Throughout the years – some 20 calendars after impromptu elementary school sales pitches and countless nights crying myself to sleep – understanding why my mom never bought me a pair of Jordans growing up made sense. In her words, “I love Michael Jordan, too, but you must be eating glue with that crazy boy in your class if you think I’m spending $100 on some shoes.” More importantly, she probably didn’t want me to end up as the next Michael Eugene Thomas or Johnny Bates. Dead because of them.
The fact of the matter is my sneaker knowledge pales in comparison to someone like Gotty’s or Rich Lopez’s. This piece is not an indictment on sneaker culture either because in my closet now there are more pairs of LeBrons than I truly care to admit. Nevertheless, for everything awesome, nostalgic and iconic that comes with donning a vintage pair of Concords, Breds, Grapes or any shoe MJ turned into pop culture immortality, a dark side also exists.
Upon listening to Freddie Gibbs’ ESGN, “I Seen A Man Die” harbored the lyric quoted above. Instantly, recollections of yesteryear raced back to the early ’90s when my only prized possession clothing wise a Cowboys Starter jacket. For those old enough to remember, Starter was without question once the most popular brand of non-sneaker sports apparel. Off memory alone, some of the most coveted were the Raiders and Georgetown zip-ups – both of whom were often targets of violent crimes in their own right.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discover graphic, negative press over sportswear isn’t a phenomenon that started with the advent of smart phones or YouTube. Sports Illustrated covered the topic in an in-depth feature in 1990 entitled Senseless. Detailing the rise of sportswear industries – which pulled in $5.5B in domestic sales in 1990 – and the small-scale civil war which erupted in inner cities across America over their products, the Rick Telander piece does serve as an under-the-radar gem for S.I.
Even Jordan himself – notorious for remaining “in-character” and true to his well-crafted public image – was nearly pushed to tears upon reading of carnage young black males were inflicting on themselves to be like Mike.”I thought I’d be helping out others and everything would be positive,” he says. “I thought people would try to emulate the good things I do, they’d try to achieve, to be better. Nothing bad. I never thought because of my endorsement of a shoe, or any product, that people would harm each other. Everyone likes to be admired, but when it comes to kids actually killing each other”—he pauses—”then you have to reevaluate things.”
The most revealing admission of the piece, however, centers around the influence drug dealers had on fashion. Wally Grigo, an owner of three sportswear shops in the New Haven, Connecticut area, is the article’s most gripping character, not Jordan. Grigo admitted his stores lost nearly $2,000 a week after he placed a sign in windows demanding dealers not shop in his establishments. Sales reps from various companies pleaded with Grigo to take the signs down and “hook up” neighborhood dealers who would moonlight as – more or less – runway models for new clientele.
“There are stores doing $5,000 to $10,000 a week in drug money, all over. Drug money is part of the economic landscape these days. Even if the companies don’t consciously go after the money, they’re still getting it. Hey, all inner-city kids aren’t drug dealers. Most of them are good, honest kids. Drug dealers are a very small percent. But the drug dealers, man, they set the fashion trends.”
The most ironic denominator in Grigo’s comment? The fact it was 150% accurate. Drug dealers, pimps and people who were frowned upon by the majority of society for their “career paths” were, and to an extent still are, the most reputable tastemakers in hoods across the country.
As a whole, “Senseless” comes off as more an inventory of a tragically bloody trend than a damnation of sneaker and sportswear culture. Telander presented the piece to America in one of its most storied publications at the height of a revolution of sorts. Hip-Hop’s unfiltered report of violence was no longer being confined to its neighborhood while the crack-cocaine epidemic was the country’s most prosperous and fatal entrepreneurial endeavor. Whether or companies understood this notion, marketing became an extremely hazardous initiative with no true solution at hand.
And somehow, Freddie Gibbs’ helped provide a retrospective soundtrack 23 years later.
Recommended Reading — “Senseless” by Rick Telander, May 1990 [Sports Illustrated]