Hip-hop and jewelry go together like Slick Rick and storytelling. Very few images of hip-hop’s key figures exist that do not include some sort of defining accessory. Items like Flava Flav’s clock, for example, are so tied to a rappers personality that we need only see the object to be reminded of the owner.
In tune with the connections between tattooing and brand association, jewels have also been used to express corporate ties, and ever increasingly explicit individuality. In my memory, Death Row was the first label to use the pendant as a way of showing group solidarity. Cash Money later followed suit and, of course, everyone is familiar with the Roc-A-Fella chain. To be fair, and at least somewhat accurate, these were not new forays into custom jewelery, but they did mark a new found purpose for jewels as markers of community. In a way, I see the current trend of custom jewelry as a mesh between the show-off styles of the 80s and early 90s, with the logo driven pieces establishing the identity of the hip-hop super label. Again we see rappers rocking chains just to shine, as well as those that project group and individual promotion. And again, in tune with the 80s revival in all street fashion, the jewelry is again big and bashy, to quote a favorite UK MC of mine, Fallacy.
Just as fashions in jewels themselves ebb and flow, so do fashions for specific jewelers. Jacob The Jeweler made a meteoric rise to public consciousness. He has a watch. He has a sneaker. He has high profile court cases. People are aware of him the same way soccer moms know the term “bling bling” (but probably don’t know B.G.). Hip-hop jewelry consistently redefines what shapes ice can take, what purposes it can play, and by virtue of a swaggering outlandishness, never fail to grasp the attention of the wider public.
Hip-hop’s obsession with shiny things has been the subject of some scholarly and pseudo-academic attention, but despite my interest in the various arguments and studies that have developed, my interest remains simple — rap cats rock some dope jewels. When young Gritz and I were at Magic in February we saw many a chain, but only one left us with any impression — a mammoth pendent, depicting the state of California, complete ocean front and a monumental diamond placing LA on the map. The wearer of this prize was Ben Baller of Icee Fresh Jewels in Los Angeles’ Slauson Supermall.
The jewelry game is the latest in a series of fascinating movements in Baller’s life, from college athlete to record industry insider to world famous sneaker collector. In this latest venture, Baller has lifted the hip-hop jewelry game from its New York base and brought attention to the West. In the process, the company has produced some major pieces for the likes of Fat Joe, Nas, Mariah Carey, and LRG’s Jonas Bevaqua (among so many others that it is ridiculous to list). Most of you will be familiar with Joe’s “Coco Baby I-95” pendant, featured prominently in the “Make It Rain” video, and Nas’ new “N” piece. They even iced out a Casio for skater Terry Kennedy. Everything Icee Fresh does consistently blows my mind as to the endless possibilities of jewelry.
Ben was nice enough to allow the little guy (me) a few moments in his busy schedule to ask a few questions about current and past projects, and allow us all to get a glimpse of the man behind some of hip-hop’s newest iconic pieces. And, if you are really interested in learning how to properly stunt, he has some advice for that.
Pants: How does it feel to stunt on everyone all the time?
Ben Baller: I don’t know its everyday natural behavior. I’ve been doin’ this since show and tell Fridays in Kindergarten.
Pants: What can we expect from the Icee Fresh x LRG line?
Ben Baller: We’re basically going to make a jewelry line that isn’t costume like Channel or others do. We’re going to make yellow gold pendants that are somewhat affordable, but only for certain boutique accounts. Everything we do will be copy written logos owned by L-R-G. We’re also going to make a few tees and hoodies while we’re at it. You’ll just have to see.
Pants: What ever happened to DYRT?
Ben Baller: No one had the time to put into it fulltime, so I stopped, but I think DJ Homicide might still find some investors and get it cracc’in sometime in the future. At one point, I think Travis and Quiksilver were interested, but I don’t know what happened. I just know we coulda blew that up crazy, especially after Cartoon finished the final logos … But I got super caught up into my jewelry biz.
Pants: As a college athlete did you ever employ common Canadian slurs, like “hoser” or “eh-hole” to taunt Steve Nash and throw him off his game?
Ben Baller: Nah, I barely got any playing time and as he was good, he wasn’t that good in college. I’ve played against better (i.e. Jason Kidd) no hate, I have no clue how the hell he got so damn good. He honestly scored maybe 14 points against us each time we played and we’re a division II school. There was a guy named Darryl something on their team who had hops and crazy skills who was their star player, not Nash.
Pants: Before you redefined the sneaker game and broke into jewels, you were involved in some pretty important rap records. Is there any one record that stands out to you or that you most enjoyed being apart of?
Ben Baller: There were a lot, there were some artists you never heard of, but I put in 1000% into all my projects. As far as important, I think Ice Cream Man and Reasonable Doubt were the two that are still relevant into today’s game. It was crazy to see Jay-Z blossom into what he is now, I would have never guessed in a billion years he’d be where he is now. Also, working with Ice Cube was always great, he was the illest MC to me back in the day. He may make some corny movies now, but they’re bringing in major bread and he did start up the “Friday” series, which was one of our first films, so I can’t hate. But go listen to Amerikkka’s Most Wanted or the next three albums and also listen to all the OG N.W.A. CDs and tell me he wasn’t spittin’ waaaaaaay harder then any underground battle rapper ever did.
Pants: When the Vans bubble bursts, what is going to be next?
Ben Baller: Ben Baller X Jonas Bevacqua hybrid.
Pants: What piece out of Icee Fresh are you most proud of?
Ben Baller: The cali piece.
Pants: What is your advice for first time jewelry buyers?
Ben Baller: Go someplace else first, get jerked, then come to us when you wanna get right. I don’t wanna sell you anything really, you should already know we’re the best jewelers on Earth and have the best pricing. So go get some weak sh** in the South or in NYC. If you pay less then what we charge, then expect lesser quality, that’s guaranteed.
Pants: Many yuppies drive 3-series BMW’s. If I wanted to get real ignorant and floss on them, and still needed to remain on that type of budget, what could I do?
Ben Baller: Take $20,000 cash in 1’s and pull up next to them on a GSXR 1000 and pop the clutch, get on one wheel and make it rain on them.
Pants: What’s with rumors of a Ben Baller reality show?
Ben Baller: Until it happens, it’ll just be rumors, because I’ve turned down FX, Spike and Bravo.
Pants: Any last shout outs?
Ben Baller: ICEE FRESH fam, Jonas and L-R-G.
You can learn more about Icee Fresh, now known as IF&CO, at IFandCo.com.