January 31, 2003
Jay Smooth vs. the Driving Shoe
I was in the newspaper today, in the last few paragraphs of this piece on Funkmaster Flex and his new "driving shoe", whatever that is.
Drivin' Fresh In Flex's Kicks
Nelly can rap about his undying Nike love.
"I like the all-white, high-top strap with the gum bottom," he declares, lest there be any confusion about his footwear preferences. "The last person that touched them, I been shot 'em."
Jam Master Jay, even in death, can have his memorial Adidas.
These days, pretty much any successful hip-hop artist can hype a high-priced sneaker. But leave it to Funkmaster Flex to come out with hip-hop's first driving shoe.
That's right. A hip-hop driving shoe.
"I'm big on driving," Flex shouted yesterday inside the giant Foot Locker store in Times Square, as fellow Hot 97 DJ Fatman Scoop nearly shook the building with his high-volume turntable scratches.
Big on driving: That is what is known as automotive understatement, urban-style. Funkmaster Flex is the living intersection of cars and rap.
"Your car is an extension of your personality," said the gregarious recording artist, club DJ, urban entrepreneur and host of the annual "Funkmaster Flex Celebrity Car Show."
"I had 30,000 kids at my last car show," said Flex, who was born Aston Taylor Jr. in the Bronx. "And one thing I noticed was no special footwear. Nobody was making footwear for driving in. I like wearing a nice shoe when I drive."
The result is the FMF-1 Driving Shoe, sold under the Lugz brand. For yesterday's launch, Flex, joined by artist-friends Busta Rhymes and Lil' Kim, was signing autographs, posing for photos and helping customers trying on his shoes.
The FMF-1's, which look like a cross between a sneaker and a country walking shoe, have tire-tread soles, "like a BF Goodrich," Flex said. They come in three colors - white, wheat and silver. They cost $69.95.
"The shoe is round and sleek, the way a new car is," Flex said. "And it's strong. It's not like it's gonna fall apart on you. It's made for driving."
And what about all those real city kids, whose main mode of transport is the MetroCard? "It's also a hanging-around shoe," Flex said.
Who better than Flex to put his toe into this market? His evening mix show on Hot 97 can sound like an urban version NPR's "Car Talk." Rappers drop by to discuss intricate hand detailing, custom sound systems and 24-inch rims.
And why not? Flex has his own auto-customizing club, Team Baurtwell, that has all but cornered the flashy-rapper car market. And his own fleet of tricked-out wheels is an undeniable eye-popper, emphasizing modern classics. A '69 Dodge Charger RT straight out of "Dukes of Hazzard." A '70 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. A '70 Plymouth Duster. A '66 Chevy Impala SS. But his main rides these days are a couple of gas-guzzling heavyweights, a 2003 Lincoln Navigator, which is featured in the driving-shoe ads, and a 2000 GMC Yukon XL, both wildly customized.
It all goes back to his first car in the Bronx, an '84 Oldsmobile Delta 88, which was repossessed when the struggling club DJ failed to keep up with the payments. It was, apparently, a deeply traumatic event. That humiliation, he has said, changed forever how he dealt with money.
And now, here he is, roaring onto the uncharted highway of the driving shoe.
Some hip-hop purists were asking pointed questions yesterday. They were wondering how broadly the commercialization of this great urban art form will spread, whether all this endless brand-extension somehow tarnishes the soul of a music that came up honestly from the streets.
"Run-DMC had a line," recalled Jay Smooth, who does the beloved "Underground Railroad" hip-hop show on WBAI. "The line went, 'Calvin Klein's no friend of mine/Don't want nobody's name on my behind.'
"That was around 1984," an eon ago in hip-hop, Jay said. "It used to be that if brand names were used at all, they were used ironically. Now, it's clothing lines. It's sneaker lines. Driving-shoe lines. It does counteract the image that black athletes and musicians can't handle their finances. And that's good. But I do wish sometimes these artists would focus on doing things in the community, focus more on their artistic endeavors."
A worthy suggestion, one that many hip-hop fans might embrace. But no one at the shoe store yesterday seemed troubled by thoughts like that.
Least of all Flex.
"This is not an expensive item," he said, before helping a young man in a fleece sweatsuit into a fresh pair of FMF-1's. "These aren't $150 sneakers. These are $70 shoes. Everybody doesn't own a Rolls-Royce or a Benz. Anyone can get these."