Why You've Never Heard of the Most Popular Font in Streetwear History

Tracing the unknown font’s origins that date back before Cali Thornhill DeWitt and ‘TLOP.’

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The old vs. new hip-hop debate has been going on for as long as the genre itself and Kanye West has often been at the forefront of this tussle. People love to argue whether his music or dress sense is hip-hop enough, often ignoring that the rapper was wearing outfits closer to glam rock than the now seen as standard mid-1990s attire. Despite this fact, there’s still a portion of hip-hop fans who have crystallized the culture both in musicality and style in that singular ‘golden age’ era.

So when Kanye released his The Life of Pablo merchandise after his clearly Rock-influenced Yeezus tour clothing, it was no surprise some people turned their nose up at what appeared to be garments that maybe took rock inspiration a bit too far. This reaction died down after the Cali DeWitt connection was discovered, but few have looked into how the TLOP merchandise is the cousin of some of the most prominent old school hip-hop shirts in history.

rock steady crew dynamic rockers NYC gang tees Kanye West The Life of Pablo

“Lots of different groups of people gravitated towards this font in particular — and they began to appropriate it for their own purposes due to heat pressing the letters being easy, affordable and adaptable.”

While the Cali DeWitt t-shirts were based on latin memorial t-shirts from the 1980s, there was also a rarer font from the same blackletter family that was once omnipresent in hip-hop before suddenly dying out. The two types of shirt are different only by font, often using the same word placement. The font was first used by gangs but, as 2010 documentary Rubble Kings and, 2014 documentary Fresh Dressed showed, NYC gangs held a truce and eventually morphed into B-Boy crews. Grandmaster Flash and his iconic track jacket is one of the standout uses of the font, but Rock Steady Crew, Biz Markie, Big Audio Dynamite, The Clash and Malcolm McClaren also used it at one point or another. It’s rare that a font would be so popular and then disappear, especially when it’s been so important to some of the world’s biggest subcultures. Which is why The Heated Words Project came to fruition.

The Heated Words Project was founded by Rory McCartney and Charlie Morgan, who held an exhibition in 2015 at London’s House of Vans showing off their initial research into the font. We spoke to Rory McCartney. “It dates back to Sportswear back in the 1970s. The font was created as an affordable way to personalized sports jerseys,” McCartney says. “The letters were only ever made as heat press flock letters (they were never digitalized or printed). The font never had an official name and was only ever available from small independent stores predominantly in NYC. For some reason lots of different groups of people gravitated towards this font in particular — and they began to appropriate it for their own purposes due to Heat pressing the letters being easy, affordable and adaptable.” Lettering expert Paul Shaw expands on this last point, letting us know that Letraset, Presstype and Chartpak were three companies known for their heat press lettering kits during that period.

rock steady crew dynamic rockers NYC gang tees Kanye West The Life of Pablo

McCartney is keen to stress that the Kanye t-shirt doesn’t use the same font as the one found in Heated Word Projects. “The font Kanye used has always been in production, it never died out like the font we are researching.” The font’s death has led to several companies attempting to remake it and most of them are logged on Heated Word’s Instagram. The list of companies who’ve paid homage to the font include Supreme, Stüssy, Bodega, Bianca Chandon and HUF amongst others.

Although it clearly isn’t the exact same font, it is clearly from the same font family – Blackletter to be exact. Shaw noted that blackletter fonts are popular in Mexico, “There are Mexican variants of blackletter typefaces that can be found in graffiti there.” Blackletter has a deep history in Mexico, with its popularity dating back to the first printing press, founded in 1538. The first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, helped found the printing press, later printing Doctrina Breve, which used Rotunda Blackletter type. So it isn’t unfair to surmise that the use of blackletter fonts in memorial t-shirts within the Latin communities could be traced back to blackletter type having been used in Mexico’s religious texts since the 1500s.

rock steady crew dynamic rockers NYC gang tees Kanye West The Life of Pablo

But this doesn’t explain the font’s popularity within subcultures. “The exact reasons may vary from musical genre to genre,” says Shaw. “Certainly with heavy metal there is the simple blackness/darkness of the letters but also a reverse-Christian connection as well as the fact that blackletter has not been mainstream (outside of German speaking countries) since about 1600. It also looks menacing.”

Since the font’s fall from popularity, it’s undergone a resurgence of sorts. Aside from being kept alive through the myriad of aforementioned streetwear brands, Heated Words Project have also held heat pressing events using an approximation of the font. They are are currently in the middle of filming a feature length documentary about discovering the font. And if you can’t wait for the documentary to come out? Then Phil Shaw tells us to check the archives of the three aforementioned companies likely to have made it, Letraset, Presstype and Chartpak.

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