Photo by eLabs, Earnest Steed
Photo by eLabs, Earnest Steed
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Today’s guest on The Backstory is Vikki Tobak, a curator, cultural journalist, and producer who specializes in the cultural history of hip-hop. Her recent book, Contact High, traces the impact of hip-hop through the imagery that chronicled it, and has been turned into exhibitions at LA’s Annenberg Center of Photography and New York’s ICP.
She sat down with Sean and Dan to talk about hip-hop jewelry, individualism, and authenticity. An edited and condensed transcript follows; listen to the whole thing below.
Sean Williams: So, what is it in particular that when we talk about the subject of jewelry? What is it about that in the aspect of hip-hop culture, in showmanship, that is worth a book in your opinion?
Vikki Tobak: So it's deep, right? Because when you think about... You think about the beginnings of hip hop and who was that dude enough to be out in the street wearing a gold chain, and everyone remembers all the chain snatching stories. There are all those big, early moments of all the hustlers that were wearing the big jewels. And that was a little bit before my time, but when I was listening to Run-DMC and Slick Rick and Eric B and Rakim, and LL, all that great truck jewelry and the big dookie ropes and all of that, you would just look and it was so powerful.
It was such a declaration of "I'm that dude." And then, when you kind of started hearing these stories of how the rappers were moving not just on records, but in the real world, in the neighborhoods, and who they took their inspiration from, jewelry seems to be a real through-line and a real message of communication. Right? And it kind of set the tone for that hierarchy in the street of who was who, and who clicked with who, and then of course, just how hip-hop, remixed everything.
I mean, when you started to see people with the Mercedes pendant and you started to see people with the BMW pendant, all of that hip-hop was taking ownership from, and to me, I was like, "Okay, nobody's asking for anyone's permission." Right? They're just being 100% themselves. And I just loved that. In the early days, to me, that was so powerful.
Dan McQuade: One thing I really liked that you said was that they weren't asking permission. If I were to do this show, I would do bootleg t-shirts, that's my thing that I love. And I think that's exactly why I love it too, is that people are sort of creating something based off of another character or a brand or whatever, and they're just doing their own spin on it. I never really thought of it in terms of jewelry or wearing a BMW or a Mercedes Benz chain, but it really makes a lot of sense. I mean, it's definitely along similar lines.
Sean Williams: Yeah. Yeah, it is. In terms of no permission, I instantly thought of the Beastie Boys, because the Beastie Boys kind of did the same thing with taking the Volkswagen symbol from a car and rocking it like jewelry.
Vikki Tobak: Yes. I was actually going to mention that, but it's kind of obscure, so I'm super impressed that you remember that detail because yeah, exactly. And I think they did it kind of ironically, because they probably were like, "Oh, LOL, people are wearing Mercedes and BMW, we're going to wear Volkswagen." You're right. Flipping it to be funny, flipping it to be an individual — it's beyond the jewelry, it's really just being an individual and who you are. And I think with hip-hop, I think above all else, hip-hop can really smell out a fake. And so when you're just really genuinely yourself, that is prized above all else.
One concept that I kind of went deep on when I was doing my book research is Veblen goods, which is an economic term for a class of luxury goods where the higher the price, the higher the demand. And it's sort of the opposite of what usual consumer psychology is. So you think about a Birkin bag, you think about luxury jewelry, you think about the rare Rolexes, the Presidentials, or the Daytonas, where the higher the price, the more people want them. And a lot of times that's the case too with sneakers. So this culture of scarcity, the more rare and the more expensive something is, the greater the demand. If a Birkin bag went on sale, people might not even want it. That's why it never goes on sale.
Dan McQuade: Yeah. And obviously with jewelry, it can be a one of a kind thing that you're buying from someone making it. A one of one.
Vikki Tobak: It usually is. Yeah. And now, it's almost like a one-upsmanship thing now that people are trying to make really just super, super unique pieces.
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