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Sneakers jump over cultural line

"Vans," a rap song by the Pack, has made the favored footwear of skaters popular with the hip-hop crowd too.

August 19, 2006|Cynthia H. Cho | Times Staff Writer

Brand shout-outs in hip-hop songs are nothing new -- but most focus on luxury names. Kanye West tells of a cutie with a "baby Louis Vuitton under her arm" in "Gold Digger," Missy Elliott raps about a Cadillac Escalade in "Lick Shots" and anyone who has heard Busta Rhymes' "Pass the Courvoisier" knows his Cognac of choice.

Few songs, though, make a product or company their main focus. There was Run-DMC's "My Adidas" in 1986. And now there is "Vans," a song by Bay Area rappers the Pack that hit mainstream radio in California a couple of months ago and is shaking up the great footwear divide between the hip-hop and rock camps.

While the song has been climbing charts and driving traffic to the group's MySpace.com page, it also has been spurring fans to plunk down $37 for a pair of Vans, the shoes that until now have been embraced mainly by skaters, surfers and punk rockers.

"It's like the song was egging me on" to buy a pair, says 21-year-old Kyle Troupe, who says that until hearing "Vans" he'd never even been in the Vans store near his Santa Monica home. Last weekend, though, he found himself purchasing pairs No. 4 and No. 5.

"The beat is so crazy," says Troupe, who will be a senior at Howard University this fall. The song has a hypnotic beat as it repeats, "Got my Vans on, but they look like sneakers," over and over again throughout.

Whether plugs from hip-hop songs translate into higher sales is difficult to measure, says Lucian James, president of Agenda Inc., a research and strategy company based in San Francisco and Paris. Some Vans retailers, though, say that's an easy call. Business has definitely improved, they say, since "Vans" hit the airwaves, and it's bringing in a new kind of consumer for the skate shoe.

At the 510 Skateboarding store on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, sales are twice as high as they were this time last year, says owner Jerry Harris, who is seeing a change in demographics among Vans buyers.

"I have definitely seen more of an urban customer coming in for Vans," Harris says. "Previously, it was more of just skateboard kids. [Now] they're more of a hip-hop kind of a crowd."

The shoes have become so popular, he says, that some sizes are selling out -- including those of the band members, who shop there. "They come in looking for shoes in their size and we don't have them," Harris says, laughing. "We tell them it's their fault."

The Pack -- Lloyd Omadhebo (Young L), 19; Keith Jenkins (Young Stunner), 18; Brandon McCartney (Lil B), 17; and Damonte Johnson (Lil Uno), 17 -- can nearly always be found decked out in a pair of Vans, a group style launched by Omadhebo and Jenkins, who have been skateboarding since middle school and wearing the shoes since high school.

"When I was in San Francisco, people would look at my Vans like I was crazy," Omadhebo says by phone. "They thought I was dressing like a white boy because I had Vans on." Now, he says, he owns 18 pairs.

But why did they decide to rap about them?

"It was a new thing," he says. "It was something different. We were the first people in the hip-hop and urban community to really start wearing Vans like that."

Their lyrics show their devotion: "You can get different colors like rainbows / Since 1966 Vans had set a trend / I got a blue pair, yeah, in a size 10."

The song, says research executive James, is unusual, in his view. "It's the most sustained plug for a brand that you've seen since Run-DMC. This is even more than that, with the whole mention of the price and the history."

In late July, when the group visited L.A. as part of a radio tour, the guys were invited to the Vans headquarters in Santa Fe Springs and allowed to look at lines of Vans due out next year. Vans spokesman Chris Overholser says the guys were like "kids in a candy store."

The guys from the Pack each received four or five pairs of Vans when they visited the company's headquarters last month, but they weren't asked or paid to record the song, Overholser says.

The Pack's album, under Up All Nite Music/Jive Records, is scheduled to come out late this year or early next year, said Taj Tilghman, the group's manager. The video for "Vans" premiered on Yahoo Music earlier this month and will begin airing on Black Entertainment Television next week, says network spokesman Michael Lewellen.

At Power 106 FM, a hip-hop station in Los Angeles, the song premiered in April and topped the request list after a few weeks, says E-Man, the radio station's music director and assistant program director. When DJs played the song at high school graduation events in June, he says, "kids would take their Vans off and put them up in the air."

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