The latest wave of hip-hop battles has nothing to do with who's the nicest on the mic or even which DJ is sharpest when it comes to cutting up records. Rappers are currently engaged in fashion one-upmanship more specifically, striving to rock the hottest athletic jersey.
More than ever, hip-hoppers from Nelly ("#1") to Jermaine Dupri ("Ballin Out of Control") to Dr. Dre (Mary J. Blige's "Family Affair") have been sporting the pro sports tops in their videos and TV appearances. Jerseys have become as much of a fashion staple for them as iced-out jewelry or models on their arms.
(Click for photos of artists sporting their new and vintage jerseys.)
DJ Clue calls himself the king of the jerseys. "I've been wearing jerseys for years, going around from town to town, collecting," he said. "I got real deep into it. I've got hundreds of jerseys, home and away."
"The jersey is definitely a trend," said Clue's protégé Fabolous. "The kids see it on the older guys. They're cool, they're comfortable. A lot of kids watch sports."
Fab is upping the ante on the competition by wearing jerseys from the 1970s New York Yankees, 1980s San Francisco 49ers and defunct squads such as the Virginia Squires and Houston Colt .45s.
"The old-school jerseys are classics," Fab said. "When people see them, they're like, 'Woooo!' "
"Those are collector's items," concurred G. Dep, who rolls with various members of the Bad Boy family, often wearing the same team's jerseys (many times the same player) to show unity. "It's good to have some originality [rather than] rock a regular jersey that 49 other n---as got. Throwbacks are more personalized. It's gotta be a competition 'cause everybody wants the throwbacks."
"You gotta take it back, man," Ludacris advised. "Everybody's getting tired of the same old stuff. So they're trying to take it back as far as possible."
On his latest album, The Blueprint, Jay-Z rhymes about "Jump on the track like duhn, duhn, duhn/ With the throwback jersey and the fitted [ball cap]." In his video for "Girls, Girls, Girls," he wears a 1982 San Diego Padres top and 1947 Washington Redskins jersey.
"I've got a bunch of old throwbacks [in my closet]," said Jay, who wore jerseys during every show on his Hard Knock Life tour in 1999. "I'm keeping consistent with the music. Everything is keeping it simple. I've got the old Pumas on now. We're all throwbacks at Roc-A-Fella. We're bringing gold back."
As some rappers and DJs will tell you, during your spending excursion on memory lane, make sure to get the most obscure gear, especially if you're going to wear it in your videos.
Dupri (Jagged Edge's "Where the Party At") and P. Diddy ("Bad Boy for Life") wearing the same 1973-74 "Pistol Pete" Maravich Atlanta Hawks jersey is a fashion no-no.
"First you've got to get the exclusive joints," Fab said. "Then you get your favorite player."
Reubin Harley routinely helps customers get the "exclusive joints" at the Mitchell & Ness Sporting Goods store. "They tug you like, 'Look, I want this first,' " Harley said. The company makes the throwback gear, with jerseys averaging about $200 to $300. Mitchell & Ness has serviced everyone from the aforementioned artists to Jadakiss, Mick Jagger and athletes Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson.
"Exclusivity they want to premiere it, then let the streets kill it," Harley said. "As soon as [the clothes get shown in videos] we can't keep enough inventory in the store."
"The NBA old-school jerseys are the hottest thing in the country," said Mitchell & Ness owner Peter Capolino. "I can't make enough of them."
Mitchell & Ness owns licensing for old-school jerseys for NFL, MLB and NBA teams. The company has an extensive research center, which includes more than 1 million magazines that serve as a reference tool for jerseys' designers.
"Outkast really made Mitchell & Ness famous," Capolino said. "About 1998, '99, they started wearing the Houston Astros rainbow jersey [from the '80s]. They went from Astros to the Cubs. Those guys must own $25,000 in Mitchell & Ness products.
"Fat Joe is a regular," he continued. "But the problem with Fat Joe is that every time I see him he keeps getting fatter. I make something in a chest size 56 and he's a chest size 60. [He's gone from] 56 to a 64 since I've known him."
With winter coming, the next level of competition is shaping up to be jackets Fabolous wears a St. Louis Browns (the team that later became the Baltimore Orioles) jacket and hat in the video for "Young'n." Meanwhile, one of Jay-Z's artists, Freeway, sported Julius "Dr. J" Erving's 1975-76 season Philadelphia 76ers warm-up during his guest spots on this year's Blueprint Lounge tour