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Eastside Connection: The History Of The Nike Air Force 1 & New York City

Jack Cook

The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & New York City spans all the way from 1980s hip hop culture to modern day Supreme drops.

Cities all over the World have sneakers that are synonymous with that location. In London we have the Nike Air Max, venture around Berlin and it’s 3 stripes, but is there a more iconic link than New York City and the Air Force 1? When you think of New York the first things that come to mind are probably tourist attractions such as the Statue of Liberty or Times Square, or maybe you think of giant dollar slices from iconic pizza shops such as Joe’s, but chances are if you are a sneakerhead and think of NYC, you instantly think of the Air Force 1. We break down the history of the Nike Air Force 1 and why it resonates with New York in such a powerful way.

Nike Air Force 1 1982 advert

Above: The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & an original advert from 1982.

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Where did it all start? The Air Force 1 was originally debuted in 1982 as a high, this shoe was quickly adopted by NBA players as the go to shoe for on the court. A year later they dropped the low version of the sneaker. The sneakers were to be discontinued if not for the enthusiasts in Baltimore that kept the vision alive. So, when did they become a New York staple? You will normally see sneakers have a pop in popularity when athletes wear them, but that wasn’t the case with the Air Force 1. They really boomed in popularity once they became the go to sneaker for the Hip Hop community.

Nike Air Force 1 1982 advert

Above: The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & an original advert from 1982.

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The Air Force 1 really burst onto the New York scene thanks to Harlem Hip Hop duo Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, with DJ E-Z Rock sporting a pair on the cover or their hit “It takes two” Which released in 1988. The silhouette even earned the nickname ‘uptowns’ due to their connection to Harlem and the Harlem youths that rocked them day to day.

Hustlers from all boroughs in New York could be seen donning Air Force 1’s on street corners throughout the 80’s too, which added to the allure of the sneaker to everyday collectors. Robert “Bobbito” Garcia, a DJ hailing from New York and author of “Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987.” could also be seen around NYC in the mid-80’s in custom painted Air Force 1’s. Bobbito painted his own sneakers as he did not want to be seen in the same colourways as everybody else.

The 90’s is when New York really began to embrace the Air Force 1 as a mainstay in its sneaker culture. With co-signs from some of New York’s biggest rappers its easy to see why they shoe became such an important part of the city. Jay Z, hailing from Brooklyn, was a huge pioneer for the Air Force 1 throughout his career, not only wearing the shoe every chance he got but including them in his lyrics too. With Harlem already embracing the Air Force 1 and now Jay Z representing the AF1 and Brooklyn the shoes takeover of the City was building up steam.

The 90’s also saw Nike try to capitalise on the recent boom of interest around the Air Force 1 low with the release of Air Force 1 mid, a silhouette that is less known for its iconic status but with more of a cult following. Jay Z can be seen wearing the Nike Air Force 1 Mid in cool grey in the photo below, but the sneaker never managed to drum up the same interest as its high and low counterparts.

Nike Air Force 1 Jay Z

Above: Jay Z photographed wearing a pair of AF1’s near the Marcy Projects, Brooklyn in 1998.

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As the new millennium began, the rise of the Air Force 1 showed no signs of slowing down within NYC. Hip Hop artists from the City continued to embrace the sneaker with 50 Cent, Fat Joe and Cam’ron’s crew Dipset all seen repping and rapping about the sneaker. With Fat Joe representing the Bronx, 50 Cent representing Queens and Dipset from Harlem every borough of New York had artists co-signing the Air Force movement. It was around this time that Nike started to capitalise on New York’s involvement on the growth of the sneaker and the collaborations started to roll in.

Nike Air Force 1 x Vibe Magazine 2003

Above: The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & the Vibe Magazine collaboration from 2003.

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VIBE Magazine was a magazine everybody within the Hip Hop industry strived to work for. The magazine was founded in 1993 in New York City, but it wasn’t until their 10-year anniversary that Nike capitalised on their popularity by gifting the magazine a pair of VIBE x Nike Air Force 1’s.

Nike Air Force 1 Rocafella 2004

Above: The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & the Rocafella collaboration from 2004.

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The following year in 2004 we saw the initial release of Jay Z’s favourite triple white Air Force 1 with the Rocafella logo on the heel and tongue. The 2004 release was rumoured to only have 50 pairs made, but we saw this pair retro’d in 2017 with a much wider release.

Nike Air Force 1 Black Album

Above: The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & the Black Album collaboration from 2003.

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Jay Z also released another collaboration with the sportswear giants in honour of his album ‘The Black Album’, he flipped the colourway this time, however. The shoe was dressed in all black with a white Rocafella logo on the heel and his album name The Black Album on the tongue. The pair currently fetches resale prices of up to £2,500 due to the limited availability.

The Rocafella collaborations seemed to open the door for artists to get collaborations with Nike, and they showed no signs of slowing down working with artists from NYC. Bronx and sneakerhead legend Fat Joe and his crew the Terror Squad were the next New York natives to get their own version of the silhouette in 2005. The shoe featured multiple custom colourways and the Terror Squad TS on the heel, unfortunately the four sneakers barely made it to market with the releases only available to friends and family or on the resale marketplace.

Nike Air Force 1 HBO Entourage

Above: The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & the HBO Entourage collaboration from 2006.

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2006, Nike decided to take their next New York inspired collaboration in a completely different direction, turning attention towards the TV and HBO’s hit TV show, Entourage. A show based around an actor and his entourage all hailing from Queens seemed like the perfect fit for the next Air Force 1.

Not only did the show feature a crew from New York but also featured an episode where sneakerhead’ Turtle was trying to track down a Nike x Fukijama Air Force 1 collaboration. Unable to do so they had artist Fukijama create a 1 of 1 for Turtle and you can see the inspiration drawn from the shoe in the show in the sneaker Nike ended up dropping. This was a huge moment in pop culture history and a great representation of the sneaker culture.

Nike Air Force 1 5 Boroughs Staten Island

Above: The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & the DJ Clarke Kent ‘5 Boroughs’ collaboration from 2010.

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After testing the waters with cable TV, Nike soon went back to their original plan of collaborating with artists from New York, this time with DJ, record producer and sneakerhead DJ Clark Kent. Kent has been a pioneer for both sneakers and Hip Hop, being credited for introducing Jay Z to the Notorious BIG and for pushing Brooklyn native Shyne in the direction of Bad Boy Records. His ability to create hype around his sneaker drops despite not being a chart-topping artist is astounding, with his Air Force 1 collaborations selling out in record time.

Kent had two Air Force 1’s drop in 2008, the DJ Clark Kent x Air Force 1 ‘112’ and the DJ Clark Kent x Air Force 1 ‘Black Friday’. The ‘112’ was dressed in a Volt/grey/black colourway made famous by the Air Max 95, but with the addition of elephant print on the back panels. The 112 on the heel was a shout out to Kent’s New York City area code, a code that was synonymous to the entirety of Brooklyn. The second drop of 2008 for Kent was a special ‘Black Friday’ colourway, which were covered in black pony hair. Both silhouettes were highly anticipated and remain grails for sneakerheads and Air Force 1 collectors today.

Clark Kent’s relationship with both Nike and New York is so strong that Nike invited Kent to create a “Nike Five Boroughs AF1 Low” pack. A collection of limited-edition shoes that were revealed at a fully catered street party in Manhattan’s Soho neighbourhood, commissioned by Nike. Clark Kent still collaborates with Nike to this day with his latest release coming in 2017.

Nike Air Force 1 Vlone

Above: The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & the Vlone collaboration from 2017.

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ASAP Rocky has been representing Harlem, New York since 2007 when he joined ASAP Mob, a collective of rappers, producers, music video directors, fashion designers, and bikers who shared similar interests in music, fashion, style, and art. Being from Harlem, the ASAP Mob members could be seen in ‘Uptowns’ at all times. A collaboration seemed like a no brainer for Nike as Rocky’s music and fashion game grew, with tracks like ‘Purple Swag’ becoming the anthem for New Yorkers.

The collaboration ended up going through ASAP Mob Co-creator ASAP Bari’s street fashion brand VLONE, the brand first started to catch people’s eyes as members of ASAP Mob were seeing wearing it. Before long a custom pair of Air Force 1’s was spotted on ASAP Rocky, ASAP Ferg and multiple other members of the Mob. This gained the sneaker notoriety and created so much buzz Nike decided to create VLONE x Nike pop up’s all over the World. The pop ups saw not only the Air Force 1 sneakers release but also custom apparel and accessories like tote bags and basketballs.

The shoes were so hyped especially in New York that people queued up for days for the chance to cop a pair for retail. Nike and VLONE had many other upcoming projects in the pipeline but their collaborative efforts were cut short after some controversy surrounding ASAP Bari forced Nike to cut ties. Due to the fact these sneakers only released once they now resell for anywhere between £2000-£3000 a pair.

Unreleased pairs of VLONE x Nike Air Force 1 highs surfaced not long after the collaboration was axed, and these also fetch thousands of pounds a pair.

Supreme x Nike Af1 2020

Above: The history of the Nike Air Force 1 & the Supreme collaboration from 2020.

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We cannot discuss the importance and history of the Air Force 1 to New York City without discussing a true New York Institute, Supreme. Supreme New York opened their doors on Lafayette Street back in 1994 and have since become the biggest streetwear and skate brand there is. Although Supreme have worked on Air Force 1’s with Nike multiple times before, their latest release is perhaps their biggest deal so far.

Although the design of the sneaker has come under some scrutiny and was described as lazy due to the minimal design, I personally think they resonate with both Supreme and New Yorkers far more than any of their previous collaborations. The triple white and triple black colourways are synonymous with New York style and Supreme’s most hyped items are box logo t shirts, so why wouldn’t they create a sneaker to perfectly match these? Is there really anything more New York than a bogo triple white AF1? I don’t think so. Another huge step for this collaboration is that these sneakers are to restock throughout the season, something that Supreme have only ever done with their Hanes items previously.

It is important to remember the role that both New Yorkers and the Nike Air Force 1 have played in both streetwear & sneaker culture. Can you imagine the sneaker industry without AF1’s?


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