How the humble 1969 “Shelltoe” and Run DMC laid the groundwork for contemporary sneaker culture.
Let’s just make this clear: hip hop and basketball have always been the two most important driving forces behind sneaker culture. Since basketball’s official creation in 1891, sneakers have evolved from a functional on-court staple to a global streetwear phenomenon, thanks to rap’s adoption of the basketball shoe as a staple for the hip hop uniform.
Converse might have changed how sneakers were viewed with the introduction of the Chuck Taylor in 1917, but it wasn’t until 1969 when Adidas made its now-classic Superstar—a black and white low-top basketball model—that sneaker culture began to show its massive growing appeal. The Superstar, or “Shelltoe” as it grew to be known, featured a non-slip sole, rubber toe cap, and full leather upper. The release of the sneaker birthed one of the first and most significant athlete partnerships in sporting history—Adidas, wanting to promote the new silhouette and the upcoming Adidas Basketball line, signed arguably the greatest player of the times, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. And so began Adidas’ reign over basketball throughout the 1970s. Basketball fans and amateur players could now buy “Kareem’s Sky Hook Shoes,” as one Adidas promo advertised, and while they didn’t automatically enable consumers to pull of Kareem’s trademark move, they could certainly look like him while they tried in their backyards.
Still, sneaker culture was just beginning to flourish. That would all change when three MCs from Queens incorporated the Adidas Superstar into their now-iconic signature outfits. In the early 1980s, Run DMC burst onto the scene fully clad in Adidas gear. Thick gold rope chains bounced atop Adidas tracksuits, and on each pair of their feet were unlaced Superstars with the tongue popped out, flapping when they break-danced and performed. The legend of the Adidas Superstar was solidified with Run DMC’s 1986 instant classic track, “My Adidas.” Produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, this track was the group’s ode to their signature sneaker. For Run DMC and their fans, the Superstar was more than just a fashion choice—it signaled diehard dedication to a blossoming new lifestyle and the sense of community that accompanied it.
It’s a rare pleasure to witness a specific moment where real change occurs, and Run DMC’s 1986 performance at Madison Square Garden revealed a massive shift in the cultural zeitgeist. As the first words of “My Adidas” blared through the sound system, a sea of fans started removing and holding up their own pairs of Superstars—unlaced, tongue popped, just like the crew on stage. Before long, thousands of white sneakers were bobbing and bouncing in the air of MSG. At a time when athlete endorsements were becoming commonplace, Adidas recognized the financial opportunity granted by partnering with rappers. This spurred a wave of celebrity sneaker endorsements, paving the way for the popular collaborations we see now.
Today, as fans scramble to collect the rarest sneaker collaborations, it’s the mass appeal and easy access of the Adidas Superstar that still feels exceptional. It was never the price tag or the rarity that drove fans to the Superstar, but rather the sense of community—and the swagger and style in which it was worn by folks like Run DMC and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Sneaker culture has been so commodified and adulterated in recent years that it often feels devoid of real meaning. In moments like the one at MSG in 1986—moments of unity and joyful self-expression—we can see the true power of a pair of white shoes.