscope could have promoted it a little more. Ah, the hard life of the punchline rapper. If Interscope had let ‘Break a Bitch Neck’ (Kierna would have been triply furious about that one and it really undermines the point he makes in his letter too) go on that album as planned, that shit would have gone platinum. RA The Rugged Man’s ‘Cunt Renaissance’ line “Pregnant bitch — you get kicked in the belly/So fuck all them hookers who had beef with Akinyele” references the outcry and subsequent dropping of Ak (his boy — hence the indy release, ‘What The Fuck?’) in Crustified Dibbs’s typically sensitive manner.
Unsurprisingly, RA got dropped by Jive, but surprisingly, Jive picked up Ak later that decade, who’d reinvented himself as a porno rapper with the success of ’96’s ‘Put It In your Mouth’ — taking the sexuality of ‘Vagina Diner’ and making it a little more British postcard lewd rather than the Ike Turner backhand steez of his earlier works. A year earlier, ’95’s ‘Loud Hangover’ appearance with Sadat X had me wanting him to join the Loud roster. After that, Akinyele descended into the nowhere zone of Koch’s terrible early ’00s long players (see also, calamities like KRS One’s ‘Spiritual Minded’ album, Grand Puba’s terrible third LP and Onyx’s ‘Bacdafucup’ sequel). 2004’s ‘Live at the Barbecue: Unreleased Hits’ compilation had a few tracks that seemed to be from a 1994 project that never materialized at the time.
Just as ‘Put It In Your Mouth’ introduced a whole new audience to Ak’s work, the ‘Vagina Diner’ album seemed to vanish from the CD and record racks circa ’96. Other albums have had re-release after re-release, plus tours covering the entire tracklist, yet ‘Vagina Diner’ remains elusive, bar a vinyl bootleg or two. Recently, a promo edition of the LP sold on eBay, with lettering apparently from Ak himself. Compared to the real promo edition, it looked more like a bootleg — maybe Ak took matters into his own hands? But now you don’t need to shell out mad money for the dull single vinyl edition or crazed dough for a second-hand CD on Amazon, because according to their twitter feed Get On Down records, responsible for the recent ODB ‘Return to the 36 Chambers’ reissue, are putting out a remastered Digipak edition of ‘Vagina Diner’ in 2012. Hopefully it’ll restore some lost tracks, make up for years of compressed Mediafire piracy sound and blow up the album artwork to poster size.
Front and back and even on the CD’s diner sign look, the album’s dripping art direction was on point, but unlikely to find friends among the feminist fraternity. I refuse to be that guy on every stack of YouTube comments claiming, “Now that’s hip-hop — not like Drake or Lil Wayne” like a dad blasting Fleetwood Mac on the school run, but there’s a lot of merit in this album. A lot of lost albums need never return, but this is different. A rerelease is unlikely to bring the album a vast new audience (buying a CD or vinyl is considered quaint), but for those of us who care, ‘Vagina Diner’ 2012 is a big, big deal and hopefully that enthusiasm might prove infectious.
For your patience in reading these recollections, and while we’re stuck in 1993, here’s some highlights from the April ’93 ‘The Source’ Style Preview. Zhigge kitted in Armani Exchange, plus PNB, Pervert, Fuct, Not From Concentrate, Conart (the brand with Slash’s younger brother on board in its early days) and many more in the hat and tee collection, plus the Max ’93, Air Traverse, Jordan VIII, Rod Laver, Vans Chukka, Torsion Alegra and Equipment Support on a packed pair of shoe pages, that even the presence of flop post-Ewing shoe brand Aerial Assault can’t sully. Eighteen years later we still seem to be tethered to the aesthetics of the designs on display.
That London RRL store on Mount Street has got me wanting to spend. The navy dip dyed stuff, deerskin hunting vests, Cordovan shoes which — like many Japanese repro merchants — make use of boxes of deadstock Cat’s Paw heel units, and an awesome N-3 snorkel parka made with Buzz Rickson are all expensive but beautiful. Somehow everything on this blog manages to revert to Polo talk. Last week I heard somebody remark that Polo had gone “commercial.” It was curious to see a complaint like that leveled at a billion dollar business, but we’ve all had that moment in time where a brand feels like our own cosa nostra, oblivious to its history and just how many folks got there before we did. One thing’s for sure – with the Independent and Guardian Facebook apps spitting out old articles and dry snitching on the reader via that loose lipped little column on the right, the British broadsheets only got round to discussing the Lo Life “phenomenon” this summer. Then that UK Lo-Life documentary embarrassed the nation.
Going back almost twenty years, ‘The Face’ was there relatively early, typifying what made the magazine so essential under the Sheryl Garrett administration with the October 1992 (when in doubt, pillage ‘The Face’ archives — please, please, please can somebody make a DVD set of issue scans or a pay-per-view database of that magazine’s halcyon years) feature, ‘Living The Lo Life’ by Steven Daly. It’s a memorable feature for a number of reasons — the gear is fresh rather than tinged with not-as-good-as-it-was nostalgia, the footwear isn’t reissue and it answers and creates a few questions along the way. Young veteran Superia is an interesting focal point — dismissive of Lauren himself, applying a sense of activism to his crusade for fresh rather than reverence for Ralph and annoyed at Harlemite group Zhigge’s Polo gear until it’s revealed that they’ve got a Brooklynite in the crew.
We find out that JanSport is out and that Boostin’ Kev has been discredited too. Beyond that, the photography is excellent — David Perez Shadi (who’s worked with Supreme, BBC and ALIFE as well as being the man behind House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’ video) took some incredible shots (the bandana is particularly memorable). What was shot but left out the feature? I’m keen to see the out takes.
The list of brands mentioned is interesting, with Tommy, Guess and Nautica joined by Duck Head – presumably only in vogue for a minute, but a curious brand that started life in the late 1800s as O’Bryan Bros workwear, selling union-made Duck Head overalls in the early 1900s, kitting out several country music artists in the 1960s and ending the 1970s with a surplus of 60,000 yards of khaki fabric that was bought by a mill operator, leading to the preppier incarnation of Duck Head that rose in popularity throughout the 1980s and early 1990s with a middle class audience, offering a kind of Polo-lite. They closed a Monroe, Georgia factory in 1996 and shifted manufacture abroad, floundering a little under new ownership and being purchased in 2003, leading to its current position as a merchant of fairly nondescript, low price dadwear. Still, it’s interesting that it once shared racks with Carhartt — another company given some unexpected innercity reappropriation at the same time Polo gear was sneaking past security.
I try to offset nostalgia here, but it seems we can’t avoid 1992’s tractor beam of bold labels and powerful pricetags. It seems to aggravate a few purists that rap’s golden era is a subjective thing — kids losing their mind to ‘Shot Caller’ right now wouldn’t want it any other way, no matter how many times you bang on about ‘Funky Child.’ Consider it a work in progress. But hip-hop attire always seems to hark back to exactly what Superia and his boys were preoccupied with. I’d love to see a publication with ‘The Face’s knack for prescience. Shit, I’d like to see a Friday night show that had segments like this James Lebon filmed piece on Shyheim for ‘Passengers.’
Oh shit, more Ralph Lauren talk? Like the anonymous caller that ushers ‘Protect Ya Neck’s Shaw Brothers headnod “Ah yeah, again and again…”
It’s been a busy week. I’m feeling lazy, work is breaking balls and I was desperate for something to fill this evening’s blog void. If in doubt, I fall back on a couple of things close to my heart – Polo and Champion. I think I’ve exhausted the latter, but there’s always mileage when it comes to the former Lipschitz’s empire. First things first, I’m re-reading Dana Thomas’s ‘Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre’ – essential reading for the brand fiends out there – though it’s worth noting that while the fragrance industry catches an slap to the head in Dana’s book, Hermès and LV are still projected as premium. If you’ve never picked it up, from the headquarters of brands to the truth about manufacture and Rodeo Drive’s origins, plus the LVMH interest in Asian-friendly outlet shopping, it’s a good one for the commuters out there looking for more insight than the usual vapid fashion week talk.
The real appeal of Ralph Lauren lies in those visits to the wood-furnished Ivy League looking stores, where to quote Lenny Leonard on clocking the Fleet-A-Pita van outside the Springfield power plant, “It looks like it doesn’t even need our business!”
In tribute to Ralph, here’s a few recently unearthed Polo-centric happenings – firstly, the always-excellent (seriously, for spotting James Jebbia’s brief classroom TV appearance he gets props over here) Martorialist just talked Zhigge, and noted that they’re pioneers of the Lo’ Life references on record* as well as wearers of some fine garments linking the group to Hiroshi in a roundabout way that 99.9% of bloggers would lack the knowledge to execute. A little remnant of my ‘New York Magazine’ pillaging post from last month, the ‘Ralph’s World’ cover story from September 1993 is based around the opening of the Polo Sport store and the launch of RRL (“The leather jacket, the worn-out flannel shirt, the beat-up hat represent living, not fashion’ he spits out the last word.“) and is a good piece of Ralph history.
In line with my attempt at doing my bit to kill the e-pollution of retrospective pieces, my token spot of retro-offsetting arrives in the shape of a short Q&A with Ralph from the new ‘Man About Town’ via Philip Utz – I laughed at editor-in-chief Huw Gwyther when he appeared on ‘Dragon’s Den’ asking for cash. The joke’s on me, because this is a good publication (I’ve never picked up ‘Wonderland’) – Simon Foxton is in remarkably restrained mode, still on a young black teenagers vibe (and I’m not talking whiteys with dreads and Reverse Weave hoodies), but showcasing some clean Polo and Purple Label pieces in a Parisian setting. The shoot’s right here, but the interview is worth your time too.
*Though the non-major label antics of Boostin’ Kev preempt Zhigge by a year.