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Here’s How Hip-Hop Kept Reebok Relevant While Nike Dominated

In the 1980s, Reebok was bigger than Nike.

You were more likely to find a pair of Reebok shoes on someone’s feet than on a shelf. But, that dynamic completely flipped in the ’90s (see: Michael Jordan and the Swoosh’s meteoric rise in popularity) with all signs of Nike’s emergence pointing to Reebok’s premature demise. That is if the company didn’t get a little help from a popular, yet unlikely source: Hip-hop.

“Hip-hop culture and Reebok are kind of synonymous,” Head of Reebok Classics, Todd Krinsky, told Digital Trends. He’s right, too; rappers have consistently worn Reeboks on the soles of their feet while rhyming about them on the tips of their tongues for decades. Legendary rapper Redman proudly proclaimed he “don’t have a car, but own a pair of Reeboks” on his 1992 song Watch Yo Nuggets. Southern rap pioneer Juvenile observed people were “wearin’ Reebok instead of Nikes,” on his 1998 song Ghetto Children.

But even with its popularity in hip-hop, Reebok didn’t make hip hop integral to the company’s success until the early 2000s after it started signing deals with marquee industry talents like 50 Cent, Jay-Z, and Pharrell, instead of athletes. Krinsky fondly refers to those years as Reebok’s “glory days.”

Now, hip-hop is the most popular genre of music in the world while Reebok finds itself in a bit of a relaunching phase. At a recent unveiling of Reebok’s 3:AM shoe collaboration with graffiti artist Trevor “Trouble” Andrew, Krinsky — who’s been with Reebok for more than two decades —  gave Digital Trends insight on how important hip-hop has been to Reebok’s brand and how one NBA player was the catalyst for the brand’s entire hip-hop movement.

The Answer

At the turn of the century, Reebok was in trouble. Sales declined 20 percent between ’97 and ’99, while Nike grew to nearly three times the size as its share of the athletic apparel market reached a staggering 39 percent compared to Reebok’s 14 percent. That’s when one of Reebok’s most successful endorsers went through a sort of metamorphosis that brought the then 41-year-old company into unfamiliar territory.

“I think, actually, to begin with, we were definitely in the music business for a really long time but it was actually Allen Iverson that started it. We signed Allen as a basketball player but he was kind of a rapper in a basketball player’s body,” Krinsky said. “He opened up the avenue into hip-hop culture for us.”

Iverson had been an integral part of Reebok since signing in 1996 but transformed into the company’s savior after releasing his first rap song, 40 Barz, under the rap moniker, Jewelz. Even with the song attracting vitriol for its homophobic and misogynistic lyrics, Reebok put major marketing money behind Iverson’s hip-hop aesthetic in an iconic 2001 commercial for Iverson’s Answer 5 shoe. The spot featured fellow hip-hop artist Jadakiss rapping over the sounds of bouncing basketballs bouncing and swishing nets.

By the end of 2001, Iverson’s A5 shoes were so successful, Reebok signed Iverson to the company’s first and only lifetime endorsement deal. During a late November 2001 NBA broadcast, TNT NBA analyst Hubie Brown even mentioned that Iverson’s shoe “was the highest selling sneaker in all of the business.” From then on, hip-hop remained an important part of Reebok’s secret sauce for relevancy.

Jay-Z and beyond

Around the time of Iverson’s hip-hop transformation, Krinsky said Reebok felt “kids don’t care as much about basketball players; they’re looking to music for their influence.” Imagine Reebok coming to the conclusion that athletes wearing their shoes aren’t cool anymore — it’s a bonafide existential crisis for an athletic footwear and apparel company. So is being irrelevant.

“Hip Hop culture and Reebok are kind of synonymous.”

We had this infamous meeting at the boardroom where the chairman of the brand was saying, ‘We have to get more relevant. If it’s not basketball, and it’s music, tell me who,’” Krinsky added. “I said to him, ‘There’s definitely one guy but it’s going to be hard to get him.’ He was like, ‘Who?’ Then I said, ‘Jay-Z.’”

Soon after in 2002, Reebok signed Jay-Z to an endorsement deal. By the end of the S. Carter Collection’s first year on sale, Reebok shipped an astounding 500,000 pairs of shoes from a guy who never sold a single sneaker in his life. After seeing this success, Reebok went on a hip-hop signing spree, inking lucrative shoe deals with hip-hop producer Pharrell and 50 Cent. In ’04 — a year after the signings — Reebok’s U.S. footwear sales grew by 17 percent, due in large part to its continued investment in hip-hop.

This new venture for the brand proved fruitful but it wasn’t enough to help Reebok unseat Nike from atop its throne and then it was eventually bought by Adidas in 2005 — but it took hip hop with it.

Rapper turned designer

Today, hip-hop is still vitally important to the Reebok brand. The company recently tabbed fashion-forward rapper Cam’ron to help it release a 20th-anniversary edition of its classic DMX Run 10 running shoe. This is the same Cam’ron who started wearing all-pink outfits in the early 2000s because (according to a 2004 interview) he didn’t want to “be dressing like everybody else.” A unique union, no doubt, but it wasn’t just for show — Cam’ron had a large amount of input in the design of the shoe and worked directly with Reebok.

“Reebok sends me a bunch of shit for myself and what I do is I tell them, ‘Nah, I’m definitely not doing this. Hell no.’ We could do this if we tweak this, this, and this,” Cam’ron told Digital Trends at the 3:AM event. “We’ll go through that process and we narrow it down to what I like and that’s how we come down to the final sneaker.”

For his own spin on the DMX Run 10, Krinksy says Cam thumbed through Reebok’s archives and chose the specific silhouette, style, and technology to work with while adding “a lot of his influence in the shoes.” The DMX Run 10 was Cam’s third collaboration with Reebok and, similar to the previous two, featured a limited run intended for only the most die-hard of Cam’ron (and Reebok) fans.

“It was never meant to be this huge thing for everyone. It’s really for people that mess with Cam, who he is, and follow him,” Krinsky said. Reebok only released 500 pairs of Cam’ron’s Reebok Ventilator Supreme-inspired Purple Haze sneakers in April 2016, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of Jay-Z’s S. Carter Collection shoes shipped during its hip-hop heyday.

What’s next?

Though the reduced release with Cam’ron may point to a brand losing interest in hip-hop, it’s actually the opposite. From the outside, it looks as though 2018 might shape up to be Reebok’s most prolific year since its glory days with Jay-Z.

Take 2017, for instance. Reebok either signed endorsement deals or released collaborations with hip-hop hitmakers Gucci Mane, Rae Sremmurd, and Future. When releasing Future’s signature shoe dubbed the Reebok Furykaze, Reebok decided against a limited run, ordering a much larger distribution. Similar to its run in the early 2000s, Reebok hopes hip-hop can breathe new life into one of the company’s most storied brands.

“I think we were kind of relaunching [Reebok] Classics in the U.S. a little bit,” Krinsky told us. “We wanted to do it through music, because that’s our heritage; that’s our history.”

Aside from unveiling Andrew’s 3:AM sneaker collaboration, Reebok also debuted the first part of its 3:AM video series centered around artists flexing their creativity before most people get out of bed — hence the 3:AM name. The series is one of the company’s first forays into visual storytelling centered around its shoe collaborators and could lead to Reebok operating not unlike a record label, with Krinsky adding, “We are trying to make original content, which could come with original music, too.”

Cam told us his next Reebok collaboration — the Fleekbok 4’s — plans to release in June 2018 but stopped short before telling us the Reebok silhouette he used.

“I can’t tell you, because [Reebok] gets mad. They really get mad.”

The sneaker game is sort of like the rap game and Reebok is prepared to enter 2018 with a firm grasp on both.

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