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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
How bling became king
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

The phrase "bling-bling" is everywhere, from the coolest clubs to the pages of The Times. You might know what it means, but what does it stand for? And how did bling become so big?

Once they were a girl's best friend. But in today's pervasive hip-hop culture, where cash is for flashing and wealth is for brandishing, diamonds are no longer merely a discreet confidante.

To the likes of hip hop heroes like P Diddy and 50 Cent, diamonds are the ultimate prize; the epitome of success; the sparkle in the bling.

Bling is the phrase for the prevailing fashion of our time. Not the capricious catwalk styles of Paris and Milan but the High Street fashion that has grown up over the past 20 years and dominates in every city from Teesside to Tokyo.

Lisa Maffia: 'It's officially crossed over from hip-hop to mainstream.'
The crossover was perhaps complete when the word itself earned a place in the Oxford English Dictionary earlier this year. According to the lexicographers, "bling-bling" means expensive, ostentatious jewellery or clothing, or the wearing of them.

Outside the dust jacket of the OED, bling has a broader definition. It is a set of values that encompasses playing hard, looking good and lapping up the finest - the sassy/gaudy style, the Bentley, the Jacuzzi, the Dom Perignon, the fur coat, the first class ticket, the Gucci, the Prada, the Rolex, and so on.

It is the attitude that infuses 50 Cent's album title, Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

Not surprisingly, bling is often dismissed as a shallow and crass celebration of material wealth. But as a new documentary for 1Xtra, the BBC's black music radio station, explains, its origins are far from superficial.

'Bling-bling' was coined in the late 90s
Rap family the Cash Money Millionaires credited with thinking up the word
Used as a song title by Cash Money artist Baby Gangsta
Fronted by So Solid Crew's Lisa Maffia, the programme, a Brief History of Bling, traces the evolution of black music and image back to the civil rights movement in 1960s America.

In those days, the empires of wealth now commanded by rappers like P Diddy, Jay-Z and Dr Dre were beyond the dreams of black performers. But the rise of black consciousness, and music labels such as Motown and Stax in the 60s heralded a shift in power.

The 70s saw the maturing of black superstars such as James Brown and Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone. Black artists gradually began to own the rights to the music they performed, says Kevin Le Gendre, a writer for Echoes magazine. And in music, copyright is where the money is.

Million dollar shoes
A million dollar pair of shoes, on show in Harrods, with 464 diamonds set in platinum
There has always been a heavy slant on dressing up in black music, says Maffia. While white musicians would happily tramp on stage in faded jeans and a shaggy T-shirt, their black counterparts would never dare look so down-at-heel. The smart mod trend of the 60s bristled with black influences.

By the 80s, rap was breaking through. Run DMC (with a nod to the A Team's Mr T) cut a distinctive image with their gold rope chains and medallions. Meanwhile, says Le Gendre, Eric B and Rakim's single Paid in Full provided the ideological weight.

"The dollar bill on the 12-inch single of Paid in Full is the logical conclusion of all the struggles of the civil rights era," he says. "It said: 'We've been ripped off for so many decades, now is the time for payback'."

Chuck D
Rapper Chuck D: 'Black people wanted to have a little sense of self.'
Record sleeves are one thing, but videos provided the main stage for black stars to parade the fruits of their fattening wealth. They became a conveyor belt of conspicuous consumption. The fact many brand managers competed to get their products in the frame, only played up to the bling thing.

Record executive Damon Dash openly embraces the values of bling.

"I've always been addicted to money," he says. "I like to have diamonds, jewellery; I like my private jets, my cooks, the fact I stay in a presidential [suite] wherever I go."

But for some, it's gone too far. Young music fans are being bombarded with the images of a life they will never attain, partly because it doesn't exist anyway.

I've always been addicted to money
Damon Dash
The props for the videos tend to be borrowed and the fancy parties full of "half-naked" women are a fantasy, says artist Jazzy Jeff.

Public Enemy rapper Chuck D is more forthright in his view. "Hip hop," he says, "is sucking the nipples of Uncle Sam harder than ever before."

The Establishment has moved in. Last month, The Times advised its readers how to add some bling-bling to their wardrobes. A retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum surely beckons.

But while bling may soon be blung, one thing is for certain: diamonds are forever.

A Brief History of Bling is broadcast on Wednesday 15 October on 1Xtra at 1730BST. You can receive 1Xtra via digital radio in the UK, or online (see Related BBCi Links).


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