Hip-Hop Fridays: Hip Hop Isn't Hip Now That It's Hit Godalming by Jim White
There is a scene in the magnificent animation Toy Story 2 that always makes me chuckle. It is when Mr Potato Head and the dinosaur are searching for their missing pal Woody, the cowboy in the toy store, and happen upon a party held by the Barbie dolls. It looks a great bash, full of long-limbed single girls, shaking their wholesome blonde manes to surfing music. There's barely a bloke in sight, except a couple of Kens, and you suspect their interest is not entirely sparked by female companions.
No wonder Mr Potato Head is so easily distracted from the task in hand and joins in. Most of us would. The seductiveness of the Barbie image is intoxicating, which is presumably why half the female population of Los Angeles is locked in surgical homage to her plastic contours. But according to Barbie's manufacturer, Mattel, it is not enough to keep the interest of what it calls "the older girl". "By the age of eight, girls need to move on, to have something relevant to their world," Mattel's Julia Jensen tells me, in an intriguing new definition of the term "older".
Step forward, then, "Flavas", the new range of dolls from Mattel, aimed squarely at Barbie graduates. Anyone with older girls won't be able to miss it this autumn. In a marketing launch that many a car manufacturer would be pressed to match, there will be posters, advertisements in children's magazines and several hours of television commercials, soundtracked by Craig David. And what makes Flavas so much more attractive to the eight year old? They are hip hop dolls.
Fabulous creatures they are, too. Ghetto fabulous, in fact - their clothing apparently lifted straight from the set of the latest video shoot for some new hip hop starlet. One of the boy dolls has his trousers plunging anklewards, with a good six inches of underpant visible above the waistline; a girl has a huge pendant cross, encrusted with play diamonds; another doll has a fur-covered peak cap. All have little accessory packs of mobile phone, lengthy key fobs and chunks of fat jewellery. Or, as it is spelt on the lyric sheet of Big Brovaz records: phat. "Collect the whole crew," implores the packaging, in eight different languages.
Presented in boxes covered in graffiti, what a contrast they offer to the country club, four-wheel-drive milieu of Barbie. Even their faces - moulded into self-confident smirks - are another world from the Stepford wife vacuity of the queen B's grin. "Right now, hip hop really is the hottest cultural phenomenon," says Jensen. "It has transcended the music and stretched into the lifestyle of kids. This is the first reality-based fashion doll brand that celebrates today's tween culture through authentic style, attitude and values."
Not that authentic: interestingly for a phenomenon that grew from the heart of inner-city America, there are only two black dolls in the Flava crew. And just one black male. The significance of this can only be given real justice by the cultural studies department at the University of Stafford.
But maybe the idea is that the eight-year-old doll enthusiast should be building up an arrangement like that enjoyed by the hip hop veteran Ice T. The preposterous 44-year-old rapper came to Britain recently, surrounded by an entourage of white women, who had clearly enjoyed enhancement to all aspects of their physique, except their vocal cords. It would have been good to know from any of them what they thought they were doing, standing there on tottering heels as Ice talked Alan Yentob through the importance of his art for a BBC documentary. But they remained silent on his elbow, as animated as a doll.
Perhaps we shouldn't leap to conclusions: one thing about the whiteness of the dolls is that it reflects the fact that hip hop fashion is now absolutely mainstream, not just in Britain but across the myriad countries represented by the multilingual box. "Fifty-five territories," Jensen says, will soon be enjoying dolls; little girls in Belgium and Latvia will be equally encouraged to seek out "their own personal Flava".
You can see the appeal of the style: these are astonishing fashions. I first came across it all at a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas about five years ago. As befits a man you probably wouldn't invite to dinner (unless you were happy to have him mistaking a fellow guest's ear for hors d'oeuvre), Tyson's followers are a rum bunch; if not the most sinister gang leaders, drug dealers and pimps of LA, then their best mates. But boy, do they know how to dress; restraint was not a word in their wardrobe. That night I saw a man head to toe in mink: mink fedora, ankle-length mink coat, mink-covered shoes. It was a fashion statement of some bravura in the desert.
The point about all this adornment is that it is a deliberate reaction to the previous generation. The rappers, record producers and Tyson supporters at the style's forefront are the offspring of those who grew up fans of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, soul singers on the fringes of hippidom. Radicalised and politicised, they sought enlightenment above show. Bob Marley was typical of the times, a man who, despite having more in his current account than the national banks of several Caribbean islands combined, was never seen in anything more ostentatious than a grubby jean jacket. The only politics the bling generation pursue are those of financial gain; they wear their wealth without embarrassment. And now, eight-year-olds across the globe can buy into the style. Not bad for £12.99.
Just one thing, though. Surely the arrival of these dolls signals the beginning of the end for ghetto fabulous as a fashion force. In the same way that the swankiest new nightclub in town is immediately vacated by the trendsetters the moment the rest of us hear of it, now that a little girl in Godalming will be dressing her dolls in furry caps, clunky medallions and jeans five sizes too big, the next generation of Los Angeles youth will be looking for a new sartorial direction.
I predict the first rapper in tweeds and brogues will appear within weeks, sporting a briar pipe, the easier to consume his substance of choice. The Iain Duncan Smith doll: your time is surely nigh.
Note: This article first ran at telegraph.co.uk
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Friday, September 19, 2003