The legendary style of NYC’s Lo Life crew

The original high fashion hip hop gang.

[P]icture the scene: it’s 1980s New York, violence and crime are running the streets and the sound of hip hop is making its way out of the Bronx and into the mainstream.   With the crack epidemic and murder rates at an all time high, the aspirational American dream seemed a long way off for NYC’s inner city youth.

Many crews emerged out of this unique mix of circumstances, united for survival and with a shared passion for music, culture, and just plain ole’ being fly. Regarded as pioneers in the style game, The Lo Life crew – named after their obsession with Polo gear by Ralph Lauren, were formed by crews of teenagers from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and Brownsville neighbourhoods.

Way before high-end fashion brands paid any attention to streetwear and hip-hop culture, this legendary gang were flipping the most coveted Polo pieces, reinventing preppy middle class threads into sought after street staples. It was all about the art of making do – and copping fly gear by any means necessary was the mission, whether that involved stick-ups, hustling or shoplifting.

We caught up with Rack-Lo, the co-founder of the Lo Life crew, to talk about the remarkable story of the gang and the experience of growing up in 1980s New York. It’s a story documented in the book Lo Life: An American Classic from powerHouse books, which you can also preview images from below.

Hey Rack, how did the Lo Life crew come together?

Lo Life crew came together because we all lived in the borough of Brooklyn. We were far from just typical kids. We operated and had the minds of adults. We were ahead of our times. We became the flyest crew in New York City from the 1980s. In the new millennium we continued to dominate.

Take us back to Brooklyn in the 1980s - what were the sights and sounds?

The sights were poverty. Seeing young black kids who fought daily in order to avoid becoming statistics. Gun violence was terrible in the 1980s and I lost a lot of good friends as a result of gun violence. But hip hop music and the culture saved many of us.

Why was style so important for the Lo Life crew?

Our style consisted of acquiring wears that the ordinary person couldn’t afford. We were into wearing brands that people from the Ghetto and Urban America did not touch or couldn’t afford. We never stayed local. We treated major department stores like our playground. We created a style of our own called “Lo Down”. This meant that everything we wore from head to toe was Ralph Lauren. That’s where the term “Ralph Everything” derived from.

What was it about Polo that made it so covetable as a label? And what lengths would you guys go to get your hands on pieces?

Polo was different because we never saw it in the neighbourhood. It was made for the rich kids who lived on the Upper East side. For the people who were in touch with the American Dream. It was made For the affluent and waspy types. To acquire and own it – we robbed people and robbed stores.

Now high-end designers are embracing street wear and hip-hop culture in a way we’ve never seen before, what are your thoughts on that?

That’s because they followed the trends the Lo Life’s created. And when you think about – most of the styles start from the streets and make their way to becoming high end or mainstream.

Why do you think that labels like Cross Colours and fashion pioneers like Dapper Dan have not been able to have longevity and capitalise on where hip-hop style is at now?

Because unfortunately as black people we fail to support each other. For some crazy reason, those brands weren’t celebrated how they should have been. And that’s why they couldn’t maintain and sustain into the new millennium.

Kanye and Diddy both embraced the Polo look and have often been associated with introducing it to hip hop culture - what would you say to that?

These two have never fully embraced Polo like Rack-Lo and the Lo Lifes. Diddy and Kanye West took their styles from the Lo Lifes. They were never original. They always copied other people and tried to claim fame. If you ever interview either of them ask them were they ever influenced by the Lo Lifes. Diddy was so much of a biter that he even gave Jennifer Lopez the name J-Lo. That is a Lo Life Creation. That was the straw that broke the camels back.

How has it been to see hip hop, and indeed NYC, go through so many changes?

Quite honestly, it has been very sad changes. Originally hip hop was about positive and uplifting messages. It was created to teach people plus entertain them. Now it’s being used as a weapon to stifle the growth of the people who actually created it. Through the last 20 years the message got lost. The message became secondary and money and power took the forefront. And this contributed to the divide of the people.

Why are hip hop and fashion so strongly linked?

Fashion is the fifth element of Hip Hop with entrepreneurship being the sixth element. All of these elements are related and truly can’t exist without the others. Fashion has always been apart of hip hop. Just refer back to Afrika Bambatta, Melle Mel & The Furious 5, Run DMC, X Clan, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick etc.  I would say if you lived a hip hop life in the 1980s, Slick Rick was a huge influence on many people when it came to style and dressing. The X Clan was really visual with their dressing as they donned African (Red, Black & Green) attire along with African Medallion. They took pride in their heritage. Overall, hip hop is very macho and through fashion artists were able to demonstrate their prowess and creative thinking.

Is there a particular fashion moment you look back at and think ‘what was I doing?! or do you still love the style of the era?

I don’t regret anything. Even to this very day I prefer wearing vintage clothing. The new brands and styles do not pique my interest. I’m more into the timeless fashion. I like the clothing that last and gets better with time. I like to shock people. I like to be different. I like to stand out and be original.

Where would you like to see New York hip hop go next?

I would love to see it return to its true purpose. Eliminate all of the extra stuff. I remember there was a time when people listened to hip hop for knowledge and guidance. But unfortunately those days are over. I think these artists nowadays should invest more into their art instead of the dollar. A lot of artists are lost in this day and time. They rather be selfish and make a few dollars as oppose to taking a stand. Why not use your voice and platform to make changes in the world. Why not use your voice to empower someone else so they can get by. I thinking the new artists lack responsibility, but are eager for authority. So this is made things bad for hip hop and the direction it’s heading in.

Thanks Rack!

Lo Life: An American Classic is out now on powerHouse books