"Women in hip hop fashion don't always get the light or credit we deserve." - April Walker in The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion
Behind nearly every monumental moment in hip hop, there's a woman behind it. It was Kool Herc's sister, Cindy Campbell, who produced and funded the Back to School party on August 11, 1973 at 1520 Sedwick Ave in New York City that history remembers as the birthplace of hip hop. When it comes to fashion in hip hop, women aren't behind the men, they're styling them -- inextricable from their public identity. Even if the public has no idea.
The 67-minute documentary The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion, which world premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, gives viewers more than an idea of the immutable impact of women in hip hop fashion. It gives them the history. The documentary took a little over a year for directors Lisa Cortes and Farah X to make, with Cortes telling REVOLT TV on the red carpet at the doc's debut that 80% of the people chosen to tell the story were women and they were all "really open and candid."
"I was approached by Tribeca Studios and MCM about telling the story about women in hip hop and fashion. Because I come from hip hop and was in the music business for a long time, I've always been intrigued by the behind the scenes," Cortes said. "We all know about the people in front. But, I love the synergy of the people who helped an artist define who they are."
Legendary fashion designer April Walker and stylist Misa Hylton's stories are the cruces of the documentary, exploring the struggles and triumphs they experienced trying to bring hip hop fashion to a grander level. Sean Combs, who was an A&R at Uptown Records during Mary J. Blige's first album, is often touted as the singular visionary who took Blige from the hood to queendom. However, similar to Herc's sister, Hylton is responsible for the classic chic look that defined Blige's style in videos like "Real Love" and "Not Gon Cry." Hylton even reveals in the documentary that "Mary didn't trust Puffy with her look, but she trusted me." It's revelations like these that are expanded from overlooked footnotes in hip hop history books to unavoidable spectacles on the big screen.
"People ask me all the time [about my story]. They want to know a lot about me. I've been pretty private up until this point. But, I share a lot in this documentary," Hylton told REVOLT TV on the red carpet.
Hylton fondly reminisces on her days lying on her purple rug, as a teenager in the 1980s, listening to music and styling the artists in her head, years before it became her livelihood. Those moments underscore a prevailing theme of The Remix: hip hop making extravagance from humble beginnings. In the doc, we see Misha and her daughter Madison shop in an ordinary beauty supply store -- one that exists in almost every hood. But, an MCM global creative partner is also shopping with her daughter. So, in the context of this documentary, that's like seeing Anna Wintour shopping at H&M for inspiration.
It wasn't only Misha's story that makes The Remix a must-see doc for any hip hop aficionado. Women, as a whole, had to hide their femininity in fashion due to hip hop being a male-dominated space. April Walker is a trailblazing fashion designer who created the Walker Wear brand you saw on nearly every hip hop artist of the 1990s, including Tupac's famous camouflage outfit in the 1992 Above The Rim film. She reveals in the doc that she didn't even want to be the face of Walker Wear for the first few years, in fear of it failing because it had a female face. She remembers how men like Jam Master Jay and Treach were associated as the creators for the brand before she came to the forefront. She also remembers the fashion contributions of the female rappers of the time who still get overlooked.
"I would say Salt-N-Pepa never get enough props for being one of the first groups in hip hop to be independent and be sexy. I remember a moment when we were all wearing catsuits in the late '80s, early '90s," Walker told REVOLT TV. "I think they bought a very feminine look in a very independent and unapologetic way. But, they still appeared strong in hip hop."
Another prevailing theme of the film lies in its name: the remix. The documentary makes it abundantly clear that since slavery, black people in America had to give their spin on circumstances in order to thrive. The doc highlights how there were slaves who had to make their own clothes from fabrics discarded by their masters. Later, the doc reveals Notorious B.I.G. couldn't fit any of the Versace clothes he rapped about. So, he had them custom made. Remixing has been in hip hop's collective DNA from its inception, and leveled the playing field for a culture dominated by black people in the worlds of fashion and art.
The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion was an excellent reminder of how far hip hop fashion has come over the last 30+ years. Hylton went from big fashion brands such as Gucci to being hesitant to dress hip hop stars to MCM making her the global creative partner. Dapper Dan went from the government raiding his boutiques for infringing on the copyrights of big fashion brands like Fendi in the 1980s with his custom-made clothing to Gucci partnering with him on a new boutique. Hip hop used to have to scrap together what was given to make the fashion that defined generations. Now, as the most popular music genre in the entire world, hip hop is ready to cash in on the influence its had on fashion for decades.
"What we need to understand is that our designs and what we do is going to be appropriated. Appropriation takes place in all cultures. But, all cultures don't get the financial and economic benefit of it. That's what's changed," Dapper Dan told REVOLT TV.
More from Keith Nelson, Jr.: