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Hip hop at 50

Vikki Tobak’s ‘Ice Cold’ links rap’s gold chains to African traditions

New book tells the multifaceted story of hip-hop through its jewelry

Vikki Tobak devotes her life to telling the stories of others. From her time as director of publicity and marketing at Payday Records, where she briefly worked with Jay-Z and closely with Gang Starr, to her work as a journalist, author, and documenter of hip-hop culture, Tobak aimed her lens outward. However, in Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History, her newest collection of essays and photographs, a little bit of her own story seeps through.

Born in Soviet-era Kazakhstan and raised in Chambers Brothers-era Detroit in the 1980s, Tobak understands the stories of the men and women, almost all immigrants or the children of immigrants, who created the jewelry captured in Ice Cold’s pages. These craftspeople used their hustle, creativity, and grit to build a future for themselves and their families and make an indelible mark on a burgeoning culture.

The results of that hard work are displayed in all their splendor in Ice Cold. From the metric ton of gold around Slick Rick’s neck, Ghostface Killah’s golden eagle cuff, Pharrell’s kaleidoscope of multicolored stones, and Travis Scott’s diamond-encrusted grill, the book contains hundreds of images of the most memorable jewelry in hip-hop history. Several of the subjects, including Slick Rick, A$AP Ferg, and LL Cool J, tell the stories behind their jewelry in first-person essays.

Besides celebrating the culture, Ice Cold also connects hip-hop to tradition. Besides precious metals, diamonds, and gems, those rings and things they sing about are weighted with a history that can be traced back to ancient African royalty. Here in the present day, Tobak spoke about the process of creating her book, capitalism and the legacy of Jim Crow, and the importance of archiving the culture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ice Cold covers 40 years of hip-hop jewelry in photos and stories.

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Following 2018’s Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop, what inspired you to focus Ice Cold on the history of jewelry in the culture?

With Contact High, I really wanted to tell the visual history of the culture. I had also known many of the photographers for years when I used to work in the industry. When you’re looking at the photographs, of course, you’re looking at all the details, which tell so much of the story. Of course, whether someone’s wearing a Dapper Dan jacket, or wearing Air Force 1s, or wearing jewelry, all those little visual signifiers mean something. They have a story about a certain moment in time.

I just started looking at the jewelry really more and more and understanding how much story and history the jewelry held. 

What role do you think the fact that the most prominent jewelers are immigrants played in how jewelry culture developed in hip-hop?

Those jewelers and the people who were building and creating hip-hop recognize something in each other, a certain hustle. I mean that in a good way. A certain fearlessness to build something because they had nothing to lose. A certain aspiration and questioning of what is the American dream and who it’s for. Then also creating something because you weren’t necessarily welcomed with open arms or accepted into what the mainstream dominant culture was. I think that they spoke a similar language. No pun intended, but I think they recognized that in each other and respected it, and went from there.

Rapper Pharrell Williams wears a Gucci link chain (left) and displays a Bape medallion (right).

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There’s been some notable pushback against capitalism and materialism recently. How do you think the shift in the mood surrounding conspicuous consumption will affect the role of jewelry in hip-hop culture?

There are two lines that Nas has that come to mind. One I mentioned in the book and the other one I just have in my head. In the book, I write about the line from ‘Street Dreams,’ ‘I thought Jordans and a gold chain was living it up,’ I think about that lyric. Then I think about another lyric that he had with a song that he did with Preemo called ‘Classic.’ He says, ‘By the time you can afford it, the car ain’t important.’ People often say the wealthiest people are in hoodies and no jewelry and maybe a nice watch, and that conspicuous consumption is new money. I also like to flip that question a little bit because you can’t understand the mindset of coming from nothing and not having anything and then finally making it.

I do think that in America especially, we’ve had to grapple with capitalism in step with our history of Jim Crow and our history of Black entrepreneurs not being able to build generational wealth. All this stuff is changing.That’s not even a question that I can fully answer. To me, it’s more I’m just as questioning it as anyone else. As a journalist and as an author telling that story, I will just add that it’s not as clear-cut as a lot of people want it to be, and maybe look a little deeper beyond why people want it so clear-cut.

Rapper LL Cool J in Cote d’Ivoire (left photo) circa 1988.

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One of my favorite images in the book is of LL Cool J in Cote d’Ivoire. He’s got big gold rings on every finger, a Kangol on his head, and Ivorian garb covering a white tank top. He’s with two tribal chiefs wearing traditional gold jewels and crowns. What links did you find between ancient traditions and the modern jewelry styles represented in the book?

It’s funny because when I first saw that photo, I was like, ‘This has to be Photoshop. This photo is too good to be real.’ There he is in his Kangol in 1988 in Cote d’Ivoire, with all his jewelry on, straight from Tito [‘Manny’ Caicedo’s Jewelry Shop]. Then you see the elders there with their Ashanti traditional-looking jewelry, and they are all standing together. That photo just says so much. Actually, that was the whole reason why I asked him to contribute an essay, was seeing that photo. I was like, ‘We need to unpack all of this.’ You can’t tell the story of hip-hop jewelry without tying it to the history of African aesthetics. You see so many of even the hoop earrings for women from the Ashanti of a certain length, or ankhs, or Nefertiti, just the iconography can be traced straight back to elements of African culture.

Even with all that you were able to pack into Ice Cold, were there images that you wanted to add but couldn’t?

Oh, my God. There were so many things that were left on the cutting-room floor. I mean, that’s just part and parcel of doing a book. I wish I could have included more photos of guys from the street. I do have a lot of that, but I interviewed Alpo [Martinez] before he was killed. He was going to give me some additional photos and just, unfortunately, didn’t get to that point.

The one thing that came out after the book was already at the printer was the Kendrick crown of thorns that Tiffany made for him. I think that would’ve been a significant piece that we could have had in there. Everything else, I feel like, was really well represented.

A spread featuring Cam’ron’s Diplomats jewels.

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Were there any stories that surprised you as you put the book together?

Nothing really surprised me, just because I had been part of hip-hop at a certain moment in time in New York. I knew a lot rather than just a complete outsider coming in who might have been surprised by certain things or moments. I did speak with Tito [Caicedo]’s sister Sandy. Sadly, she told me that the original mold of the Biggie Jesus piece had been destroyed from heat and how they were stored. That broke my heart a little bit. What’s happened to a lot of these pieces, or them being lost or stolen, a lot of pieces have just disappeared along the way.

Then also that famous Ghostface cuff that is in the book — that golden eagle. I learned that it was melted down into a coin that was then sold as an NFT [non-fungible token]. I think a lot about archives and just archiving the culture. Things like that just broke my heart doing the book because these are pieces that should be preserved and treated with a similar way that when the Met does their history of jewelry show.

Rapper Lil Yachty’s Lil Boat Chain.

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Based on your research, what drove the changes in jewelry styles from decade to decade?

The style, when you think about in the beginning, even that first instance of Kurtis Blow on his debut album, wearing those really humble, small, layered chains, and then that giving way to Dookie ropes and the bigger chunkier pieces. Then from there, even Jay and Diddy coming in and starting to use platinum and starting to add diamonds, and even the rise of the label chains, and right on down. Then Pharrell comes in, and all of a sudden there’s multicolor gemstones and enamel being made.

Then Gucci and folks like that start even being more playful with anime characters and his Bart Simpson. Really, everyone stands on the shoulder of everyone, to the point now where it’s like anything goes, and it’s really playful. 

Along with that too, of course, is the rise of hip-hop itself, from being a culture that was really formed by communities and neighborhoods, and then all of a sudden stepping into its power and starting to build their own labels, and starting to build their own companies and media companies that would rise up alongside and more. You start seeing budgets getting bigger and bigger. All that stuff all happened in tandem. The jewelry really is just in lockstep with the way that hip-hop stepped into its power.

You alluded to that time when Sarah Jessica Parker’s character from Sex and the City wore a gold nameplate necklace. 

The ‘Carrie’ necklace, right? (Laughs.)

Exactly. Can you discuss the tension between trends starting in Black and brown communities and making their way out to others? 

The Sex and the City nameplate necklace became known as the ‘Carrie’ necklace and was adopted by yoga moms all over the world. Nameplate culture is something that comes from Black and brown communities. Also even before that, it’s also a Jewish tradition, going back to even the ’20s and the ’50s early on. Primarily, when you talk about more recent history, it is a thing that young women from Black and brown communities have been doing for a long time.

When that moment with Sex and the City happened and the story started getting changed of who originated that necklace, I wish I could say that’s just one of one example, but it’s not. Black style and style that Black women and men create, all that originating gets monetized and turned into something else into the mainstream, where now layering necklaces and wearing hoop earrings, and wearing Jordans and Air Force 1s, are really mainstream, almost basic girl thing.

I guess for me personally, I’m always surprised. How can you not know where that came from? Or how can you not be curious about where that really came from? I think it’s up to books and storytelling and just remembering and also making sure that entrepreneurship with certain things stays in certain people’s hands. Now you’re seeing a great rise in Black jewelers and women jewelers. Simone Smith, who’s LL Cool J’s wife, has a jewelry line. Shara McHayle has a hoops line. Even Will Selby, who did all of A$AP Ferg’s jewelry. I think it’s easy to take the story in a certain direction when you don’t have that foundation of equity in the business side. I’m happy to see that changing.

What can I say? Black style and Black women originate so many things that become mainstream. We just need to recognize that and celebrate it. I think that that’s the way you sort of undo those things. 

Greg Whitt is a writer from Washington, DC. His work has appeared in VIBE, Genius, Consequence of Sound and several other publications. He likes to freestyle when he's by himself in the car.