The partnership between the music producer and graffiti artist highlights how the luxury brand is still ingrained in hip-hop culture
Swizz Beatz collaborates with Bally and X-ray artist Shok-1
“Fresh dressed like a million bucks. Threw on the Bally shoes and the fly green socks.” Who could have guessed, when Slick Rick rapped about wearing Bally trainers in the 1985 song La Di Da Di, that the same shoes would be central to hip-hop culture more than three decades on? Despite its long and distinguished history (the brand was founded in Switzerland in 1851), Bally is not the first name that springs to mind when you think about the hard-edged, urban-inspired musical genre that burst out of New York in the early 1980s. However, Bally trainers were being name-checked in verse a whole year before Run-DMC stepped out in their Adidas.
Names like Slick Rick, Doug E Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew were part of a lyrical energy that emerged from the broken landscape of New York. Still reeling from the city’s near-bankruptcy 10 years earlier, teenagers and twenty-somethings pushed back against their grim surroundings, creating a new style of music, dance and dress. Looking to each other for inspiration, words were spoken, not sung, over music stripped to the bare bones of percussion, using groundbreaking ideas such as beatboxing and scratching. Dismissing the stuffy fashion of the Upper East Side, these kids, hailing largely from the Bronx, adopted a dress code of tracksuits, Kangol hats and trainers.
As much a part of their persona as their nasal rapping styles, both Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick were loyal to their Ballys. Hard-to-get and with a distinctive design, the leather shoes were highly coveted, so it was no mistake that Fresh donned a pair on the cover of his 1986 album Oh, My God!, or that Slick Rick called out ‘Oh, yo Doug, put your Ballys on” on The Show.
Today, the big names in hip-hop may be different, but the link with Bally is still strong, thanks in no small part to the drive of music producer Swizz Beatz.
For those who are unfamiliar, Swizz Beatz – real name Kasseem Dean – began his music career at just 16 and has since been pivotal in the career of many emerging hip-hop musicians. Kanye West dubbed him the “best rap producer of all time”. As well as music, Dean, who is a practising Muslim, has a deep passion for art, both as creator and collector. His own art work is sold to profit the Children’s Cancer & Blood Foundation, while his private collection, dubbed the Dean Collection, is regarded as a gauge of future stars.
A child of New York, Dean tells us how he began working with Bally. “Bally was on the scene when I was growing up in the Bronx. The way that our culture is looking at Gucci now, Bally really set that blueprint. I bought four pairs of Bally sneakers at London’s Heathrow airport. Then I posted them on Instagram and people started going crazy in the comments section. Bally liked my post… and it went from there.”
That conversation culminated in a collaboration that launched last year, called Bally x Swizz Beatz, which saw Dean enlist Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo to add his distinctive illustrations to Bally pieces. Buoyed by that success, a second tie-up has just been unveiled, this time with British graffiti-turned-fine artist Shok-1.
Shok-1 is already well regarded for his X-ray graffiti, which depicts animals, people and objects as huge X-rays (rendered with such photorealistic subtlety that it is hard to believe they are achieved using only a spray can), and the Bally project was a no-brainer for the British artist.
“Swizz Beatz first wrote to me a few years back,” Shok-1 says. “He had been a fan of my work for some time and wanted to talk about collecting my art for the Dean Collection. Later on, he called me up and invited me to collaborate with Bally.”
Dean is happy to explain his choice. “Shok-1 is a legend from the UK, and I wanted to switch it up. I’m honoured he wanted to do the collaboration with us. He also knew that what we’re doing is authentic and he was a perfect fit. He’s a master of the X-ray; he’s not just doing something regular, and what he does goes along perfectly with our vision.”
Fans of Shok-1’s work will see familiar codes running through the Bally x Swizz Beatz x Shok-1 collection. The circular skull of Pac-Man covers the front of hoodies and wallets, as well as being reduced to a polka-dot pattern across sweats and trainers. A skeletal hand is reworked to show a devil’s horn pose, on bags, tees and high-top trainers. Used to working in shades of greys, Shok-1’s palette is still monochromatic, but now extends to a peachy nude.
Although his designs are more likely to be seen on huge canvases in art galleries, Shok-1 didn’t feel pressured to change his style, but rather continued to merge art with underground subversion. “Bally has an open and collaborative philosophy that I think lends itself to an artist-led project like our collaboration, and has treated me with the utmost respect, and given me a ton of creative control over the collection. It feels like friends who’ve worked closely together to make something special. Actually, I’m surprised that it was possible to be able to work so intimately with a big brand. I’ve really enjoyed it,” says Shok-1.
“Back in the 1980s, I was a teenager who was immersing himself in the subcultures of graffiti writing and hip-hop,” he adds. “Fashion was a big part of a subculture that brought young people together in a positive movement of music, dance and art, and Bally, to me, was a kind of hallowed, mythical thing that I heard about in rap lyrics. I especially associate it with the golden era of hip-hop, so Bally to me relates to a period when the music was less about violence and negativity, and more about skills and upliftment.”