The History of True Religion & Hip-Hop
Perhaps you’ve been following True Religion premium denim since the brand’s inception in the early 2000s in Manhattan Beach, CA. If so, you already know some designs: the name-making bootcut jean and maybe also the more recent jogger silhouettes–though the boot fit is definitely still in the building.
The brand is growing its audience now with new official spokespeople, basketball star Russell Westbrook and supermodel Joan Smalls. But let’s talk about unofficial spokespeople for a second.
Because there’s a good chance you learned about True Religion from rappers.
In the last decade and change, rappers have shouted out “Trues” 50 billion times in their lyrics, including heavyweights such as Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, 2 Chainz and Jim Jones.
To sate our curiosity about how and why this came to be, we sent David Drake, one of our favorite music journalists and rap experts, deep into the True Religion/rap music overlap.
This is his report.
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Just last week, Chicago rapper Vic Mensa released “U Mad,” a Yeezus-esque goth-rap record featuring Kanye West. “I don’t f— with fake dudes wearin’ fake Trues” Kanye raps, a clear reference to True Religion jeans—”I just talked to 2 Chainz and he said, “Truuu!”
For going on a decade, True Religion has been a go-to status symbol within certain hip-hop communities. Trues aren’t inexpensive; they’re designer jeans and cost more than your typical Levi’s. Yet they’re also not really considered a part of the fashion world in which Kanye is fluent, that of Paris runways and inaccessible high style. But as Kanye recently articulated in a piece in The New York Times, these are the walls he’s interested in bringing down, the inequalities he wants to flatten. For Kanye to mention them speaks to the degree to which the brand has penetrated within hip-hop—a signal of how broad their popular appeal really is.
Although it would be presumptuous to suggest a single inaugural moment for the spread of True Religions in hip-hop—surely someone mentions them by name on some New York mixtape in the early 2000s—most would attribute the popularization of True Religion to Jim Jones, who would wear saggy, bootcut jeans as early as the 2004 Source Awards, seen here alongside the rest of Dipset:
On 2005’s Harlem: Diary of a Summer album cover, Jim Jones is seen as the pioneer of this “rock star” look, which would evolve to include tighter, skull-covered T-shirts with rhinestones, brands like Ed Hardy and Affliction, wallet chains, studded belts—and True Religion jeans. Some credit not Jones, but Stack Bundles, the rapper from Far Rockaway, Queens, who joined Jones’s Byrdgang crew, for pioneering the rock star look; Rock Star, which was to be Stack’s debut before he was shot and killed in June 2007, was named for his hometown but could as easily have suggested his evolving personal style. One interview conducted with Stack Bundles took place at Vinnie’s Styles in downtown Brooklyn—his favorite spot for clothing and one that sold fits in this style, including True Religions. (By 2009, Vinnie’s Styles had expanded to Atlanta.)
Jones himself wouldn’t claim he’d invented the look, of course; in this interview with Complex, he clarifies that he merely popularized it through hip-hop; as for the chains he was wearing, Jones jokes about how Dame Dash told him it made him look like a Jamaican, which suggests another possible origin for the rock star look. Not that he doesn’t stunt about his own role in changing hip-hop style nationally: “Them dudes be talkin’ about they swagger—nobody copies the Jay Z or T.I look but they damn sure copy me. Remember when b—— was asking they hairdressers for the Rachel cut? I’m in that Jennifer Aniston zone, them dudes is Lisa Kudrow!” Jones wasn’t far off; early on, his fashion choices were mocked by Tru Life, who rapped on “The Dips Are Over”: “See Cam and Jim Jones […] wearin tight pants with them motorcycle chains.” A year later, so was everyone else.
But Jones claims in this interview not Stack Bundles or Jamaican immigrants as inspirations, but girlfriend Chrissy Lampkin, star of Love and Hip-Hop: “Just evolving with style, evolving with fashion, we come from Harlem, always like to stay fresh…met a dope lady by the name of Chrissy and her fashion eye was pretty dope. I like to wear what my lady likes to see me in, as opposed to what you n—– like to see me in, you feel me? [laughs].”
Although it’s possible someone in Byrdgang mentioned Trues by name, Jim didn’t title a song “True Religion” until his 2012 mixtape Vampire Life. For the most part, Byrdgang never made explicit references to Trues, or brand names in general, give or take the Audemars; jeans were just part of the uniform, most memorably on display with the Jim Jones crossover smash “We Fly High (Ballin).”
In fact, one of the earliest rap songs to reference True Religions was the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” in 2005, when Fergie sings: “Seven jeans, True Religion, I say no but they keep givin/So I keep takin, and no I ain’t taken.” For the most part, True Religion wasn’t a brand name men were name-dropping at this point.
Jim Jones and Byrdgang may have popularized the rock star look in hip-hop, but it took Lil Wayne to make it go supernova. Wayne had come under the influence of Dipset in the mid-2000s, swiping beats from the Heatmakerz and even making music video appearances with second-stringers like JR Writer. To this date, Wayne seems to have the best True Religion punchlines: “I asked her is it true, and she said, ‘Like the horseshoe.'” By the time Lil Wayne was squealing on a guitar on the roof of a limo in 2008 in the “Lollipop” video, he was also rocking a wallet chain hanging from a pair of True Religions.
By that time, Trues were beginning to pop up in a few unexpected places. In 2007, they received a name-drop in a hit by forgotten Memphis rapper Kia Shine. Jadakiss mentions them in the “Ratchet Remix” of that year’s “A Bay Bay.” And—strangely enough—it’s Big Daddy Kane who has a mention that same year, in his appearance on UGK’s “Next Up”: “I’m the same thug to be, surrounded with women/Gave the game True Religion before you found it in denim.” Yet it was relatively cold in Atlanta; although it surfaced in a few 2009 Waka Flocka mixtape tracks, even that year’s smash “Swag Surfin” mentioned Polo but not True Religion jeans.
But within the next two years, Trues were everywhere. In 2010, they were mentioned on Gucci Mane’s “What It’s Gonna Be,” from his The Appeal album. In 2011, two major smash records mentioned Trues: Soulja Boy’s version of “Zan With That Lean” (“Soulja Boy be clean, True Religion jeans…”) and YC and Future’s “Racks” (“Said f— it all up on jeans, I’m a True Religion fein”). Slim Dunkin would rap about them on “Baddest In the Room” (“Her money talk that’s why she don’t say much/True Religion jeans on her that’s why she don’t pray much”) and even the Rich Kidz would rap about their “True Religion pajamas” on the song “Pajama Time.”
Of course, this all led up to the arrival of 2 Chainz, who—as Gucci Mane ended up in jail—made True Religion jeans as much a part of his brand as any rapper to date, naming one mixtape for the jeans (2011’s T.R.U. REALigion) and even stylizing his own “Truuu” ad lib. Then there were his high-profile lyrics: “Money, thousands, True Religion trousers!” in Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap,” or “When I die, bury me inside the True-y store,” from his own “Birthday Song” with Kanye West.
2 Chainz wasn’t the only rapper to style himself as the brand’s unofficial spokesperson. Philthy Rich, a rapper from the Bay Area, tied himself to True Religion as well, releasing “True Religion Shawty” in 2011. (Naturally, 2 Chainz would make an appearance on the remix.)
Branding himself as the Bay Area’s True Religion fiend was effective; when Philthy was dissed by rapper DB Tha General last year, DB’s video included a symbolic burning of True Religion jeans in a barbecue grill.
At this point, Trues have become the uniform of the aspirational street rapper. Outside of Atlanta, perhaps nowhere is this more true than in Chicago, hometown of the “True Religion Fein” himself Chief Keef—the title of which no doubt was inspired by YC’s line in “Racks.” (When Keef first emerged from nowhere, it was his record “True Religion Fein” that Tyler, The Creator singled out as a highlight on Twitter.)
True Religions are not for everyone. (Homeboy Sandman: “Rhythm is the true religion, I rock secular jeans.”) And like any status symbol, the glamour associated with any possession can have unforeseen consequences in those communities that go without: on Young Jeezy’s “Shake This,” he raps, “N—- out there die about true religion/Young n—- over here dying over True Religions.” Yet still their appeal spreads; last year produced a “Tru Religion” dancehall rhythm. True Religions have permeated American culture through hip-hop, which remains a tastemaker throughout the country and the world. The only question remaining? How hasn’t anyone sampled this yet:
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