Credit: Photograph by Gordon Parks. Copyright: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

XXL magazine named the photograph “A Great Day in Hip Hop.” In 1998, the music publication, then only one year into publishing, invited 177 hip hop artists, promoters, producers, managers and aficionados to flood the façade of a brownstone in Harlem to celebrate the culture that had emanated from the New York’s boroughs, paving the way for a musical genre that went on to span the globe.

To take the photograph, XXL hired Gordon Parks, who by then had already left his indelible mark on the history of photography by documenting Black life across the United States. The photograph that ran on the cover of the issue paid homage to “A Great Day in Harlem,” a photograph taken by Art Kane in 1958 that included 57 jazz musicians, from Thelonious Monk to Count Basie. The reflection between the jazz musicians in Kane’s image and the hip hop artists in Parks’, marked the centuries that Black people had threaded whole economies out of scraps –– impacting sound, image and style. The oversized zoot suits and pocket chains of the jazz era living on in the baggy jeans and gold chains in this one.

Appearing in the photograph taken by Parks in 1998 are: The Roots, Da Brat, Jadakiss, Rakim, Slick Rick, A Tribe Called Quest, Andre Harrell, Busta Rhymes, and Grand Master Flash, among others. The list goes so long that the camera lens is almost unable to contain the gravity of the occasion. Not only was the photograph a sampling of diverse sounds and locales that shaped hip hop –– from the continent of Africa to the Caribbean to the Deep South –– it also held within it the styling practices birthed by generations of Black people who have turned to clothing to make sense of their relationships within their own communities as well as with industries that placed them on the margins. There is Common, the Chicago rapper, wearing a dashiki and knit cap. His attire harkened back to the Black is Beautiful era of the 1960s, where Black people, many of them in places such as Harlem, styled their hair into Afros and wore textiles from the continent to communicate their pride for self and their refusal to assimilate to Eurocentric norms. There’s Questlove of The Roots with his persona-defining Afro. Da Brat with her cornrows adorned with beads, a continuation of music artists such as Nina Simone, members of the 1960s Grandassa modeling troupe, and the countless Black girls who have danced and played Double Dutch in their neighborhoods, their beads offering a symphony all on their own. Then, there are the styles of the time, specifically those that were adopted into mainstream fashion, oftentimes with no regards to the purveyors both in this image and not. The styles defined by Black people of the diaspora who have remained keen on remaking themselves against constant pillaging; The gold chains. The oversized Yankees jerseys. Sweatbands. Baseball caps and Kangol caps turned backward. Timberland boots and Air Force 1s. The commingling of Black urban wear brands and the white brands that changed their designs when they noticed hip hop artists were not only wearing their clothes, but also styling them in a way only Black people could: Phat Farm, Fubu, Varcity, and Polo Ralph Lauren, respectively. And then there’s a pair of Adidas shell-toe sneakers, the fashion object that gave youth of the previous decade an element of cool and birthed the synonymity between hip hop and fashion that paved the way for the countless mainstream collaborations that continue today.

Twenty years after Parks’ photograph was taken on that warm fall day in 1998, hip hop artists gathered once again, this time at the Gordon Parks Foundation Gala, to celebrate the late photographer and his work, and also to commemorate “A Great Day in Hip Hop.” Speaking to Document Journal about that day in 1998, Questlove said that it truly was a great day, due to the era-defining albums and songs released that year, which included: Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s We Are Black Star; A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement; Outkast’s Aquemini; Jay Z’s A Hardknock Life Volume 2. [1] Not captured by Questlove’s list, however, were the influences that hip hop had imprinted on the mainstream fashion industry. In the years preceding “A Great Day in Hip Hop” that closed out the decade, urban wear became a new genre under the umbrella of ready-to-wear, started by Black entrepreneurs and hip hop artists and coopted by white mainstream fashion brands who turned to hip hop to take advantage of its growing impact beyond the Black and Latinx enclaves from which it was birthed. 

Pair of white and black Run-D.M.C. Superstar 80s sneakers made by Adidas, 2013. Image from the collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Link)

In 1997, L.L. Cool J signed contracts with Gap and the Black-owned urban wear brand FUBU –– an acronym for “For Us, By Us.” In a commercial for a new style of jeans that Gap debuted that year, he agreed to wear Gap clothing but negotiated with executives to also wear a FUBU baseball cap, even going so far as to namedrop the brand in his performance for the commercial. By October of that year, the Sixth Congressional District in New York declared October 7th FUBU Day, celebrating the entrepreneurs behind the brand and its impact in their community and the mainstream fashion industry. [2] That decade, for the first time in mainstream fashion, a slew of Black-owned brands such as FUBU, Karl Kani, Cross Colours, Phat Farm, Rocawear, Sean John, among countless others, rose to prominence, declaring their arrival via billboards, magazine advertisements, television commercials and successful sells. [3] These brands amplified the styles that permeated their neighborhoods, such as those aforementioned in Parks’ photograph. 

In the same year that L.L. Cool J made FUBU x Gap an unofficial collaboration (which seems de rigueur today), the R&B singer Aaliyah became the spokesperson for Tommy Hilfiger appearing in the brand’s Tommy Jean’s campaign. In the advertisements, Aaliyah wears a cropped bandeau with the brand’s logo and baggy jeans that sat below her waist revealing Tommy Hilfiger underwear. In one image she stands among a group of models, who wear baggy jeans, oversized sports jackets and denim mini-skirts. In another, Aaliyah stands next to a deejay spinning on turntables. The styling in the advertisements were a stark contrast to the classic American prep that had defined Tommy Hilfiger since its inception. In 1990s advertisements for Tommy Hilfiger featured in Vogue, models wear tailored khaki pants, pressed shirts and trench coats. In Tommy Jean’s advertisements, the brand coopted the styling practices of hip hop artists who adopted Tommy Hilfiger into their wardrobes and namedropped the brand in its song. Elena Romero recounts the beginning of it all in her book Free Stylin’, when Grand Puba of Brand Nubians rapped about Tommy Hilfiger in Mary J. Blige’s 1992 single “What’s the 411?” Two years later Snoop Dogg wore an oversized Tommy Hilfiger rugby shirt during his set on Saturday Night Live. Hilfiger, who launched his brand in 1985, began to change its tune to take advantage of the newfound interest in their brand by hip hop artists. In his spring/summer 1997 runway show presented during London Fashion Week, Hilfiger marked this shift in his brand by opening his show with classic suits and nautical inspired looks and concluding with a performance by Naughty by Nature who rapped on stage while a cast of models such as Boris Kodjoe, Kate Hudson, and Joy Bryant took to the runway in the styles captured in the 1998 photograph a year later. [4] The styles and performance stuck the landing better at shows such as Sean Jean in the early 2000s, but on Hilfiger’s runway it erred on the side of parody. As the new millennium birthed new styles and trends, Black-owned brands such as FUBU were effectively edged out. Others such as Tommy Hilfiger, abandoned the trend that allowed them to retain an element of (Black) cool, returning fully to their American prep ethos on which their companies were built. 

Photograph of Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay, 1985. Photographer: James Hamilton. Image from the collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Link)

In recent years, there has been returned interest to the brands and trends of the 1990s. Cross Colours recently launched a collection with Nordstrom that includes T-shirts dedicated to Aaliyah, Tupac, and Snoop Dogg, among other Black music artists; Gen Z and millennials scour thrift stores for FUBU, vintage Tommy Hilfiger, and other urban wear brands; Tommy Hilfiger launched a capsule collection featuring styles popularized in the aforementioned Tommy Jeans advertisements, their lead models this time were Suzy and Immy Waterhouse, wearing a look similar to Aaliyah’s in the 1997 advertisements. The resurgence is both a reflection of the cycle of fashion and the reckoning in the fashion industry, spurred by Black people holding it accountable for years of erasing, appropriating and devaluing Black people who continue to influence and inspire. This reckoning has increased the number of Black models on runways and Black people on the cover of mainstream publications; has pushed Anna Wintour to say the names of Black people who have been murdered by police in her Editor’s Letter; has given rise to supporting Black-owned brands, such as Pyer Moss and Telfar, undoubtedly shaped by the aforementioned brands of the previous decades; and has finally given Dapper Dan, the premier tailor of hip hop, the credit that he deserves for transforming luxury fashion and for seeing and putting his people first. 

On the steps of 17 East 126th Street in Harlem in 1998, hip hop artists reveled in the mere act of seeing each other. In a documentary on that day by filmmaker Nelson George, a young Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) “bugs out” over seeing Rakim and De La Soul; Rakim describes Harlem as the mecca, a welcome mat where we come to be free; Slick Rick reminisces and reminds George that hip hop came from the streets and provided opportunities to those who were caught in its sounds, moves and styles that allowed them to define themselves. [5] That day seeing each other is what mattered most, and through the lens of his camera, Parks made sure that we would always see them too.


[1] Ann Binlot, “‘Storytellers of the black narrative’: Revisiting Gordon Parks’ ‘A Great Day in Hip Hop’ 20 years later,” Document Journal, July 17, 2019.

[2] For more on the rise of FUBU, see Elena Romero’s Free Stylin’: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry, (ABC-CLIO, 2012), the first full-length monograph documenting hip hop and fashion, specifically the history of brands such as FUBU, among others.

[3] For more on advertisements of these brands, see Nicole Fleetwood’s chapter on Phat Farm, Rocawear and Sean John advertisements in her book Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[4] Tommy Hilfiger and Red or Dead, Spring/Summer. Accessed July 31, 2021.

[5] Nelson George, A Great Day in Hip Hop, (USA, 1998).