Polo and Hip-Hop, an Oral History [Pt. 2]
Yesterday, we brought you Part 1 of Polo and Hip-Hop, an Oral History. There, we saw Polo go from one of many prep brands worn by street kids in Brooklyn to the most celebrated brand in hip-hop. After peaking with Raekwon’s Snow Beach Pullover in Wu-Tang Clan’s “So Simple” video in 1993, our ‘Lo heads remember how Polo rounded out the '90s and headed into the new millennium. —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, Ver. 2.1
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
Victor Ving – Co-Creator of Vintage Gear Addicts
Jose Hustle – Video blogger, College student, Star of “Been Had Polo” YouTube video.
6. Mid-late 1990s - The Backlash:
After hip-hop’s overwhelming embrace of their clothing in the early '90s, preppy brands, including Polo, begin to get away from the bright colors and sporty style that made their clothes so popular in urban fashion. A rumor that Polo competitor Tommy Hilfiger made racist comments about Black customers’ interest in his clothes on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show spreads (Oprah later had Hilfiger on her show to definitively deny the claims), and a slight backlash against these high-end labels ensues within the hip-hop community. Brands like FUBU and lines created by rappers including Rocawear and Sean John, rule hip-hop fashion going into the new millennium. Despite all of this, Polo gains notoriety for using Black model Tyson Beckford prominently in their ads.
Dallas Penn: [In] the mid-to-late '90s, Polo tried to distance itself from the urban consumer. So, Polo kind of got away from some of the things that the urban consumer really liked about it. They reduced the teddy bear sweaters that they were offering. The knits with color blocked primary colors… They pulled out from that and became more conservative… I guess that is the evolution of the brand in a way, because you’re going with different design schemes and you’re trying out some different colorations and things, but my opinion is that they were definitely trying to run from the urban market sensibilities… My understanding always has been that these brands don’t particularly target Hip-Hop culture or urban culture, but urban culture targets them.
Young Dro: Yeah! That [Hilfiger comment] what made us stop rapping [about] and wearing Tommy. You know Raekwon used to be like, “Tommy Hilfiger.” C’mon shawty, it was the whole life. Then when he said that, it really—so, I was like, might as well go get ‘Lo’d up. So that whole thing with Tommy, I think Polo still sold more clothes than anybody all through those years, all through that time [because of that]… And you can see a black model on TV. Tyson Beckford or somebody that was doin’ Ralph Lauren. Black people and urban, like “Oh, OK cool.” ‘Cause that’s what I thought. The Black guy, the model. I automatically was like, “I’m one, too.” And I had the nickname, people used to call me the mannequin.
Raekwon: I mean, I heard about that. But, at the end of the day, nobody ain’t give a fuck about that, you know what I mean... Who knows? I don’t know if the nigga’s racist or not. I’ve seen Black people in posters wearing it. So, that was just a speculation. I don’t really believe that until I actually see it myself.
Just Blaze: You gotta remember, hip-hop has always been about taking something that wasn’t meant for us and making it ours. That whole thing, remember when they were saying, "Oh, Tommy Hilfiger said he didn’t want Black people wearing his clothes?" And then that kinda translated to Ralph Lauren saying [that]. It’s not that. The comment that was actually said was, “I’m surprised that my clothing has found it’s way into the urban space because I didn’t design it for that.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t necessarily make my music for a 70-year-old White man, but it doesn’t mean I have a problem with him listening to it.
Sean Price: I don’t think Ralph Lauren give a shit about hip-hop. We just like the clothes. Fuck ‘em. Straight up.
7. 2004 – Yeezy Taught Us:
Kanye West emerges on the scene in a bright array of tight golf shirts, popped collars, and sweaters featuring the signature Polo Bear. By portraying the traditional preppy image originally associated with Polo, Kanye contrasts hip-hop’s universal uniform of baggy jeans and throwback jerseys and reignites mainstream hip-hop’s interest in Polo, inspiring a new generation of ‘Lo Heads.
Kanye’s Top Five Polo Lyrical References:
- “On the Polo Rugby it look so nice, how could something so wrong make me feel so right?” – “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)”
- “Back when they thought pink Polos would hurt the rock, before Cam got the shit to pop, the doors was closed.” – “Touch the Sky”
- “From the Polo Fleece, to the Jesus Piece/I got family in high places like Jesus’ niece/Can I please say my piece?/If y’all fresh to death, then I’m deceased.” – “Selfish”
- “As long as I’m in Polo smiling, the think they got me/But they would try to crack me if they ever saw the black me.” – “Gorgeous”
- “And I’m doin’ pretty hood in my pink Polo/Nigga please, how you gon’ say I ain’t no ‘Lo head/’Cause my Dior got me mo mo-del head?” – “Barry Bonds”
Thirstin Howl III: Yeah, nobody who did ‘Lo in hip-hop ever did it that way until he did it. Because you know, everything else was hard. Even though it was preppy stuff, we didn’t look too preppy, man. We still looked hood and still looked thug and still looked pretty at the same time. I mean everybody got their own style. I ain’t mad at that. But I know how we do it. When I think of hip-hop, I think of streets. Everything came from the streets within hip-hop. Hip-hop is born in the streets. So the pure breed of it is street and the hood feel. Once you start taking hood away from everything, you mixing the DNA with something else, it’s not pure no more.
VADO: He kinda turned it up. But when Kanye was like that in the game, I was already like that outside the game. Like in the streets I was doin’ that. So, that’s one of the reasons why I was rocking with Kanye. Like, "Hey, this a Polo head." He remind me of me, the way he bringing it to the game.
Sean Price: We was doin’ that before. I mean, I wasn’t doin’ no tight pants ever, but pink ain’t crazy to wear. It’s just crazy to wear everyday. You know what I mean? I’ve definitely busted out a pink shirt before back in the day, nah mean? But you rock that bitch, you put that bitch up. [laughs] You know Cam’Ron, I’m not mad at Cam’ron, though. Cam’Ron was rockin’ the pink right. It’s just that you know, that’s Harlem. In Brownsville, you get the dirty version of Cam’Ron. You’ll get a nigga with a nasty ass pink headband, with a big ass pink 5XL shirt with some dirty shoes on. Dirty pink is wrong, period. Never do dirty pink. Never do bummy pink, dirty pink, man. I suggest niggas don’t do pink like that, but you know, every now and then you wanna bust out one time, get extra with it. You can do that. I’m not mad at a nigga for that.
88-Keys: I thought it was funny that it became a style and that he kind of cultivated that style because him and my relationship is really tight. Like he’s one of my best friends. So just to see him spearhead something which became trendy, or him being identified with a style, was all really funny to me. It was almost unbelievable but again, this is like the beginning of his career as an artist. So, like that saying goes, who ever thought we would take it this far? Yeah, the one [line] that Kanye said on “Barry Bonds,” I thought was funny because I was in the studio with him when he came up with that verse, which was all completely freestyled straight off the top of his head into the mic. So, I was in the studio and [he was] like “How you gon’ tell me I ain’t no ‘Lo head?” I thought that was funny. I’m not saying that I had any influence on him coming up with that line because of who I am and him knowing the fact that I don’t rock anything but Polo… but it was just funny ‘cause we look at each other like, “Aw, this nigga.”
Just Blaze: Obviously I was there. I think you could definitely credit him. There’s obviously people who have been doin’ it, myself being one of them. But you can definitely credit him with bringing that preppy look back to the mainstream hip-hop audience. You can’t take that away from him. But even in those years when it wasn’t necessarily mainstream cool, there was always a certain sector of people who were always on it. From that preppy look even down to the more colorful vintage pieces, and that market’s always been there. But in terms of the mainstream hip-hop consciousness, I would definitely say he was the main force behind bringing that preppy look back… That element is always there. It never died, but it definitely fell back.
8. 2006 – Polo Goes South:
With a more exaggerated twist on the Polo look, Atlanta’s Young Dro hits the scene in Polo’s fluorescent shirts and checkered shorts. The distinct style becomes a large part of Dro’s image and makes him the unofficial face of Southern hip-hop’s obsession with ‘Lo along with rappers like Pimp C and Lil Boosie.
Young Dro: I mean, that was just how I kicked it. I didn’t own a pair of tennis shoes in high school. I didn’t really like wearing tennis shoes. I liked skippers and loafers and polo boots. I was so accustomed to it that I didn’t even wanna wear anything else. It’s what made me feel good. It wasn’t a fad to me, it was like a way of living. Everybody else, they started switching up, wearing Coogie, Iceburg, all kinds of stuff was coming out; I was still in a blue Polo suit with the golf sticks all over it. With the actual shoe that had a little leather with the gator on it. I stayed in my ‘Lo.
VADO: I loved it. It got me hype. The same way Kanye did it, it got me hype. ‘Cause when they was doin’ it, I was doin’ it. So, it got me hype when I see him in the “Top Back (Remix)” with the light green khakis, lime green, with the pink golf with the lime green vans. That’s my type of shit.
88-Keys: After I found out about Young Dro, it sparked a topic of conversation amongst friends towards me. Or back when I was on Twitter heavy, people would be like, “Yo, what do you think about Young Dro and his Polo collection?” So then I did a little research, haphazardly, I did research like, “Oh, OK he rocks Polo.” But I saw what he was rockin’ and how he was rockin’ it. So I was like, “Hey, that’s his thing.” I don’t do it. Again, I haven’t even dug too deep into seeing what he’s all about or seeing what he’s all about and what his attraction to Polo is or anything like that.
Dallas Penn: When Young Dro is wearing it, he’s wearing it for the same reason that I was wearing it 23 years ago, 24 years ago. So in the end, it’s still the same thing. We’re still talking the same language. Even if we’re not speaking about the same pieces or same designs. Or the same items, we’re still talking about it for the same reason. Because we wanna aspire to something more than we’re doing right now. Something greater than we’re doing right now.
9. 2009 – The New Generation:
Inspired by Kanye and Young Dro, a new generation of ‘Lo Heads emerges across the country. Ralph Lauren begins re-releasing updated versions of classic Polo pieces to introduce them in a new era, and Jose Hustle’s “Been Had Polo” YouTube video becomes a viral sensation among ‘Lo Heads.
Jose Hustle: It was like a current series of videos goin’ around called “Been Had,” that myself and another guy was doin’. He started, and I was like, “well, I’ma jump in.” And I noticed that I had a lot of Polo attire. And “Been Had” is something that you have a lot of, in great amounts. So, like I “Been Had Polo.” I’ve done previous other “Been Had” videos, but that one got the most attention because the popularity of the brand at the moment and I guess the entertainment that people got from watching the video, too… And, I’m not takin’ any credit for it, but after my video came out, it seemed like it really became a bigger surge in Polo.
88-Keys: I remember seeing that video that went around the Internet— aw man, what was it called again. That was hilarious, oh my God. Once I saw that, then I knew what was goin’ on down south.
Just Blaze: Oh yeah. I made a response video for that but I never actually put it out. Just to be funny. Because the stuff he was throwing out was all like Macy’s stuff. It was admirable for a 17-year-old or whatever, but he obviously didn’t have anything worth anything in there. But it was funny. I actually started making a response video as a joke, but as I started pulling stuff out of my closet, I was like, ‘I have way too much.’ I had to throw Polos back in the closet. I was like ‘never mind, I’m cool.’ It was just that moment where it was funny at the time and it seemed like a good idea, but in the execution, I realized how much work it was gonna be, I was just like, ‘nah, never mind. I’m let home boy live.’
Jose Hustle: [Feedback] been mostly positive. Because for the main thing, “Damn, look at his collection. His Polo collection is so vast and large.” And the crazy thing about it is, that was just the Spring ’09 collection. That’s just the shit I got for Christmas that year… On the other hand, of course you had people dissin’. “That shit fake,” or “This nigga’s a clown,” and you can see plenty of diss videos from that. They noticed a lot of small things in the video and then made it a big part of their video. I was like, “Man, this shit’s crazy. People don’t even know me and hate me.” I mean I’m doin’ something right so we can get Nashville that attention.
Victor Ving: This is a joke to me. I think these kids watch way too much MTV cribs. To me, it was always about keeping pieces on the low and just breaking them out when people least expected it. These kids are bragging about factory outlet sale pieces that cost close to nothing. Also, what happened to boosting? I think that Polo and boosting go hand in hand. Why would you show off a $1000 sweater that you actually paid for? Doesn't that make you the sucker? [I] can go on and on about this, but its all comedy to me.
Dallas Penn: That’s a reality. And at the same time, too, I will in a second’s notice say, “Hey listen, here’s the entire culture. Here’s the whole spectrum of it.” But that’s simply the reality of it. For someone that’s 16 years old now, my personal collection is over 20 years old. I’ve got pieces from ’86. So someone that’s 16, someone that’s 18, they weren’t even a thought when I got some of these pieces. What can we say to that? Even from that day to this moment, Polo still represents aspiration.
10. 2010 – VADO and Young Dro’s Ode to ‘Lo:
With the release of his “Polo (Remix)” video, VADO introduces himself as hip-hop’s new face of Polo more than 20 years after the brand first became a part of Hip-Hop culture.
Young Dro: They was talking ‘bout who they gon’ get to get on the [“Polo (Remix)”] song. And VADO was like, “nah, you gotta go get Dro.” And that like blew my mind. I was like, “Shawty asked for me?” He was like, “Yeah, shawty asked for you.” They said they was gonna put this person on, and he was like, “Nah, don’t nobody be killin’ that shit like Dro.” So that’s how we ended up on the song.
VADO: They definitely show love. People look at me, like you said, the new face of Polo. So, I get feedback, people will go in the store and see a certain shirt multicolor or cargos or multicolor button up and be like, ‘Oh, you on your VADO shit.’ They might see the matching strap hat like, ‘Oh, that’s some Vado shit right there.’ Once you start getting them type of compliments it’s definitely a good look.
Sean Price: It was cool, it was cool. I just didn’t understand, they didn’t have Polo sticks in they hand. They had— what’s that sport you play with the little hammer? You hit the ball. (Ed's note: We think you mean croquet, P.) Yeah, they had them sticks. I didn’t understand that. That’s what bugged me out about the video. But, niggas was fly. Niggas was fly. You can wear classics, you can wear new shit— whatever’s fly. I ain’t one of the dudes that be like, “Aww, them niggas ain’t have no classics in the video.” I heard a few of my people say that. “They look like they went straight to Macy’s and came—“ So what? It’s Polo, it’s fly. They ain’t have no Chaps. They ain’t have no Beverly Hills Polo. Nah mean? It’s all good to me.
Raekwon: Yeah I seen it the other day and shit. I kinda liked it, too. I liked the fact that they was bringing it back to all the Rugbies. The first thing when I seen it, and I seen the young cat VADO rockin’ it, I just thought about myself like, “Damn, I’da probably copped that one, that one, that one.” You know what I mean? He definitely had a couple of pieces on that today I might still go make it my business to go pick up… So, when I seen VADO and Young Dro goin’ in, it just took me back to that time again. I liked the video, too.
88-Keys: When I first heard about it, it prompted me to watch the video. I saw what they was doin’, it seemed like they’re making it a trend. It’s gonna become the newest trend to rock Polo Rugbies now in the hood. But to kind of go overboard. And try to rock the loudest colors or the illest patterned Polo rugbies and stuff. But again, it depends on where they’re goin’ with it and where they’re tryna take it to, if anywhere at all. It could be a passing trend where they’re doing it now to get everybody up on it, just so they could have yet another thing for people to identify them outside of their music. That’ll last for like six months, a year. And then they could just be on the next shit. Like, “Yeah, we ain’t doin’ Polo no more, now we’re rocking something more expensive like Versace. We’re off that Polo.”
Victor Ving: Hey, he wears Polo cause that's what all the kids are wearing these days, right? It's really just the trend these days if you go to any high school all the kids are rocking Polo again. Fashion always goes in cycles. Only difference is that kids aren't getting robbed for pieces anymore like they used to.
Dallas Penn: I seen stills from it. I haven’t watched the video yet. I saw some stills from it and I was just like, “Aight.” To me, there were no pieces in those stills that made me say, “wow, this guy.” Like, he wears Polo in my opinion, he doesn’t rock it. He could eventually rock it one day. But right now, he wears it… I’m glad for VADO. I’m glad that he’s making Polo desirable. I wish he had a deeper Polo pedigree. I wish he had a deeper understanding of the brand. Of the reason why the brand is. He knows the brand is fresh, but that’s also because you’re standing on the shoulders of the Thirstin Howls, of the Grand Pubas, of the Zhigges. Of the street kids, the ‘Lo Lifes, the Deceps, the random heads from Brooklyn, Laurelton, Harlem that wore these items and went to the Latin Quarters or Union Square and might of had to get it in to go home with them. He’s standing on the shoulders of those people.
Read on to see the 'Lo heads' favorite pieces as well as ten of our favorite lyrical references to Polo...
Thirstin Howl III (AKA Big Vic Lo): My favorite symbol is the cross flags. Ever. I mean, I’ve worn cross flags from head to toe. So anything with the cross flags is good. That’s my favorite shit. It depends on how you put it down. But that’s my favorite logo. So if I could put together a thousand pieces with that logo on it then I’m good.
Raekwon: My favorite piece was probably definitely that Snow Beach shit. And the gooses. The gooses back in the days. With the light saber stripes in the middle of the jacket. Shit, if they made them shits right now, I bet you mad cats would go back out and get ‘em though. But I would definitely say the Polo gooses, though.
Just Blaze: The Snow Beach… I had it shortly after it came out (in 1993), and I happened to lose it six years ago when a bag was stolen from me at JFK. It turned out the bag was actually stolen by an employee after I checked it. So form that I lost a lot of my best pieces, and I ended up having to buy another one. Luckily, I caught it before the Polo re=explosion happened. So I didn’t get beat over the head. I probably paid around $600… But to be honest, even though I love that piece and it all starts there. The piece that I’m probably most proud of is the pants that go with that. A lot of people don’t know about or have the pants. There were ski pants that went along with that pullover. And they’re super-duper rare to find. And a lot of times if you do find them, the letters are chewed up, they’re peeled off, the paint is cracking. I got ‘em in perfect condition. Mint. They were never worn.
Dallas Penn: I’ve had tons of sick pieces. Right now there’s a piece, the Japan Spell-out Anorak. That’s what I’m desirous of right now. I don’t have it yet. Because again, for me, it’s aspiration. It’s trying to get it. Shit that I’ve had or sold on eBay, I’ve had those. This is a piece I have not had yet.
VADO: My favorite Polo piece is my vest that I wore in the “Talk to ‘Em” video. My first video with Cam, I had wore this custom Rugby vest. It was leather on the top, and it had patches. It had a “R” patch, and number 5 patch. Navy blue with the brown leather tops. It was crazy… That’s something that I framed. ‘Cause it was my first video with Cam, first video in the game. And it was a custom exclusive Rugby vest that no one else has.
88-Keys: It’s my 2006 Fall Collection Polo Indian Pointe Poncho. It’s actually called the striped Serape Poncho. It’s my favorite piece because I knew it existed— I saw the image of it somewhere— and I just went on a hunt for it. I went to all my contacts here in New York. From people who worked at the department stores to people who worked at the Ralph Lauren stores. And nobody knew what I was talking about… So then I started my cross country trek for that poncho. I called several stores then I wound up hitting the jackpot in Troy, Michigan. I called up the store in Troy, Michigan and spoke to one of the sales associates who knew exactly what I was talking about. He was like, “Oh yeah, we have one more left, it’s in the window right now.” I was like, “Aw man, this is it.” Like to me, that was my Snow Beach pullover. As soon as I got it, I made a trip to the Ralph Lauren store on Madison where my friend works. I was visiting him just to show him the poncho. So I went in there, as soon as I walked in, it was so weird. I describe it like, it felt like I walked in there with Paris Hilton on my arm. Everybody just stopped and stared at me. Sales associates, shoppers. And this is at the Ralph Lauren store, ‘cause no one has ever seen this. I was completely layered up, I had all the gear. I had the Indian Pointe Coyote Cap, I had the boots which were like 8-inch high boots. I had the Indian Pointe Mohwak Tack jeans. I had a sweater on, the Indian Pointe sweater. And then I had a Henley underneath. I was completely layered up. And then I had the Indian Pointe poncho on. I went and found my man, took it off, showed him the Ralph Lauren Polo tag in the back— just to seal the deal and make it official— and I also had the Indian Pointe Coition scarf. So I was like, “man, say somethin’.” So that was like my defining moment.
Victor Ving: Snowbeach Hoodie.
Sean Price: Back in the days, my man Henry. He had a goose, man. It was green. It was green and brown. The bottom part was green, like dark olive green, and the top was a leather brown. And he had a leather cookie on the arm. Wooohhh. That shit was awesome. The old orange snorkel. With the horse on it. Some simple shit. I loved that shit. I wish I could find one of those again.
Jose Hustle: Olympic jacket: Michael Phelps sent me the shit… Big shouts out to my nigga Michael Phelps.
Young Dro: I think my favorite piece would be the all pink. I got the pink top. I have the original Polo handkerchief, like the red, gold and green, that’s how I be kicking it.
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Check the next page for some of rap's most memorable lyrical references to Polo...
10 Notable Polo Namedrops:
• “The mall was closed/So I spin into Macy's and get some Guess and Polo” – Zhigge, “Rakin’ In The Dough”
• “Pimp C, P.A. Trill nigga/Polo, fuck that Hilfiger” – Pimp C, “Get Throwed (Remix)”
• “Trickin’ these ho’s in Polo clothes, life as you conceived it” – Big Boi of OutKast, “Jazzy Belle”
• “Mo’ betta’, Mo’ cheddar/Fo’s knock the man off ya Polo sweater” – Jay-Z, “You, Me Him and Her”
• “It's time to switch it up so I'll breeze back to the rest/Put on some Polo gear and a baggy pair of Guess” – Grand Puba, “That’s How We Move It”
• “Chick said I needa stop wearing so much Polo, man. She said I be horsing around too much, man” - Young Dro, “Dro Speaks Interlude”
• “Polo Rican! From the cradle to the precincts/Holdin’ noise, mug shots, the Polo-roids"– Thirstin Howl III, “Polo Rican”
• “Standin’ on the wall with my polo on/Talkin’ to the girl with Liz Claiborne” – Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, “We Can Get Down”
• “For all the girls I might take home/I got the Johnson's Baby Powder and the Polo Cologne” – Slick Rick, “La Di Da Di”
• “A young youth, yo rockin the gold tooth, 'Lo goose…My life got no better, same damn ‘Lo sweater/Times is rough and tough like leather” – Raekwon, “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)”