Polo and Hip-Hop, an Oral History [Pt. 1]
For more than 20 years, Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand has been a staple of hip-hop fashion. Countless name drops, regional reinventions and a timeless style have helped its relevance outlive Kangols, throwback jerseys and skinny jeans to become a permanent part of the culture. After the release of Vado and Young Dro's “Polo (Remix)” video earlier this month marked another moment in Polo and hip-hop’s storied relationship, we had 10 of the game’s biggest ‘Lo heads take us through a timeline remembering the crossing of two very different lifestyles. —Calvin Stovall
The ‘Lo Heads:
Thirstin Howl III (AKA Big Vic Lo) – Rapper, founding member of Brooklyn’s infamous Lo Life crew.
Just Blaze - Super-Producer, Polo Enthusiast, Host of Master of Mix DJ Competition on Centric
88-Keys – Rapper, Producer, has worn Polo exclusively since 2006; working on sophomore mixtape The ALPHA Program Version 2.0; iheartmypololifestyle.com
Raekwon – Rapper, Wu-Tang Clan; 5th solo project Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang due in early 2011
Young Dro – Rapper, releasing third solo album POLO (Players Only Live Once) in early 2011.
Sean Price – Rapper, Duck Down Records
Vado – Rapper, “Polo (Remix)” ft. Young Dro; recently released Slime Flu
Dallas Penn – Hip-hop journalist, ‘Lo Head since 1985, dallaspenn.com
Victor Ving – Co-Creator of VintageGearAddicts.com
Jose Hustle – Video blogger, College student, Star of “Been Had Polo” YouTube video.
1. 1967 – Birth of An American Dream:
In 1967, Bronx-native and son of Jewish immigrants Ralph Lauren (born Ralph Lifschitz) begins selling neckties he’s designed under the name "Polo.” With no formal fashion training, he spends the 1970’s expanding the Polo brand to include women’s and men’s clothes that emphasize a classic American look marked by upper-class imagery. Polo goes on to become the flagship brand of a multi-billion dollar fashion empire by selling a lifestyle that would captivate hip-hop culture in the coming years.
Just Blaze: It’s more than just a brand… It’s the way you carry yourself. The way you walk, the way you talk, the kind of places you frequent. Ralph is from [New York City], he’s not from the country but he had this whole ideology. I remember he said once, “I designed this line behind the lifestyle I wished I could live. I didn’t have all of this when I was growing up, these are the things that I love.” At the same token, I’m not out riding horses; I’m not out at the country club. But a lot of those same ideologies and those same motifs are the things that I love in terms of a standard of living. The way you present yourself to the outside world. There’s a certain level or certain standard that kind of comes along with that lifestyle.
Dallas Penn: Polo is the most hip-hop brand of all time. The brand embodies aspiration. And hip-hop at its core is about the aspiration of doing better… Polo, Ralph Lauren and hip-hop follow a parallel path of aspiration culturally and economically. Ralph Lifshitz, a working class boy from the Bronx, created a brand of clothing that envisioned the grandest Anglo-Saxon lifestyle— so much so that he had to change his surname to Lauren. Hip-hop grew up from the working class neighborhoods of NYC to become the most prolific artistic movement of the 21st century. Both from the humblest of beginnings to the zenith of culture.
Raekwon: It expressed you had money. It’s like when you think of that horse on your shirt, that horse symbolizes them cats out there playing polo. You know majority of them is well-off— is comfortable. So it kinda made us feel like, if you got anything Polo on, you got money. You got a certain amount of status in the neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong, we love camouflage jackets and all that good shit. But at the same time, when it was time to get fresh, if you ain’t have a good Polo shirt on, or some Polo sneakers, or anything like that, we didn’t consider you really that fly when you came out that day.
Young Dro: It’s the apparel that had came out that was for the rich and the poor. Because I’m from the projects, we wasn’t fortunate to have a lot of things. But once we put that outfit on, we could go chill at the gables with the White people, you know what I’m saying? I could go places. I’ma do this through my outfit, nah mean? I’ma go make a living and a life out of what I got through these clothes right here… I could just be standing here and then I could just be going to play golf with a stockbroker or two.
Victor Ving: I think that it was all about taking something that wasn't meant for you and making it yours. Turntables were not made for scratching originally. It's about breaking the rules, being rebellious and creating something out of that.
2. 1985- 1987 – Polo hits the streets:
Nearly 20 years after Ralph Lauren founded Polo, his designs start appearing on the backs of kids in Brooklyn, NY along with other preppy labels like Bally, Benetton and Tommy Hilfiger. Polo’s unique colorways and distinct logo begin to separate it from competitors and establish it as the brand of choice for New York City’s flyest.
Thirstin Howl III: Polo started comin’ in like ’85… As [far as] really being accepted on the street, ’85 you would see people really fuckin’ with the ‘Lo items. And this was the same era, like I said, when the Hilfiger and the IZOD and the Benetton was popular. So that’s when the eyes started getting’ on Polo, ‘cause he was coming with more designs than the rest of them. I always explain the evolution. It was things that led up to the Polo. It ain’t just go “boom: Polo.” It was a lot of brands that started doin’ the things that Polo dominated. When it started getting to the Benetton and the IZOD stages and all that, this was before the Polo era. Those are the things that helped it transcend into Polo. Those designers like IZOD, Lacoste was a big influence. It helped [give] Polo reason to exist. Nah mean? Same like Benetton, it was colors.
Raekwon: That was like the uniform for cats in the neighborhood. If you was somebody or anybody, and you was getting your money, or you was criminal, or you was a notorious thug in the hood, you definitely had you some Polo pieces… It had to be either one or the other. Either you was camouflaged out, or you was Polo and Gucci and Benetton back then.
Dallas Penn: I went to Brooklyn Technical High School. It was [there] that I saw kids rocking ‘Lo. It was in and around Brooklyn… When I’d go into the city, hanging out by the Seaport, 34th street. You would see kids rocking it.
3. 1988 – The Lo Life Era:
Crews like the Decepticons make wearing Polo in NY’s streets not only a fashion statement, but also a statement of bravery. They and others in Brooklyn and the Bronx become infamous for robbing Polo items and then rocking them with pride. In 1988, Brooklyn’s two most prominent Polo crews, the Ralphie’s Kids from St. Johns, and Polo USA (United Shoplifter’s Association) from Marcus Garvey Village projects joined forces to form the Lo Lifes. The Lo Lifes become legendary in NYC for boosting Polo, wearing it in excess and making the brand an essential part of the city’s hip-hop fashion scene.
Thirstin Howl III: More than anything, from a fashion standpoint— ‘cause there’s many stages of Lo Life— fashion wise, it started because there were a lot of people in Lo Life who were the dirtiest and the kid who got laughed at about his clothes when he was younger. The kid who didn’t have nothin’ because his family was poor so he was the bummiest in the class. That’s what made Lo Lifes. Muhfuckas that didn’t have anything; and it made them go get it. Just to be ridiculed where we from, you know how Brooklyn do, Brooklyn is real harsh. Even in the jokin’ and the rankin’ as a young kid, when they talkin’ about reality, it’s harsh. And they makin’ a joke about it. So Lo Lifes is actually built off of that, man. People who didn’t have anything and that’s what made them go get it and want to look the flyest. ‘Cause you didn’t want nobody to joke on you. Or when you was gonna joke on muhfuckas they couldn’t say nothin’ back to you because your shit was extra sharp.
Sean Price: I’m from Brownsville projects. And across the street from me is MGV, Marcus Garvey Village. Thirstin Howl, my man Ski, Disco, they Lo Lifes. I’m a Decepticon, B. But you know, they lived across the street from me, I seen ‘em. I’m from Brownsville, nah mean? … We [Decepticons] wasn’t influential, we was bums… If we had Polo, we took it off another person. The Lo Lifes were influential in bringing that shit to the hood like that. Everyone else just followed suit, man. I come from an era where if you wanted to be fresh, you had to defend your shit. You had to know how to fight. You couldn’t be fresh and pussy, ‘cause you wouldn’t be fresh that long.
88-Keys: I always heard of the Lo Lifes and stuff, but I just never personally saw any around that time outside of back in the days. When I used to live in the Bronx, I saw a couple Decepticons. But back then they were damn near an urban legend out in the Bronx because their reputation had grown so much as far as being notorious gangsters and stuff like that. Like on some they roll deep and they’ll just beat down whoever the fuck they felt like and keep it moving. So I always heard of them. Then I actually saw like a crew of them a few times in passing hoping that they don’t pick on me.
Raekwon: I would definitely say the Lo Lifes was like the leaders as far as wearing a bunch of Polo. From the sneakers, to the Rugby shirts, to the hats and all of that. I remember times I used to go downtown, and we used to go shopping like on Fulton Street, but we used to always bump into them. They was doin’ they thing. They was runnin’ around robbin’, flippin’ cats and whatever. But everybody was ‘Lo’d out, though. It was either ‘Lo or Gucci back then. ‘Lo, Gucci or Benetton, but it was definitely a lot of Polo. And we would cross paths with these cats, you know. They would have they little gooses on, we have our little gooses on. You know, it was around that time when it was hard body.
4. 1989-1992 – The Golden Era:
Polo begins spreading beyond Brooklyn and throughout NYC. Rappers like Grand Puba, Zhiggie and Heavy D name-drop the brand in songs and help make it a mainstream part of hip-hop culture.
Just Blaze: it was in 8th grade, either 7th or 8th grade. Whenever they came out with the Polo USA line. They had the gooses, the down jackets and the down vests that had the Polo USA with the skier on the back. And, it’s funny because the reason I actually really became aware of it is because Triple Fat Goose jacked that design, and that was one of the first popular Triple Fat Goose jackets. And I wanted the Triple Fat Goose one because that’s what everybody in my grammar school had. And my moms or my aunt, somebody actually got me the Polo by mistake. And I was initially upset, not realizing that the one I had was the original and the Triple Fat one was the knock-off. So, that was probably my first experience of actually being aware of it. I’m sure I had seen things before that, but it just wasn’t in my consciousness until that point when I got the original Polo USA ski jacket and I was mad. You know ‘cause as a kid, you just whatever your friends got. And they had the rip-off of the Triple Fat Goose version. And I was tight. But obviously (I) did learn, I came to realize that what I had was the real one.
Around that time is when it actually started to pop off and trickle out from places like Brooklyn or whatever. And it started translating into rap videos and things like that. Same way whoever puts on something today, and it becomes a hot item or a hot trend. It was really no different back then. It was just what you saw the older dudes that you looked up to wearing and what you saw in videos basically…I mean, obviously everybody knows about the Snow Beach. Everybody knows about the Zhigge videos and Grand Puba obviously. But then there’s also dudes like, if you look at KRS-One’s “Outta Here” video, there’s actually a couple of heavy pieces in that… If I’m not mistaken has something on in that video. You can actually go back and look at videos from that time that you weren’t checking for or really paying attention to like that, and you’ll find pieces floating around in so many videos from that time period. And also, old photo shoots. Go back and read Source Magazines, you’ll find Cormega with pieces on. I came across a few pictures of Cormega, Nas— I remember Nas had this one Polo Sport, a blue and white and red Sport anorak windbreaker on in a old photo shoot from like ’91, ’92. It was everywhere at that time. At that time, it was in its first generation of of being a hip-hop fad.
88-Keys: It wasn’t until, I wanna say when Zhigge came out. With the, “Do the Uptown Bounce,” and all that. That’s when I was like, “Aw, OK. ‘Lo heads are starting to really represent in hip-hop.” When they came out, that’s when I first started noticing cats outside of what I’d heard of already about ‘Lo heads and Lo Lifes and stuff like that.
Sean Price: Brand Nubian. I seen Brand Nubians rock a lot of Polo. And then you had groups like Zhigge. They used to rock a little Polo and all that. And Slick Rick wore the cologne, you know “La Di Da Di.”
Dallas Penn: In the early 90’s you had not just the Golden era of hip-hop, but it was somewhat considered the Golden era of Polo Ralph Lauren. Polo had some incredible designs. From ’91 to ’96, Polo had some incredible graphically created pieces: Colors, just systems of arrangements. I give Polo Ralph Lauren credit for what they did in those times, which was to really— they created the new vintage. The designs were based on Olympics and gear from the ‘40’s. When you look at the P-Wing, you’re goin’ back to like the 1932 Olympiad. And you’re goin’ back to collegiate wear with that logo, with that design. The wing foot, that was Mercury. The winged-God. So, give Polo credit for reaching back to a time when most people wouldn’t. Who would remember what collegiate letters and varsity letters looked like back in the 1920’s, 1930’s? But they had that design set up in their portfolio and they put that out. They were also kind of ahead of themselves.
5. 1993 – The Snow Beach:
Raekwon wears the infamous Polo Snow Beach Pullover in Wu-Tang’s “So Simple” video. The Snow Beach instantly becomes an iconic piece of hip-hop history and a holy grail for ‘Lo heads worldwide, routinely selling for more than $2000 dollars on eBay today.
Raekwon: I mean, it definitely was something I thought of. I wanted to have a little bit of something on in the video. At that time, it was just all about tops. I didn’t really worry about what kinda jeans, you know. It was always basic jeans type shit. But when I put that Polo Beach on, it was only because I liked it. It took me back to the times of when I was coming up getting fly and all that. I wanted people to know that this is how I do my thing. Hat backwards, Polo pullover on— it was a pullover, it wasn’t really like a sweater or no Rugby or nothing, I wanted to take it to the next level. I think I paid probably around like $300 for it. You know, back then, that was the main thing for us. If you had a strong top on, you could just have some great jeans on, and some Uptown Air Forces on, and call it a day. But when I wore it, I wanted to see if people was gonna acknowledge that it was fly; ‘cause it was definitely fly to me. Even today, you still got cats that talk about it. Recently somebody drew a picture of me, it actually had the Polo piece on it. I was actually shocked like, ‘Wow. People is really paying attention.’ But at that time, it was just about representing, you nah mean? I felt I was a fly nigga back then, and I just wanted to see how many people would recognize that particular item. ‘Cause you know, it was all about as well, too, if you got some Polo that’s different from other cats’, that’s what brothers like. They like the fact of seein’ different stuff that they felt was authentic. It’s like, whoever had the meanest Polo shirt, Polo goose, Polo hat, if it was authentic it meant something to us.
88-Keys: When I saw Raekwon wear the Snow Beach Pullover, it didn’t hit me like it hit most ‘Lo heads. I didn’t think anything outside of, “man, that’s a dope piece that he’s rocking.” I didn’t look at it as a legendary moment for ‘Lo heads at the time. I can see looking back, but it still doesn’t really hit me that way. But I must agree, it is a defining moment in that ‘Lo head culture. I was probably taken by surprise that he rocked it, because me being from the Bronx and Long Island at the time and just running with my little crew, I didn’t think anybody was like really up on it as far as celebrities were concerned.
Just Blaze: It probably the freshest piece they had made up to that point for that generation. The previous generation was very partial to the Polo USA stuff, but for the kids who were 14, 15 where Wu-Tang came out, and you seen that, for a lot of people, that jacket because of its color scheme, because it was bright and so different, that was a lot of peoples’ introduction to Polo. Even thought I had had a few pieces before that, I can speak for myself and speak for a lot of people that say they looked at that video, saw that, and that’s what they wanted. That’s the reason why to this day, if you find the Snow Beach online, it’s anywhere from $2000-$5000; for a pullover that cost $350 when it came out. So, I think it’s pretty safe to say a lot of people fell into it because of that video right there, more so probably than any other moment in hip-hop. A lot of people fell into it because of that video.
Vado: Stupid. Stupid! With the jeans with the one leg up. Or he had the sweats with the one leg up. I remember that. That’s why I gotta shout out Raekwon, ‘cause he been doin’ it.
Thirstin Howl III: Yeah, it was a real moment ‘cause you saw your reflection; somebody like you. You saw your style. When somebody glorified how you dress and how you look. Meaning he bigged us all up by doin’ it. He made the whole ‘Lo shit even more official. Which, it was already on full blast.