Sacha Jenkins on Freedom, Karls Not Named Lagerfeld and the History of Hip-Hop Style | Q&A

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Fresh Dressed is the first-ever documentary about the history of hip-hop fashion, out now in theaters all over the U.S. We recommend you see it. You will be entertained and educated, and perhaps inspired to decorate your jacket.

Energy and insights in Fresh Dressed come from music and fashion leaders including Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Dapper Dan, André Leon Talley, Riccardo Tisci and the duo of Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osbourne from Public School.

But the overall product is excellent mostly because it was directed by Sacha Jenkins, a 20-years-deep veteran of journalism with Beat Downego trip and Mass Appeal magazines. Mainstream America remembers his The (White) Rapper Show on VH1Some Pratt Institute students call him their professor.

Now you will know him from his interview with the Nordstrom blogs.

Check our interview with Jenkins and the trailer for Fresh Dressed below. And if you’re already feeling TL;DR, check this audio clip from Jenkins about how hip-hop style relates to freedom:

 

Nordstrom blogs: You interviewed over 80 people for Fresh Dressed. What was left on the cutting room floor?

Sacha Jenkins: There was a riff on sagging pants in Opa-Locka, Florida, where people can really get in trouble for sagging pants. And that riff was pretty cool. But the film, I feel, has a good mix of stuff people can be entertained by and fascinated by. And also a nice balance of these bigger-picture issues that I feel are important. Considering this was initially intended for CNN, I feel like we were able to pull off something that serves a lot of masters.

About 20 years ago, the vice principal in my junior high was very anti-sagging pants, and would also take scissors to people’s belts if they were hanging low. Do you feel like hip-hop style has lost some of that provocation of the establishment?

Well, you know, you’re always going to have guys like Chief Keef and Young Thug. You’re going to have guys who come from places that are really hard knock. Those folks are a reflection of what’s going on their communities. I think hip-hop has to remain dangerous to a certain extent. If it doesn’t have even a whiff of danger I think it’ll fade away. And I don’t see danger going away from young Black males any time soon. So if you want to go beyond the pop stars or Iggy Azaleas, still the core of where the music is coming from are places where, as Mobb Deep would say, ain’t sh*t sweet.

On a style level, Young Thug is pretty controversial to the hip-hop establishment in the way he mixes menswear and womenswear. Who do you think is the most dangerous dresser in rap today?

Because I’ve done this film, I get all these fashion questions. I don’t know anything about fashion. I’m more interested in why people wear what they wear, instead of what they’re wearing. In the case of Young Thug, I don’t know. Does he wear what he wears because of his sexual preference? To push buttons? To test people? Does he wear what he wears just because that’s what he enjoys? I don’t know enough about him to say. But either way, he’s having an influence on the way inner city kids dress. He’s changing what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Kanye West says in the movie that for a long time, people thought he was gay because he liked clothing. And now the mentality has changed. I’m not saying hip-hop isn’t homophobic. But it’s come a little bit away from how flagrant it used to be. And the fashion is a reflection of that openness.

I think the designer lust is strong as ever in hip-hop. But there’s an element of Young Thug’s style that’s not about money at all, it’s about being wild and making it yourself.

Well that’s a return to where hip-hop came from. Because no one had money. To me, hip-hop is about not seeing yourself reflected in something that you like, and finding a way to reimagine what you like in order for your to add some flavor to it. It’s about how you rock it. Hip-hop is about black and brown folks’ survival in America. What are chitlins? It’s intestines, it’s what slave masters didn’t want to eat. We turned it into a delicacy. It’s about survival. And style. Fashion is the same way. There weren’t brands who catered to us, so we were rocking ski goggles in the summer time. Why would you do that? It’s an aesthetic choice. It’s a style choice. You’re saying, I know it’s summer time in the Bronx. But I’m cool. I’m so cool, I’m like literally cold, so cool I have to wear ski goggles.

Yeah I’ve enjoyed seeing young rappers like Rae Sremmurd bring back the goggles. Always a good look.

For sure.

You mention survival and style, and in Seattle, where I am, we have a rap group called Shabazz Palaces who have a chant: “Survival with style.”

One of my favorite [explicit] groups of all time. It’s amazing. Those guys, Shabazz Palaces, epitomize…they went back to the essence of hip-hop. It’s about creativity and it’s about freedom. A lot of the folks in my film talk about freedom. I didn’t prompt them to say it. Various people said the way that you look influences the way you feel. And since you have control over the way you look, you can control how you feel. At the same time, it’s a double edged sword, because kids are tied to buying these brands that make them feel good–but only make them feel good because it’s super expensive. And then your sense of self is tied to money. I wanted the film to reflect that duality. Working with what you have, wearing ski goggles in the summer. Juxtaposed with this consumerism, this stark reality that folks of color in this country have been bred to be consumers, not owners. I wanted to spark conversation about where we are and where we where and how hip-hop can be a vehicle for change.

In fashion media, when you say Karl you’re talking about Karl Lagerfeld. But your movie introduces Carl Jones from Cross Colours and Karl Kani, other important Karls.

And those Karls worked together. Carl from Cross Colours helped out Karl Kani. And there’s that scene when Karl Kani is remembering meeting with Tupac, asking Tupac how much he would charge to model his clothing in an ad. And Tupac said, it was free, “because you’re black.” It’s those things that I wanted people to see. There was a time when everyone was on the same page, and people could win.

I love that in the early part of the movie, you do a hip-hop primer to remind people that hip-hop came out of gangs reflecting on the bigger picture, and doing something more peace-forward. There was recently an event in Seattle where Central District and South End gangs unified to do a peaceful march through the streets after the Charleston church shooting. I remember the same thing after Rodney King in Los Angeles, with Bloods and Crips coming together for at least a little while. I think people need to know that hip-hop has all these aspects of gang culture in it, but it’s not all bad, and sometimes it’s pro-peace and pro-love.

We need the education because this has all happened before. In the film, these gang members are on local television and the host asks them, You’re all dressed like warriors: Who’s the enemy? And they said the police was the enemy. This has been done. People need to understand history is repeating itself. We’re like the Energizer Bunny against the wall, going into the wall again and again.

What was the circumstance of the interview with Kanye West?

Kanye was the last interview I did, I didn’t think I was going to get him. We were a year-and-a-half into the film. We were editing. Then I got a call saying, Can you go to Mexico tomorrow? And so I did. And he was a great interview. I interviewed about 45 people too many for the movie. Because that’s what my journalistic instincts told me to do.

Is this your most over-reported story?

I did a story about the Queensbridge housing projects that came close. I’m working on a Beastie Boys book right now which has me talking to a lot of people. Maybe more than this film.

What can you say about the Beastie book?

Mike [D.] and Adam [“Ad-rock” Horovitz] are working really hard on it, and they want to make sure it’s something the fans can appreciate. In typical Beastie Boys fashion, they are trying to do something that hasn’t been done. They’re true hip-hop artists and they don’t want to bite. And they want to honor their boy, Adam Yauch, who’s no longer with us.

You’ve been involved in hip-hop from this commentary, critical standpoint for a long time. Are you burnt out on it now? Do you still listen to rap every day?

I don’t listen to rap at all unless I’m making it. I was in a band called the White Mandingos with Murs and Darryl Jenifer from the Bad Brains. I have a new project with J-Zone and Prince Paul that’s coming soon. Outside of Shabazz Palaces, I don’t listen to that much hip-hop. That’s not to say I’m above hip-hop or better than it. It just doesn’t speak to me right now. But what does speak to me is culture. And to me, hip-hop is culture and language. And fashion is culture and language.

–Andrew Matson

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