We’re now well versed in the concept of the retro revival. But while most revivals have roots in a specific era – the mod subculture, for example, with its reverence for early-60s pop and fashion – we’re currently in thrall to a much more slippery concept. “Old school” is as much as state of mind as a musical movement or style aesthetic, and it is firmly back in the modern lexicon, applied to everything from sunglasses to compilations of 1980s rave tracks; from vintage motorbikes to the name of a not-for-profit cafe in San Francisco.
Your old school could be Debbie Harry circa Rapture in 1981. It could be Kanye West’s 2004 debut, The College Dropout. Or, I’m told by a reliable authority, 1995’s Bombscare by rave outfit 2 Bad Mice. Personally, my old school is hip-hop in New York in the early to mid 1980s; kids photographed by Jamel Shabazz wearing Adidas tracksuits, Kangol hats, Cazal shades and Farrah Fawcett waves on subway trains covered in graffiti; records like The Message by Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock and Run DMC’s My Adidas.
It’s this look, feeling and sound that’s currently enjoying a bit of a revival. Adidas’s successful relaunch of the Stan Smith tennis shoe has paved the way for the return of the Superstar – the shell-toe trainer to which rappers Run DMC once paid homage. Vans’ Old Skool sneaker, the one with the squiggle down the side, is also back in vogue, along with the bucket hat – popularised by rapper LL Cool J in the 80s and currently modelled by Rihanna.
Away from hip-hop, dance music’s old school is also going strong. The term is applied to everything from rave culture to drum’n’bass and garage, typically partnered with graphics utilising the kind of smiley face that predates the emoji keyboard. Anyone who lives in a large British city will be familiar with the cardboard signs strapped to traffic lights advertising old-school warehouse parties “going back” to years including 1995, 1998 and 2000. In mid-April, Throwback: Old Skool Anthems, a Ministry of Sound compilation of garage from the turn of the century, was No 1 in the dance chart, leapfrogging the Prodigy. The opening track? Re-Rewind by the Artful Dodger, aptly enough.
Whenever old school was – 1979? 1988? 2000? – it fits into our obsession with the recent past, or, at least, our edited version of it. Retro pervades pop culture, turning up in everything from Taylor Swift’s album 1989, to Instagram’s 1977 filter, the Tweed Run (a 1940s-style “metropolitan bicycle ride” in London where “tweed suits, plus fours, bowties, and jaunty flat caps are all encouraged”), the steampunk scene (Victoriana meets 1950s sci-fi), Mom jeans (late 1980s), Jack Wilshere’s haircut (1950s) and the Saint Laurent catwalk (1985, this season). Unlike the pin-neat three-button mod revival, say, these days, it’s not about slavishly recreating an era – it’s more like adding the sepia filter of the past to our modern experiences. A teenager might want to channel Mick Jagger in 1964 but he’ll need the iPhone and selfie stick to document the look. In this context, the amorphous nature of old school is all the more appealing; you can choose your own throwback.
“You’re buying into the legend of those times and it is more seductive because you weren’t there,” says Simon Reynolds (old school: “1992”), author of Retromania, the 2011 book about “pop culture’s addiction to its own past”. “That’s the best thing about vicarious nostalgia – you get to enjoy the 1970s without the strikes; you can just cream off glam rock. And those moments only become more burnished as time goes by.” This works with my idea of old school: I didn’t have to experience the poverty and cocaine epidemic in New York’s outer boroughs in the late 1970s – I can just listen to Grandmaster Melle Mel’s White Lines.
Whenever you time-stamp it, the idea of old school is tied up with search for authenticity, to find the “real” thing, the original. Vans advertise their Old Skool trainers with the strapline “Be the original”, while Pharrell’s multicoloured Superstars are part of Adidas’s Original range. The Urban Dictionary says the term was “derived from ‘old is kool’, becoming ‘old’s kool’ and then becoming ‘old skool’ meaning old is cool.” The original, old-school way of doing things, is, almost by definition, something to be admired. “It suggests respect and authenticity,” says Erik Nielson, a specialist in African-American hip-hop culture at the University of Richmond (old school: “late 1970s”). “The implicit connotation is that the present is a degraded version of the past.”
These days, slow-moving pre-Google pop culture feels purer, childlike and innocent – uncorrupted by the mainstream. According to Reynolds, old school as a term suggests “a semi-conscious harking back to the schoolyard fun you had as kids. … something fun, innocent and fresh.” This makes particular sense in the case of hip-hop. In the 1970s, it was a small subculture found exclusively in an area of the Bronx seven miles across; by 1999, it was the top-selling musical genre in the US. The old-school hip-hop era has allure now because it was one of the last subcultures given the space and time to develop before the rest of the world saw it. “What really defined that era was the culture of hip-hop,” says Travis Gosa, associate professor of Africana studies at Cornell University (old school: “before 1986”). “It was about more than rapping: it was fashion, language, how you carried yourself.”
The pivotal year, when hip-hop went overground, was perhaps 1988, when Yo! MTV Raps aired and beamed it across middle America. Nelson George (old school: “before 1985”), a hip-hop commentator since the genre’s infancy, remembers first hearing the term “in the 1990s when the west-coast scene was happening and there was a sense of eras passing”. Old-school hip-hop – the pre-commercial world of block parties, breakdancing, graffiti – was no longer living and breathing by then. It had began to be embalmed: preserved for future generations to discover.
George puts the concept of old school in a longer tradition that involves fans’ “instinct to capture the essence of black music” and suggests it has more cultural power outside of the US. “Around the world, the interest in hip-hop centres on authenticity and purity,” he says. “That’s not unusual in African-American music – it happened with blues, jazz and soul.” He namechecks northern soul: the 1970s scene in which largely white working-class Brits repurposed obscure 1960s R&B records for their party music.
As George suggests, the 1990s was the last time old school captured the zeitgeist, when Kate Moss wore Samba trainers and Run DMC’s It’s Like That was back in the charts thanks to a remix by Jason Nevins and a breakdancing video. It was then that Vans changed the name of the trainer formerly known as the Style 36 to the Old Skool, and Stüssy produced a T-shirt emblazoned with a shaky drawing of an Adidas-like sneaker and the slogan “Old Skool Flavor”.
Michael Kopelman (old school: “late 1970s”), managing director of Stüssy UK, says that, at the time, the phrase was still relatively obscure. It was almost a code, a symbol of someone like-minded, worn with other signifiers like Puma Clyde trainers, leather tracksuits and Vans. “All these items were really underground, insignificant unless you knew,” he says. “That’s what this T-shirt is. It’s looking back to a time before things got commercial, mass.”
The 1990s was when the concept of old school began to take hold in dance music, too – despite the fact that the sound being so wistfully recalled was ridiculously recent. Reynolds marvels at this shift. “All genres reach a midlife crisis, when the early days start to look better than the present,” he writes in Retromania. “Sure enough, around 1996, you started to hear talk about ‘old-school hardcore’: veterans waxing wistfully for a golden age of rave only four years earlier.” Almost 20 years later, records from the early 1990s are still played at old-school nights attended by those who were there first time around, and twentysomethings who weren’t even born.
For many of the generation who grew up in the 1990s, though, the meaning of old school has shifted again. Astrid Andersen, a 29-year-old London Fashion Week menswear designer (old school: “1996”), whose clothes are worn by musicians including A$AP Rocky and Wiz Khalifa, namechecks “Puffy, TLC, Wu-Tang Clan and Missy Elliott” as her old-school references. “The scene then was so brave,” she says. “It was like they discovered a whole new universe. That decade will always be influential to me. When I see something from then, it makes me smile and feel good.” DJ Semtex, from Radio 1Xtra, even ventures to date old school as “pre-2006”. “I would say 2003 is old school for me because you had Ja Rule and Kanye coming up. It’s a classic era.”
George is sanguine about the shifting of the old-school goalposts: “Every generation uses these phrases for their own purposes.”
This is not a term for purists, anyway. Old school’s fluid nature plays into our desire to throw a lot of references together to see what sticks, and Semtex suggests that’s part of the appeal for 1Xtra’s 15- to 24-year-old core listeners: “People are rediscovering [Air] Jordans, tracksuits, but they’re doing something new with them,” he says. Loren Platt (old school: “early 1980s”), the 31-year-old co-founder of 90s R&B night Work It, agrees: “It’s about taking references from the past and regurgitating them, making them better than the first time,” she says. “We recalled the 1990s but only the bits we liked, then cut and pasted it to make something new … referencing like that now is part of youth culture.”
Fergus Purcell (old school: “late 1970s”), a graphic designer who works with brands from Palace to Marc by Marc Jacobs, and his own label Aries, saw the first old-school wave in skate culture in the 1990s. He says our current pick-and-mix approach has its roots in that. “Culturally, back then hip-hop represented all music in one. It was futuristic and fantastic,” he says. “We’ve been catching up with that idea of taking every source and aesthetic style. Ashley Williams [fashion designer and Purcell collaborator] is someone who effortlessly channels that, but not as a distinct obsession: it’s part of a menu to draw on.”
Purcell argues that, while old school is currently riding a wave, it “hasn’t ever gone away. For the past 15 years, I feel culture has been blurred – there are no starts and ends to movements any more.”