“Add the whole top diamond and the bottom rose gold”.
Oh, the good ol’ days. Who doesn’t remember the iconic Grillz by Nelly in 2005? A homage to bejewelled teeth that many consider was the introduction of dental jewellery to the mainstream.
But Grillz is not a 2000’s Hip-Hop thing. Nor are they famous because celebrities such as Madonna, Justin Biber, and LeBron James (just to name a few) show them off, no sir. From ancient bling to present-day jaw-dropping styles (pun intended), the glitzy, gritty world of grillz fashion has a long story to tell.
Maybe we should begin with: what exactly is a “grill“?
Grill, or grillz, as the streets call them, can be simply defined as decorative coverings for the teeth. Usually coming in gold or silver, often they are also pimped up with precious stones and enamel. Think of diamonds, rubies, or a sprinkle of diamond dust for that extra pizzazz. Sometimes, they’re taken to the next level with cuts and etched designs, creating a dental masterpiece that’s part bling, part art gallery of dubious taste, according to many.
It fits perfectly within the Hip-Hop jewellery world: bold, big, heavy, and flashy. That distinctive look is designed to show off wealth and get respect from anyone. Braggadocio-style, show your teeth, babe…In short, it’s impossible for the Hip-Hop community not to be familiar with Grillz fashion. Hate it or love it.
Flashback to (one) Beginning…
Surprisingly to many, way back in history, our ancestors around the world were already making bold statements with their smiles only. Grillz didn’t just pop up on the scene in the past few decades; they’ve got roots as deep as the drum beats in your favourite Dilla track.
The phenomenon is first traced back to ancient cultures like the Etruscans in 800 BC. In a 1999 study, the “Etruscan Gold Dental Appliances: Three Newly ‘Discovered’ Examples”, anthropologist Marshall J. Becker pieced together several archaeologists’ findings and documentation of around 20 sets of teeth with some golden wiring.
Though not exactly the modern-day idea of grillz, they were believed to be used as a sign of status and wealth. Duh! Wealthy Etruscan ladies were the grill OGs, as they pioneered front teeth extraction to accommodate a gold band securing a substitute tooth. Usually made by a goldsmith, the operation was executed for embellishment, purely for aesthetics. Those girls knew better than their Greek or Latin counterparts, according to many historical sources, their society being culturally more advanced and freer.
But with the expansion and dominance of Caesar and the Romans in Italy, the Etruscan language, culture, and dental adornments, including grillz, vanished. By 100 AD, the trend of stylised teeth had gone. But wait…
…On the Other Sides of The World
For the ancient Mayans, jade held esteemed value as a precious gem. They meticulously carved it into artistic forms, crafted masks, and transformed it into a variation of a grill. In the classic era—from 300 AD to 900 AD—Mayan rulers would perforate their upper teeth, creating approximately three-millimeter-wide holes, adorned with circular jade pieces. The preference leaned towards a lighter, more translucent green shade for aesthetic allure.
However, the deliberate use of jade conveyed a socio-political message. Green stands for plant growth, agriculture, and sustenance. By donning jade consistently, Maya royalty assumed a responsibility. The purpose of grills here transcended mere opulence; they symbolized a commitment to societal welfare—a visible, enduring pledge that everyone would be cared for.
One tier below the elite, professionals like architects and sculptors lacked the means for jade but altered their teeth through filing. Aesthetically, it was decidedly superior to unmodified teeth. However, akin to the fate of Etruscan grills, the Mayans ceased the incorporation of jade into their teeth post-Spanish conquest, in the 1500s.
The same fate was shared by the Filipinos, who around 1300 AD were known to adorn their teeth with gold fronts, for the same reasons as their Mayan counterparts. With a new leadership and cultural paradigm – Spanish, once again – grillz once again faded into obscurity. At least, so it seemed…
A Mayan tooth with a green jade gem indented in it
Fast Forward to Our Days: Grillz Use in Dental Artistry
By the late 1970s, gold teeth began appearing mainly in Black neighbourhoods of New York City. Akintola Hanif, editor-in-chief of Hycide, states he started noticing grillz on West Indian folks in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, sporting one or two gold teeth. However, these weren’t about style.
In the 1970s, parts of the West Indies, especially Jamaica, faced economic struggles, leaving little money for dental care. Enter gold teeth as a practical solution. Shabba Ranks didn’t sport “one gold tooth” for fashion; he probably just skipped flossing. As the late 70s and 80s saw massive West Indian migration to New York, gold teeth tagged along, and money was sent back home for proper dental care.
What began as a dental necessity soon became a fashion item. For West Indian immigrants and native New Yorkers alike, gold teeth transformed into a style statement. Your everyday hood guys and girls stars started wearing them. In those days, New Yorkers dubbed them gold fronts and many trendsetting kids flaunted a pair as a symbol of wealth, much like the ancient Maya and Etruscans.
Special mention to model, disco queen and style icon Grace Jones, who rocked a solid gold grill in a 1975 Vogue Hommes feature. It marked the grill’s debut in high-end fashion, and, little did we know, it was just the beginning.
Grace Jones grillz in Vogue Hommes, 1975
Rise of Grillz Fashion in Entertainment
The 80s Glamour and Glitz: From Gold Fronts to Grillz
In the 1980s, fashion became a thing in Hip-Hop Culture. It’s not that obvious who the first rapper to wear a grill was, though Atlanta rappers Kilo Ali and Raheem the Dream may be believed to do so. Anyway, OG rappers like Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap, rocked them too.
When Slick Rick released his first album in 1988, he changed the relationship between Hip-Hop and Grillz fashion. The Great Adventures of Slick Rick played a big role in shaping today’s idea of how a grill or a golden tooth should look. In a bold fashion statement, he flaunted three gold caps adorned with silver jewels for his single Teenage Love.
Slick Rick was no newbie to Hip-Hop fashion, though. He would dress up in furry Kangols, colourful Clark’s Wallabees, and Adidas tracksuits. That devotion inspired him and Dana Dane to name their first rap group the Kangol Crew.
In a recent article for The Guardian, discussing hip-hop jewellery, the British-born rapper stated:
“It was jewelry that was the most massive thing of all. Displaying our opulence affirms the traditions and wealth of our culture. […] It’s a measure of how visual Hip-Hop is that we believe in the power of jewellery to communicate who we really are, a practice that dates back to the earliest (African) folks.” – Slick Rick The Ruler
Eddie “Mouth Full of Golds” Plein, a key figure in Grillz fashion, was also a huge trendsetter in the 1980s. Living in Brooklyn but visiting his home country Suriname, he broke a tooth and got offered a gold cover. Not fully sold on the idea, he thought about the bold jewellery in the hip-hop scene. Returning to NYC, he went to dental school, started offering grillz from a pawn shop, and hit it big when rapper Just-Ice sported one in promotions.
The 90s Dental Flow
There is no way we could not talk about the one and only Flavour Flav. In the ’90s, the Public Enemy rapper and hype-man made Grillz fashion super popular with his, let’s say, loud style. Grillz became the go-to way to show off not only wealth but also the extravagance of hip-hop, like a noun to the verb of flossing. You just need to take a look at Flavour and you’ll understand, no more words are needed.
Let’s not forget how the Wu-Tang Clan embraced the grillz fashion trend, with the likes of RZA and Method Man taking it to experimental levels by shaping their teeth bling like vampire fangs. Do you remember Meth’s first album press kit pictures, maybe, or Gravediggaz’s album cover?
And, still on that Wu-Tang side, let’s forget not how the trend shaped Raekwon The Chef’s aesthetics back then, for instance.
Outside New York, notably, Houston rapper Paul Wall got into customizing grillz, and jewellers in Oakland also left their mark. In 1996, Johnny Dang, originally from Vietnam and possibly the most famous grillz artist, opened a shop in Houston. Although Dang’s grandparents wore gold teeth, it was the demand for blinged-out grillz that motivated him to start his highly successful grill empire.
Dang began making grills in 1996 and now pulls in about $8 million annually by wholesaling grills to jewellers worldwide, hand-delivering them to rappers like Chief Keef, Lil Jon, and Riff Raff.
The Y2Ks Bling Bling Takeover: A Hip-Hop Love Affair
In the 1990s, grillz gained popularity among rappers and some athletes, but it was in the 2000s that the trend took off. Let’s drop the needle on the turntable and explore how Hip-Hop made Grillz fashion its thang. Also giving kudos to the very respectable Erykah Badu for her appearance in lean-infused grillz on her Love of My Life incredible video.
In 2002, Paul Wall and Johnny Dang teamed up and opened Johnny Dang & Co. in Houston, catering to top names in rap and hip hop with the flashiest and most elaborate grillz on the scene. Paul Wall quickly became the face (and mouth) of hip-hop’s new favourite accessory.
This is when Grillz by Nelly featuring Paul Wall and showcasing Johnny Dang entered in 2005. He said “We ’bout to start an epidemic with this one” and he meant it. Thanks to the popular music video showing off over 50 crazy blings, the concept left its mark on everyone. It was a game-changer, with Hip-Hop declaring to the world that fashion was here to stay.
2010-2020s: Grillz Fashion Galore
If the early 2000s witnessed the rise of grillz, subsequent decades consolidated the phenomenon, which curiously also assumed some sense of national pride in the 2010s, as testified by Fat Joe‘s Puerto Rico-inspired design and Ryan Lochte‘s American Flag Diamond Grill at the 2012 Olympics…
Nothing seems to have changed in the 2020s, as the grill’s popularity is spreading further. They remain highly popular, now more bedazzled than ever. They feature glittering diamond-dust finishes, dazzling trillion cuts, and an abundance of gold. Artists like Travis Scott are upholding the flashy tradition, exploring various looks and styles that push boundaries.
In recent times, dental bling has made another splash not only in high-end fashion and entertainment but also in the realms of art. This trend is likely fueled, in part, by the widespread use of social media. Celebrities such as Pharrell Williams, Dua Lipa, Lizzo, and Justin Bieber proudly display adorned teeth on social media and at events regularly.
Models like Bella Hadid also joined the trend. Grillz graced runways and NYC fashion week. Fashion designers boldly embrace dental dazzle, featuring models with everything from subtle grillz to bold, attention-grabbing designs in runway shows, transforming dental bling into a high-fashion accessory. Brands like Dior and Balmain collaborate with Grillz artists to create pieces seamlessly blending high fashion with street style.
For some, the allure of Grillz fashion goes beyond status and celebrity appeal, becoming a way to reconnect with their culture. With the stigma fading away, some view grillz as a chance to explore their origins, expressing an authentic facet of unique street culture.
Others seize the opportunity to redefine the old golden front teeth game entirely. Artists channel their passion into grillz that deviate from the conventional styles. Instead of bling or deep cuts, they incorporate raw gemstones and unexpected shapes and palettes, engaging in a forward-thinking creative process.
Artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé elevate the grill with elegant and undeniably chic looks. A new generation of influences, from Cardi B to A$AP Rocky, not only embraces Grillz but also makes it doper, imparting their unique touch.
While modern affluents can invest and safeguard their wealth discreetly, they also choose to display their success on their teeth, a visible reminder to themselves and others of their prosperity.
So You’re Saying Grillz Fashion Is Not Just A Trend?
Yes, we are.
Grillz fashion challenges conventional beauty standards, empowering individuals to embrace their uniqueness. In a world where conformity often reigns, grillz stands as a rebellious beacon of self-confidence. Fashion doesn’t care about other’s opinions if it’s tacky, doesn’t it?
As Grillz continues to traverse cultural boundaries, we foresee a greater fusion of styles. The global exchange of ideas will shape the future, as a dynamic cultural evolution. And there you have it, a comprehensive journey through the dazzling history, present-day swagger, and prospects of dental flossing as we know it. Whether you’re a hip-hop head, a fashionista, or just someone intrigued by the sparkle, grillz are a thing – not just on teeth but in the cultural spotlight.
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