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Volume 70, Issue 122, Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Life & Arts

Rappers can grin, bear art with grills

Beat Box

Zach Lee

Fashion has never really been practical. From corsets to powdered wigs, it's always been something that just was and was accepted -- often because the world's wealthy adopted it. In hip-hop, grills are one of those fashions. Granted, plates of precious metals crusted with jewels and placed over one's teeth is a style few of the world's wealthy people have taken up -- wealthy rappers aside of course -- but the premise is the same: a way to show off money and respectability. 

The pros and cons of a bling-bling-centered rap culture aside, the grill phenomenon is interesting to say the least. From a certain perspective, it's a statement against an economy based on invisible money. If the stock market crashes, those with grills will still be able to trade pieces of their shiny teeth warmers for food, shelter and everything else those suckers with their entire savings locked into a mutual fund will be looking for. A grill is like a tip of the hat to nomads, pirates, gypsies and anyone else who lives without a home -- it's a portable bank account.

I don't have a grill -- I can't afford anything more than a rubber mouthpiece (available at any decent sporting goods store) to cover my teeth, but that's OK. Many people don't understand the allure of a great grill, but it's akin to a great belt buckle. They're both just a little bit tacky, but they are also completely customizable descriptions of the self. They are wearable self-portraits -- they allow us to force the world to see us how we see ourselves. Self-expression is just as important in hip-hop culture as it is anywhere else.

Grunge had its flannel, and punk had its mohawks. Baggy pants and throwback jerseys aren't just hip-hop, but grills are. Nobody in Smash Mouth will be caught with "gold in they mouf," as Master P so eloquently put it, unless it's a crown, and that's all right with me. 

Hip-hop culture won't be defined by a single oral accessory, or a single anything for that matter, but it never hurts to have another avenue for expression. 

Most hip-hop artists don't have guitars or drum sets to customize, and the voice is the single most important instrument in any hip-hop song. Because of the lack of actual musical instruments and the weight of vocal rhythm and rhyme in hip-hop, an intricate mouthpiece is the best way for a rapper to put himself physically into his music.

There is a lot of stupid rap music, and there is a lot of stupid bling, but there is a method to the madness, and it's a fascinating phenomenon to watch. 

As funny as it would be to see emo kids rocking platinum grills or even intellectual hip-hop heads with some ice in their smiles, it probably won't happen, and I don't think it's too risky to bet against powerful political figures talking diplomacy through Paul Wall's handiwork. Still, it's great to live in an age of such innovative oral fashion, whether or not it catches on.

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