Timberland Boots—a durable, affordable work-boot that is as synonymous with hip-hop as it is construction sites. Today you’ll see everyone from Kanye West to menswear editors rocking them at Fashion Week, and their roots in style go deep. In the early ’90s, the boot’s utility and agression perfectly matched the gritty New York sound being put forth by rappers Mobb Deep, Smif-n-Wessun, and perhaps most notably by Wu-Tang Clan. Even as the East Coast-West Coast beef reached a boiling point, the boot was a common thread in every rapper’s music videos, album covers, and lyrics. That’s still the case twenty years later, where they remain the footwear of choice for a new generation. Twenty-odd years of Timberlands on his feet and in his songs, and, with Wu-Tang Clan’s highly-anticipated A Better Tomorrow slated for a December 2nd release, we turned to the group’s spiritual leader, RZA, for answers on why the boots first caught on, what they represent, and the most memorable Timbs moment of his career.
What started the Timberland boot trend?
In my opinion, the trend first started in the very late ’80s to early ’90s. I think one of the bands that really brought Timberland boots to the forefront was Wu-Tang Clan. In all of our early videos, whether it was Method Man, ODB, the RZA, the GZA, you see the Timberlands stomping. They’re something that New Yorkers wore every winter season. You had to get yourself a pair of steel toes and 40 Belows. That came to us after the Adidas and Puma craze. They were cool, affordable, durable, and kept you warm.
Keep in mind that a Timberland shoe was cooler than a Wallabee. I remember when a lot of kids didn’t know about Timberland moccasins, because Timberland also made moccasins, and me and ODB and other trendsetters used to wear those in the neighborhood. People would be, like, “What the hell is that?”
Then there came a point where everyone wanted to outdo each other for who had the coolest Timberlands. But like anything, it started small with a few cool guys in the neighborhood and then it became cool for everyone else. But Timberlands with a [Canada] Goose or Carhartt jacket was the look. And if you look at other artists, say, Naughty by Nature’s first album cover, there’s Timberland boots and Carhartt jackets as well.
Here’s what happened though: Timberland boots used to be only be worn in the winter, but then people, such as myself, started wearing them all year ’round. I used to be one of the guys that other dudes would make jokes on when I would wear my Timberlands in the summer.
What about them was appealing to you?
There were some cold winters in those days. They had all the qualities of a good product and that’s why we continued to wear them. Timberlands became something that was cool and rugged at the same time.
In the beginning we only wore the black and the construction colorways, but then they started coming out with a lot of other colors, so they became something you could wear with any pair of jeans. I probably have every color of Timberlands, personally.
Do you still wear them today? Which pairs do you like to wear the most?
I buy at least four pairs of black Timbs a year, especially if I’m touring. The reason is not because they break down, but because I gotta keep it fresh. If I wear a pair, say, to a festival, when I come home I put those to the side. I probably got about twenty pairs of black Timberlands right now. Nowadays I’ll remind myself to not forget to pick up a pair of fresh black Timberlands. I would rather wear them than other shoes, even if I’m trying to dress up a little.
I went to the Gucci store one day, and the guy that was selling them to me said, “Hold on, RZA. You’re buying Gucci sneakers? I know you for Timberlands!” I told him, “I know, I know. But I’m getting older and I like the Gucci sneakers now.”
Where did the desire to always keep a work boot fresh come from?
Well it rolled over from wanting to keep our sneakers fresh. When we first had the big Puma craze, the shell-toe Adidas, you know, they wanted to keep them fresh. When I was growing up if you had some suede Pumas on, you had a suede brush in your pocket. If you had on Adidas, you had a tooth brush in your pocket. We would literally pull out a tooth brush and brush this shit. It’s like a guy wanting to have waves in his hair, you know? I don’t know the beginning of it—all I know is that I would see my older cousins keeping their shit fresh, so I wanted to keep my shit fresh. Even if you had a pair of hand-me-downs, you would still put your fat shoelaces in and brush them.
When I had my first Timberlands and I was kind of poor, and I could only have one pair for maybe two years, I would get black shoe polish. But keeping something fresh is part of that hip-hop culture, that street culture, so we when we got Timberland boots we felt the same way about them: gotta keep ’em fresh.
How did you keep them fresh in the winter, with all the New York City slush and salt and general muck?
In the winter, it’s okay to keep ’em rugged. They actually look cooler when they’re rugged, because you’ve got a big jacket on, a big hat on your head, you know, so you don’t mind a little ruggedness.
How do you tie yours?
It depends. Sometimes I just leave them how they come in the box. Sometimes I lace them up all the way. Sometimes I just have them loose with the tongue down. It all depends on the pants. You have to decide—are you going to have your pants over them or tucked in? One time I had my pants stuffed in my Timberlands, and GZA told me that was old school. I was like, “What do you mean? I want people to see my whole Timberland!”
What’s your favorite memory about Wu Tang and Timberlands?
Actually, one of my favorite moments was a lyric that Raekwon said on one of his songs. He was talking about me, and like I said when we were trying to make it, I only had one pair of Timbs. I told him I wouldn’t buy anything else until we made it, so in his song he called them “The boots the paved the way.”
There’s also a song on [Gravediggaz’s album] 6 Feet Deep where I say, “MCs breeze on my tracks / I rock the boots with the trees / the killer bees spread rapid like diseases.” That sort of became like my slogan, to say I rock the “boots with the trees.” When you see those boots, you know those are the kind I rock because they helped me pave the way through this hip-hop culture. Even though I had that one pair for maybe a little too long.