Celebrating its 35th anniversary, the Nike Air Force 1 is now indisputably one of the all-time classic sneakers. Kareem “Biggs” Burke was the co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records and he tells Vogue Man about growing up in Harlem, the cultural home of theAir Force 1, and what it means to him…
“Harlem was a melting pot and a lot of things happened in this small space. It’s only about 50 or 60 blocks but people refer to Harlem like it’s a borough or state in itself, and so many things and trends came out of Harlem that it changed the way that people dressed, acted and walked, all around the world.
“The Nike Air Force 1 was something that my crew and I wore a lot and the Air Force 1 became synonymous with Harlem, so they even got the nickname in New York of Uptowns and that just stuck. Now, that made sense to me being a Harlemite, but I guess people from Baltimore wouldn’t want to hear that.
“These sneakers were as aspiration thing for kids growing up in Harlem, especially someone like me who was evicted and lived in a shelter for quite a few years. When I eventually got my first pair of Air Force 1s – the first sneakers of any kind that I bought with my own money – it was like, “I finally made it” because I’d seen people wearing them all the time and I couldn’t afford it. When you’re hungry and you see someone eating pizza all the time, time you get some it’s like, best pizza in the world. When I could buy my first pair that was a great day.
“The fact it became a Harlem thing was by chance. Kids just started wearing them and it was something that exploded. You’d usually knew if someone was from Harlem by the way they dressed, talked or even walked, but you saw the Nike Air Force 1 that would be the first signal that this guy must be from Harlem. By 1988 it was a cultural phenomenon. I was in tenth grade and everyone in Harlem was wearing the sneaker at that time.
“Nike was dominating so much back then in New York and that’s what everyone I knew was wearing. Adidas was a bit earlier on, but Harlem and Nike were synonymous. It was an easy match and made sense.
“Back in the 1980s, it was pretty common for people to chase you for your trainers. People would get mugged for sneakers, especially if you weren’t from that neighborhood. Kids would chase you to get your sneakers. It never happened to me, luckily.
People would get mugged for sneakers, especially if you weren’t from that neighborhood
“They were currency back then, but it’s funny because they’re even more currency now if you think about the resale market. So, I’m sure the same thing is happening to some extent in those neighborhoods, but back then it was a real thing. More kids in the ‘80s would hang about outside together on the street, but now with social media things are more spread out and you don’t have the same activities in the neighborhoods.
“Hip hop, basketball and sneakers all feed off each other 100%. When you’re playing basketball and you’re on that layup line you’re either listening to music that they’re playing or you’ve got your headphones on to get you in that zone for whatever game it is that you’re about to play.
“But at that time all the hip hop artists wanted to be athletes and athletes wanted to be hip hop artists. Now though, the athletes may not want to be the hip hop artists but they want to emulate the lifestyle and now they have the money they do what hip hop artists do, with the fashions and jewelry.
I was buying 100 pairs at a time and for seven years I only wore a pair of sneakers once
“When I was at Rock-a-Fella records I was buying 100 pairs at a time. I only wore a sneaker once and went seven years without wearing the same pair of sneakers twice. A friend of mine—rest in peace—Ali Mo, once pointed out that I had scuffs on my sneakers and I thought, “never again” so for six or seven years I went without wearing the same pair of sneakers twice.
“After I’d worn them I’d either give them to family members or take them up to Harlem and give them to kids in the area. The Air Force 1 was definitely the main sneaker that I wore during this time, but I would play with Nike Dunks and Air Jordans too.
“In the newer releases of theAir Force 1s the silhouette has stayed the same but they’ve upgraded the leather and people are clamoring to it again. But really, it’s the sole of sneaker culture. The silhouette is one of the best silhouettes made ever in sneakers.
“The Nike Air Force 1 is the number one. Period. It’s just so classic – we play basketball in it, we wore it to hang out, to go to clubs, to wear everyday, it was everything and became a uniform.”