Sneaker Pimp

A lifetime of hip-hop and hoops comes together in Bobbito Garcia's new book

It's a natural progression, really, one that makes perfect sense. Most cats who would be inclined to put together a 264-page history of how sneakers affected New York's youth culture in the 1970s and '80s probably would have arrived at that point by following the same path Bobbito Garcia did.

It's a trail that starts on the basketball courts of New York's playgrounds and winds through stops in the Puerto Rican Pro Leagues, the offices of Def Jam, the pages of Vibe magazine, the airwaves of New York's WKCR and WQHT and the films of Spike Lee. Somewhere along the way you'd probably have a few minutes to kick it in the boardrooms of Nike, Adidas and Converse and share the stage with the likes of D'Angelo, Roy Ayers and Tony Allen (the legendary backbone for Fela Kuti's rhythm section). And you'd probably want to invest in a club to house your own DJ residency. While you're at it you might as well run one of the most influential indie hip-hop labels of the '90s (Fondle 'Em Records) while simultaneously operating a footwear shop in both Philly and NYC that specializes in vintage sneakers no longer in production (that would be "deadstock" to the enlightened).

Once you've built a résumé looking like that, it only makes sense to put together a book such as Garcia's Where'd You Get Those? It's an amazingly comprehensive look at how footwear for hoop heads became one of the key components in defining the hip-hop fashion sensibility that unwittingly propelled Nike and Adidas into a stratosphere far beyond that of an athletic footwear company.

The aforementioned path is a pretty exclusive journey, and the truth is that Garcia is probably the only person alive even close to being qualified and talented enough. Not only to pull this book off but also to make it an essential work for anyone even remotely interested in basketball, hip-hop, New York City or modern fashion. Where'd You Get Those? does a beautiful job of putting sneakers in their proper historical perspective, but it's Garcia's vibrant personality that shines through every page and makes it the undisputed hardback equivalent to underground cookies in plastic baggies.

To call this book a labor of love is like calling Jerry Jones an involved owner, and Where'd You Get Those?reveals a slice of Americana that Garcia has had a tremendous impact on.

"What's most important to me is what I've worn, what my friends have worn and what I've seen other people wear in New York," Garcia says. "And, of course, if I'm gonna talk about New York and my own experiences, then it's going to be about basketball and hip-hop culture."

The key word being culture, as that appears to be at the core of every endeavor Garcia has embarked on in his adult life. For most city dwellers who grew up in the late '70s and early '80s, hip-hop and playground basketball converge in a way that makes it hard to think of one without the other. This is clearly the case for Garcia and the crew he assembled to provide the running commentary in the book.

C'mon, dude--if you wanna know about kicks, you're not gonna check with Phil Knight. You're gonna see what's up with Frosty Freeze, the legendary b-boy. It's part of what gives the book its magically delicious flavor and makes it transcend the "this shoe came out then" idea.

Garcia taps into his network of like-minded sneaker connoisseurs--a roster that includes playground legends such as Pee-Wee Kirkland and Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond as well as hip-hop luminaries such as Dante Ross and 3rd Bass' Serch and Pete Nice--to aid in giving the book a lively, roundtable discussion feel. But that's only half the reason the book oozes so much style and finesse. In the case of Where'd You Get Those?, the layout and design dominate like David Thompson in a dunk contest against Billy Paultz. It's a beautiful thing.

There is page after page of rare snaps: shots from Rucker games in the '70s, Tiny Archibald playing pickup outside the PJs, old-school heads like Crazy Legs and Rammellzee rockin' their flavors and, of course, vintage sneakers. Garcia put in a lot of work to compile old photographs, catalog pages and magazine ads so that the book properly documents the artifacts of each era. And as author/photographer of Where'd You Get Those?, he not only went to great lengths to track down the original sneakers that were essential to the text, in most cases he actually photographed them when he found them. The accompanying captions he provides for the pictures deliver some laugh-out-loud moments.

It's Garcia's knowledge of the subject that makes the book possible, but it's his approach and passion that make the book great. The reason kids in New York bombed trains, broke out the ill windmill or froze some herb in the open court with the stutter-step in the first place was so that they could get a little shine and collect respect for their individual style, and that is perhaps the essence of Where'd You Get Those? It's all about the style.

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