“Rap is something you do. Hip Hop is something you live,” explained KRS-One on his song “Hip Hop Vs. Rap.” After 4 decades of existence, some outside observers still may not have a clear understanding that Hip Hop is a culture that encompasses more than just rapping. It is a creative community that expresses itself through music, dance, visual art, writing, education, and fashion.
Director Sacha Jenkins sought to further help explain Hip Hop’s expanding reach into all facets of society through his debut film Fresh Dressed. The New York City native’s career includes serving as music editor of Vibe, producing TV programs like 50 Cent: The Origin of Me, and performing in the supergroup The White Mandingos with Murs and Darryl Jenifer. With that extensive body of work, Jenkins was the ideal visionary to construct a movie which explores the cultural crossing between the history of Hip Hop and the story of style.
Fresh Dressed holds the distinction of having another veteran Hip Hopper attached as well. Legendary emcee Nas serves as a producer and appears on camera. Jenkins also linked with noted fashion tastemakers Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Sean “Puffy” Combs, André Leon Talley, A$AP Rocky, Marc Ecko, Karl Kani, Dapper Dan, and several others to elicit their insights into how urban wear developed into a global economic force even high fashion houses couldn’t ignore.
In an interview with AllHipHop.com, Sacha Jenkins discusses directing Fresh Dressed. The creative director of Mass Appeal also covers working with Nas and CNN Films to produce the documentary, and he offers thoughts on where Hip Hop fashion stands today.
This was your directorial debut. What was it like taking on that task for the first time?
It was a great experience. It was great having a partner like CNN who typically doesn’t do this kind of film. They got behind the film and were very excited about it. Then going to Sundance [Film Festival] was an amazing occurrence that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. I’m very grateful. I never directed before, but between my experience as a journalist, writer, editor, and a television producer I feel like I had a bit of a leg up.
You mentioned CNN. When you think of CNN, you don’t necessarily think of Hip Hop content. Did they understand your vision? Was there any pushback on what would be presented?
I think they understood my vision which was the opportunity to tell the story of Hip Hop but also use fashion as a platform to talk about a lot of bigger picture issues – certain things that have an effect on people of color, particularly African-Americans and Latinos in the inner-city.
With all of the things I was able to touch on in the film – from slavery through to the rise of gangs in the South Bronx to the birth of Hip Hop and brands created by people coming from the world of Hip Hop – it was broad enough to touch on things that are traditionally interesting to their audience.
CNN was a great partner for me. I worked in television before, and I dealt with really crazy notes and outlandish requests. But most of their input was really constructive. It was no bullsh*t. It was a full partnership. I feel it represents the vision I had for the film.
You were able to talk to a lot of different people connected to Hip Hop and fashion for Fresh Dressed. Was there anyone that you didn’t get to interview that you would have liked to?
I think that ultimately I’m pretty satisfied with who we got. There were time issues. Like Puffy and Kanye came at the 11th hour. Those guys have crazy schedules. I had pretty much resigned myself that we weren’t going to get them, but we got them.
I think when you look at a Kanye, Pharrell, and Diddy, those guys are at the top of the food chain in terms of recognition, impact, and influence. But I wanted the film to feature people who aren’t famous in the mainstream but had a hand in the evolution of Hip Hop. Lorine Padilla, a former gang member, came on with a very strong voice. You have Dapper Dan who is a very important person.
I wanted the film to be a real reflection of Hip Hop. Rap and Hip Hop are two different things. Kanye is a rap star. He’s a Pop icon. The culture of Hip Hop is a chorus of voices. So I wanted to create a film for people who know nothing about Hip Hop but know Kanye, and I wanted to have voices in there that would bring a real richness to the overall story. So no, I don’t think there is anyone I’m really missing.
Nas is a producer for Fresh Dressed. Can you talk about how you first connected with him and how that led to you working together on this project?
Me and Nas went to the same junior high school in Queens. I’m about a year ahead of him. I didn’t necessarily know him then. I knew Havoc of Mobb Deep who was a good friend of his in junior high.
I interviewed him for the cover of the first issue of Ego Trip which was a magazine me and Elliott Wilson used to publish. So I’ve been interacting with Nas since at least 1994. Later in life, he became a partner in Mass Appeal where I’m a partner too.
As a producer, obviously his credibility goes a long way. His insights on and off screen and his relationships were extremely useful. He can make a call directly to Diddy and say, “Get off your ass and do this for me.”
Sundance was amazing and a milestone in my life. But to be able to go back to Queensbridge and screen my film for the people in the community I came from, people who went to the same crappy junior high and high schools I went to… To be able to have that opportunity and produce a film with Nas… I have no control over how things work in the universe, but the universe definitely came together to make this a special project.
I was trying to think of modern rap stars that have their own collections. Kanye has one. Nicki Minaj has one. But it seems like a lot of rappers tend to sell brand merchandise or connect with corporations for endorsements, but it’s not a lot of collections being produced. Do you think the artist-owned Hip Hop fashion collection has become passé?
I think when you have guys like Jay Z not wearing his own clothing brand Rocawear and now being about Tom Ford, it kind of takes away the general excitement the public might have in these brands that were initially created by them. The bigger conversation is connected to issues of self-esteem we have in the inner-city. The film kind of touches on that a bit.
You had brands like FUBU, Karl Kani, and Cross Colours. Brands that were created for us, by us. Then there came a time where people said, “These brands weren’t cool anymore.” But we continue to wear Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton – all these wonderful brands – but we don’t support our own.
Like a lot of things in Hip Hop, everything is so tied into trends that culture itself becomes a trend. So when the rapper no longer thinks his own clothing line is cool, everybody says, “I guess it’s not cool. Let’s move onto the next sh*t. Let’s get the sh*t that’s expensive.” Louis Vuitton is never going to get played out.
Master P had a clothing line, but no one wants to wear No Limit clothing right now. Why is that? Is it because it’s not good? Maybe it could have gotten better if we continued to support it.
You might assume fashion's at the forefront of #FreshDressed, but #SachaJenkins really employs fashion as a backdrop. He sees fashion as a "universal topic that can draw many people into the more important issues," shedding light on the conditions of the environment that created hip-hop. Pictured: Icons Sean Combs & Pharrell Williams with heads of two brands that hugely impacted hip-hop culture in the '90s—Ralph Lauren & Tommy Hilfiger.
A lot of rappers talk about fashion now, but they mostly talk about high fashion. Stuff that a lot of their listeners can’t even afford to buy. What do you think the effect is on young people that look up to rappers who are always promoting items that are out of the price range of their listeners?
Personally, I think these clothing brands we can’t pronounce and can’t afford are reflections of an aspirational lifestyle, but a lot of it is just to the point where it’s not realistic, it’s insensitive, and it’s ignorant. Sure, if you can afford a $6,000 purse, God bless your life. But if you can barely keep the lights on and you want that $6,000 purse to feel good about yourself, that’s a problem.
As an adult looking back I can say to myself, “Why was clothing so important? Why did it matter so much to my peer group? Why did we ostracize those that didn’t have fresh gear? So much so that the kids that couldn’t afford it were willing to sell drugs to make sure they had the right gear.”
Clothing becomes armor. It becomes a way to protect yourself. It becomes language. It’s a way to identify yourself. It’s a way to communicate to people without saying anything. Why do we feel like we always have to make statements to one another? Why do we feel like we have to one up the next person?
Let’s look at where that came from. That’s what I wanted to do with this film.
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I think everything you said is introduced in the very beginning of the trailer. One of the first things Kanye says is…
“Being fresh is more important than having money.”
Do you have anything else in the works?
I’m currently directing a doc about O.J. Simpson. That’s the main thing I’m in the middle of right now. Hopefully, Fresh Dressed will continue to create opportunities, not just for me, but other people like us.
Anyone could have made Fresh Dressed. I’m not saying that someone from Australia couldn’t make Fresh Dressed. They could, but it’s important that people who are of the culture have the opportunity to tell these stories.
The truth always gets loss. Everyone has their biases. Everyone has their blind spots. I’m sure there are plenty of things people can pick out in my film that I didn’t address. But the more we have people who understand the experience firsthand making projects, the closer we’ll get to the truth of the history.
We made history as a culture, and we need people who are going to continue the culture to know their history and push it in new directions. Keep it fresh.
Sacha Jenkins’ Fresh Dressed documentary premieres Thursday, September 3 at 9 p.m. ET on CNN. [UPDATE: CNN has moved the time of 9/3 airing to 10 p.m. ET)
For more information about the film visit freshdressedmovie.com