Today merch is a huge part of any artist's bottom line, an absolutely necessary tool for the trade.
But this wasn't always the case. As evidenced in his new book, Rap Tees: A Collection of Hip-Hop T-shirts 1980-1999, DJ Ross One illustrates the role promotional t-shirts played in the hip-hop game from the early days to the turn of the millennium.
The rap t-shirt began as an attempt by artists and management teams to branch out and diversify their income streams from singularly music-based. In his book, Ross One includes photos of 500 t-shirts spanning the first two decades of the genre that he calls "under-merchandised" on the early side.
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In a piece for the New York Times, Jon Caramanica wrote: "It’s striking how many of the best shirts weren’t official or for sale. Several were promotional items, given out to tastemakers and fans. And many weren’t by the musicians at all, but bootlegs made on the cheap and distributed broadly."
Similar to the recent Stretch & Bobbito documentary, Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives, the book ends its scope around the peak of rap commercialism in 1999. Spanning a litany of artists from those years, the book boasts a Sugar Hill Gang tee from 1980 and basically documents the heavy hitters of the industry for the next twenty years including 2pac, Biggie, De La Soul, Public Enemy and more.
For what it's worth, the book is an interesting look at the hip-hop infrastructure from a different angle. It should be noted that at a time when merch and online shops account for a good amount of a young artists funds, the rap t-shirt is like the cassette. With the holidays coming up soon, it may just be the thing to get that rapper friend needing some entrepreneurial inspiration.