Just last week, we revisited the culture-shifting moment in 1999 when LL Cool J subverted retail juggernaut Gap by sporting a FUBU cap while appearing in a commercial for the brand. The moment was a gamechanger, both for the independent Black brand founded by Daymond John and for the culture, at large; a subconscious reminder that Black culture is not only a primary influence upon fashion, but deserves the same funding and platforms.
Over 20 years later (and barely having aged a day), LL’s own newly launched lifestyle brand, Rock The Bells—named for his 1985(!) hit single of the same name—is aiming to bridge the gap, evoking the iconic Cuban link chain in the brand’s latest drop, a collaboration with Atlanta-based artist and designer Alexander-John called “The Chain Collection.”
“The Chain Collection is designed to bring a spotlight back to where streetwear all began,” explained Alexander-John in a press release sent to The Glow Up. “Spray cans dripped and draped in Cuban links serve as a visual for luxury lifestyle while also paying homage to graffiti art deriving from hip hop culture. This collection offers today’s streetwear enthusiasts an opportunity to support a collection designed with meaning and purpose. This is a Black story, this is a true story, this is the culture...we Rock The Bells.”
LL expanded the well-known Rock The Bells concert franchise to a digital platform and lifestyle brand earlier this year with backing from a collective of investors that included co-founder and chairman Geoff Yang of Redpoint Ventures; Bozoma Saint John; Harvard professor and co-founder of The Root Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., among others. June marked the first product collaboration between the rapper and Alexander-John, who teamed up on a limited-edition product line in honor of George Floyd, with a portion of the proceeds donated to the Black Lives Matter movement and LL’s Jump & Ball Foundation.
Speaking with Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) ahead of the second drop, LL explained, “[T]he Rock the Bells platform is really just a work in progress; we’re going to take it to another level. Doing a collection like this, working with a young, talented designer who has insight into the culture and understands what we’re trying to do—that’s what this is about...It’s nice to take a young Black designer and say, ‘I’m in a position, I have a platform and you can go out there and shine.’”
Following the profound message of the duo’s first collaboration, LL’s approach to the second—a full collection including t-shirts, a hoodie, jogger pants, plus a varsity jacket and duffle bag in collaboration with Roots, all sporting a red, black and green color story (and ranging from $75 - $495)—is perhaps surprisingly diplomatic. Discussing what he perceives to be the deeper meaning of The Chain Collection, he suggests it is a call for unity amid seemingly irreparable sociopolitical division.
“There’s a high road and a low road out there,” he told WWD, acknowledging what the outlet refers to as “challenges” but maintaining: “The key is not to demonize any group of people. I think that’s very important. We have to look at things on a case-by-case basis and be just in our thinking, and not take one group of people and use broad strokes. Like: ‘all white people are racist or all these people feel this way’—I don’t agree with that approach. I think there are a lot of people on both sides of the fence who are looking at things differently.”
Admittedly, LL’s rephrasing, however inadvertent, of Trump’s now-infamous response to the tragic events that took place in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017 is somewhat cringeworthy. Nevertheless, he accurately pointed out that the Black Lives Matter protests of this year were largely populated by white supporters “out there taking rubber bullets. And they were doing it because they believed in the moral high ground that this movement has,” he said.
“So my feeling is that ultimately, we need to unify. We need to be unified,” he continued. “When you go around the country, a lot of people have a lot of personal issues that are [affecting] their families around their dining room tables, so what we have to think about is how do we unify the country and at the same time be proud and represent who we are, and bring people together. And that’s what I’m trying to do with projects like this. This is what America is about, it’s about bootstrapping and stepping up and doing something with your platform to let your voice be heard and not sit in the back seat and let life happen to you.”
Again, the reference to “bootstrapping” gives us pause, but what we can rock is bringing people together. And then, there are the indisputably iconic influences behind the Rock The Bells platform, which include “hip-hop culture...graffiti, DJs, break dancing and MCs, the rappers who put the musical genre on the map, such as Kurtis Blow, Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick,” noted WWD.
That of course includes LL himself. “LL has been my idol since I was a kid and an inspiration to me as a young Black guy. This guy is everything you need to be as a guy.” Alexander-John told WWD in praise of the man born James Todd Smith, whose career trajectory has taken him from the top of the music charts to 12 seasons and counting as a co-star of CBS’s hit TV show NCIS: Los Angeles.
“As an artist, I’m always looking to tell true stories so once I found out his inspiration in hip-hop was Kurtis Blow, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick...I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be dope because the synergy is there,” the designer continued, explaining the incorporation of the Cuban link motif. “I said, ‘How do we bridge the gap between this generation and what LL was inspired by,’ and the chains are that synonymous thing—everybody understands getting their own custom jewelry made. I attacked it as an art form coming off graffiti and hip-hop with the chain representing that thing that a lot of rappers used to express their personal style and logos and what they stood for.”
“This Alexander-John collection came together in a magical way, and the rest is history,” LL told the outlet of the resulting collection, which he says is for “everybody—all races, all genders.”
“He designed it and trusted us to really go out and find high quality and take it to that level,” the rapper added. “They say teamwork makes a dream work and I think it worked well this time.”
The Chain Collection is now available exclusively on Rock The Bells’ website.