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Rappers tone down sparkle but not swagger

The music genre defined as much by diamond-encrusted watches and designer sneakers as its gritty urban lyrics is scaling down its flash,  as rappers join the rest of the world feeling the pinch of the recession.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The hip-hop world is dialing back its bling.

The music genre defined as much by diamond-encrusted watches and designer sneakers as its gritty urban lyrics is scaling down its flash, insiders say, as rappers join the rest of the world feeling the pinch of the recession.

Rappers are cooling off some of their trademark "ice," sporting fewer and smaller chains, opting for plain white Ts over pricey labels and introducing budget-conscious fashion lines designed to let fans still capture the hip-hop swagger.

Make no mistake: The industry that made New York businessman Jacob "Jacob the Jeweler" Arabov an urban household name isn't entirely reversing course. But "the day of conspicuous consumption is gone," says Tamara Connor, an Atlanta-based stylist who has created looks for chart-topping rappers including Lil Wayne.

In the late '90s, Lil Wayne surrounded himself in videos with stacks of cash and rapped about his $50,000 pinky ring, or "bling," a term that referenced the glint of the diamonds on his neck, hands and wrists.

"We're still going to see some bling, but it's just not going to be as much," Connor says. "Instead of four diamond necklaces, it might just be a diamond bracelet — and it's a piece the celebrity wears all the time. They're not changing their jewelry out everyday."

Photo shoots, for example, are being done with fewer of the specialized medallions considered a calling card for the likes of Rick Ross, whose chain with a likeness of his head — complete with black diamond beard — has an estimated value of $30,000.

Instead you might see a rapper in an off-the-shelf diamond cross or wearing lower-quality stones. "You can save $3,000 a carat if you do non-ring quality diamonds for studs (earrings)," Connor notes.

Newest rappers feel pinch most
Ben Baller, head of Los Angeles-based jeweler I.F. & Co., says the shift is most pronounced among up-and-coming rappers, for whom a steady income is seeming like less of a sure thing.

Before, a new artist might spend $25,000 of a $30,000 advance on a chain, according to Baller, who counts Fat Joe as a client. "Now they would rather try to spend $5,000 and $6,000," he says, adding, "they're willing to talk about options by using sapphires, using very, very low quality gold.

"Some people (are) even wanting to mix diamonds with cubics (cubic zirconia) so it would not be completely ungenuine."

Cost cutting is major for the industry in which the carat-weight of one's ring or the price of tennis shoes could carry more cache than record sales. Ostentatious fashion has been in hip hop's DNA since Run-DMC sang the praises of Adidas in the '80s.

The flash reflected the music style born of the streets of New York, its stars often hard-knock kids who christened their new success with thick rope chains and designer sweatsuits.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

"It was about creating a signature," according to Memsor Kamarake, fashion director of Vibe magazine.

A decade later, newer rappers like Young Jeezy are more likely to keep it simple.

"He'll wear a scarf and no jewelry, maybe a bracelet, with a baseball hat, a T-shirt and a pair of jeans — that's not a lot of bling," says Connor, who has also styled the Georgia artist.

Rappers aren't giving up glamour altogether, they're just not wearing it 24-7. In the past, several chains were de rigueur for a grocery-store run, now they're reserved for a show or nightclub, says Baller, who also is seeing more artists trading in old chains instead of buying new ones.

Return to rap's humble rootsThe shift might not be entirely economic, though, as the industry also moves back to its humble roots, says Ralph Reynolds, creative director for the A.K.O.O. Clothing Brand, a label launched last fall by T.I.

"When (rappers) first got money, they were all over the place," Reynolds says. "Then, I think they also started to lose contact with who their fan base is."

Rappers who have continued to flaunt their riches have received criticism. Fans bristled earlier this year after Kanye West unveiled a line of $400-plus sneakers he crafted with Louis Vuitton.

"Some of those same people who would reach and stretch and do everything they could to get that Louis will now say, 'I already have these two bags, let me pay the rent,'" Reynolds says.

He says a new generation is keeping its everyday style within reach of those most likely to emulate artists. A.K.O.O., for example, features military-inspired woven shirts, polos and denim, with most items ranging from $44 to about $200.

Female fans of hip-hop style can look to a label such as Baby Phat, with T-shirts starting as low as $39. Designer Kimora Lee Simmons has built the line on the notion of 'fabulosity' — high-class opulence and bling.

But she says even that adjusts to tough times.

"Fabulosity is not — the girls are seeing — that $5,000 pair of shoes," Simmons says.

Vibe's Kamarake says the key to looking like you spent more than you did is focusing on sturdy accessories — possibly a watch for men or unique shoes for women.

"The less you do the trend-copying and trying to look like whoever, it will be more enriching, both to your spirit and your wallet," he says.