What started as dentist-approved tooth filling became hip hop’s hottest accessory which trickled down into mainstream media… The grillz. The infamous mouth-bling Nelly forever cemented into culture in his 2005 hit single ‘Grillz’. Taking over the world, and even occupying its own special page on Colgate’s website, the accessory has been seen on everyone from Katy Perry to Flava Flav. But how exactly did the grill make its way up to the highest ranks of jewellery?
We’re going to need to look into the history books for this one. The first evidence of grillz actually dates back to the ancient civilizations of the Etruscans and Mayans in 800 BC and 900 AD. Finding gold wiring in their teeth, it is believed that these early forms of grillz were used as a sign of status and wealth, with rich women purposefully removing front teeth to flaunt their gold pieces. Thank god for modern day caps.
Flash forward to the 70s and gold fillings were seen again after falling off the face of the Earth. Dentists started using gold caps as a cheap way to replace rotten teeth, which grew as an especially popular method among Black New Yorkers – who not so coincidentally were also the early founders of hip hop. And as the musical genre grew, so did the mouthpiece which makes it hard to pinpoint the OG adopter. But there are a few influential names worth mentioning.
Slick Rick’s 1988 debut album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick quite literally paved the way for grillz as we know them today, as he sported three gold caps decorated with silver jewels on the sleeve for his single ‘Teenage Love’. Then came Eddie Plein, the maker and distributor of grillz. After having a damaged tooth himself, Plein started making the jewellery in his Brooklyn apartment and sold them throughout Queens. As his popularity grew, he eventually opened his own shop, Famous Eddie’s, and sold to celebrity clients from Flava Flav to Big Daddy Kane. He then extended his business ventures to Atlanta, another pioneering hotspot for hip hop, selling to the likes of OutKast and Ludacris.
It was long till grillz spread throughout America, and overseas (notably in the UK thanks to rappers like Goldie), like wildfire throughout the 90s. Wu-Tang and Method Man adopted the trend as it got more and more experimental, for them in the shape of vampire fangs. Then came Nelly’s 2005 ‘Grillz’ featuring Paul Wall, Ali & Gipp, which officialized the mouth jewellery as the hottest accessory out there. The music video also starred Johnny Dang, a Vietnamese immigrant who settled in Texas and eventually ventured into business with Paul Wall in 2002 making grillz to hip hop’s top dogs. A paradigm shift, a cultural milestone, Nelly told the world the grillz were here to stay and they did just that.
Kanye West, Beyoncé, A$AP Rocky, Rihanna… the whole lot of today’s most influential musicians have all gotten their teeth on the accessory more than once. But it’s transcended the world of music, with the likes of Bella Hadid and Kylie Jenner also sporting them. Gold or silver, encrusted or plain, patterned or simple, grillz have had a creative renaissance within the past 5 years, expanding the market from art students to reality TV stars. “We ’bout to start a epidemic with this one”, guess Nelly really was onto something after all…