Diamonds are more than a rapper's best friend — they're a billboard telling the world so many different things, primarily that you've made it, or that you're spending like you have and you're about to lose it all. Whatever the message or the motive, it's a primary form of communication in hip-hop that's now getting its own decoder book.
Former MTV News scribe Minya Oh (also known as Hot 97's Miss Info) chats up rappers from 50 Cent and Lil Jon to Chuck D and Slick Rick in her book, "Bling Bling: Hip Hop's Crown Jewels" (out next week via Wenner Books), which explores the bling phenomenon from back in the day to present day, with everyone rocking their most choice ice.
"People want to sparkle," Oh said. "Everyone wants to stand out, none more so than rappers. They were struggling to find their place in both music and the larger American culture, and went from struggling minority to legit millionaires. They're living out champagne wishes and caviar dreams, and then we follow suit by getting our own little personal piece of glamour. There's never been more rhinestones on the least jewelry-related products. We're seeing bling bling in banking ads, chewing gum ads, hundreds of products. It now translates to all types of people, because it makes you more glamorous than you were."
Some bling seems purposely designed to make you seem less glamorous, though — like Lil Jon's pimp cup and ODB's gold fronts. The problem with wearing your bling in your mouth, though, is that it can be quite painful. Slick Rick had a diamond put onto his gold tooth against his jeweler's recommendation (never mind his dentist's!), and he couldn't talk. Baby tried to avoid the pain factor by having his metal mouth permanently bonded. "He can eat anything, even if it's scalding hot," Oh said — not that she recommends this, of course.
But for a lot of the rappers Oh spoke with, their bling also had a personal meaning. Snoop Dogg, for instance, wears different pendants to represent different homes, "Like a dog with a new collar," she said, "going place to place." For 50, who accuses other rappers of wearing fakes and not admitting it, his bling represents honesty: He admits to wearing duplicates of his real jewelry, which he keeps in a lockbox for safekeeping. "He knows he can afford the real thing, and for him it's common sense," Oh said. "Plus, he's rough with his jewelry, and had to Krazy-Glue his diamonds back into his chain. It's better to wear replicas. It's good business [sense]."
But other approaches work too. Ghostface relates how he told his label to give him the marketing budget for his album, and he would market himself — but ended up blowing it all on a huge gold eagle to wear on his wrist. "For any normal person, that is the stupidest thing you could do," Oh said. "But you can't argue that his strategy didn't work. Everyone talked about it, and no one will forget it."
After boasting about their collections of chains or ice, some of the rappers also opened about how they couldn't really afford what they bought, or how they felt pressure from their fans to maintain an image they couldn't keep up. They talked about the jealousy involved, about being threatened, being robbed and being hurt. And their regret is palpable. "If anything, the book shows the good, the bad, the ugly, and then the sad," Oh said. "They're chasing these gold dreams, but what happens when you put too much value in your chain? If you spend all your money on your ring and then you go broke? It's not an advertisement for jewelry."
Be sure to check out "The Bling Report": "Bling Bling" author Minya Oh interviews Mike Jones, Paul Wall and others, and gives a sneak peek at what the stars will be wearing on the VMAs carpet. Look for it August 28 on Overdrive.