In a simpler time, when emcees wore massive novelty clocks and scrubbing was the sonic order of the day, name-dropping a watch brand was something that happened relatively infrequently. The watch’s proximity to jewellery has always afforded it a certain cachet within the hip hop community — never mind its ability to succinctly convey material wealth and superior taste — but in the last 10 years, we’ve seen an eruption of interest in a specific handful of European makers, solidifying the bridge between historic, centuries-old craft and what many consider to be the most transcendent musical artform of the 21st century.
Of course, hip hop’s present obsession with traditional Swiss watchmaking didn’t emerge unbidden from the ether. Suffice to say (for the purposes of this instalment of ‘Culture Check’) the two decades prior to the 2010s saw the dominance of numerous influential subgenres. Importantly, gangsta and bling rap — both big on celebrating conspicuous consumption. This in turn paved the way for the cultural moment we find ourselves in: when braggadocious artists “draped in all designer” are caught in a feedback loop, stimulating the very hype economy that every luxury watchmaker under the sun longs to tap into.
Despite a concerted effort, not every brand has met with the same success when attempting to wrangle hip hop’s hype complex to its advantage. Not even close. By way of example, it’s still early days for Richard Mille: the independent maker of high-concept super watches has made quick headway among multi-platinum rappers like Pusha T and Nicki Minaj, but remains (comparatively) a newcomer in the broader culture. That poses an interesting question: if a watchmaker sufficiently well-known that it can collaborate with Pharrell Williams still isn’t considered the most aspirational brand, then who exactly is? To answer that, I turn to Meek Mill: “[there’s] levels to this s**t.”
Rolex: Gold Standard and Reigning Champ
By now, you’ve probably guessed that this article’ central premise is to unpack the mutually reinforcing relationship between name-dropping and the popularity of certain associated watch brands. And if we’re going on the purely quantitative — as in many other realms of the watch world — Rolex remains the most coveted name in hip hop watch sweepstakes, by a country mile. Using the very scientific method of lyrics aggregation, available through platforms like Genius, it’s estimated there are currently in excess of 2,000 mentions of the word ‘Rolex’ within the genre. (Editor’s Note: Because I just so happen to be a very rigorous and pedantic sort, that figure also accounts for name variations, notably ‘Rollie’.)
Naturally, the Rolex name-drop’s ubiquity was influenced hugely by its extant popularity throughout hip hop history. “When it comes to luxury watches [in the hip-hop genre],” says Complex’s Mike DeStefano, “Rolex is the gold standard”. The Coronet’s decades-long association with enviable, masculine archetypes beyond the street — racers, rockstars, royalty — made it appealing even during hip hop’s infancy. And that was before intrepid New York jewellers began getting ahold of Day-Dates and Submariners, emblazoning them with diamond-heavy modifications. “You really just cannot go wrong with a Rolex,” continues DeStefano. “That’s why acts like EPMD and 2 Live Crew were already wearing gold Day-Dates in the 80s. Some brands are a sign of the times -- Rolex is one that always has [a] seat at the table.”
All that in mind, hip-hop’s last decade has proven to be consistently fruitful for Rolex, in large part because of its fortress-like mindshare among both established artists and the new school. In Otis, one of the lead singles off the collaborative 2011 album Watch The Throne, Jay-Z dedicates an entire bar to his own certifiably expensive horological taste (“New watch alert: Hublots/Or the big face Rollie, I got two of those”) showing deference to the Rolex name, even as he angles for a partnership that would eventually spawn the ‘Sean Carter’ Classic Fusion. Indeed, invoking the Coronet’s name can sometimes be so effective that it overshadows every track an artist subsequently releases. That was very much the case for Michigan trap duo Ayo & Teo: their 2017 track Rolex would go on to become a defining soundbite for the TikTok era — and the only chart-topper the two have currently produced.
Patek’s ‘Mumble Rap’ moment
Because the economic discourse of scarcity continues to play a driving role in hip hop culture — you can see its influence in any number of tangential pursuits like the acquisition of contemporary art or sneakers — numerous artists have ‘graduated’ to rapping about watch brands a few rungs up the ladder from Rolex, in matters of price and availability.
The forefront of this ‘Great Renunciation’ has been occupied, in recent times, by Patek Philippe. Again, using the incredibly scientific method of online lyric aggregation, the total number of references to the brand (or some variation thereof) is now hovering at around 1,000 — less than half the amount of reigning champ, Rolex. Still, between the fact that Drake’s won’t stop gushing about his internet-breaking Nautilus (lately, on his 2021 single What’s Next) and the litany of fully iced variations spotted on rap moguls like Rick Ross and DJ Khaled, it’s clear that we’re living through a period of unprecedented awareness of the Patek name.
A credible hypothesis is that factors extraneous to hip hop culture are to blame for this meteoric rise, but a number of music journalists have put forward the case for this “sudden fascination” with Patek beginning sometime in 2016 — spurred on by a few key ‘mumble rap’ artists who happened to be at the centre of the public eye. Sheldon Pearce, a contributing writer at Pitchfork explains: “The most prominent catalyst was Future on Too Much Sauce with Lil Uzi Vert in June 2016. Gucci [Mane], newly out of prison and a mentor to Future, was very quick to catch on...there were flexes on three songs in the next few months.”
This obsession for Patek sports watches spiralled out of control in 2017, fuelled by the brand’s resonance among younger artists like Offset and 21 Savage. “Across 10 songs on [their] collaborative mixtape Without Warning,” says Pearce, Patek Philippe (or some variation thereof) is mentioned no less than 15 times — a number that doesn’t even account for all of the cameos Offset made that same year, such as in the Future and Young Thug collab track Patek Water, dedicated to obliquely referencing the brand. Around the same time, other music was being released that sought to legitimise Patek’s newfound popularity by discrediting the competition. In No Limit, a single off G-Eazy’s 2017 album The Beautiful & Damned, Cardi B declares her preference for the brand’s superlative dial-work, opining “f**k the Rollie/Patek face.”
That sentiment seems to have rubbed off on a number of her contemporaries, notably Meek Mill. A self-avowed Rolex obsessive (who once likened the impact of wearing the brand to “feelin’ like that dope boy when he first touched that brick”) he has name-checked Patek on nine separate occasions since 2016, all but confirming that this was the year the rap elite moved up-stream. Suddenly, the established Rollie flex seemed almost elementary, as tastes evolved to encompass higher-end manufactures like Patek Philippe, Richard Mille, and most intriguingly, Audemars Piguet.
AP: Return of The Mac
In the fascinating venn diagram between hip hop and luxury watches, the more astute students of history will tell you that, over the last five years, Patek has merely been renting the house that Audemars Piguet helped to build. (Note to self: Mixed metaphors always sound better before you write them.) Recent events have heralded a second coming for AP in hip hop’s mainstream — possibly even beyond — but it’s important to comprehend that success within the relationship that has existed between the makers of the Royal Oak and rappers for quite some time. Well, one rapper to be precise — Mr. Sean Carter, AKA Jay-Z.
The Roc-A-Fella founder’s rapport with AP extends far beyond the timeline of this article. But to bring us up to speed: in 1997, following the unanimous critical and commercial success of his debut album Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z was invited to meet AP’s now-global CEO Francois Bennahmias at the brand’s offices in New York. The meeting that followed reportedly had a profound impact on the former, leading to a declaration — in the course of an interview several years later — that “complicated timepieces are a lot more interesting than diamonds or giant gold chains”.
Ever the visionary sort, Jay-Z would proceed to become an important ally and ambassador of AP long before many of his contemporaries — helping to usher in hip hop’s aughties-era obsession with the delightful oxymoron that is oversized luxury dive watches. In 2006, the brand formally recognised these contributions, making him the first hip hop artist to receive their own limited edition release. (Editor’s Note: My colleague Felix Scholz wrote an in-depth profile of that piece recently, dubbed the ‘Jay-Z 10th Anniversary’ which you can read here.)
Returning to the timeline that is a major focus of our discussion, hip hop lovers of a certain age will recall some of Jay-Z’s biggest shoutouts to AP did in fact transpire within the last decade. One can only imagine how many times during his year-long tour alongside Kanye West (for the Watch the Throne album) that the multi-platinum rapper boasted in his trademark elegiac flow of “Audemars that’s losing time/hidden behind all these big rocks.” More recently, on Biking, a collaborative track featuring Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator, Jay-Z once again alluded to his prescient track record, crooning “Audemars before all of y’alls” over a warm piano-tinged instrumental: taking aim (presumably) at the new guard of swaggering trap artists, who’ve been blowing up in the culture since the mid-2010s.
In spite of his untimely passing, one could surmise that few rappers of the new guard have done as much in as short a timeframe to advance AP’s cause as the late, great Pop Smoke. The deceased Brooklyn drill artist inculcated the brand’s image in a whole new generation of listeners with the hit track Iced Out Audemars. In what has proven to be a certifiable club anthem throughout the summer, Pop Smoke utilises the titular brand as a lyrical launchpad, firing off a stream of steady references to “the finer things [in life], over a beat [glittering] with the exultant panache of dozens of champagne flutes being clinked together”.
Earlier this year, to coincide with the release of the motion picture Boogie (in which Pop Smoke makes his on-screen debut), the soundtrack’s lead single AP was released posthumously. Accompanied by a music video and album art that see the iconography of the famed Royal Oak prominently displayed, the track has a relentless, swaggering energy — just the sort of aura you’d expect from an iced-out, precious metal Royal Oak. One can’t help but be emotional thinking of what other lyrical odes to the brand Pop Smoke might have crafted, had his life not been cut tragically short. Whomsoever picks up the torch to rep the brand has a hard act to follow.