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— by James Montgomery, with reporting by Yasmine Richards

Hip-hop has long had an obsession with sneakers. From Run-DMC's "My Adidas" to Nelly's "Air Force Ones," with countless shout-outs in-between, the glorification of one's kicks has long been part of the game.

Now you can add another group of footwear fanatics to that list: Berkeley, California's the Pack, four under-20 kids with an unhealthy and unusual obsession with Vans — a brand long associated with skate rats instead of hip-hop heads.

The group's debut single — called, simply, "Vans" — is a snapping, trippy four-minute ode to the slip-on sneakers, which, according to Pack producer/mastermind Young L and his cohort Young Stunner, is much more than mere brand deification.

"Skateboarding and hip-hop, a lot of people didn't do it, but we do [so does Lupe Fiasco — see "My Block: Chicago"]. And 'Vans' answered so many questions and addressed these stereotypes," L said. "Instead of running from all that, we ran toward it and really embraced ourselves and being us. We've been wearing Vans since sixth grade."

"The song sort of comes right out and says, 'What, just because I skateboard I don't listen to rap?' " Stunner added. "It's about those stereotypes. The world is full of them: 'If you ride a skateboard you have to listen to rock. You can't listen to rap, you can't be a black dude, you can't be Hispanic, you can't be none of that.' So we made up this song to talk about all of that."

Before they got busy busting down stereotypes, L and Stunner — a.k.a. Lloyd Omadhebo and Keith Jenkins — were just two kids who were more concerned with grinding rails and busting flip-kicks. They first met in sixth grade, and forged a close friendship over their twin hobbies: skateboarding and music. Soon, the two were making rough demos of tunes, though nothing really clicked until they met up with Brandon McCartney (who would soon go by the name of Lil B) and DaMonte Johnson (aka Lil Uno). And soon, the Pack — then known as the Wolfpack — were born.

And while the group began cooking up songs in L's mom's house and became a minor fixture on the house-party circuit, they had a difficult time being taken seriously, because, well, they were all about 13 years old.

"We used to listen to so much music, and we started thinking 'Hey, maybe we could do this!' " Stunner laughed. "But we were so young. I mean, who's going to take a bunch of 13-year-old kids seriously? But we were blessed, because we got a mentor — and that mentor is Short."

He's talking about West Coast legend Too Short, who heard the Pack's mixtape while riding in a friend's car. As street lore has it, Short was hooked within eight songs, and he signed the group to his fledgling Up All Nite Records.

"I was in Sacramento and I get this call, and it's a random number," Uno recalled. "So I'm like, 'Man, who is this?' — 'cause I don't answer random numbers — and it was Short. And it's just such a coincidence that Short knew my father [also an MC] since, like, '83. They used to do shows together. Anyway, he was like, 'Let's do something.' "

"Man, it was just really a blessing, you feel me?" B added. "I never really thought any rapper would be into us, especially Too Short — he's a living legend!"

Within months, the Pack were back in L's mom's house, working on songs for their debut album. But the sessions weren't really going anywhere until late one night, when L was trying to finish up a beat before heading out for an appointment.

"We was actually leaving the studio 'cause I was gonna get a new grill," L recalled. "But halfway there, I was like, 'We got to go back and make a song.' There was this one beat that I had in my mind but I didn't know how to go about making it, so I just made it real fast. And Lil B was like, 'Uh, got my Vans on but they look like sneakers ...' And that was it."

See other You Hear It First Overdrive shows.

The Pack threw "Vans" onto their MySpace page, and before long more than 1.6 million people had downloaded it. And as they work toward the release of their debut album (slated to hit stores later this year), they're buoyed by the success of the track — and they're fully enjoying all the perks that come with having a hit song with a rather prominent product placement in the hook.

"We got a few people down at Vans who really care about us," B laughed. "We get free shoes like crazy. They like what we're doing for Vans and they support us. And uh — I don't even know about this, but there might be a Pack shoe. Maybe? I hope."


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   Photo: Tshombe Roberts