In 2002, rapper Nelly pulled up at a store at the corner of Delmar and Westgate Ave. in Missouri in his white SUV, wearing full-on Nelly gear: baggy sweatpants, headband, sunglasses, band-aid on the left cheek. “I said give me two purr,” he said. “I need two purrrrr,” he stressed. It sounded like Nelly was about to buy two cats, but Nelly wasn’t about to buy two cats. He was referring to a fresh pair of Nike Air Force 1s, the same pair already on his feet for the music video for the rap song “Air Force Ones.”
The video was a five-minute rap serenade for the “all-white, high-top strap with the gum bottom” that was too real that MTV had to stop showing it because of too much product placement. The controversial ban made the shoe even more covetable.
If there’s a rapper who can wield influence over the culture, it’s your boy Nelly, the guy who also made “Grillz”—not a rap song about the cooking device but about the jewelry-encrusted mouthpiece he puts on.
By the mid-2000s, Nike approximately sold about 12 million pairs of Air Force 1s. If you do the math, this means Nike made a billion dollars on the iconic Bruce Kilgore-designed shoe. That just cements the Air Force 1s status as an icon. Nelly paid homage to the sneaker, but he wasn’t the only one that shared an unforgettable moment with the Air Force 1s.
Moses Malone’s 51-point Game
Years before Nelly released his AF-1 ode, NBA legend Moses Malone rocked the Air Force 1s, Nike’s first basketball shoe to feature the Nike Air technology. Malone was part of the Original Six, a group of players signed by Nike to represent the AF-1 when the design was released in 1982. The Original Six included Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson, Jamal Wilkes, Bobby Jones, and Calvin Natt, but it was Malone who made the Air Force 1s his home.
In his career-best 51-point game against the Detroit Pistons, the 6-foot-10 Sixers center was wearing his clean white high-top with the loud red strap and red swoosh, which the defense wouldn’t have noticed because they were too busy getting dunked on.
Malone made the Air Force 1 an instant classic, so to celebrate the shoes’ 25th year anniversary, a DJ Premier-produced track with Kanye West, Nas, KRS-One, and Rakim called “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been)” was released.
I’m classic like the Air One’s, the hustler shoe. That’s what I’m accustomed to, yeah.
Twenty five years on the streets, on the court, and the Air Force 1 was way past legendary status.
Now We Here
The hip-hop and Air Force 1 thread are forever intertwined, so of course Drake had to chip in. In the music video for his hit “Started From The Bottom,” Drake was on that white-on-white Air Force 1 Mid.
Turtle’s Fukijama Air Force 1s
Turtle is a sneaker head with a closet full of Air Force 1s. He was once gifted a rare pair of Fukijama-designed Air Force 1s by his actor friend, who had the pair made for $20,000. Turtle is one blessed dude. Turtle doesn’t exist. Nor does the artist Fukijama. But the pricey pair eventually crossed over into real life when Nike teamed up with Undefeated to pay homage to Turtle’s AF-1 affinity.
The Air Force 1s’ slick, timeless design is the perfect canvas for aspiring Fukijamas, which is why it has unlimited potential for customized NIKEiDs. Choose your own vamp and tongue, tweak the quarter, give life to the midsole accent, go crazy on the swoosh and heel tab. It’s all good, you can’t ruin a classic.
For the Women
Missy Elliott got on the AF-1 boat as early as 1997 (spot the Uptowns on the cover of her debut album Supa Dupa Fly), but it was 2001 when Nike hatched of its brightest ideas: women’s sizing for the Air Force 1. The shoe has been royalty since its inception, a sneaker fit for kings and queens.
From simple women’s sizing, the Air Force 1s are being taken to the next level through The 1 Reimagined. Female designers have taken the Air Force 1 DNA and created totally new looks. The year, Nike will be showing off their new silhouettes, the AF1 ‘Sage’ High and Low as well as the AF1 ‘Rebel’.
AF-1 x Everything
The Air Force One has transcended being merely a sneaker silhouette to one that other icons have teamed up with. From video games like the Playstation, to TV channels like Vibe and BET, to actual real world places like Ueno in Tokyo or Hong Kong, AF-1 collabs will always be untouchable.
Its latest foray is a mash-up with the Carhartt WIP which will be released during the holdiay season. This collab with the makers of Carhartt, the work wear brand. They bring the spirit of the brand through traditional Carhartt WIP materials like brown canvas and camo ripstop then lay it over the classic Air Force 1 shape. The resulting look is a rugged yet contemporary sneaker.
Aside from switching up the fabrics, AF-1 crossovers also allow for aesthetically bold moves. Later this year Nike is releasing the Air Force 1 ‘Utility’. They’re replacing the traditional lacing system with a huge midfoot strap. They kept the classic look of the shoe but exaggerated key elements like the tongue and the heel pull tab for a truly aggressive look.
Iron Man 2
It would’ve been awesome to see Iron Man kick Ivan Vanko’s ass in a pair of Mark V-inspired Air Force 1s, but we’re not ready for that kind of awesomeness. Instead, what we got was Iron Man 2 writer Justin Theroux wearing a custom-made, red and gold Iron Man colorway at the red carpet premiere. Still awesome.
Even before Kobe Bryant became a Laker legend and Nike guy, he wore Air Force 1s on and off the court. In 2002, sneaker free agent Kobe said he also need two purr, and rocked the white Laker-themed Mid PEs. Several Kobe-inspired Air Force 1 Highs and Lows were also released throughout his career, including a colorway with purple touches and snakeskin details.
When Kobe retired, it meant another AF-1 tribute, and Nike went all in on the details: black snakeskin upper design, Laker drop shadow gold on the swoosh, “8” and “24” on the heel tab.
When it comes down to it, the Air Force 1 and the NBA are inseparable. That’s why this year, Nike decided to release the AF-1 ‘NBA Pack’. The design on Kobe’s 2002 pair is mimicked with the bold swoosh and bright outline on this year’s colorways. Nike also used a color-shifting material in the backtab where the AF1 logo shifts into the NBA logo.
Moses Malone and the Original Six introduced it, hip-hop immortalized it, and Rasheed Wallace slammed it home.
If the Air Force 1, with its rich history and impact on sneaker culture, was embodied in a basketball player, then Wallace was without a doubt that basketball player. Wallace always kept it real on the court, strap dangling, screaming “Ball don’t lie” in his AF-1 PEs. The Sheed silhouette was added on the heel of his AF-1s because it wasn’t all about style for Wallace.
He proved it in Game 4 of the 2004 NBA Finals against the LA Lakers, with his Pistons up 2-1 at home. In his white/blue PEs, Wallace took over the game in the second half and dropped 26 points on the Lakers. Wallace won the NBA championship in his Air Force 1s, cementing a truth that has long been known since the 80s: the Air Force 1 can’t be beat.
Photos from Getty Images, Complex, Sneaker News and Nike