Before Nelly's "Grillz" (featuring Paul Wall, Ali & Gipp) became a radio hit this month, flashy dental jewelry was a phenomenon seen in hip-hop videos and magazine pages but seldom heard about in rap songs. Nelly's ode to the removable gold- and diamond-encrusted tooth ornamentation commonly known among rappers as grills has helped shift hip-hop's latest fashion trend into high gear.
"I put my money where my mouth is and bought a grill," Wall raps in the song, " ... I got my mouth lookin' like a disco ball."
Grills, which typically cover the upper and lower front teeth, are becoming ubiquitous among the Southern hip-hop artists currently dominating the pop and rap charts.
As it turns out, most of them purchased their million-dollar smiles at the same place -- a small shop in Houston's Sharpstown Mall that's owned by ... Paul Wall.
The rapper -- whose own album "The Peoples Champ" debuted at No. 1 on the national album sales chart in September and features a cover image of Wall's extravagantly begrilled mouth -- says he has made custom mouthpieces for Kanye West, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Usher, Snoop Dogg, Lil Jon, Omarion and Bow Wow, among a constellation of hip-hop stars.
Wall's shop, TV Jewelry, also does a booming business with Houston rappers, including Slim Thug, Mike Jones and Bun B.
"It's definitely abstract," Wall said about the appeal of the oral adornment. "It's an alternative piece of jewelry."
Hip-hop has had a well-chronicled love affair with conspicuous consumption. Gold "rope" necklaces and "iced out" wristwatches covered in precious stones have become standard issue within the field. And over the years, rap paeans similar to Nelly's "Grillz" have been devoted to sky pagers, Adidas sneakers, chrome hubcaps and the diamond affluence of "bling-bling."
But according to Bun B, whose grill spells "Trill," the title of his recently released album, across six top teeth, dental jewelry is more than simply an assertion of rappers' purchasing power.
"Gold teeth have evolved from being just pieces of metal on your tooth," said the hard-core rapper. "For some people, it's an expression of who they are: their 'hood, what they represent.... It's marketing, a promotion."
Long a fan of rappers Slick Rick and Public Enemy's Flavor Flav, who are considered hip-hop's pioneers of the gold-tooth look, Wall met a visiting rapper known as Crime who had a sideline making and selling grills in 1996. They were the first removable models Wall had seen. The rapper taught him how to design and mold them, and Wall set up temporary shop selling his jewelry at a Houston record store.
"Down South, gold teeth were always a symbol of poverty," Wall, 24, explained. "But the hustlers -- gangsters or drug dealers -- made them a symbol of respect on an extreme level."
By day, Wall did street promotions such as handing out fliers and putting up posters to advertise local music acts. But by night, he concentrated on hip-hop, performing at clubs spreading word of his grill business to peers and then subcontracting the work to a dentist, Johnny Dang.
"Up until that point, Johnny didn't have a store, just a workshop," Wall said. "As I started getting popularity as a rapper and bringing him clientele, he was like, 'Let's go into business together!' "
In 1998, they opened TV Jewelry. There, grills can be ordered in either platinum or one of three shades of gold, costing as little as $50 for a single diamond-less gold tooth and as much as $50,000 for a full grill with 30 carats of diamonds.
Wall said the youngest customer to buy one of his grills was 13. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend has already begun to spread beyond hip-hop.
"People originally thought it was a ghetto kind of style," said John Hallett, office manager of Mr. Bling, a jewelry store in Las Vegas that sells an average of five to 10 grills a day. "But now a lot of white people from L.A. come down to buy them. Punk rockers and alternative people with tattoos and piercings."
At TV Jewelry, molds of customers' mouths are taken in dental clay and then recast in metal.
"We can take the mold at our facilities and make everything from scratch," Wall said. "There's nothing dangerous at all. When you do it the way we do it, it's pure jewelry."
While grills are not subject to any specific health ordinances, dental experts caution that there are risks to wearers who leave the jewelry on for more than two hours.
"The mouth is not a clean and tidy place," said Dr. Matt Messina, consumer advocate for the American Dental Assn. "And anything that has crevices and rough surfaces, bacteria and plaque are going to stick to. If somebody's going to snap one of these in and then leave it for a long time, they've basically installed a bacteria condominium complex.
"That could have long-term effects in terms of decay on the teeth and gum recession. Plus, if you have all that bacteria, you can have some really foul breath."
Grill wearers have discovered their own do's and don'ts.
"It's not really comfortable to eat in," said Bun B. "It's mainly for photo-ops. As much as a grill costs, you want to make sure as many people are going to see it as possible."
Whatever their visual effect, the jewelry makes it harder for rappers to serve their primary purpose: rapping.
"[Grills make it] real hard to talk," Bun B said. "It builds up saliva."
Although Wall doesn't plan to quit his musical day job anytime soon, the security his jewelry business provides has allowed him a new level of creative freedom.
"It's putting a lot of food on the table and a lot of money in the bank," he said. "It's great for me because it takes the pressure off me in music. I already have success!"