Review: ‘Ice Cold,’ on hip-hop bling, and ‘Status and Culture’

On the shelf

Two books about hip-hop, bling and status

Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry Story
By Vikki Tobak
Pockets: 388 pages, $100

Status and Culture: How our desire for social rank creates taste, identity, art, fashion and constant change
By W David Marx
Vikings: 368 pages, $30

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When early humans first adorned themselves with stones or shells, they invented glittering status symbols to evoke admiration and/or envy. Aeons later, few contemporary figures have embraced the emerging potential of jewelry more than hip-hop artists. Kurtis Blow was a pioneer, sporting half a dozen gold chains on the cover of his 1980 self-titled debut; these now look like wispy strands compared to today’s dazzled concoctions of conspicuous consumption. Cam’ron’s ethos on “Get ‘Em Girls” (2004) said it all: “I style my gear up … medallions in my ear, whips on my fists, houses on my wrists.”

Desiring to carry one’s wealth can have high costs beyond money. On September 12, a group conspiring to rob PnB Rock of his jewelry killed the Philly rapper outside an LA restaurant. Days later, veteran rapper-actor Ice-T tweeted that prominent local rappers like Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar “don’t wear a lot of jewelry” because “LA is just a dangerous place. …Why test the roads.”

The cover of "Freezing," its title is written as a pendant.

Those who haven’t yet reached snoop status may still think it’s worth the risk. Vikki Tobak’s new book, Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History, chronicles the longstanding affinity between rap artists and their jewelry. She follows up on her Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop (2018), an extraordinary anthology of hip-hop photography whose influence is reflected in the thousands of images that fill her latest book. Organized after decades, “Ice Cold” illustrates hip-hop’s arms race to source and produce ever more elaborate, individualized showpieces.

What began in the 1980s with Run DMC and Eric B. & Rakim sporting muscular “Dookie” gold chains has evolved into a dazzling array of door knocker earrings, custom four finger rings, black leather Africa lockets and jeweled dental grills. ‘Ice Cold’ features both the iconic – Biggie’s diamond-encrusted ‘Jesus piece’ designed by Manny’s Tito Caicedo – and esoteric – Cardi B’s gold cache pies by Bijules. For literal moxie, check out Icebox Jewelers’ $400,000 T-Pain pendant, set with 200 carats of diamonds that spell out “Big Ass Chain.”

Although “Ice Cold” focuses primarily on creations, Tobak tries to add some glamor to the creators as well, writing valuable, if brief, backgrounds on key characters, including New York’s legendary “Jacob the Jeweler” Arabo, Houston’s “TV Johnny” Dang and other “Ben Baller” Yang from Los Angeles. Not only are they artists who tinker with karat rather than rhymes, Tobak notes how many jewelers, like their hip-hop clients, come from humble beginnings.

Megan Thee Stallion

Megan Thee Stallion, as featured in “Ice Cold,” goes by her nickname “Hot Girl” by Eliantte & Co. Los Angeles, 2020

(Marcelo Cantu)

A compendium of opulence and excess, Ice Cold firmly ties the symbolism of bling to lived realities of social exclusion. Contributor LL Cool J writes, “The crooks I saw parading their jewelry all over New York City…were synonymous with hope.” Slick Rick adds, “When the luxury brands fall short and don’t serve us , we create our own luxuries.” ASAP Ferg’s analogy of jewelry as fine art is particularly provocative: “I see it as buying a Damien Hirst painting and wearing a Francis Bacon around my neck.”

The risks posed by flashy jewelry are real, but so are the social rewards. As Tobak suggests, these plays are a “declaration of stupidity, power, domination and wealth”. She would find strong approval from author W. David Marx. In Status and Culture, published last month, he writes, “The sanest way to climb the social hierarchy is to turn raw wealth into status symbols.” Nouveau riche rappers draped in drops signal success, similarly like a third generation banker dressing up on Savile Row.


The three members of Migos are important jewelry collectors. In this Ice Cold photo, most of the jewelry on Takeoff (left to right), Offset, and Quavo is by Eliantte & Co. Los Angeles, 2018

(Travis Shinn)

However, as Marx (and many TV dramas) remind us: “Old money abhors new money.” The former’s high status influences perceptions that its lavish spending is tastefully cultivated, while New Money’s habits are desperately superficial. For Marx, these struggles for status power are “perpetual cultural change,” motivating the invention or pursuit of new ideas out of a desire to protect and enhance our social rank.

Marx’s previous book, Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style (2015), was a compelling, insightful history of the cross-cultural influences between American and Japanese menswear trends. Compared to the niche focus of Ametora, Status and Culture is an ambitiously sprawling tract. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, it synthesizes years of social science research and claims to unlock simple but powerful explanations of our social world, in this case via the skeletal key of status.

“We all compete for status whether we like it or not,” Marx insists, but how we proceed depends on where we are already positioned. He argues that those of low status have little to lose by pushing new cultural standards; Think of punk and hip-hop’s working-class roots and fixation on “authenticity” and “genuineness.” Meanwhile, social elites have enough status surplus to bet on unconventional ideas—haute couture, for example—that others might find too outrageous to adopt.

The cover of "status and culture" paired with a photo of the author.

“Status and Culture”, by W. David Marx


The middle classes, who are in between and have the most to lose, tend to be the most risk-averse; For this reason, medium brow flavors are considered “respectable” yet mildly conventional. In the late 20th century, the dissociation of a creative class inspired a new ideal of “competition for taste” through an emphasis on cultural capital (privileged knowledge). It’s about mastering status signals from above and below, whether it’s attending prestigious schools, collecting obscure band t-shirts, becoming a whiskey connoisseur or… writing book reviews for major newspapers.

Unfortunately, according to Marx, the information age has weakened the value of cultural capital. The Internet has made niche knowledge easily accessible, even as taste gatekeeping regimes have withered under the popularization of egalitarian principles. All of this makes the naked display of wealth in broadcast status even more appealing, especially when amplified via social media. New Money, fueled by technology, finance, oil, celebrity, etc., is creating new markets for ultra-luxurious goods and services, replacing older, aristocratic conventions with newer, plutocratic ones. Yet despite the disruptions in Silicon Valley, the status remains evergreen; only the shades change.

A man points to his golden grille with a ring-bedecked little finger.

ASAP Rocky, as seen in Ice Cold, features diamond and yellow gold three-piece cap grilles. Los Angeles, 2018

(Mike Miller)

What makes status particularly pernicious is that it doesn’t just affect cultural trends; it also shapes our sense of personality. We are told ad nauseam to “just be yourself,” but Marx reminds us that originality is traditionally an “aristocratic privilege.” Even the assertion “I don’t care about status” is a grayed-out status marker, signaling one’s virtuous rise above the material rabble.

Again, it’s easy to decline the status if you already have it. On “Ice Cold,” LL shares how he relinquishes his dookie chains after his stature as a celebrated actor and artist frees him from “having to prove to people I have money.” For young artists looking to reach LL’s level of success – like the late PnB Rock – despite the risks, bling still offers a tempting shortcut to status.

Marx does not believe that the influence of status can ever be overcome, but he suggests that we can at least limit its stratifications by reducing “the evils of social hierarchy” and encouraging “radical creativity”. Status inequality would remain, but Marx argues that “creativity is at least more evenly distributed across society than the ability to shape wealth.” One only has to read Ice Cold to see this idea play out in dazzling detail. Hip-hop jewelry may have its roots in flashy consumption, but it’s also a form of creative expression as unique to an artist as flow or songwriting. Anyone with money can buy a gold chain, but before Biggie nobody thought of commissioning a custom Jesus piece.

Smooth Rick

Slick Rick goes old school with pieces bought mostly from jewelers on Canal Street. New York, 1999

(sound Patrick McBride)

Ultimately, if status is tied to our basic need to feel respected or admired, it would be disastrous if we saw wealth as the only legible way to attain it. A call for radical creativity encourages alternative forms of recognition. Examples from the past abound – teddy boys in 1950s England, hip-hop sound systems in 70s New York – and new ones keep popping up, from TikTok dancers in India to cottagecore adoptees in Canada.

Many of these trends will prove short-lived. Those that endure are often detoxified and cannibalized by the mainstream. Few will ever be truly revolutionary. Yet our status-driven desire to invent and explore new ways of being and belonging remains fundamental to how we prevent cultures—and ourselves—from calcifying into stasis. We may all be bound by the gravity of status, but we don’t always have to feel trapped by it.

Wang is a professor of sociology at CSU Long Beach. Review: ‘Ice Cold,’ on hip-hop bling, and ‘Status and Culture’

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