Before Hip Hop was a cultural landmark and industry, it was a simply a collection of ideas. With each album, music video and magazine cover, it was built from the ground up. In fact, a relatively small group of creatives are responsible for dreaming up what is now instantly recognizable to millions. They helped the culture hit its stride in the mid to late 90s - the golden age. Many of their ideas have stood the test of time, helped to define the past two decades, and have even reemerged in today's pop culture.
1. Pixel & Pen helps the south rise again
When Cash Money Records took over for the ‘99 and the 2000s, it was with the help of Pen & Pixel Graphics. The small company may not be a household name but you know their work: fonts fashioned out of diamonds, collaged portraits, money everywhere, flames. As a go-to design studio for Cash Money, No Limit and other record companies, Pen & Pixel is responsible for some of Southern rap’s most enduring album art. From Juvenile's 400 Degreez to Three 6 Mafia's Live By Yo Rep, their visuals are inseparable from the Dirty South sound we love.
2. Janet lets her freak flag fly in Vibe
Before Rihanna was Pop music’s good girl gone bad, Janet Jackson wore the crown. In 1997, a 31-year-old Janet was in her sexual prime and let the whole world know it with her deeply sensual Velvet Rope album. Ms. Jackson announced her return to music and edgy new persona in the November issue of Vibe magazine, discussing her many piercings and fondness for masochism in the bedroom. Janet also caused a stir on the cover, revealing a tattoo near her inner thigh of Minnie Mouse…pleasuring Mickey. How did something like that grace the cover of a national magazine? Well, when Janet first appeared on the cover of Vibe in 1994, she submitted a photo that the magazine rejected. The image - where she appeared topless, discreetly covered by hands - went on to the cover of Rolling Stone and became iconic. Three years later, the editors at Vibe didn’t make the same mistake twice.
3. Veronica Lake and Baby Girl’s swoop
Today, Aaliyah is more than a singer and performer. She is a genre. Over the years, many have attempted her overall look and sound - partly because they were so distinctive. Around the time One in A Million was released, Aaliyah was creating a new style and nothing was as emblematic as her hair, effortlessly styled with a portion hanging mysteriously over one eye. In an interview with MTV, Aaliyah said the idea for her signature hairstyle come from her mother, Diane Haughton, who suggested she cover her left eye with her hair like Haughton’s favorite film actress Veronica Lake.
4. Believe the Hype
Hype Williams’ contribution to Hip Hop cannot be overstated. When the burgeoning culture was coming into form, it was Williams that defined it visually through music videos. "Flava in Ya Ear" by Craig Mack, Biggie’s "One More Chance,” "Baby” by Brandy, "California Love" by Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, D'Angelo’s "Lady,” "Can't Knock the Hustle," "The Rain,” "Mo Money Mo Problems,” "Nice and Slow,” "No Scrubs,” "Big Pimpin'" – all Hype Williams joints. His use of the fisheye lens, widescreen, and vibrant colors was Hip Hop for decades. Starting out as a graffiti artist, Williams has said his visual style was heavily influenced by a few of his contemporaries. “I wanted to be Basquiat or Keith Haring of the streets."
5. Tupac and Versace, Versace, Versace
“Now it's all about Versace, you copied my style. Five shots couldn't drop me. I took it and smiled.” Those were Tupac’s words on his infamous ’96 "Hit 'Em Up" diss to The Notorious B.I.G. Though ‘Pac was known for being boastful, there’s some evidence he was indeed instrumental in introducing Hip Hop to Versace. He was an unofficial ambassador for the over-the-top brand and, reportedly, close friends with Gianni Versace and his sister Donatella. As a result, Tupac enjoyed custom-tailored clothes from the designer and even walked the runway once in Versace’s Fall/Winter ‘96 show in Milan.
6. Kim’s purple pasty
The Queen Bee shut down the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards with a boob-baring, lilac, sequined jumpsuit designed by stylist Misa Hylton. The already noteworthy outfit turned legendary when, during the presentation of one award, Diana Ross fondled Kim’s exposed breast. It was a moment for the history books. Surprisingly, Hylton says she got the idea for the design from a conversation with Missy Elliott, who said if she was Kim she would show up to the awards with one breast out.