Scratch and stitch | Feature | Chicago Reader

Scratch and stitch 

The well-tailored line between hip-hop artists and the streetwear companies hustling to promote them

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When #10Day dropped April 3, Jugrnaut hosted the official listening party, and 400 people came through. Now other brands like B.R.E.A.D. are looking to give Bennett new tees so that he can expand their scope. It's a full-circle methodology for fashion lines to gain more exposure.

"We've been hooking a lot of people up for years," says Joseph "Fresh Goods" Robinson, cofounder of streetwear lines Vita Morte and Dope Boy Magic. "You about to be in a video? Here's a T-shirt." Robinson and Vita Morte cofounder Terrell Jones hatched the concept back in 2001 when they attended Lane Tech College Prep High School. "It wasn't a lot of people doing the things we was doing," Robinson says. "This is Lane, everybody trying to be a rapper or think they're gonna be in the NBA. We're, like, the first people that say, 'Hey, we're gonna do a T-shirt brand.'"

“We mess with the artists that mess with us, regardless of whether you have a huge fan base or you're dropping off a stack of mix tapes and still trying to get heard.”——Vic Lloyd,
Leaders' creative director

Jones, who does freelance graphic design for other streetwear lines, and Robinson, who's also a brand ambassador for Adidas, have hosted one-off events and parties to help promote the Vita Morte brand, and their latest venture is a Monday-night event at 6 Corners bar called Feed the Homies. Between Vita Morte and Robinson's project with Vic Lloyd, Dope Boy Magic, the young entrepreneur has amassed a solid lineup of local artists wearing his stuff: YP, Rockie Fresh, Vic Mensa and Greg Landfair of Kids These Days, Chance, Caleb James, and Alex Wiley. And that's before taking into account the high point his Dope Boy Magic "Trill" shirt reached at Coachella this year.

"BJ the Chicago Kid rocked Coachella with Snoop," Robinson says. "So I just gave him [a shirt], overnighted it, and he and Snoop wore it."

On Monday, Dope Boy Magic debuted a new line with Fake Shore Drive, a series of shirts made for young local artists with cult followings. The subject of the first T-shirt is GBE's Fredo Santana, and its tagline—"Fredo in the cut, that's a scary sight"—comes from a verse off Chief Keef's "I Don't Like."

Dwamina K. Drew, a close associate of Robinson and Jones, is a designer who launched Enstrumental in 2006. (Until recently, the three shared a space in Pilsen's Lacuna Lofts.) Drew likes to produce sharp, simple designs that draw from hip-hop and social consciousness; he made what he calls the first Obama-inspired streetwear tee and donated 8 percent of the proceeds to the 2008 campaign. The design was one of three under consideration to become the official T-shirt for that presidential run.

Drew's also created a tee called "rap minus lies equals hip-hop," a design so popular he's had to send out some 13 cease-and-desist letters to stop others from printing it; beloved North Carolina hip-hop act Little Brother took that shirt on tour with them shortly before breaking up. And Drew collaborated with Lupe Fiasco and streetwear brand FTK on a shirt celebrating the release of his 2006 Grammy-nominated debut, Food & Liquor.

Jugrnaut has developed its line partially with the help of a variety of rappers, partnering with Raekwon on a hat and with Pac Div and Chip Tha Ripper on some tees. Recently Jugrnaut worked with Million Dollar Mano on an embroidered Starter snapback hat for his latest project, a loose collective called Treated Crew. Mano served as the tour DJ for Kanye West and Jay-Z's epic Watch the Throne trek, and he hooked West up with one of the Treated caps. Photos of West wearing the Treated cap began circulating online as far back as January, no doubt fueling the demand for it before it went on sale. Jugrnaut made 68 hats, and put 30 of them online at midnight on Tuesday, February 28; co-owner Manny Rodriguez says that the first round sold out in about a minute, and the whole stock disappeared soon after.

Jugrnaut's next local collab is with ShowYouSuck; they plan to release a tee and cap, and they've recently hit upon the design. "I was like, 'Yo, I got an idea,'" says Jugrnaut designer Brian Nevado. "'How about we put you on the couch with Beavis and Butthead sitting in the middle, and you're drawn out like Beavis and Butthead?' He really dug that."

The relationship ShowYouSuck has established with Jugrnaut not only helps advance both parties' individual product, it also further develops their respective brands. According to Clyde Smith, a feature writer for music industry and technology site Hypebot.com, the return on investment is more intangible than, say, what a traditional record label is looking for. But that investment still has value. "Having relationships with bands and even putting out music isn't about making money off the music so much as getting some of the cool associated with the band," Smith says. "So it's really a branding strategy."

"Branding" has long been a dirty word in certain independent music scenes, many of which have fostered an anticorporate ethos. Smith says those attitudes are starting to shift, and that artists increasingly view branding as imperative for anyone seeking to make a living through music. "Indie artists, even people signed to indie labels, are having to really explore alternative revenue streams—not to supplement their music sales, but really to replace the drop in music sales," Smith says. And a variety of companies—including streetwear brands—are helping provide musicians with options. "The relationships with brands are becoming really important, not only for revenue but also for marketing themselves."

This kind of synergistic relationship has been an important part in the development of hip-hop—perhaps more so than is the case with other genres. Plenty of rappers have long welcomed financial success—and the choice streetwear brands that help them achieve it—with open arms. According to Smith, it's a blueprint that other musical genres, and companies that share their sensibilities, need to study.

Smith says brands are getting smarter about partnering with the right artists, but there have been some slipups along the way. Scion caught some flak when it released an EP by Washington, D.C., trio Magrudergrind in late 2010; the band plays a style of metal called grindcore, a brutal subgenre that's long been tethered to anticorporate sentiments, and many fans and musicians balked at the very idea of such a partnership.

With W1N Vol. 1, City of Win's founders aim to develop the kind of partnerships needed to get a leg up in an oversaturated music and fashion marketplace. The company has been promoting the compilation by dropping individual tracks every Wednesday since April 4, with the exception of YP's joint with Calliko, "Let Me Smoke," which was released just after YP signed to Universal. ("The song came out and his label said, 'No more songs can come out,'" Morrison says.)

"Let Me Smoke" got picked up by hip-hop and R&B station WGCI, and other W1N Vol. 1 tracks have gotten some exposure. ShowYouSuck says his song "Trilluminati" (which features Mora and female rapper Henny B.) fell into the hands of New York radio station Hot 97. G.o.D. Jewels's "Gym Shoes" landed on shoe-centric and fashion-focused sites including Modern Notoriety.

As City of Win's founders hustle to expose Chicago hip-hop and streetwear culture to the rest of the world, they've found that while competition in the crowded national arena is fierce, there's still room to grow in Chicago and beyond—no hate necessary.

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that is was a bystander in the "Black and Yellow" video, not Wiz Khalifa himself, who wore a Blasfome shirt, and that the Blasfome brand, though sold at the Pittsburgh shop Time Bomb, was not created by the shop's founders.

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