It takes big stones to make it in hip-hop.
That’s the premise of “Ice Cold,” a new four-part documentary on YouTube, premiering Thursday. The series — which was also featured in last month’s Tribeca Film Festival — examines why outrageous jewels have become such a vital part of hip-hop culture.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how these pieces and creative expression through jewelry — whether it’s a bracelet, or a pendant or whatever — they’re viewed as trophies,” director Karam Gill told The Post.
Gill, who spent four years on this project, said that the tradition of rappers sporting lavish, eye-catching baubles — from enormous diamond stud earrings to gem-speckled chain necklaces — is all about stars finding ways to acknowledge, and communicate, their successes.
“Hip-hop culture isn’t like a sport,” Gill said. “There’s no Super Bowl trophy . . . or ring, like if you win an NBA championship, when you release an album.”
Gill said that’s why the top-tier rappers he interviewed — including the trio from Migos (who also executive-produced the film), Lil Yachty and A$AP Ferg — were so eager to dish about their multimillion-dollar collections on camera. “Everyone was excited,” Gill said of his high-profile subjects. “The same way as if you went to some wealthy family in the South and they had an expansive, multigeneration wine collection . . . [when] people achieve massive levels of success and accumulate material items, they oftentimes like talking about it.”
Below, some highlights from the story of hip-hop jewelry, and the types of pieces that have sparkled — and sparked criticism — along the way.
Rappers wore hefty gold chains in the 1980s, when MTV took hip-hop mainstream and performers such as Slick Rick, Run-DMC and LL Cool J started making more money. The necklaces — from simple links to chunky box-chains — were used as a way for artists, who often came from low-income neighborhoods, to show they were gaining access to wealth. “Hip-hop was kids who came from the ’hood and had nothing, who were trying their best to show the world that they had value,” rapper and activist Talib Kweli says in the film.
Record label pendants
As hip-hop became a thriving, multimillion-dollar industry and competition between performers grew fiercer, labels created their own pendants as a way to honor — and mark — their signees. The most notorious of the bunch was the one put out by the West Coast’s Death Row Records, home to ’90s-era chart-toppers such as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Hanging from a chain, the oversized charm spelled out “Death Row” over the macabre image of a man strapped to an electric chair.
No matter what the pendant looked like, it was always a privilege to receive one. In “Ice Cold,” music journalist Rob Marriott describes how an up-and-coming producer-turned-emcee named Kanye West received his chain from Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon “Dame” Dash: a moment that West included in the music video for his 2003 single “Through the Wire.”
“It was like he was being knighted or something,” Marriott says.
Grills — custom molds made from precious metals that fit over the teeth — were popularized in the early 2000s by Southern rappers, including Nelly, Birdman and Lil Wayne. In fact, director Gill said they became such a recognizable touchstone in hip-hop that many of the subjects he interviewed “talked about how at lunch [in school] they would put aluminum foil on their teeth.” Now, he said, the grills seen on groups such as Migos are more eye-popping than ever, made from platinum instead of yellow gold and fitted with the highest quality diamonds. “The price of their grills are over $100,000,” Gill said of the ones worn by Migos’ Quavo, Offset and Takeoff.
Multi-platinum hip-hop artists often celebrate career milestones by commissioning playful custom pendants, which can cost over six figures for a single treasure. Favorite cartoon characters and even emojis are common inspirations, with Quavo owning an oversized Crash Bandicoot necklace (inspired by the video game) and Lil Yachty showing off his gem-studded Bart Simpson.
Reggaeton star J. Balvin owns a sizable smiley face pendant, replete with dazzling pink lightning bolt eyes. In the series, he describes how much he enjoys “the whole process” of working with a jeweler. “From the casting, from choosing … what color stones, the size … the chain, how we want it to look, what type of vibe I want to show. I’m like a kid in that way.”
For some hip-hop stars, investing in luxury watches is a way to ensure that their jewelry collections hold — and even generate — value. Gill said that while custom pendants can excite artists and impress fans, when it comes to resale, they’re usually worth a lot less than the original price. That’s because they’re too unique: “If an artist were to get a custom piece made, like their album cover that went platinum . . . that’s gonna be hard to sell in the future. How many people are gonna look for that?”
Limited-editions watches, on the other hand — from brands such as Patek Philippe and Rolex — will actually appreciate as time goes on, much like other forms of fine art. In “Ice Cold,” Quality Control record label head Pierre “Pee” Thomas talks about deliberately growing his watch collection to leave something behind for his children and grandchildren.
“To see [Thomas], who literally made it from nothing and has built an empire for himself, and collects these watches and has done it to create generational wealth . . . was a really powerful experience,” Gill said.
For a long time in hip-hop, the wildest jewels were reserved for male stars — but that’s changing, said Gill. Today, female rappers such as Cardi B, Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion are outperforming the guys in more ways than one. “Women [rappers] have actually taken jewelry to another level,” Gill said. “The pieces they have are often so much more expensive, larger and flat-out cooler than what some of the male rappers in hip-hop now have. And it’s a testament to how far women have come, and how far women emcees have come.”