NEW YORK — He wears many hats -- rapper, singer, producer for artists such as Mos Def and Macy Gray -- but 88-Keys, whose teasingly genre-bending debut "The Death of Adam" was released this month, insists that all his hats bear one label: Polo by Ralph Lauren.
The Harlem resident, whose album was executive-produced by best friend Kanye West, has been collecting the best of Lauren's Americana style since 1993 and refuses to sport any other label -- ever. Born Charles Njapa, 88-Keys talks to The Times about being a "LOhead," shopping with West, and why Ralph Lauren is the only designer worth getting obsessive-compulsive about.
Let's start with the obvious: What are you wearing?
Today I'm wearing Polo from a fall collection of '06 called Indian Pointe, which is inspired by a trip to the Adirondacks. The entire collection, which I own 61 pieces of, is a mixture of Native American print and American western. As you can see, we've got the Indian Pointe saddle rodeo belt here; these are called the Clarence shoes, even down to the socks, Indian Pointe blanket socks. I'm wearing the Indian Pointe Murphy jeans -- not to be confused with the Indian Pointe Murphy Vintage Jeans, which are more distressed -- and the Indian Pointe sweat shirt and hat. This is all from the same collection, down to -- actually, I had an Indian Pointe T-shirt on, but my daughter spit up on it this morning -- the flannel underneath. Oh, and the Polo glasses, boxers and wallet. When I say head to toe, it's head to toe.
How'd you begin collecting?
It started when I moved to Long Island from the Bronx in 1991, entering high school. I used to go to the mall to shop at Nautica, Hilfiger, Guess, and my last stop would be Polo, since it was the last stop on the trail at the mall. But by the end of the year, I started realizing what I liked, and I said to myself, "Why am I wasting my time with all these other yahoos? I'll just go straight to the man himself."
So there are a lot of people like you?
Oh, yeah. Self-proclaimed "LOheads" is what they call us. But they all glorify the stuff that came out between '92 and '94: Stadium, which was an Olympic-themed collection; or P Wing, which was track and field; or Snow Beach, which is priceless.
There's a lot of showing off among fellow LOheads. I was thinking I'd show everybody up by wearing the infamous Snow Beach pullover, which amongst LOheads is more commonly known as the Raekwon pullover, because Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Klan wore the pullover in his very first video. So I went looking on EBay, but I kept losing bid after bid. . . . That Snow Beach pullover sold for $2,600! But I started shopping, and lo and behold, I found out that not only was Ralph still doing collections, but he's done collections for every season of every year since he started.
So I started collecting the complete collections. It got to the point where I said, "I'm not even gonna wear any sneakers" -- back then I was still wearing Nike sneakers, or Timberland boots -- so I bought my first pair of loafers: the Ralph Lauren Polo Hamlin loafers. My first time wearing loafers -- and I live in Harlem, so when I walk outside, people are gawking at me.
So you truly wear all Polo all the time?
Strictly Polo. I've actually been set back in my career because I wouldn't wear anything outside of Polo for a photo shoot. I've been flown outside the country to do DJ gigs courtesy of clothing companies and told them, "I'm not gonna wear it."
What is it about the aesthetic that's so appealing to you?
The fact that it's a lifestyle. I actually feel, when I wear my Indian Pointe stuff, I mentally go to the Adirondacks. The designs, and the subtle detailing. Ralph has a crazy imagination. He has a collection coming out called "Call of the Wild," from the Jack London novel. He pulls inspiration from anything.
Take one of my Laguna shirts -- that's summer of '06; the inspiration was World War II: a lot of Asian prints and color. The buttons are all pearl except for the third button, which is turquoise, and there's also a turquoise button on the right cuff. Then there's a bird in a faded gray print, and orange psychedelic patchwork on the elbows and shoulders. It's just -- ah, Laguna.
Is that your favorite collection?
Every year I have a favorite collection. It's like a little kid collecting baseball cards -- I try to get all the pieces. And I don't mix and match collections. My wife pointed out to me, with slight seriousness, that I have OCD.
It was back in the early '90s that the hip-hop community started wearing brands like Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo -- brands that represent a conservative, all-American aesthetic. How do you think preppy went hip-hop?