When MC Rev Run stared into a camcorder in 1986 and pitched an endorsement deal to Adidas by demanding, "Gimme a million dollars!" it seemed unclear if he actually expected anyone to listen. Regardless, it was a spot-on representation of the Run D.M.C. credo, often summarized as "they were gonna dress on stage like they would in the streets."
As it turns out, execs in Adidas' L.A. office were listening. They had been for a few years, ever since rap's "three bad brothers" single-handedly saved the Shell Toe sneaker from oblivion. The shoe giant decided to bank on the tremendously successful "My Adidas" song (then No. 10 on the black charts "with a bullet"). They put on a special concert in New York City, at which the crowd waved 10,000 pairs of Shell Toe Superstars overhead.
That "million dollars" bought Run D.M.C. unparalleled commercial success which the group used to become genre-breaking, crossover mega-stars, and ultimately sparked the sneaker-culture boom. Ironically, the lyrics to "My Adidas" were inspired by Run D.M.C.'s own critics; the anti-conformity anthem was a response to those who dissed their "stick-up kid" style:
"We took the beat from the street and put it on TV/ My Adidas are seen on the movie screen/ Hollywood knows we're good if you know what I mean/ We started in the alley, now we chill in Cali."
Although the Adidas/Run D.M.C. deal was the start of the commercial sneaker revolution, like most of New York City's most notable trends, the roots of sneaker culture was truly underground. Graffiti and hip-hop artists first started the demand for rare Puma, Nike and Adidas-a must for any self-respecting street kid with hopes of earning juice.
Full-blown thugs were tending the soles of their Shell Toes with toothbrushes and bleach. Pioneering sneakerheads searched out underground shops for that extra-fresh pair of kicks nobody else had (a reenactment of this was seen in a recent episode of Entourage, when Vince pays $20,000 for one-of-a-kind sneakers for his buddy Turtle). Before long, it seemed the rest of the world realized just how important "poppin'" footwear really was.
And just think-Michael Jordan hadn't even made the scene. When Nike teamed up with the NBA rookie, the company had a mediocre share of the sporting goods market. With the Jordan blockbuster, both Nike and the rest of the sneaker industry reached a whole different realm. Just as Run D.M.C. was the embodiment of black youth dominating popular music, Jordan was a black youth dominating professional sports.
In both cases, the sneakers they wore carried over into the community. Teens, dressed down for the gritty reality of the streets, got a sense of self-accomplishment and confidence from a simple pair of shoes. A new uniform of cool had been thoroughly cemented.
Fast forward almost 20 years and the shoe industry has perfected its business. Unlike so many other cultural phenomena, this trend became a lifestyle. The sneaker industry continues to gain momentum, exploiting one niche market after another.
The "Nike Dunk" is a perfect example. It has become a top seller despite the fact that Nike spent no money to promote it. Why would they? Nike learned long ago that the marketing power of the streets is much more powerful than even the most savvy national ad campaign.
In San Diego, one only need to look at stores like Mint in Hillcrest-a lime-green testament to the power of kicks. One of the store's employees, Justin Davis, is a member of "Shuicide Kings," an informal group of sneakerheads. A few months ago, they hosted their first party at The Beauty Bar where they showed Just For Kicks, a documentary exploring the $26 billion international sneaker industry, to a packed house.
Although the flick was projected onto the ceiling, most people didn't mind as DJs kept the beats breaking, and reps from companies like Puma, Macbeth, Adidas, Nike, Modern Amusement and Saucony dished out schwag.
It all goes back to hip-hop, to Run D.M.C., to the streets. Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash says it best near the end of Just For Kicks: "I've been around the world and I see that Harlem influences America, and the rest of the world is influenced by America, so that means really the rest of the world is influenced by America being influenced by Harlem...which means Harlem is the biggest influence on the planet."
As lofty as it sounds, Dash may be right. Run D.M.C. and Adidas took the most basic, underwhelming product in the sporting kingdom and turned it into a heavyweight talisman for rock stars, action sports stars, multi-platinum rappers, janitors and high school nerds.