Why Vintage Hip-hop Tees Are So Rare

Photo: courtesy photo

In the hierarchy of concert and music tees worth collecting, there are the late-’90s pop tees (e.g., the ‘N Sync No Strings Attached Tour tee), which are commonly found. But those are less valuable than classic-rock stadium tour tees (also relatively easy to find via vintage dealers and eBay shops). And then there is the rarest genre, the hardest to find, the most-brag worthy get: the rap tee.

DJ Ross One, (née Ross Schwartzman) understands how difficult it is to hunt down tour tees from his favorite hip-hop artists. He’s been hoarding them since he was an Ohio teen and still hasn’t found all the shirts on his list. But his collection is expansive enough to show off in his new photo book, Rap Tees: A Collection of Hip-Hop T-Shirts From 1980-1999, out Tuesday.

Rap Tees is a catalogue of over 500 of the rarest, most coveted concert tees, album promo tees, and bootleg tees, all presented in chronological order. The majority of what’s included is actually Schwartzman’s own (he estimates he has collected upwards of 250 shirts), and for the rest, he spent three years asking fellow musicians, collectors, and dealers from L.A., New York, Dubai, Europe, and Japan (“All the best tees end up there. They have the really rare stuff, a lot of one-of-a-kind stuff”) to have their finds photographed for the project.

So, why are the tees so rare? “The idea of hip-hop is you always want to be fresh, you always want to be new, so things from the recent past get discarded really quickly,” Schwartzman explains. “Everything is really hard to find. Nothing is produced in large quantities, and hip-hop does a really bad job of self-preservation. Unless you have a specific memory tied to it or something special to you, things end up kind of falling away, more so than in rock and roll and even in punk rock, where people immediately, I think, held on to the recent past. In hip-hop it was sort of discarded.”

He went on: “They were making these on tour — designing them on the road, cutting out designs and letterpress and taking them to a print shop without any real clue of what they were gonna get back. Then they would sell them and sell out of them. People didn’t even consider holding on to one of these, that this would be a multi-million-dollar industry one day. It was just like, ‘I’m just trying to pay my gas on the tour bus, basically.’”

Schwartzman gives readers the chance to check out limited-edition and rare tees from artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Biggie, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, and De La Soul. Sadly for crazed collectors, rap fanatics, and people who just really want to wear a Lil’ Kim Hard Core tee from 1997 (me), this book is purely aspirational browsing: Most of these shirts are unavailable, he says.

“With this book, it doesn’t really matter how much money you have or what resources you have; they are not possible to find, or at least [that’s true for] half the shirts in the book. Probably more like 75, 80 percent, and for the rest of them, they’re not around.”

But, in conjunction with the book’s release, DJ Ross One will host pop-up shops selling items from his personal collection — so maybe there’s hope for that Lil’ Kim shirt after all.