From JAY-Z’s “U Don’t Know” (“Wear a G on my chest/I don’t need Dapper Dan”) to Pusha T’s “M.F.T.R.” (“While every song got a rapper dance/Yugh, I’m drug money like Dapper Dan”), to Nas’ “U.B.R.” (“From Leather coats/to shell toes to Stan Smiths to Dapper Dan kicks”), Harlem native and flyboy, Dapper Dan has been somewhat of a god-like figure in hip-hop, especially to those living outside of New York City. We knew Dapper Dan was tangible, but he managed to stay invisible.
Regardless of one’s age, students of black culture are aware of Dan’s (real name Daniel Day) presence in hip-hop–whether they recognized it or not. Until recently, many millennial hip-hopers have only heard fleeting stories about the living legend.
Thanks to a recent barrage of attention — an informative New York Times article titled, “The Fashion Outlaw Dapper Dan,” Nas’ executive-produced documentary Fresh Dressed, as well as a nod from Elle — the masses can finally put a face and a backstory to Day’s brand, which is responsible for defining the ’80s hip-hop dress code by creating ill pieces for rap’s elite such as Rakim, LL Cool J, and KRS-One, among others.
All of the success is great, but back-stories are just as important as the wins. And as one should expect, Day’s journey is just as inspiring, beautiful, yet rugged as the clothes that he designed for hip-hop and street legends. According to the New York Times, as a kid (along with his Ali Baba team–a name taken from “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”), Day started his rollicking childhood with a barrage of robberies, then he became a skilled street gambler only to plummet to drug addiction. But as gods do in the face of defeat, Day stiff-armed his addiction to become a writer and later a prominent designer.
Now, what’s more exciting than Day’s street exploits are the chain of events that led to his reform.
According to the New York Times, Day credits Malcolm X with planting seeds of reform after he witnessed the late activist speak on a Harlem block.
“Malcolm X once said, ‘If you want to understand the flower, study the seed.’ I was getting high at the time, but once I heard that, it stuck with me,” he said. “I started going to the Countee Cullen Library and began reading about opium and the Boxer Rebellion in China. I said, ‘Oh, this is where it comes from.’ I connected myself to the problem of addiction globally. And I went back to school, courtesy of a program sponsored by the Urban League and Columbia University.”
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“I wanted to be a writer. I read books by Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Lerone Bennett. One of my favorite journalists was Earl Caldwell, the pioneering black investigative reporter known for his articles in The Times on the Black Panthers…The young white kids were moving toward a spiritual, New Age kind of consciousness, and the people I knew were embracing black nationalism,” he said. “I personally was involved with the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers and an organization called the Mighty Black Zulus. Not the Zulu Nation of the Bronx, but a collection of brothers who dressed in black pants, green suspenders, and red shirts.”
At VIBE, sharing knowledge sits at the top of our agenda. Furthermore, we understand the fortitude needed to survive in poverty-stricken and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Being that Day was fortunate enough to rise above the suffocating crime circumstances that Harlem presents, we collected some of the books and men that guided him into becoming a positive role model and fashion icon.
1: John Henrik Clarke
Dr. Clarke is often credited with being a pioneer of African American studies. In addition to being a distinguished professor at Cornell University as well as creating curricula and establishing Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City, he authored and edited numerous books and articles including the widely read Christopher Columbus and the African Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism and Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism.
2: Lerone Bennett
Dr. Bennett spent over four decades as the HNIC of Ebony and Jet magazines. As a writer, the Mississippi native moved between the worlds of reporter and historian by bringing an academic way of thinking to mass media. Bennett’s most well-known work is the academically researched book, Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619-1966. Here, Bennett examines the black experience beginning in West Africa and through the civil rights era.
3: Earl Caldwell
Earl Caldwell was one of the world’s most talented African American news reporters. According to The New York Times, Caldwell worked for periodicals such as The New York Herald Tribune, NYT, The Washington Star and The New York Daily News, where he penned a column for 15 years. He’s mostly known for his extensive coverage of the Black Panther Party as well as civil rights. He’s also the only reporter to witness Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination. Caldwell’s claim to fame came when he refused to become an informant by disclosing information to the FBI about the Black Panther Party (BPP). Caldwell’s refusal to rat out BPP members resulted in the United States v. Caldwell case, which led to shield laws giving reporters the right to protect their sources. If you’re interested, check out Caldwell’s book, Black American Witness: Reports from the Front.