The first pair of Nike’s Air Force One sneakers hit the market in 1982, at a time when hip-hop and the branding of Michael Jordan were both on the rise. However, despite the fact that Jordan never scored 50+ points in a pair of Air Force Ones, and arguably played much better in his later years while wearing other releases in the Jordan shoe line of the ’90s, the now iconic sneaker has still gone on to sell hundreds of millions of pairs in the 37 years it has been in production.
So, if it wasn’t Jordan’s best playing shoe of all time, why has it become so popular with sneakerheads and basketball players alike? Well, there’s something that most ballers and shoe collectors have in common – hip-hop music. Here’s how hip-hop’s intertwining history with the Air Force One black and white contributed to the shoe’s success:
Rappers Were the Unofficial Spokesmen for the Air Force One
Nelly’s famous song entitled “Air Force Ones” is only the tip of the iceberg when you start taking a tally of how many times rappers bragged about this sneaker in songs. While there’s no official count, it’s safe to say that Air Force Ones have been promoted either lyrically or visually by rappers since the beginning of the shoe’s existence.
While there have been hundreds of official style variations and thousands of unofficial or custom variations of the Air Force One produced since its release, The Sole Supplier lists a collection that contains some of the original designs from the early ’80s, as well as the latest Nike Air Force One drops and news of the next releases.
The Psychology Behind Why Rappers and Hip-Hop Fans Like Air Force Ones
If we take a closer look at some of the related trends and events that surrounded the rise of the Air Force One within hip-hop culture, we see that there are several reasons behind the rap game’s general gravitation towards the sneaker:
• Big and Bold – First and foremost, we can’t dismiss the role that the Air Force One’s aesthetics played in its success. In fact, it’s not surprising that the shoe’s bold design became the foundation for the Jordan 1. Hip-hop fans tend to like basketball, and anyone who’s ever seen a highlight of Jordan dunking in the 1987 and 1988 dunk contests knows that the legendary shoes on his feet were the Red, Black, and White Jordan 1s. In a way, the largeness of the shoe matches the size of its legacy, as one could argue that it paved the way for the entire Jordan sneaker line.
• Old School – New generations of rappers always look up to the previous generation, and the previous generation of the previous generation was already wearing Air Force Ones more than three decades ago. So, the Air Force One design theme has essentially been grandfathered into the culture.
• “Presidential” – Of course, Nike also made a great move by naming the shoe “Air Force One” because if you’re familiar with trending slang of that era, around that time people were calling a lot of things “presidential.” For example, many rap songs mentioned “presidential kush,” “presidential purp” or “presidential suites.” Of course, the Air Force 1 is the official plane of the president of the United States, so despite the shoe’s humble pricing, it’s easy to tie the branding into the presidential slang trend of the time.
Note: The slang term “presidential” probably had nothing to do with Nike’s naming decision, as they were most likely going with a play on words based on the fact that the Air Force 1 is the most luxurious and secure plane in the country – an analogy that says: “when you take flight in these, you’re going to feel comfortable and look great.” Still, there’s no denying hip-hop took the “presidential” concept and ran with it.
• Affordability Leads to Easier Collection Building – Of course, you can’t feel very presidential if you only have one pair of shoes that gets dirty and beat up after a few weeks of wear and tear. The Air Force Ones could easily be found for around $50-$70 in the 2000s and there were an absurd amount of style variations available. This means someone could spend one $700 paycheck and have a nice collection of Air Force Ones for any occasion.
• Ankle Protection – Hip-hop was essentially the slang term provider for basketball and fashion for a while. Coincidentally, one of the best-selling eras in the history of the Air Force One coincided with the rise of another brand whose name contains the number 1 – And1, the league of amateur basketball players who toured the country and pioneered the modern streetball movement.
During that time, rappers and urban basketball commentators began to use the term “breaking ankles” to describe the act of making someone fall down in a basketball game through the use of fancy dribble moves.
What does ankle-breaking have to do with the Air Force Ones, you ask? Well, it just so happens that the sneakers don’t just look great; they also have a great traction pattern that provides optimal footing and makes it harder for someone to “break your ankles” and leave you embarrassed on the court.
Do the NBA and Nike Owe the Genre of Hip-Hop for Its Marketing Contributions?
The shoe endorsement deal game is still alive and well for professional athletes and entertainers, but most modern rappers and celebrities don’t pack the kind of culture-changing influence that was seen in the popular hip-hop artists of the 1990s and 2000s. There was a time when rappers could literally dictate the flow of fashion trends; not just in their own urban communities but globally.
While a significant portion of today’s hip-hop scene has devolved into a hybridized mashup of auto-tuned, drug-induced crooning about depression, suicide, and the perils of being a junkie or lonely suburbanite, the authentic, original hip-hop of the ’90s and 2000s was more of a “hustler’s music,” with balling and “flossing” being central concepts.
Of course, there are still plenty of rappers who carry on the legacy of being “ballerific,” and it’s this kind of mentality that creates the necessity for someone to buy luxury clothing, vehicles (with the largest rims that will fit), jewellery (preferably heavy enough to leave marks on the back of your neck), and … a closet full of Nikes, of course.
In this way, rappers essentially created an environment where anyone who wanted to become a rapper or singer, which was about 60% of the urban population “back in the day,” essentially had to have a few pair of Nikes. It was almost like Air Force Ones and Jordans became the official shoes of hip-hop and urban culture in general.