The Top 10 Hip Hop Sneaker Covers of All Time
Over the last decade a lot of hip-hop historians have become angered with the direction of the culture. Gone are the days of James Brown loops. Today they are replaced with Auto Tune. Another subtle, yet evident, change is album artwork (for the few of us who still buy CDs). Take the best hip-hop album to come out in 2011 (this is not arguable people) for example. The epic collaboration between Jay Z & Kanye West, aptly titled Watch the Throne, features a design from fashion icon Riccardo Tisci (the creative director behind Givenchy & Haute Couture) as the cover art. While I am not one to hate on the evolutionary process, I miss the days of the simple hip-hop album covers where the artist got dressed in their fresh gear, big gold chains and most importantly their SOLE Theory, a.k.a. hot sneakers.
These album covers while simple in their appearance were incredibly impactful and have left an indelible mark on hip-hop/sneaker heads such as myself over the last 25 years. That is why, after some fruitful debate, I have compiled SOLE Theory’s greatest Old School hip-hop album/single covers of all time, which feature classic sneakers. The criteria were simple: the cover had to display what we considered a classic sneaker and the album or single had to be a classic itself. And just so we are clear, a certified hip-hop classic is “Eric B. for President”, not Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” (sorry Weezy). So without further adieu, here is my list of the Top 10 Best hip-hop/sneaker covers of all time.
Gangstarr – Step In The Arena LP
Notable songs – “Just to Get a Rep”, “Step in the Arena”, “Who’s Going To Take The Weight”, “Check the Technique”
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Ewing Hi
Years before DJ Premier was considered by many as the greatest hip-hop producer of all time, he was Guru’s DJ who had razor sharp cuts. Guru (RIP) was posing on the front cover of this album wearing a pair of Ewing Hi’s. Now due to the cover being in black and white it’s unknown what color he was rocking, but regardless, the impact of the Ewing sneaker is undeniable especially for anyone who grew up in Toronto. I mean who didn’t know someone who owned a pair (sadly, I never owned a pair).
Main Source – Looking at the Front Door 12 Inch
Notable Songs – “Looking At The Front Door”
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Nike Air Tech Challenge II (The Agassis)
The group Main Source will always have a special place in my pantheon simply because two thirds of the group was from Toronto (DJs K-CUT & Sir Scratch). It was incredible to see the group’s centerpiece, the great Large Professor, wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat in the video for this song. 1990 was ironically when the Blue Jays were the premier franchise in Major League Baseball; however, rappers were not exactly sporting the gear. If you have visited the most wanted page on our website you will see the Air Tech Challenge IV listed, however in my opinion the Air Tech Challenge II, with its lava highlights is the best of the Agassi collection.
Queen Latifah – Latifah’s Had It Up 2 Here 12 Inch
Notable Songs – “Latifah’s Had It Up 2 Here”
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Air Flight Huarache
Today, she is known worldwide for many movie appearances (her Oscar nominated role in the movie “Chicago”) and a string of jazz albums but when it comes to classic hip-hop, Queen Latifah is one of the five best female rappers ever. Her first album released in 1989 the aptly titled All Hail the Queen, boasted classic cuts like the feminist anthem “Ladies First”, “Wrath of my Madness” and the infectious 45 King produced “Dance for Me”. Fast forward to 1991 and Latifah drops a less than stellar first single, “Fly Girl” from her sophomore effort The Nature Of A Sista. However, she came correct on her second single, “Latifah’s Had It Up 2 Here”. Around this same time, five freshmen on the campus of Ann Arbor, MI were also changing the culture of college basketball — The Fab 5 (Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson) — with their bald heads, baggy shorts and most importantly, those Air Flight Huaraches. The Tinker Hatfield masterpieces were synonymous with the Michigan Quintet. It was the first time in two years that someone other than Michael Jordan influenced my sneaker purchase. Latifah is seen wearing the low cut version of the Air Flight Huarache on the cover of the single, and no list like this could be complete without a Huarache reference.
Chi Ali – The Fabulous Chi Ali LP
Notable Tracks – “Age Ain’t Nothing But a #”, “Funky Roadrunner (Remix)”, “Funky Lemonade” (Remix).
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Air Jordan VI “Infrared”
I admit this album is not a classic, but I’ll explain. When I first heard the song “Age Ain’t Nothing But A #” I liked it. Not to mention Chi was the younger brother of Dres (of Black Sheep fame) and a member of the Native Tongues (The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest) so I figured this album would follow in the lines of classic LPs released the previous year like De La Soul is Dead, The Low End Theory and A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing where Chi was nice on his verse on the posse cut “Pass the 40”. Unfortunately, the album in its original release didn’t have anything except solid Beatnuts production and two slept-on verses from Dres & Phife of a ATCQ on “Let the Horns Blow”, when Chi decided to release a single for “Funky Roadrunner”. Much to my surprise, it was a completely different song. The beat was booming, and Chi came with completely different lyrics (and also seemed to hit puberty) — creating a classic song. Chi did this again on the third single “Funky Lemonade” where once again the Beatnuts delivered and the lyrics did also (except for “I Float likeNiagara Falls”). In terms of the sneaker displayed, even the most novice sneaker collector is aware of the importance of the Air Jordan VI “infrared”. The classic Tinker Hatfield design (might be his best ever) that was completely different than its five predecessors, shows Michael Jeffrey Jordan clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy at the old Inglewood forum after he finally won his first NBA Title. Come to think of it, Chi Ali actually had more of an influence than first realized because he was actually the first rapper I remember wearing Timberlands, which are as hip-hop as the Air Jordan sneaker itself.
Eric B. & Rakim – Don’t Sweat the Technique LP
Notable Tracks – “Know the Ledge”, “Don’t Sweat the Technique”, “The Punisher”
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Nike Air Force 1 Hi Strapped (Black and White)
This album sticks in my mind because the year was 1992 and I had returned from living in New Jersey to spend the summer in Toronto. I didn’t purchase this tape, instead I bought Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s Mecca and Soul Brother but then much to my disappointment at the neighbourhood ball court I got hustled. An acquaintance asked to swap Mecca and Soul Brother for Don’t Sweat The Technique but never returned my tape. While the latter is a good album, it will never be as good as Mecca and Soul Brother but, the sneaker featured on the cover is a classic —The Air Force 1, known in some circles as Uptowns. Most people when speaking of the AF1 usually talk about the white on white, which obviously is the most popular color way, not the black and white color way seen here. Rakim is also wearing the AFI HI Strapped, which is rarely ever seen in stores nowadays.
Diamond D – Stunts, Blunts and Hip Hop LP
Notable Tracks – “F$%K What U Heard”, “Sally Got a One Track Mind”, “Freestyle Yo Dats That Shit”, “A Day In The Life”, “Best Kept Secrets”
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Air Jordan VII “Bordeaux”
The fall/winter of 1992 was a great time for hip-hop as classic albums were being released on a weekly basis. One of my personal favorites of the bunch is Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop by Diamond D, a seminal member of the crew D.I.T.C which included Showbiz & AG, Lord Finesse, Fat Joe, O.C and of course, Big L (RIP). Diamond D is probably the most underrated member of this group, but no one, not even the late, great Big L from this collective, produced a better album. Few album titles describe the music correctly but this is an exception. The album is just hip-hop, the production, subject matter, classic cuts and of course, the cover artwork. Diamond is pictured holding money in his left hand, throwing dice with the other while his crew all look to see what he rolled. From the expression on his face it wasn’t 4, 5, 6 and while spending hours kneeling over shooting dice can be painful, Diamond’s feet are very comfortable as he is spotted in the Air Jordan VII “Bordeaux” — easily the most comfortable Jordan sneaker of the first 10 and the color way is unique. Usually at the time, Jordan’s releases had some color scheme that would match the Chicago Bulls colors or the Olympic colors, but these didn’t have any of the above. The Air Jordan VII is more famously known as the “Hare” Jordans with the white/red color way sported by Bugs Bunny. Both the album and sneaker are classics.
LL Cool J – Radio LP
Notable Songs – “Rock the Bells”, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”, “I Need A Beat”, “Dear Yvette”
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Air Jordan 1 – Banned
The first hip-hop song I ever heard was LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” and from that point on I have been hooked ever since. The aggression in his voice and the way he put his words together were incredible. “No Rapper can rap quite like I can / I take a muscle bound man and put his face in the sand.” To this day, that gives me chills when I hear it. In the summer of 1988 I saw an LL Cool J album Radio inside Sam The Record Man and bought it thinking it was his new album. Obviously it wasn’t, as I would find out later, but hey, how would I know that? I was 11 at the time. On the back of the cover was LL Cool J posing in a red Kangol, rope chain and of course the Air Jordan 1— Banned, which might be the most iconic sneaker ever. To this generation, LL Cool J is known as an actor who used to rap a long time ago, but even today’s youth go back and purchase the LL catalogue from 1985 -2000. And as for Michael Jordan, he is still romanticized by most as the greatest to ever play the game even though his last meaningful game was played in June 1998 (over 14 years ago). Still, because of the impact of his shoes, 20 year olds will tell you he is the best ever. Most have probably only watched clips of Jordan games on YouTube which speaks to his impact and legacy.
Run DMC – Walk This Way 12 Inch
Notable Song – “Walk This Way”
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Adidas Superstar (Shell Toe)
When you think Shell Toe Adidas you automatically think Run-DMC. Any rap artist that boosts any type of endorsement deal should cut a cheque to the Queens’ legends. In 1986 when 4,000 screaming fans took off their shell toes and held them up in the air at the behest of Run-DMC the marketing of hip-hop changed instantly. Corporate America realized that this music that some thought was a passing fad could bolster its sales figures by catering to this audience. The Adidas Superstar doesn’t need any introduction. It’s classic, it looks good and every color way works. The Jordan brand might be the most iconic in hip-hop but I don’t think any one pair of Jordans is on the same level in terms of importance as the Superstar.
EPMD – Unfinished Business LP
Notable Songs – “So Wat Cha Sayin”, “The Big Payback”, “Please Listen To My Demo”, “Knick Knack Patty Wack”, “Total Kaos”
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Air Flight 1989 Hi
This cover epitomizes everything I loved about Erick and Parrish not to mention hip-hop in general. The shoes, cars, chains and of course the fisherman hats displayed are classic. If there was a hip hop album cover pictured in Webster’s Dictionary this should be it. While the materialistic culture of hip-hop has been scrutinized by the mainstream media, in 1989 EPMD always talked about nice cars, jewelry and fancy bottles of liquor, yet in a way where it wasn’t over exposed. That’s exactly how I would describe the shoe that is displayed on the cover. I personally prefer the Nike Air Flight 1989 lows, however, the impact of this shoe cannot be understated. The flight 89s (especially the lows) look similar to the Air Jordan IV, especially the sole unit, which is virtually identical. EPMD wearing this shoe is perfect symmetry because their career is often underappreciated like the sneaker they are wearing. Countless have borrowed Erick Sermon’s trademark funk sound production (have you ever heard of Dr. Dre) and used EPMD lines in their rhymes (Notorious B.I.G, Jay Z and Nas), which is comparable to how many shoes the Nike Air Flight 89 inspired (The Air Jordan IV). It’s a marriage made in hip-hop/sneaker heaven.
Three Times Dope – Original Stylin 12 inch
Notable Tracks – “Original Stylin’”
Classic Sneaker Displayed – Air Jordan III (Fire Red, Black Cement, White Cement)
A picture is worth a thousand words, or in this case, good enough for SOLE THEORY’s #1 spot. Nuff said.