Sneakers
From the ground up

In Phil Knight’s 2016 memoir, Shoe Dog, the Nike founder reveals how his game-changing shoe, the Cortez, came to be named. He wrote:

“[Bill] Bowerman liked ‘Aztec,’ in homage to the 1968 Olympics, which were being held in Mexico City. I liked that, too. Fine, Onitsuka said. The Aztec was born. And then adidas threatened to sue. adidas already had a new shoe named the ‘Azteca Gold.’ Bowerman took off his ball cap, put it on again, rubbed his face. ‘Who was that guy who kicked the shit out of the Aztecs?’ he asked. ‘Cortez,’ I said. He grunted. ‘Okay. Let’s call it the Cortez.’”

Being christened after a brutal Spanish conquistador could be read as a portent for things to come. As Los Angeles gangbanging culture spiraled out of control during the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was the Cortez that became footwear de rigeur for Bloods and Crips. Inevitably, as crime rose, sales dropped and its popularity faded. “The first [Cortez] was red, then there was blue,” Compton native O.G. Lepke told Laceez, explaining the significance behind the wearers’ colorway. “Then they had the ones where it looked like a Swoosh with the dots, then you had the canvas ones. Then the blue ones got outlawed in the ’80s when there was so much gang violence.”

But now, the Cortez is back. And in a big way.

Nike has been pulling out all the stops to celebrate the sneaker’s 45th anniversary, overseeing commemorative releases and new colorways, including these bangers in homage to its West Coast past. There’s been marketing campaigns featuring names like Bella Hadid, while the King of Compton, Kendrick Lamar, ended his spell at Reebok to finally hook up with the Swoosh.

Keen to look past the hype and find out what LA sneakerheads really think about the silhouette, we headed to Compton, where it all began for the Cortez, for a chat with four OG ‘heads. Peep what they had to say below.

Jay Worthy

Jay Worthy (LNDN DRGS)

How long have you lived in Compton?

I’ve lived in Compton half my life.

What do you do for work?

I make music.

Would you ever move out of Compton?

I moved out of Compton around 2012, but am constantly in the city.

Have you ever owned a pair of Nike Cortez?

All I wear is Cortez. That’s just me, though. A lot of the young homies wear Jordans, Foamposites, basketball or designer shoes.

How has footwear changed over the years in Compton?

The Cortez was what they used to rock back in the day. They’re coming back into style now, but I’ve always been rocking ’em: I remember homies trying to make fun of me for wearing them when they weren’t so popular. They’ve always been a classic, though. Real rap ’80s and ’90s gangbangin’ shit just like Chucks — a real staple in the gang culture period.

Have you noticed the Cortez has become more popular since Kendrick started wearing it?

Kendrick is bringing back that classic look, and I do think people are influenced by what the homie does, so yeah, you’re going to see more homies rocking them in the city because they associate Kendrick with being fly. He sets the standard around where I’m from, especially in our hood — we grew up with him.

What did you think of the recent Compton and Long Beach-issue Cortez releases?

I don’t really care for the Cortez that say “Long Beach” and “Compton.” I like the plain joints — I mean, that’s cool, rep the city, but the Cortez represents all of Los Angeles and gang culture period — not just those places. Footwear in Compton since the ’80s and ’90s has changed a lot. Back then, it was your classic sneakers: your Cortez, your Gazelles, your Chucks, maybe a Reebok Classic, a K-Swiss here and there. But these shoes have never gone anywhere, they have always been there in our local swap meets.

And yes, although [the Cortez] isn’t popular with today’s generation, the kids still know about them and respect them — even if they don’t wear them. They know it represents history and culture and it’s what the OG homies were wearing. But kids in Compton are rocking anything from the latest re-released Jordan’s to Foamposits to Vans to whatever else: there ain’t no specific shoe.

In your opinion, is the Cortez to Compton what the Air Force 1 is to Harlem?

You could say that once upon a time it was the Air Force 1 of Compton or South Central Los Angeles, but I feel like Air Forces stuck around longer. The Cortez went on hiatus for a while: they were always there at the local swap meets, but people, except for me, were not rocking them for a long time.

Are there any local sneaker stores in Compton? Where do you buy your sneakers?

I get my sneakers at the swap meets, usually the Avalon right in Compton.

Dairold Potts

Dairold “Wacko” Potts

How long have you lived in Compton?

My Grandparents, big momma and big daddy, bought the house in Compton in 1952 and they raised their eight kids in it. I was born in ’74 and was raised in here as well, so I’ve been a Compton resident for 43 years now.

What do you do for work?

I own a record company called 319 Music Group and a print shop called Magic Garment Printing.

Would you ever move out of Compton?

As long as we own my grandparents’ house in Compton, I will always have a room here. I live there and I have a house somewhere else.

Have you ever owned a pair of Nike Cortez?

Yes, I’ve owned many pairs.

What footwear is popular in Compton?

Anything by Jordan Brand and Reebok, as well as Air Force Ones and Chuck Taylors.

How has footwear changed over the years in Compton?

Yes, it has changed with the clothing.

What clothing is popular in Compton right now?

I see a lot of people wearing True Religion, Robin Jeans, Gucci, Prada and a lot of high-end fashion in general.

Have you noticed the Cortez has become more popular since Kendrick started wearing it?

Yes, I’ve noticed over the last few years the young generation have started wearing them more.

Do you think Kendrick should be signed with Nike instead of Reebok?

So long as it makes sense for him and his team.

What did you think of the recent Compton and Long Beach-issue Cortez releases?

I think it’s cool for them to show love for the cities that have been supporting the Nike movement for so many decades, but we need more than just our city names on the shoe. We need Nike to give back by helping with new programs to get these kids prepared for the real world. We have to teach them more than what’s currently being taught in the classrooms.

How important is the Cortez to Compton?

I think the Cortez is definitely a major part of our culture, just like the Air Force 1 is to Harlem.

John McKissic

John McKissic

How long have you lived in Compton?

I’ve lived in Compton throughout my life. I’ve also stayed in Long Beach. My parents moved a lot when I was a child but always within a five-mile radius [of Compton].

What do you do for work?

I’m a full-time rapper so I would say the world is where I work.

Would you ever move out of Compton?

Can’t wait til’ the day I do.

Have you ever owned a pair of Nike Cortez?

I owned my first pair when I was in seventh grade. [They] matched with my uniform and my parents couldn’t afford Jordans at the time, so I chose the Cortez.

What other footwear is popular in Compton?

Jordans and anything Nike.

How has footwear changed over the years in Compton?

It’s always been a Jordan and Nike thing. Kids have dreams to be great like Michael Jordan so that’s why people used to get killed over them. If you owned Jordans, that didn’t mean you were rich, it meant you wanted to be great.

Have you noticed the Cortez has become more popular since Kendrick started wearing it?

Definitely, he helped bring them back, making you have no choice but to be proud of where you come from. The gangbangers of the ’90s and before made them their look. They represent a nostalgic urban swag.

Do you think Kendrick should be signed with Nike instead of Reebok?

For him to have more influence I would say Nike. Then again, [he should go with] whoever has the best situation for him and subsequently, the better effect on the community. To be honest, if the bread is right, it doesn’t matter who he’s with to me.

Who do people in Compton look up to style-wise?

Anybody who has had an influence on the city, and not only through music. But speaking music, I’m sure YG, The Game and of course K-Dot has some influence. Besides that, hood fellas love True Religion and any designer that shows a gangsta made it.

What did you think of the recent Compton and Long Beach-issue Cortez releases?

It’s actually exciting to me. And to hear they came out with Compton and LBC separate versions also shows that ’90s culture is forever with us. I don’t know about you, but every time I wear mine I feel more “gangsta.” It shows the mark Uncle Snoop and Dr. Dre, aka “Compton and Long Beach together now you know you in trouble!” had on the community.

Corderro "Lil L" Colbert

Corderro “Lil L” Colbert)

How long have you lived in Compton?

I’ve lived in Compton my whole life. Born and raised.

What do you do for work?

I direct music videos. I’m also acting, rapping and am into fashion.

Would you ever move out of Compton?

I will one day when the time is right, but I’ll never forget where I came from either.

Have you ever owned a pair of Nike Cortez?

No.

What footwear is popular in Compton?

Nike Foamposites, in particular. Anything by Jordan Brand or adidas.

How has footwear changed over the years in Compton?

If you had a pair of Jordans growing up you were cool. But now you gotta match your shoes with your clothes.

Have you noticed the Cortez has become more popular since Kendrick started wearing it?

Yeah, I noticed that. He’s a worldwide icon and a great leader. Everything he touches turns to gold.

Who do people in Compton look up to style-wise?

You and I both know the answer: Kendrick Lamar. His vocabulary, his character, the things he’s doing and talking about — there isn’t anybody else talking about the things he’s doing in and out the city, ain’t nobody doing it like him while giving back and never forgetting where he came from.

What did you think of the recent Compton and Long Beach-issue Cortez releases?

Man, when I first saw them, I asked my homie where he got them from. They’re dope, I need a pair.

Next up, take a look inside Sean Wotherspoon’s Nike Cortez Mecca in LA.

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