In 1982 America was enmeshed in the Reagan Era, Michael Jackson was crowned king upon his release of Thriller, John Elway played one season in the minors and Nike released a shoe that would change the kick game forever– the Air Force 1.
In the fledgling days of athletic wear, Converse still held weight as the top dog and everyone else had to fight for second. Nike had been around for a couple of years, but had yet to really make any significant mark on the streets or industry. Things changed quickly, however, when Nike began to up the ante on both aesthetics and quality.
When stick up kids were catching cats for their J’s in the late ‘80s, I was growing up in Harlem, admiring the older dudes on my block who were rockin’ a fresh pair of white-on-white or black-on-black Airs We called them Uptowns. The name stuck. 30 years –and 1,800 color combinations later – Bruce Kilgore’s design, which was the first basketball shoe to use Nike Air technology, is still popular year ‘round. Discontinued in 1984, the sneaker was reissued by Nike in ’86 and has remained a staple in hip-hop and street wear culture ever since. Sneakerheads might not wait in line for hours and days to cop them (like they do for Jordans), but collectors still scour the globe for a crisp pair. According to the 2004 sneaker documentary Just for Kicks, in ’02, about250,000 pairs of Air Jordan’s were sold in the U.S., compared to 15 million pairs of Uptowns. Since then, the AF1 has become the highest grossing sneaker in the history of athletic footwear.
“The story is intriguing,” explains Bobbito Garcia, co-director of the critically acclaimed documentary Doin’ it In the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, New York City. “It never had any marketing or promotion, since the first time it came out in the ‘80s. It sold all those years, straight off of cats making it hot on the street– originally from ballplayers, to the hustlers, to the hip-hop heads.”
The brand experienced resurgence in the 21st Century as the retro phase brought a new legion of fans. AF1s turned into a standard-ops sorta shoe—it was easier to name the people who didn’t rock them. In ’02, Nelly created a platinum single and a popular video off of the brand’s namesake. In ’07, Kanye West, Nas, Rakim and KRS-One recorded the Grammy nominated hit “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been)”. The song was co-produced by Rick Rubin and DJ Premier to commemorate the AF1s silver anniversary. The Air Force 1’s increasing popularity and longevity can be attributed to many things (relatively low price, comfort, accessibility, silly amount of colorways and fabrics, etc), paramount of those being its popularity with celebrities.
“If you look at the three prime Air Force 1 wearers that are known around the world, and mostly responsible for making it that next level shoe, you think Jay-Z, [DJ] Clark [Kent] and [Fat] Joe,” says Garcia. “They grew up in the ‘80s. Nelly is secondary. So [when] you’re talking about a shoe that gained global notoriety 15 years later, it runs parallel to those three artists’ popularity.”
With this fall marking the 30th Anniversary of AF1s, Nike will release the limited edition “Year of the Dragon” pearly-white Air Force 1 Low on September 28. Although white-on-whites remain a staple in the ‘hood, it still continues to fly under the radar today. Like most purists, I won’t stand in line when a new issue is released; but, nonetheless,give me two pairs.