Among the most notable sneaker deals for hip-hop artists, from Kanye West’s deals with first Nike, then Adidas, to 50 Cent’s run with Reebok for his G-Unit sneakers, there is an oft-forgotten deal that brought rap and fashion together.
It started in 1988, when fashion and sneaker brand British Knights approached Kool Moe Dee about using his single “How Ya Like Me Now” for an ad campaign.
“I wore British Knights gear on the ‘How Ya Like Me Now’ album cover,” Kool Moe Dee remembered. “I wasn’t wearing it to get a deal or anything. Representatives from the company saw it and contacted my manager about doing a deal.”
It is well documented that Run-D.M.C. signed hip-hop’s first sneaker contract in 1987 when they partnered with Adidas in a deal worth $1.6 million, following the success of the “My Adidas” single off their 1986 album Raising Hell.
When the group performed the song in concert, fans held up their Adidas sneakers. The group’s co-manager at the time, Lyor Cohen, brought Adidas executives to their shows to see the fans’ responses. The British Knights campaign was built around print ads featuring the company mascot, a knight in a tuxedo, with a speech bubble saying “How Ya Like Me Now?” and a TV campaign with Kool Moe Dee reworking the lyrics with lines such as “the shoes that are hot/the shoes that are wild/they’re called British Knights/How ya like me now?” and “you should try some/go out and buy some.”
The song, No. 31 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of hip-hop list, was widely seen as a diss track to LL Cool J. In the original song, Kool Moe Dee said lyrics like “I’m bigger and better, forget about deffer,” a reference to LL Cool J’s album title Bigger and Deffer.
The beef with LL Cool J began with Kool Moe Dee accusing LL Cool J of stealing his rap style and culminated in the release of the scathing “How Ya Like Me Now.”
But according to Sean Lynch, the current vice president of marketing for British Knights, the company wasn’t scared of wedging itself into rap beef and believed the song spoke to the brand’s ethos.
“The term ‘How Ya Like Me Now’ fit with British Knights’ boisterous and in-your-face tone from a marketing perspective,” said Lynch. “It aligned to other marketing slogans used at the time, like ‘The shoe ain’t nothin’ without the BK button’ and ‘Your mother wears Nikes.’ ”
According to Kool Moe Dee, though, “How Ya Like Me Now” was not about dissing LL Cool J but rather his commentary on hip-hop’s direction.
“I was talking about hip-hop in general,” he said. “I didn’t like the direction hip-hop was being taken in because it was becoming too commercial.”
And while Run-D.M.C.’s Adidas deal was rich even by today’s standards, Kool Moe Dee said that his deal was far less lucrative.
“The deal was very, very lowballed. I wasn’t wearing it looking to get a deal, but the deal itself was very underwhelming,” he said. “They wanted me to wear it on stage as well, but they weren’t willing to pay any additional money, so that part of the deal fell apart, and I never wore anything on stage.”
In the initial meetings, Kool Moe Dee and his team suggested the rapper get involved with designing the sneakers and possibly get a cut of the sales.
“They weren’t receptive to it,” said Kool Moe Dee. “They were leery about attaching their product to ours too much.”
And while British Knights didn’t want to factor Kool Moe Dee into their brand’s creative side, the rapper agrees that the deal may have been too early in the development of corporate America’s fascination with hip-hop culture.
“A couple of years later, they realized MC Hammer was selling millions of records, and they signed on with him. But at the time I signed the deal, it was a little too early in the mindset of corporate America.”
The MC Hammer deal in 1990, worth more than $138 million, involved British Knights as a main tour sponsor and leveraged Hammer across multiple advertising channels, including in-store events and a TV spot.
The MC Hammer TV spot used his song “U Can’t Touch This” as the frame and reworked the lyrics to talk about British Knights sneakers.
“I liked it,” Kool Moe Dee said of the British Knights gear and sneakers he was asked to promote. “But it wasn’t like I was wearing it all the time, and they wanted me to present like I was wearing it all the time.”
And while Kool Moe Dee had reservations about expanding the partnership, there was no disputing that British Knights was one of the first brands to see the value of hip-hop to sell products and generate buzz.
“British Knights celebrated hip-hop culture from the jump,” Lynch said. “Many other brands took a much more timid approach. The timing couldn’t have been better with British Knights bursting onto the scene and Kool Moe Dee’s influence and career trajectory skyrocketing.”
While it may seem that British Knights faded into obscurity following its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the brand’s influence can be seen today in some of the most fashionable places. There are similarities between the low Louis Vuitton Trainer sneaker and the Astra and Kings SI sneakers from British Knights as well as other brands from the 1980s. The eyestays are noticeably similar, and you can see the inspiration in the chunkiness of the sole and how it creeps up the outer edges of the shoe.
For Lynch, it was the willingness to take chances and be bold that cemented British Knights place in hip-hop fashion history, and still sees its influence reverberating today.
“A lot of brands were stuck in their ways. I think British Knights was trying to evolve as fast as possible and when they saw that shift in culture, they had enough foresight to capitalize on it.”