Tracing The Love Affair Between Fashion & Hip-Hop W/ 'Fresh Dressed'
Sacha Jenkins was first introduced to hip-hop as a child living in Queens, New York in the 80s. Inspired by the creativity and drive of his peers, as well as a flourishing, passionate community, he spent much of his life chronicling the scene. Subsequently, he published Beat Down, the world’s first hip-hop newspaper, at the age of 20, and went on to create the magazine egotrip with his friend, Elliott Wilson. Jenkins then expanded his career by going into television, lending his creativity as a producer to cult favorite The Boondocks, and a reality show, VH1’s The White Rapper Show.
Jenkins’ most recent project is Fresh Dressed, a documentary exploring the use of fashion in hip-hop. While he’s also passionate about punk music (and even has his own band, The White Mandingos), he stands by the belief that Fresh Dressed could not have been a documentary about rock, or any other music genre. It’s the sheer blackness of hip-hop, as well as it’s inner city roots, which makes the documentary what it is: A telling portrayal of what it means to be a rapper in 2015, through the lens of style.
Fresh Dressed came to Netflix rental on December 15th, so we called Jenkins to talk nostalgia, punk culture, and hip-hop’s intimate love affair with fashion.
What inspired the making of Fresh Dressed?
As someone who has written about hip-hop for many years, and before that was a kid who grew up on the streets of New York City, I had worked on many projects that told the story of hip-hop, but realized that one of the most important facets of hip-hop–the way we dressed–wasn’t really chronicled anywhere the way that I wanted to chronicle it. Knowing how universal fashion is, I felt it was a great platform to tell the story of hip-hop, but also get into a lot of the other bigger picture, environmental, social things that have a hand in the creation of hip-hop.
Why focus on the fashion aspect?
Well, fashion touches on so many things. It touches on how you feel about yourself. It touches on how you perceive other people feel about you. Fashion, especially in the inner city, is about social capital, communication, language. It’s so many things, and so again I felt that through fashion I would be able to talk about a lot of things that aren’t necessarily talked about when people just talk about fashion itself. They just talk about “style,” but in the inner city, “style” is so much more than what you wear. It’s how you wear it, and that’s one of the things I wanted to touch on in the film.
Nas was a producer on this film, and you got to speak with a lot of different people. Was there anyone in particular that you were excited to work with?
I mean, having the opportunity to interview everyone from Nas to Kanye West–someone that we got in the 11th hour, and obviously Kanye’s very popular and has a lot of influence. I didn’t really know what to expect when I interviewed him, but he wound up being really interesting and captivating, and was super engaged and interested in what we were talking about, so that was a really interesting moment, I think.
You’ve produced a lot of different shows, from episodes of The Boondocks to Vh1’s The White Rapper Show. What was it like moving into the director’s chair for the first time?
It’s great. Having the ability to have a vision and have a team to execute it, and having a team to sharpen my vision was great. And the ability to touch on things that I feel are important [was great]. Often, when you’re working with other folks, people who are maybe senior to you or have a different position on a project find some things might be more important than others, and that opportunity to really focus on the things that I found important was really cool.
What was the hardest part of directing?
I interviewed around 75 people. I have a journalism background, and so when you interview a lot of people it makes a piece stronger, and I can say the same for Fresh Dressed. But, it was really hard to decide what had to go, because had so much great material and so many interviews. There were people who were kind enough to sit with me for a few hours, and a lot of those interviews ended up on the cutting room floor. Not being able to squeeze in all the things I wanted to squeeze in, and figuring out what to keep and what not to keep was the most challenging part of it.
Was there anything about doing all of those interviews and going through all that film that made you feel nostalgic?
The footage all comes from places and people who I love, photographers and filmmakers who I know and respect. I used Henry Chalfant’s footage from two of his seminal films–Style Wars, which is about subway graffiti in the 80s, and his other film Flyin’ Cut Sleeves, about gangs in New York in the late 70s, early 60s. I used the photography of Jamel Shabazz. All of that stuff brings me back to the New York that I grew up with, which is radically different from the New York we know today. So for me, there’s plenty of nostalgia to appreciate and enjoy in the film.
“When you don’t have much, everyone wants to create the illusion that you have more. Kids sold drugs to have nice clothes.”
You’ve spent your life chronicling so many different aspects of hip-hop, beginning with Beat Down, which was the first hip-hop newspaper ever. Was is it about hip-hop that inspires you?
Hip-hop is really about being a self-starter, and sort of using your creativity to create new opportunities, or using your creativity to find a way out. And for me–as a kid who grew up in New York City, who went to public schools, who didn’t necessarily have the social capital–I found it in graffiti, I found it in hip-hop, and I found it with the punk rock scene that I was also involved with in New York. It’s really about young people who are creative, working with other creative young people, not necessarily plugged into a machine or system, but having a community of people who you can share your ideas with and express yourself.
I keep going back to [hip-hop] because it’s such a rich area of inspiration. There’s so many creative people that I continue to meet, many of them half my age, but because I understand the language and can speak it–I might not know the most recent dialects, but I can understand what it looks like and feels like and smells like. That kind of spirit keeps me going, and it keeps me contemporary to a certain extent.
You mentioned the punk rock scene, and I know that you are in a rock band [The White Mandingos]. So do rockers approach style different than rappers?
Well, I think that a fashion statement in rock and roll doesn’t have the same impact as a fashion statement in hip-hop because largely, the establishment of rock and roll and the most popular artists in rock and roll are white. And at the end of the day, when you take off your rock and roll uniform, you’re white. But in hip-hop, if you’re talking about folks in the inner city who pioneered the culture, what we wore was a reflection of our environment—it was a reflection of what we could afford. That’s one of the reasons that there’s so much emphasis, and why what we wore was so important. They risked their freedom and their future to create this illusion that they were in a better place. Don’t get me wrong, when you have something new on, it makes you feel good, and people look at you and see that you’re doing well, and that makes you feel better about yourself. But, I don’t think that clothing in rock and roll has the same connotation. What is punk rock? Punk rock is basically white kids going against the conventions of being white, saying “Look at me, I’m a freak. I’m an outcast.” It’s borderline blackface, to a certain extent. You can take off all your punk rock clothes and be white again.
Rap has always been obsessed with fashion, but I think recently, in the past ten years or so, fashion has also become obsessed with rap. What do you think of the merging of rap and high fashion?
Hip-hop and high fashion have always had a relationship, but now the hip-hoppers in high fashion have more of a fashion education, in that even kids in the inner city know who Riccardo Tisci is. It feels like this new generation of movers and shakers in fashion are fans of hip-hop, and that wasn’t necessarily the case before.
So, now you have Riccardo Tisci looking at Lil’ Kim, Puffy, Kanye, or whoever, and saying, “Wow, these people really inspired me. I’m from Italy and I designed these clothes, but no one understands the impact that these artists have had on me. Who can measure the effect that that’s had on me as a designer?” But, he understands the value of it, and now there’s a level of communication that goes beyond the superficial.
What inspires your own personal style?
I just try to wear what’s comfortable for me. As a kid growing up in New York City, there was a time where there was a particular pair of sneakers or a particular aesthetic that was really popular, and some of that has stuck inside my head. But now, I’m just looking for what I feel good in. I’m not really keeping up with the trends or anything like that. I’m not just shopping at thrift stores, but I’m not very conscious of who’s who and what people are wearing, so I just wear what I like and what I feel comfortable in.
Do you think that rappers of today approach style differently than rappers of the past?
I think that rap’s obsession with fashion is greater than its ever been. A$AP Rocky is a nice guy and a wonderful rapper, and he knows a hell of a lot about fashion. In ways, it just shows you how the culture has changed. If there was a rapper 15-years ago who was obsessed with fashion, they would immediately be labeled gay, and be an outcast. Now, hip-hop is still homophobic, but I think that fashion has opened doors and changed the way people feel about homosexuality. So now, to be a successful rapper, you have to know fashion. If you don’t, you’re kind of an underground rapper. If you have any serious rap aspirations, you have to be stylish. If not, you’re going to be in a very small pond.
And why do you think that is?
Well, part of it is that we’re in capitalist America, and it’s all about money, not just for black people or people of color. America is obsessed with money, so having these luxury items is an American concept these days. But if we distill hip-hop to the core of the people that founded it and created it, this obsession with things that no one can pronounce can be tied into how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about America, and whatever strange, internal issues we have with ourselves that we’re not talking about. On a broad level, all Americans are susceptible to shit that no one can afford or pronounce, but in the case of folks of color it runs a little deeper than that.
If there was a rapper 15-years ago who was obsessed with fashion, they would immediately be labeled gay, and be an outcast.
What, ultimately, do you want people to take away from Fresh Dressed?
I want people to watch Fresh Dressed and realize that these young folks who were in an environment with nothing to offer them, ended up offering the world something really powerful: rap music and hip-hop culture. These young folks who went to schools that were bankrupt, lived in a city that had no money and no hope for them, and nothing to offer; these kids turned it around and created a new world for themselves, and created a lot of opportunity for people everywhere. They took pride in the way they looked, and it was not a pride thing, it was an expression thing.
I think that if people can walk away with a third of that, they’ll be that closer to understanding what hip-hop is. And what hip-hop is is nothing knew. It was the blues, it was jazz, it was rock and roll, all these things that came out of young people needing to express themselves, young people who are in situations that are often desperate needing to express themselves. The baton was passed to hip-hop from rock and roll, and just continued a tradition of young people going for it.
All images courtesy of Fresh Dressed