We all know that sneaker culture and hip-hop have been bedfellows for a long time. But if you want to know the origin of their affair you can’t forget basketball’s role in the ménage à trois. Back in the day, b-boys practicing their moves on cardboard boxes in parks were posted up right next to ballers battling for court dominance. Both crews required fresh kicks. All three subcultures exploded in popularity around the same time, due to the synergy from rap shout-outs and basketball endorsement deals, catapulting them into mainstream awareness and cultural ubiquity.
No sneaker helped this sneaker-rap-hoops bond congeal more than the Air Jordan III. The result of a similar lightning-in-a-bottle partnership between Nike, Michael Jordan, and designer Tinker Hatfield, the Air Jordan III resonated throughout both basketball and hip-hop, thanks to a witty ad campaign helmed by then up-and-coming director Spike Lee. While the original Air Jordan was one of the most popular shoes ever at the time of its release (owing to a marketing campaign bolstered by the NBA’s choice to fine Jordan each time he played in them), the Air Jordan II hadn’t made as much of a splash. Nike needed a hit. The result, the Air Jordan III, was not only one of the most popular shoes of all time, but was credited by Nike CEO Phil Knight with saving the company altogether.
As Mental Floss detailed in 2015, of one of the most important shoes in hip-hop and basketball history was created through a series of seemingly unrelated and inconsequential events. Jordan was looking for an out at Nike, lead designer Peter Moore left, and the deadline for a shoe to drop was rapidly approaching. Hatfield, an upstart designer who’d started out planning Nike catalogs, changed Mike’s mind. Like much of the hip-hop that was being made at the time, Hatfield’s shoe, MJ’s game, and (later) Lee’s ads made disruption into a habit. This was a shoe that flew against the status quo, in ways that both annoyed and worried the establishment.