“A Thousand Words” Translates the History of Hip-Hop Culture into Timeless T-Shirts

Martha Cooper. Henry Chalfant. Joe Conzo. Jamel Shabazz. Jamil GS. These are just of a the few legends of photography who are collaborating with A Thousand Words on the creation of a series of vintage men’s t-shirts that celebrate the history of Hip-Hop culture during the golden years.

Also: “Hip-Hop Evolution” Is One for the History Books

A Thousand Words is the brainchild of designer and documentarian James “Koe” Rodriguez, who has amassed an incredible group of photographers, artists, and musicians to produce an exclusive line of signature pieces that include tributes to seminal films like Beat Street and Fort Apache, The Bronx as well as legendary concerts like Fresh Fest and the All-Rap Spectacular. Rodriguez speaks with Crave Online about his vision of A Thousand Words, which attract customers from all walks of life—from emcees and DJs to lawyers and cops.

James "Koe" Rodriguez, Cedar Park, photo by Nicole Reed

James “Koe” Rodriguez, Cedar Park, photo by Nicole Reed

Crave: Please talk about the inspiration for A Thousand Words. What made you decide to develop an apparel company dedicated to old school legends of art, music, and photography? How you would describe the overall mission and vision of A Thousand Words?

James “Koe” Rodriguez: In a nutshell, A Thousand Words (aka ATW) is an extension of my life as an artist, designer, historian and entrepreneur. A few years ago I created a TV show called A Thousand Words, which was shopped as the “Behind The Music” of iconic photography. Working with and repping some very legendary photographers, I was privy to these great back stories of highly celebrated images. I wanted to tell those great stories to TV viewers. Although networks dug our demo, we were never picked up. I then decided to tell those great stories using a different medium – cotton. I’ve always been inspired by things that are timeless and inherently cool. I love vintage rock tees; not just for their great art and design, but for what they represent culturally and historically. Timeless and cool definitely drives our brand.

ATW Martha Cooper DONDI 1980 T-shirt

ATW Martha Cooper DONDI 1980 T-shirt

I just caught Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix and it brought so many memories back! I love how A Thousand Words embodies the spirit of the times, yet doesn’t feel overtly sentimental or dated. Please talk about the elements of the culture that speak most significantly to you today.

Hip-Hop Evolution was great. I was happy to see many good friends and ATW comrades continue to shine. I embraced Hip-Hop in 1979. I was already down with art and drawing, so, graffiti was a perfect fit. That’s actually where the name “Koe” comes from. Art, music, fashion and film, Hip-Hop or otherwise, have always inspired me and fueled my creative process. Hip-Hop culture, particularly Graff, has been an invaluable asset in my creative and professional life. Attaching my graffiti tag to my surname allows me to maintain the unique identity Hip-Hop gave me and reminds me that a name, much like a brand, is definitely what you make it.

DJs_ATW Last Night A D.J. Saved My Life tee

Style has always been a significant feature of Hip Hop culture—we could even call it the sixth element. What are some of the critical features of style that you have brought to play in the creation and design of t-shirts for A Thousand Words?

Style has always been the impetus of Hip-Hop culture. It’s what turned ghetto kids into superstars. I’ve been down with style since I was a kid. I knew very early on that originality and flavor were great assets. I’m a very discerning shopper who understands style, quality, craftsmanship, fit, form and feel. I bring this unique knowledge into all of our pieces. I try to be very minimal when I design; simple and sweet. Our stuff is never over-branded or over-embellished. Putting cheesy graphics or needless branding on a Jamel Shabazz or Martha Cooper tee is like putting rims on a Bentley; totally unnecessary. We use premium tees I personally source not just for looks, but for superior fit and feel. Our product features custom hang tags and/or artist blurbs in the shirt. I include collectible post cards that feature iconic images as complimentary keepsakes. I’m trying to offer the consumer a unique cultural experience, not just a great product.

UBB Vol 12 and ATW X UBB

UBB Vol 12 and ATW X UBB

You have access to so many fantastic talents, it’s a a veritable treasure trove of art and history. How do you decide which artists you’d like to partner with—and how do you determine which works to feature on the shirts!

Because of the many personal and professional relationships I’ve amassed over the years, I’m blessed to have access to some really iconic individuals and content. There’s benefits to having friends who are cultural icons. Some of our collabos are straight-up organic and others are timed. The legendary BreakBeat Lou and I discussed an Ultimate Breaks & Beats collabo for over 3 years before 2016’s UBB X ATW 30th Anniversary t-shirt set. I believe in things happening in due time. As for the content that ultimately appears on our shirts, it’s usually the classics; that timeless stuff we all know and love. It’s important that the art not only be strong in flavor, but very marketable as well. Although our photo tees do well, some of our best selling shirts are the graphic ones I personally design. Our “God Made Me Funky,” “Fort Apache” and “NYC 1982” tees have been embraced the world over. Much like all of our product, those tees have unique back stories that totally resonate with heads both near and far.

ATW Super Record Center yee by James "Koe" Rodriguez

ATW Super Record Center yee by James “Koe” Rodriguez

Apparel is a tough industry so I give you props for making this go! What are the most satisfying aspects of running A Thousand Words?

Thanks for those props. Although ATW is somewhat new to the scene, I’m certainly not. Over the years, I’ve either worked for, or worked with a number of significant companies. I was a partner in a couple of creative ventures during the 90s, including a design and silkscreen business in Jersey City and a publishing company in New York. Everything I’ve done in the past has prepared me for today, and tomorrow. Being stocked in Paris, Berlin, Australia, Korea, Japan and Dubai has definitely been earned, not given. Our shirts are on the backs of devout Hip-Hoppers, popular street artists, actors, musicians, best selling writers, directors, footwear designers, legendary DJs, lawyers, and even other brand owners. I’m totally honored and humbled by all the love and support.

I recently had a cop who worked at the legendary Fort Apache precinct in the South Bronx call me after purchasing our “Fort Apache” shirt. He not only loves the quality and design of the shirt, but what it represents. Besides working with so many talented and respected individuals and companies, one of the most satisfying things about ATW is creating product that is not only dear to me, but to so many others like me around the world. I’ve met so many people here and abroad who’ve shared personal stories about their relationship to the content on our tees. The power of a great image is indescribable and why our brand’s name is so fitting. Ironically, I didn’t need a TV show to share celebrated content and unique backstories with the world. I just needed to revisit the very things that got me where I am.

Koe Rodriguez & ATW tees, 2016

Koe Rodriguez & ATW tees, 2016

All artwork courtesy of A Thousand Words.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.