Experience this story and others in HIGHStyle, a print magazine by Highsnobiety, available from retailers around the world and our online store
More than simply a memento from a show, or a way of showing your musical colors, band tees have become a cultural phenomenon that are feverishly collected the world over. While rock and metal tees are most prominent, the past decade has seen a growing appreciation for rap tees from the ’90s and beyond.
Today, the culture for collecting vintage tees has climbed to unprecedented highs (with rarities going for triple figures), while rappers are creating their own future classics by collaborating with hype designers and selling their own limited-edition drops at special pop-ups on their tours. Here, we take a look back at some of the best over the past 35 years.
Beastie Boys “Get Off My Dick” (1986)
As pioneers of both the hip-hop genre and streetwear itself, the Beastie Boys are known for their fair share of iconic T-shirt designs. For their 1986 debut album, Licensed to Ill, the band went all-in for the record’s promotional program, including an official T-shirt with the original album logo designed by Stephen Byram and World B. Omes. The Beasties’ humor shows through with a tongue-in-cheek quote, “Get Off My Dick”, printed on the back.
Eric B. & Rakim “Paid in Full” (1988)
According to DJ Ross One, author of the 2015 book Rap Tees: A Collection of Hip-Hop T-Shirts 1980-1999, this iconic Paid in Full tee designed by Def Jam art director Cey Adams is one of the greatest hip-hop T-shirt graphics of all time. “Black, white, and gold with the red 1988 date stamp — it doesn’t get much better,” he explained in an interview with GQ. “This was a favorite of DJ AM (RIP), another big-time hip-hop-T-shirt collector.”
Public Enemy “Crosshairs logo” (1990–1991)
Be it releasing MP3-only albums or being one of the first rap outfits to achieve international success, the legendary Public Enemy were trailblazers in almost every respect across the industry. By the early 1990s, this had also extended to the widespread cultural appeal of their merchandise, and the iconic crosshair logo T-shirt would even appear in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991’s highest-grossing movie), worn by Edward Furlong.
Dr. Dre “IN BUD WE TRUST” (1993)
Officially, much of the promotional gear that was produced to support Dr. Dre’s classic album The Chronic featured the rapper-producer’s “mirrored” image, as it appeared on the sleeve of the actual LP. However, in 1993, Dre teamed up with Pushead, a cult hardcore artist best known for his work on album covers for the likes of Metallica and Septic Death. The resulting shirt was a stark departure from the other products associated with The Chronic (aside from the plant references), but apparently enough of a success amongst fans to release a second design the following year.
Geto Boys “Crooked Officer” (1993)
Geto Boys were a group that was never afraid to voice their opinions, with lyrics painting the graphic realities of street life and touching on taboo topics such as suicidal thoughts, paranoia, and the trauma of witnessing violence. The Houston group’s music also addressed social politics with “Crooked Officer,” a track about police brutality. Despite being more than 25 years old, this powerful graphic — which features a police officer wielding a baton on the front and the back finished with “Why you wanna put me in a coffin sir?” — remains as relevant as ever.
Nas “If I Ruled the World” Bootleg (1996)
Starting out as a quick cash grab outside venues, bootleg rap tees are now some of the most sought-after vintage merch (comparable in value to the likes of the celebrated grunge, punk, and metal tees). Often poorly printed, with low quality images in a bizarre collage style, these designs have gained prominence over the years, mainly because of their rarity. This Nas bootleg in particular would go e on to inspire the work of bootleggers like Marino Morwood.
Juvenile “Back That Thang Up” (1999)
Though Cash Money released merch through official channels, a lot of the tees displaying the label’s gangsta rap artists and album art are in fact bootlegs. Houston design firm Pen & Pixel were responsible for much of the visual output for the label, as well as that of No Limit and Suave House. With the strikingly outrageous covers now being appreciated by a contemporary rap audience, the company has come out of retirement to create sleeve designs for modern rappers like 21 Savage and Metro Boomin.
Ghostface Killah “Supreme Clientele” (2000)
Aside from being one of the most successful Wu-Tang solo albums, Ghostface Killah’s sophomore LP, Supreme Clientele, is also remembered for its artwork — in particular, the stylized, liquid, metal-like font in which the album title is rendered. “Even with the names of my albums, you got people naming they stores… you got Supreme Clientele, you got Supreme,” Ghostface once said. Although he may be wrong about the chronology of the seminal NYC streetwear brand, the album’s legacy is cemented with Supreme’s use of the album’s graphics on two tees in 2000 and 2020.
Clipse “Lord Willin’” (2002)
By the early 2000s, Virginia producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo revolutionized the sound of hip-hop in pop music with their production sourcery. While the duo were dominating the charts with pop stars like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, they were also cultivating local underground artists like Clipse, whose debut album, Lord Willin’, put Virginia Beach back on the map. This promo tee features the album's artwork along with logos of The Neptune’s record label, Star, and streetwear fashion brand Enyce.
Jeezy “Can’t Ban the Snowman” (2005)
Few T-shirts embody the Atlanta rap era quite like the graphic for Jeezy’s 2006 mixtape Can’t Ban the Snowman. The infamous black tee with a mean mugging white snowman was a genius marketing strategy that his label created to promote his major debut album Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. The T-shirt became a cultural phenomenon that not only flooded the streets with countless bootlegs but also found its way into schoolyards, where it would eventually get banned once school officials got wind of the drug-related messaging of the snowman logo.
Golf Wang Cat (2011)
Before Instagram existed, Tyler and his Odd Future crew built their own micro universe through their widely followed Tumblr and YouTube accounts, as well as the “OF Sweatshop” pop-up shops after their shows “Everyone is doing pop-up shops now; I was doing that in 2011,” Tyler once said to Dazed. “I’d never get a mention for it or anything. When everyone was putting cats on tie-dye shirts in 2013, I was doing that in 2011.”
Kanye West Yeezus Tour (2013)
Kanye West’s passion for clothing has brought him top creative roles at adidas and Gap, and going by the level of detail shown on the output for the Yeezus tour in 2013, it’s obvious why. The offering brought a renewed interest to the design of tour merch in general, with the rapper calling upon Wes Lang to design the graphic of a skull wearing a Native American headdress, with the name of the tour shaped into a Metallica-inspired typeface. Though there was controversy around West’s use of the Confederate flag on a bomber jacket in the line, it was still popular enough to launch a collection at PacSun.
Travis Scott Rodeo Tour (2015)
The appeal of the Travis Scott brand is impossible to doubt. But what is now a cultural phenomenon began simply as a tasteful merch line to support Scott’s debut project, Rodeo, in 2015. One of the more covetable pieces from the selection was a graphic T-shirt featuring a black-and-white hunched-over cowboy sparking a cigarette behind the words “Rodeo TOUR.” There’s an obvious reference to the iconic Marlboro Man in both the color scheme and typeface, as well as a nod to Scott’s Texan origins.
Kid Cudi x Cactus Plant Flea Market (2019)
For Cudi’s performance at Coachella in 2019, he called upon Cactus Plant Flea Market to collaborate with him on T-shirts and sweatshirts to sell at the show. Produced on heavyweight American-made jersey (as per CPFM’s usual standards), the “CUDI SAVES” graphic itself is an obvious homage to Nirvana’s Nevermind merch, with the same Bodoni typeface used and the letters filled in with a similar blue to the band’s famous 1991 cover. Cudi’s love for the grunge icons is well noted, with the rapper donning a mohair cardigan and floral dress, à la frontman Kurt Cobain, for an SNL performance in April 2021.
Order HIGHStyle, a magazine by Highsnobiety, via our online store.