Beats By Dre: From Sneakers to Headphones – The Link Between Hip Hop Culture, Big Business & The Terrible Choices We Make as Consumers. (Technology & Culture Essay)

And out of speakers I did speak
I wore my sneakers but I’m not a sneak
My Adidas cuts the sand of a foreign land
with mic in hand I cold took command
my Adidas and me, close as can be
we make a mean team, my Adidas and me
we get around together, rhyme forever
and we won’t be mad when worn in bad weather
– My Adidas, Run DMC



One fateful night in NYC, somewhere around the mid 80s, Russell Simmons, brother to Reverend Run and manager of Run DMC, was smoking angel dust when a flash of brilliance struck him, like a PCP laced bolt of lightning. When the rap crew rolled up on Two Fifth Street, he told them immediately they needed to write a song about the kicks they wore. In 1986, Simmons’ prophecy would come true, and My Adidas became the first single on their third album, Raising Hell. It would become both a hip hop anthem and a cultural phenomenon.  Eventually, a marketing executive from Adidas took notice after seeing them perform the tune in concert at Madison Square Gardens. Within days, a now legendary million dollar endorsement deal was struck. And the long relationship between Hip Hop and product placement began.

Around the same time period that Run DMC was on stage rocking the mic while facing thousands of kids holding their shoes in the air, I had other problems on my mind. Our family had moved from Montreal to Toronto when I was about Eleven. I was entering my fifth grade year in unchartered waters. Now you have to understand, that Montreal is a different city from Toronto. It may only be about six hours away by car, but it may as well be Mars to Pluto. There is a different language in Montreal. A different culture. Better tasting bagels. A decidedly continental edge. This difference was also reflected in fashion.

On my first day of class, I had to represent. I brought a briefcase to school. The decision proved to be an unpopular one, at least according to my classmates. I was from a new city, and desperate for new friends, eager for acceptance. I left the briefcase at home,  along with a small part of myself, the following day. Ironic, how that purple, shiny, plastic, fake leather briefcase became a symbol for my lost individuality.  I traded that briefcase in for acceptance and anonymity.

I started rocking Vuarnet T shirts and Levi’s jean jackets, with a brand new World Famous canvas backpack over my shoulder, not because I supported those brands, but because I just wanted to fit in.

Fast Forward 

You’ve seen them before. On the subway. On the street. In stores. They have become as ubequitious as iPhones. They are, in fact, usually attached to an iPhone. I know it’s 2015, and it’s probably politically incorrect to make vast, sweeping generalizations, but to hell with it.


There is a good chance that the same people wearing Beats by Dre headphones ($329.95), will not only have an iPhone ($470) in their pocket, they will also be wearing RayBan ($195) sunglasses.  If the weather is on the cool side, there is an excellent chance they will be donning a Canada Goose jacket (a staggering $695) to keep their bodies warm.  As far as kicks go, there’s the always classic Converse All Stars ($64.99), the Nike Air Jordan (99.50-225.00), or of course a set of Adidas Star 25th anniversary Run DMC sneaks (499.00).

These are status symbols, more than brands. All of these products serve a function, and most of them work well enough, for the job that they are supposed to perform. The prices are inflated to serve as maximum profitability for the company, which is understandable to a certain extent. We do live in a capitalist society, so if Joe can charge more for his product than Chris down the street, and people are willing to pay more for Joe because they like Joe better, then more power to him.

Beats headphones, was originally in partnership with Monster.  If you’ve had the misfortune of hearing about them before, you most likely discovered their wares while in the process of buying a High Def television inside a sales driven Electronics store. If you need the HDMI cables, the sales person will assure you, you better get the best kind. And by best, they mean the most expensive ($120). Even though studies have proven that monster cables are in no way any more effective in terms of quality than a five dollar HDMI cable.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not really about the quality of the product at all. It’s about the expense. The expense serves as illusion of the unattainable. Making it difficult for John Q. Public to obtain, makes it all the more desirable. The higher the price tag, it is assumed, the higher the quality of the product.

So what does it say when a well established musicians puts his reputation on the line behind a product that is not only prohibitively expensive, but doesn’t work all too well, and most recently, revealed to only cost less than 17 bucks to make? Is it a Compton street level hustle orchestrated by an O.G?  Let’s not forget Dre is the same artist that once rhymed “Cause I’mma rob you in Compton and blast you in Miami“, or is Beats just good business sense, and a textbook American Dream, success story?

When Run DMC released My Adidas, it wasn’t just a song intended to hawk a product they didn’t support or care about. Quite the opposite; they were supporters of the brand long before the song was even written. The song itself contested the idea that only gangsters and thugs dressed like B-Boys. It wasn’t just an audio commercial for a product.  My Adidas, was a song that captured the positivity that Run DMC aspired to. It was a different world back then, right before Gangsta rap dropped.  Like it or not, Run DMC paved the way for artists to pitch all kinds of products, good and bad.


We all have our briefcases, of various sizes, colours and materials. Sometimes, we need to hold on to them. Without them, we become clones, indistinguishable from each other, and walking billboard advertisements for billion dollar companies that most probably, in fact, already own us. Many of us are all branded out, from head to toe. Maybe it’s prudent to be selective about which ones we support.


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Top photo courtesy of Alexander Kaiser

12 thoughts on “Beats By Dre: From Sneakers to Headphones – The Link Between Hip Hop Culture, Big Business & The Terrible Choices We Make as Consumers. (Technology & Culture Essay)

  1. Beats by ‘Jay’ maybe…
    “[Run] We got all the lines
    [DMC] and all the rhymes
    [Run] We don’t drop dimes
    [DMC] and we don’t do crimes
    [Run] We bake a little cake with Duncan Hines
    [DMC] and never wear the vest they call the Calvin Kleins
    [Run] Cause Calvin Klein’s no friend of mine
    Don’t want nobody’s name on my behind
    Lee on my legs, sneakers on my feet
    D by my side and Jay with the beat”

      1. They took a note from the punks and that’s why they rocked street clothes on stage, but now we have Hot Topic etc. so that pretty much says how that all went! Hahaha! Identities for sale! get your lifestyle here! At some point individuality became a uniform.

      2. Yes, there is a total link between the d.i.y ethic from the punk scene and hip hop, not just in terms of stage persona and uniforms, but instruments too. Instead of a guitar and drums it was 2 turntables and a microphone. It’s all in the attitude! So true that as each scene becomes commodified, those original symbols of individuality (torn jeans, leather jackets, tattoos) do indeed become uniforms, and less meaningful in terms of being tools of self-expression.

      3. Word, I watched it happen. I grew up on Hip-Hop and Punk (more specifically Hardcore Music) as I grew up on the East Coast in the early 80’s and by 1990 it was a wash. Hip-Hop became ‘Rap’ and the DJ’s lost their ability to create interesting cuts because of sample laws which sucked the artistry right out of it thus shifting the focus to the rappers. Punk just got over run by jocks and militant boneheads who only went to shows to start fights. By ’92’ Grunge hit and it was all over for any underground aspect about it…and hello internet era where there is no more mystery to any of it!

      4. Must have been an interesting time. I got into hiphop via rap city on Muchmusic, and there was a great college radio station in T.O called Ron Nelson’s Fantastic Voyage Show. Totally missed out on the punk scene though. I just watched American Hardcore about a week ago. What a fascinating moment in time! You are lucky to have been there. Always intriguing to see how music and youth culture evolves.

      5. I grew up in Buffalo, so I actually went to a couple of decent shows up in Toronto. I think I saw Bad Religion there in 1990? Anyway, yes to college radio! WBNY in Buffalo used to run Hardcore on Thursday night and Hip-Hop on Sundays. All vinyl and even cassette demos! The Hip-Hop dj’s cut and scratched all live on the air! No censorship either, this was pre-FCC Tipper Gore era happenings! This is where I discovered everything that would inform my musical interests from then on! There was much less of it then and it was an actual task and sometimes an adventure to track this music down. This all enhanced the listening experience of course, cause you had to work at it. Now it’s all wallpaper, seasonal aural fashion flavors of the minute.

  2. In the 90’s in my UK high school everyone wore head to toe popular hiphop/urban/sports brands or none god help you if you wore one that was suddenly outdated. The Bloke and my friend who are tech geeks though the quality of Drey’s beats were laughable. Goid points made here. I totally agree that he’s still hustling – haha!

  3. I was very concerned about fitting in while in school… It was so important to be accepted. Now that I’m older, I don’t care. I dislike having brands on my clothes. Why pay to be a billboard for some corporation? Fun read!

  4. @Alphastare,
    I meant to mention this earlier, but I have interviewed many people in Toronto that cite
    another Buffalo radio station as a major influence on their teen years in the 80s.
    WBLK was one of the only places you could hear Rap, and perhaps more importantly, House music at the time. So Buffalo radio definitely held an influence on things happening North of the border!

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