You know how when you talk to someone who is so into a particular subject that you can’t help but get caught up in his or her excitement? That’s what it’s like talking to DJ Ross One about hip-hop T-shirts. DJ Ross One (birth name: Ross Schwartzman) is the author of the new book from Powerhouse Rap Tees: A Collection Of Hip Hop T-Shirt 1980-1999 and his enthusiasm about the topic is infectious.
Rap Tees is a thorough and expansive look at the evolving designs of rap T-shirts during hip-hop’s formative years through its golden age (to everyone except Vince Staples) in the 1990s. Even if you’ve seen one or two of the shirts before (a De La Soul logo here, a Snoop Dogg album cover there) seeing all of the tees arranged by region and group provides a unique context that heretofore didn’t exist.
Schwartzman, who now travels around the world to DJ and is represented by Jay Z’s Roc Nation Management, grew up in Cincinnati and became a hip-hop fan as a teenager. In the days before the Internet, finding clothes to represent your favorite artist or group wasn’t as simple as a few taps on a phone, especially in a small city in the midwest. Geography aside, there weren’t even many souvenirs to be had. Unlike rock n’ roll, where “merch” has always been an important piece of the music business, hip-hop tended to look at these T-shirts as disposable commodities, used to promote a particular album or song and then discarded.
But as Schwartzman’s love of rap deepened, so did his fascination with rap T-shirts. His hunt for records dovetailed nicely with his search for tees. Eventually his collection became borderline unmanageable and he wanted a way to document it before letting anything go. That led to photographing his friends’ collections, and eventually to shooting the rarities owned by some of his hip-hop heroes.
We caught up with DJ Ross One, fresh off hosting a party for his book at which Slick Rick played, to talk about his first rap tee, finding his holy grails, and the shirts he’d grab if his apartment was on fire.
When did you start collecting rap T-shirts?
I got my first shirts probably when I was around 15 or 16. I was just a hip-hop fan, a fanatic, and I wanted to support my favorite groups. I grew up in Cincinnati so the access to those kinds of shirts was super limited. The only thing you could find was stuff that was at the mall. The first shirt I got was my Beastie Boys shirt. In the CD inserts sometimes they would put a fan club mail order thing so I got my Public Enemy shirt like that. When I was 16 I got my first DJ setup and at the same time I was looking for records, I was looking for T-shirts.
What do you remember about that first Beastie Boys shirt? It was from your Check Your Head. It’s them sitting on the steps of a cabin, a Glen Friedman photo. I remember that not only did I love the shirt and the Beastie Boys, but I loved the picture of the Beastie Boys and I loved what they were wearing. Not only did I want to wear the shirt but I wanted to wear everything that the guys were wearing in the shirt. It was forming the way I wanted to dress and the style I wanted to have. When you don’t have the internet and you don’t have access to the bigger world, a T-shirt can be a little more than just a T-shirt.
When did you think that your collection could be a book?
The T-shirt thing started reaching a point where it crossed over from being a collection to being a problem. I was buying shirts that didn’t fit. I realized that the shirts were starting to become more popular. Celebrities started wearing them. I thought a book might be a good way to put a period on the collection, so I could have them all in one place and then start letting go of them, downsizing. But I wanted it to be a complete collection before I started dismantling it. Then I started shooting my collection and reaching out to other people. When they agreed to let me shoot their collections, some of the vintage dealers and other DJs, then it took on a new life and became a thing like OK let’s make this more of a complete history and more comprehensive.
Were there any crazy stories once you went on the hunt?
We did a cool photo shoot in Japan. I know a lot of DJs over there who collect T-shirts. I rented a photo studio, told a few of my Japanese friends to come in. Twenty guys ended up showing up and some of them had garbage bags full of vintage T-shirts. That was an eye-opening experience. I was seeing shirts that I knew I’d been outbid on eBay for. So you’re the one who’s willing to spend that much.
Are there any shirts that you were dying to have?
There were certain shirts that were always unattainable. A lot of times they were either in magazines or music videos. There was a music video for Showbiz & A.G. for a song called “Soul Clap” and they’re all wearing these shirts that say “Can I get a soul clap?” on the back. I remember seeing it when that video came out being like whoa, knowing that there were probably 50 of them made. I remember the EPMD “You gots to chill” video. They’re all wearing these yellow shirts that say "You gots to chill.” But when you’re a kid you kind of just accept that New York is a million miles away. You can’t do anything by yourself. Luckily my dad is from Long Island and we would come to New York at least once a year and I would save up and hit the streets and go to Triple 5 Soul and Canal Jeans and Yellow Rat Bastard. You’d buy one T-shirt and it would be the greatest thing in the world for the next 12 months.
Is there a particular shirt that you were excited to see make it into the book?
That “Soul Clap” shirt. That’s always been a holy grail. Showbiz had one. I went to his studio, which is called DITC studios for Digging In The Crates and got to shoot his sweatshirt, which was pretty cool. Over the course of the project I’ve seen a lot of shirts I didn’t even know existed. A lot of Eric B. & Rakim and that golden era late ‘80s stuff. Things just kind of turn up.
Did Showbiz appreciate the sweatshirt in the same way that you did?
I think anybody from that era who’s kind of like a record digger knows. All this goes back to being DJs or producers or record collectors. T-shirt collectors come from that mentality. He definitely knew it was a special item. I’m sure he’s been asked about it before. I’ve spoken to a lot of artists from that period and most of them didn’t hold on to anything. Back then you didn’t have a clue what it would become. So they would just get lost. When I show the book to old rappers or people in the industry, often they have a really emotional response to it. Even the original designers who I spoke to, when I show them these pictures, it’s like “Oh, man. I haven’t seen that shirt since 1986 when I dropped it off at the print shop.” It’s been a mutual respect thing for me compiling all these things and putting them in one place and I obviously respect them for what they did.
What was it like as a rap fan first to connect with some of these artists?
It’s been awesome. I always have to look back at that time when I was 15 years old and just a fan. As a DJ, I’ve dealt with a lot of my idols before but this is different. This digs a little deeper. There’s more of a real connection. I threw a big party and I had Pete Rock DJ and I had Slick Rick perform. Even my parents were there. When you think about where it started, being a kid and being a fan of these guys, it’s amazing that it came full circle.
What’s the most expensive shirt you’ve ever seen?
It’s not uncommon to see shirts go in the $500 range right now. Some of the more rare shirts like Eric B. & Rakim, I’ve seen them go for over a $1,000 bucks. The thing is they’re really rare. People get amazed when the prices are that high, but it’s not being priced inappropriately because the shirts are not available. It’s not like rock n’ roll shirts or metal shirts where if you have a couple hundred bucks you’re going to find it eventually. I’ve been looking for these shirts for 10 years and a lot of them I’ve never seen before. The prices are high because they’re actually impossible to find. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. If you have $5,000 you still can’t find it.
Why are they so rare?
Hip-hop didn’t have the same mentality as rock n’ roll in terms of tour merch for a long time. Then also hip-hop is horrible at archiving itself, at holding on to its recent past. Hip-hop has always been about staying fresh, staying new. You don’t want to be wearing old things. Even if it’s 1991 you’re not trying to wear a shirt from 1988. In rock n’ roll, you can always wear a Rolling Stones shirt no matter what the year is. Hip-hop doesn’t have that mentality. It’s always about the new thing. Even me. When I was a kid with all those shirts, a couple of years pass and maybe you’re not listening to the group anymore. Then 15 years pass and you realize it was a very important time in life and it’s like, “Oh, god. Where is that shirt?” And you want to go back and have it again.
We do seem to be entering a time where there is a genuine appreciation for that era of hip-hop. Why do you think that is?
People realize now that it hasn’t been archived properly. Fans like myself who were teenagers while this was all happening are getting into their mid-30s and are at a point where they have the ability to do this kind of archive. Archiving stuff like this is not a money making thing. In fact, you lose money doing these things. For me, it’s a labor of love. I also think that hip-hop has turned into such a huge thing that now finally people are looking back. It’s bigger than rock n’ roll and I think people are finally looking back at that time as a true moment in history. That era of hip-hop is so special and so great and it will never be like that again. Anytime I wear a A Tribe Called Quest T-shirt on the street at least two people are going to stop and say, “I love A Tribe Called Quest, what a great shirt.” That doesn’t happen when you wear anything else. It hits people in an extremely sentimental place.
Do you do anything special to preserve the shirts in your collection?
I have a couple of huge Tupperwares full of T-shirts. Then I have the ones I wear in the closet. Nothing special. You keep them out of humidity, try to keep them in livable conditions. They’ve all seen worse. They’re all in the best place they’ve been. [Laughs.]
Which artist’s shirts really connect with people?
Definitely if you wear a Public Enemy shirt, you’re going to get comments. Any of the more obscure shirts, people don’t see them so they’re just surprised. If you’re wearing a Nas shirt or a 2 Live Crew shirt, people notice. It’’s one of those things where you see someone on the street and you have an instant connection. You might not be friends but you’re going to give each other a familiar little head nod.
If you’re apartment is burning down and you can only grab 3 shirts, what are they? The A Tribe Called Quest logo shirt. It’s hard because I would grab shirts that don’t fit. I’d probably grab a Fresh Festival shirt from 1984, and maybe a Nas Illmatic bootleg. Ask me again in 15 minutes and it would be different. I’d probably grab the Tribe shirt no matter what, but the other two would be rotating. I do have a shelf where I’m like some of these shirts don’t even fit but in case of emergency, this shelf goes [with me].
How did the design of the shirts evolve over time?
In the early ‘80s, it’s a much more innocent style of design. It’s more about introducing artists to people. It wasn’t until Russell Simmons that the mentality that hip-hop was going to be something bigger started and that this is something that can make money. That was in ‘85, ‘86, ‘87. Then Run-DMC turned that logo shirt into this iconic thing. I think that through that golden era of ‘86 to ‘91 you see the best shirts, all these great groups doing interesting designs. Then you get into the 90s and it becomes more promo tees. You still have great shirts, but it’s more about label promotion. As you move through the 90s, you get to the No Limit era. It’s a billboard on a T-shirt. It’s huge, it’s in your face. Then throughout all of that you’ve got bootlegs, which have always been this great side thing. Very kitschy, hand done, multiple images collaged on one shirt. Those have always been great.
What’s next for you and for the project?
We have way more tees. There’s almost 550 in the book and we had to cut hundreds out. There’s a chance we could do another volume. Then there’s another project. I have a huge collection of flyers and I am working with a partner on a flyer project of early hip-hop flyers from the late 70s early 80s, the birth of hip-hop. We are in the early stages of a book of those. Then I am busy DJing every other night. This [book] is all a side project for me. This is the stuff I love that I get to do in my downtime.