(CNN)Silver Spring, Maryland, seemed like Candy Land when my mother, sister and I moved to Astoria, Queens, in 1977. My father, who was a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., had run his relationship with my mother into the ground. He wound up moving to New York after my parents split, and I'm pretty sure that our arrival in Queens was connected to the idea of being able to maintain a fairly consistent, real-time relationship with pops.
The spirit of being, looking 'fresh'
Sacha Jenkins is the director of "Fresh Dressed," which will premiere as a CNN Films broadcast on Thursday, September 3, at 10 p.m. ET. He is also the creative director for Mass Appeal magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Back then, New York City offered single mothers many more affordable housing options. And there were more employment opportunities for my mom in the Rotten Apple, too. We wound up moving to a building that was directly across the street from the Astoria Housing projects. Ma got a job down the block at a place called Harbor Light Silk Screen, where they printed T-shirts and some of the ads that ran on the interiors of subway cars.
Anyway, there was a park just outside my bedroom window -- this park was just beyond the park that was attached to the apartment building we lived in. It was littered with the guts of broken bottles; shards of glass glistened from every square inch of the place. Back then, two-liter bottles were made out of glass!
Man, we used to love to smash those things. What a beautiful sound it would make. This is long before you could get five cents per returned bottle -- otherwise, we would have cashed them in ... I mean, money was tight.
But I digress. The park with all of the glass on 8th Street was the place where these phantom DJs would spin well into the night. I was too young to be in the mix of what was happening in the park after dark, but the music was so loud that my bed would shake. Folks used to make their own speakers back then, and these units were like hand-crafted, stand-alone Godzillas, a byproduct of the sound system culture that Caribbean immigrants shared with their new inner-city neighbors.
Speaking of Caribbean immigrants, my mother was the Haitian lady who would always call the cops to complain about the loud noise (It was LOUD). Still, she had no idea -- and I had no idea, and no one I grew up with had any idea -- that what was being spun outside my bedroom window would go on to become a musical form that humans from Brooklyn to Bangladesh would go on to admire, emulate and respect.
It was the musical representation and manifestation of hip-hop culture.
The DJ was the main attraction back then. The individual on the mic would talk smack and occasionally check in with the audience. "How y'all doing out there?!"
In my neighborhood, the famous phantom DJs were known as the Disco Twins, and they played a little bit of everything as there wasn't any rap music committed to vinyl in 1977. (That would come the following year via King Tim III's "Personality Jock.")
One thing I did know about the party people in the park is that they looked sharp. Everybody looked sharp in my neighborhood, regardless of whether or not your parents could actually afford it.
Looking good or looking "fresh" was important on multiple levels. For one, if you were dressed in a manner that was universally considered to be "bummy" or unhip, you could potentially be ridiculed to tears. In the 'hood, as elsewhere, we often judge each other by the way we dress. As an adult, it's easy to see there are larger issues of class and self-esteem -- but that is serious fodder for a whole other essay.
Fashion functions as a language in this world, announcing your status and the life you lead -- or the life you want people to believe you lead. Looking good, very simply, makes people of all hues feel good.
As someone who has been writing about hip-hop for 25 years, I'd realized that the story of the culture's rise hadn't been told through the fashion, the fabric of the movement itself. From the self-stylized gang jackets of the 1970s to the billion-dollar, hip-hop fashion industry trail blazed by designers Carl Jones and Karl Kani, and by rap icons like Sean "Puffy" Combs.
Inside of the dominion we call hip-hop, fashion has always been a strong reflection of the environments we lived in -- be it the formerly bombed-out South Bronx or the working class, single-storied blues of Compton, California.
My mom worked hard for her money at Harbor Lite Silk Screen, which was a block or so away from where a lighthouse used to be. This is back when people would get paid cash on a Friday and young toughs would lurk in between cars on the streets outside. The early darkness that is the calling card of winter would deliver us to evil; I remember my mom getting "mugged" a few times. Ma started to roll with mace spray in her coat pocket; New York was a dangerous place back then.
The music and fashion being generated by the youth of that day was a reflection of what was going on. How we dressed and how we expressed ourselves through the music, the art (what some people call "graffiti") and the dance -- b-boying, breaking, popping -- was how we escaped the realities of inner-city life.
What we wore was a reflection of where we were -- geographically. You were able to determine where someone was from based on the way they dressed. Brooklyn, Queens, Money Makin' Manhattan, the Boogie Down Bronx -- every region had its own distinct look, and that was partly based on the fact that different areas' local stores stocked different brands and different colorways of the brands.
Brooklyn had a strong Jamaican influence, for instance. For some reason, Jamaicans loved Clarks shoes and Kangol hats (brands that were also popular in England, another strong Jamaican enclave). When you saw a cat with Clarks on and a Kangol hat and Cazal frames hugging his face, you knew that that dude was from Brooklyn.
Hip-hop and her fashion sense has come a long way, baby. Today, Dr. Dre and Puffy and Shawn "Jay Z" Carter are rich. Like, beyond belief rich. Like, richer-than-white-people rich! They can afford to get fresh for countless lifetimes. Even their ghosts can stay fresh. These moguls break bottles on yachts, not in parks.
Because of the influence of the Internet (wherein your shopping options are unlimited), it might be impossible to distinguish which borough a kid is from based on the way he or she dresses today. Still, the way we wear things -- be it how a cap is tilted on our heads or the sag of one's jeans -- continues to identify members of the hip-hop tribe, whether on the runway or on the boulevard.
"Fresh Dressed" is about expression, oppression and cold, hard cash made by people who had no idea that they were pioneers in a movement that will never die. Roll over Beethoven -- and rock 'n' roll.