Since he was 13, Ross Schwartzman AKA DJ Ross One has been an avid collector of hip hop T-shirts. Today, more than 20 years later, his collection is one of the largest in the world and inspired him to make the book Rap Tees, which charts the history of hip hop from 1980-1999 via 500+ T-shirts.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the access to hip hop was a lot more limited for a kid in the burbs
The book begins with T-shirts from some of the earliest hip hop concerts, such as the New York Fresh Fest or those staged by the Sugar Hill Gang circa 1980-1984. It looks at how the hip hop T-shirt evolved from a method of DIY promotion to a key tool of corporate merchandising. It also examines the importance of the artist logo from the mid-1980s to early 1990s.
Drawing on Schwartzman's collection, Rap Tees features rare T-shirts from the likes of Public Enemy (featured in Jocks&Nerds Issue 4), Wu Tang Clan, Beastie Boys, Eric B and Rakim, Nas, Boogie Down Productions and EMPD.
Born in Ohio, Schwartzman is a DJ and collector of hip hop memorabilia and ephemera such as flyers, boomboxes, records, zines and T-shirts. Living between New York and Miami, Schwartzman DJs at leading venues across the US. He was recently signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation Management.
How did you become interested in hip hop?
Beyond getting into the Beastie Boys very early on, the first groups I really remember buying tapes for were Public Enemy and Digital Underground. At the time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, access to hip hop was a lot more limited for a kid in the burbs of the Midwest.
This book is really about me being a kid and wanting these T-shirts from my favourite rappers
So I was learning about rap from shows like Yo! MTV Raps and whatever I might hear on the radio. I was introduced to a lot of my favourite groups around 1990-1991.
When did you start collecting hip hop T-shirts?
Early on, I just wanted to rep my favourite hip hop acts by wearing a T-shirt at school. Even if nobody would appreciate it, I was just a fan. At its core, it's always been about being a fan. Unfortunately, the tees were not available for most of the groups I was listening to.
As I got more into DJing and digging for records, I'd always ask about the tees when I was out hunting for vinyl. When the internet came around, it definitely opened things up and I could search for more specific artists, rather than taking whatever I could get.
What ways were you getting hold of them?
At that time it was basically what was available at the mall, meaning more mainstream artists who had some pop crossover appeal. I got my first Beasties tee at the mall, at a CD store. The other option was mail order, and the most marketing savvy artists like PE [Public Enemy] knew to put a catalogue in the CD insert just for kids like me.
When did you feel you were part of hip hop, as a scene?
It was very foreign all through high school. I saw the movie Juice and was completely obsessed with the imagery, but it definitely felt like a million miles away in real life. I think towards the mid/late 1990s you really had to work to find out about the music, especially the more underground stuff. By putting in that work, you sort of earned your way into the community.
Even in smaller cities, just by going to the shows, wearing the tees, supporting the artists, you became part of the larger movement. I was writing graffiti and learning how to DJ without much instruction or direct influence, so it was all about just being a (sometimes naive) fan of the music and everything associated.
What is the importance of the hip hop T-shirt?
The hip hop T-shirt has always been such an important and simultaneously elusive item. This book is really about me being a kid and wanting these T-shirts from my favourite rappers and just not having access. At the time, maybe they served more as merchandise or promotion, but in retrospect they really symbolise an era that people have a tremendous amount of nostalgia for.
Hip hop does a horrible job of documenting itself; the emphasis is always on what comes next
Those two decades, 1980-1999, in hip hop are such a special time that will never be re-created. Especially with the introduction of the internet and the global availability of items like T-shirts, we'll never go back to a time where you could see a shirt in a music video or a magazine and just flat out never be able to find it. Those shirts became mythological items to a kid like me.
Could you speak about the process of putting together this book?
It started by realising that the collection had reached a point where it was a little out of control, and didn't really seem to have an end point. At first, I just wanted to document my personal collection, in order to put it all in one place and maybe chill out with the collecting – hoarding – a bit.
As I reached out to other collectors and music industry people, I realised that it could be a much bigger and more comprehensive project. After trips around the world to shoot the tees, and reaching out to a lot of my hip hop idols for quotes and insight, the final product is so much more than just a personal archive.
What has it taught you about hip hop T-shirts and hip hop in general?
First of all, I learned just how few people who were involved in hip hop in the 1980s and 1990s actually held on to these things. Hip hop does a pretty horrible job of documenting and archiving itself; the emphasis is always on what comes next – what is fresh.
The recent past is pretty easily discarded. Certainly more than in other genres of music. Otherwise it's just been great to see the instant reaction people have to the shirts. Especially for the original artists, rappers, label owners.
... Many of them hadn't seen the tees in nearly 30 years, so I think they immediately bring back memories of a time when hip hop was much smaller, simpler, and maybe a little more fun. That part has been a blast for me.