Nelly, Usher, Ja Rule Get Their Kicks From Remixed Sneakers

Custom-painted Nike Air Force Ones are proving to be the sneaker of choice in hip-hop.

Perhaps hip-hop is taking the remix thing a little too far. The latest trend: remixed shoes.

That’s the term coined by the designers of custom-painted Nike Air Force Ones, the new must-have fashion accessory for rappers.

With urban music icons like Jermaine Dupri, Nelly and Usher sporting the colorful shoes, the New York artists known as Remix Da Kicks have created what R&B newcomer Mario called “the new Timberlands.”

“They’ll remix your kicks however you want them,” Dupri said of the designers. “Every jersey I got, I got a pair of Air Force Ones that go with them. Color match, the whole thing. They got the New York kind. They got the Laker Air Force Ones. Any kind you want, man, they got ‘em.”

Remix Da Kicks co-founder Aladdin, who also works in the A&R department of DJ Clue’s Desert Storm Records, said he first began painting shoes because he didn’t like the options at stores. “You always have to find something that goes with the outfit,” he said. “So we decided to make our own shoes.”

One day Aladdin wore a pair of his shoes into the office. “I saw [DJ Clue's] reaction and Fabolous’ reaction and I got a big light bulb on top of my head.”

DJ Clue became Remix Da Kicks’ first official customer. Ludacris was second, and after he wore his in a photo shoot, others came rolling in. Nelly had a pair done to promote Nellyville that he wore to the BET Awards. Dupri became a frequent client. And DJ Clue, well, he got hooked.

“I keep about 55 pairs of Air Force Ones at a time,” he said. “I got one closet just all white on whites, and I got a closet with colors, blue and white, black and white. And I got some exclusives that nobody probably ever seen before.”

Aladdin said he and his fellow designers spend quality time with each pair of sneakers. “We look at the jersey, and whatever color there isn’t much of, we’ll make that the [swoosh logo]. And we use our hands [to paint]. That is where the magic comes from.”

Remix Da Kicks is growing rapidly and is even talking with Nike about a possible legitimate designing deal. But as DJ Clue pointed out, Air Force Ones are a hot shoe, even when they’re not remixed.

Celebrating their 20th year on shelves, Nike’s famous line is more popular than ever. Not only are artists constantly wearing them in videos and photo shoots, they’re rapping about the shoes themselves. Nelly and the St. Lunatics even wrote a song about them on Nellyville, a modern day “My Adidas” called simply “Air Force Ones.”

“I like the all-white high-top strap with the gum bottom,” Nelly raps on the song. “There’s somthin’ ’bout dem that’s dirty/ Why I got ‘em.”

Of course, to Nelly, “dirty” means “cool” (among other things). The truth is, dirty Air Force Ones are considered almost sinful.

“The only problem [is] they only good for one night,” Nelly raps later on the track. ” ‘Cause once you scuff ‘em/ You f—ed up your whole night.”

In fact, one of the main attractions of Air Force Ones is their sparkling look.

“It’s a clean sneaker,” Ja Rule said. “From generation to generation to generation, everybody loves to be clean, come out of the house and just look clean. And I think that’s what Air Force Ones represent.”

Air Force Ones, at least the white on white, are also known for being easy to match with any sort of outfit.

“They go with anything I wear,” Usher said. “I wear it with jeans. I wear it with sweat suits. I wear it with shorts. Everything. Air Force One is the all-time favorite shoe and all-purpose shoe.”

Air Force Ones, much like Converse’s Chuck Taylors or the classic Adidas, have kept the same design over the years. And like Outkast’s Big Boi noted, vintage is in “just like in music.” “I’m not really into the new space-age Nikes,” he said.

“They don’t try to play out like all these others, trying to put out mad space shoes and all that,” added Mr. Cheeks. “It’s the ’80s. It’s soul. And all that comfortability.”

Usher finds them so comfortable, he said they’re one of his favorite dancing shoes. And Wyclef Jean noted, “You can still run in them. I think they’re really comfortable. They’re fly. They’re hot.”

Air Force Ones, remixed or not, have everything music stars are looking for in shoes. Of course, that comes at a price. A typical custom pair ranges from $150 to $300.

So the question is, will consumers pay that much to look like their favorite rapper?

“I think really those styles will only be worn by artists,” Ja Rule said. “That’s not a style for you to go to school in. You know, they cost $300. It’s not worth it, because, especially with white on white, they go two or three wears and it’s a wrap.”

Because, like Nelly rapped, dirty Air Force Ones just won’t cut it.

—Corey Moss, with additional reporting by
Sway

and Matt Paco