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How Virgil Abloh's Design Philosophy Solves The Biggest Problem In Hip-Hop

By Alec Banks

In 2017, multi-hyphenate, Virgil Abloh, presented a lecture at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. It was an expansive — yet somehow informal — exploration into a mind that could both consider the vastness of towering buildings, and the seemingly minute detail like an eyelet on an Air Force 1.

In the wake of his untimely death from cancer, I revisited the hour-long insight into his creative process in an attempt to find something to unpack that didn't seem derivative of other people's thoughts on his passing. What I wasn't prepared for was an answer that has been plaguing me since I first arrived at Rock The Bells over 2.5 years ago.

Rock The Bells' mission is to bridge the gap between classic and contemporary Hip-Hop. While music from '86, 2006, and 2021 may live under a singular, unified banner, fans rarely embrace a we mentality. As a result, Hip-Hop publications have been forced to only look at one side of the fence.

To young fans, the Classic Hip-Hop side has some yellowing grass patches. To older fans, there's a pervasive belief that what they're looking at is actually fake. Collectively, the grass ain't greener on either side.

Here's where Virgil Abloh's design thoughts come into play. He stated that he employs a "3 percent" theory when it comes to making a product. As he puts it, he's "editing" more than he's designing.

In classic Hip-Hop, we tend to like things that we're familiar with; a "Funky Drummer" loop, Guru's voice, and DJ Premier's chops. As Hip-Hop has changed and evolved, many people no longer recognize the "thing" that served as the thought starter. A common refrain you might hear from a Hip-Hop fan who grew up in the '70s, '80s, or '90s, is, "That ain't Hip-Hop."

But not for Virgil Abloh. They have a symbiotic relationship. This concept is solidified not only by his take on classic Nike silhouettes, but also the name "Off-White" itself. It's a, "Compromise between two similar or dissimilar notions."

In Hip-Hop, dissimilar concepts like "Boom Bap" and "Soundcloud Rap" cannot be embraced because no one has attempted to put them all under one roof like Abloh did in his design work.

Abloh cites Harvard — the pinnacle of higher education in this country — to illustrate his next thought which I believe is pertinent when discussing Hip-Hop. Some of the greatest minds in the world travel to Boston to attend a university to see how they can make an impact on society. However, one can't overlook the ingenuity and creativity that exists off campus as well. As Abloh states, "He wants to speak to the tourist and purist, simultaneously."

If Hip-Hop were itself a literal brand — not unlike Nike, IKEA, and Louis Vuitton (all of whom Abloh was worked with) — there is a need to hit both that tourist and purist at the same time. The Kendrick Lamar's and J. Cole's of the world seem to be commodities that both the tourist and purist can agree upon. But for some reason, the Lil Baby's and Migos of the world are unrecognizable. To the tourists, they see a new version of the iPhone. To the purists, they're only focused on the imperceptible voice coming through the other end of the receiver.

Hip-Hop is no longer niche. It's your clothes, what's in your home, and what you choose to drive. When "culture" is used, it's not made in jest. While we have allowed ourselves to think of Hip-Hop as all-encompassing, we still tend to think about it linearly. Abloh — in all of his brilliance — eliminated self imposed hurdles, and explored the world in a zig-zag. He made connections where they seemed unlikely. For me, those same connections have to be forged between past and present day Hip-Hop communities.

Abloh has stated that a 17 year old can be more advanced than a 45 year old. Advanced is an interesting word choice because it builds up the new generation, without devaluing the work of their predecessors. We have come to expect advancement in nearly every other field; tech, sports, automotive, film, etc. However, many Hip-Hop fans want the culture to remain the exact same as the moment/era that they first fell in love.

It's unfair to tell a teenager to dream big — but within set parameters. Similarly, we must respect Gen X's desire for preservation of culture that was discovered, not passed down. Virgil Abloh truly had a knack for making young people acknowledge what came before them — while also allowing an older generation to look toward at the future with optimism.

And he made it look easy, which is really hard to do.