What’s cooler than being cool?
You guessed it. “Ice Cold,” a forthcoming YouTube Originals docuseries exploring the connection between hip-hop culture and jewelry, debuted during the Tribeca Festival ahead of its July 8 release. The four-part series was directed by Karam Gill, an emerging talent in the unscripted space, and produced by rap trio Migos, who feature prominently in the project.
The series, which opens with the intellectual musings of Talib Kweli, features a mix of legendary names — from the heavily blinged Slick Rick to the more minimalist group De La Soul — alongside contemporary heavy-hitters like J Balvin, Lil Yachty, Lily Baby, A$AP Ferg and French Montana. In addition to musical artists, the series brings in leading celebrity jewelers, art historians and Quality Control label founders Kevin “Coach” Lee and Pierre “Pee” Thomas.
“Hip-hop’s been looked at through the lens of fashion before tons of times, but it hasn’t been looked at through the lens of adornment and jewelry,” says Gill, who saw jewelry as an entry point into broader societal conversations. “As you start to peel back the layers of the relationship between jewelry and hip-hop, it starts to get really deep about our culture and our society and how people from different socioeconomic backgrounds have different versions of the American dream.”
“Ice Cold” aims to place hip-hop jewelry in a broader historical and cultural context. Gill discovered that his subjects were more than willing to show off their impressive collections onscreen, and discuss the more profound emotional meaning behind their pieces.
“These are childhood dreams. J Balvin and Migos talk about it; they dreamed about this stuff as kids. It’s colors and stones and the shapes; it’s a form of their expression,” says Gill. “We were like, we want to know what this means to you. What does it make you feel? How do you feel when people look at you a certain way for wearing it?” he continues.
“I think that allowed us to get a lot of the really big talent that’s in the project. They were excited to be part of an exploration of culture that was deeper than just numbers and stats and money and flamboyant pricing — not saying that’s not a part of it,” Gill adds. “When you’re making and designing million-dollar pieces, it’s like an art piece.”
Gill, who has also directed a documentary on G-Funk and a docuseries on Tekashi 6ix9ine, was surprised to discover just how vital jewelry has been in the evolution of hip-hop and the expression of personal style. While jewelry can signal a certain level of success, money can’t buy some of the most pivotal pieces. One episode dives into the power of label chains, and how they can impact an artist early in their career by serving as a stamp of approval.
“Like, I didn’t realize that Kanye was not Kanye before Jay-Z gave him the Roc chain,” says Gill. “I always knew that [jewelry] gave people more confidence — the same way when you walk out of your house with a nice T-shirt on you may feel a little bit better than if you were wearing your pajamas — but I was continuously surprised with how important it actually was.”
Migos came onboard the project shortly after production started and were heavily involved in shaping the various thematic threads, as were Lee and Thomas. “These are dudes that have managed, built, grown the biggest artists in the culture and are probably the two biggest hip-hop executives that I think are changing the culture,” says Gill, who is working with Quality Films, the film and television division of Quality Control (Migos’ label), on several upcoming scripted and unscripted projects. “And they were able to provide that stamp of authenticity, but also steer the ship.”
The four episodes cover a lot of ground, but each returns to the narrative thread of an imaginary museum exhibition space, where rappers are depicted in Renaissance era-like paintings in Baroque frames on the walls, and their diamond jewelry is displayed in glass cases on pedestals as visitors stoically mill around the room. The recurring scene was inspired by a desire to subvert the predominant museum experience Gill was exposed to when growing up, and compare how over-the-top jewels have been used as symbols by both white European monarchs and hip-hop stars.
“So often in these museums, we’d be looking at white monarchs that have colonized Black and brown countries and told to stay five feet away from the paintings,” says Gill. “They’d be painted in these beautiful paintings, hung up on walls and glorified.”
And if the Queen’s jewels are worthy of awe and respect, why not the intricate diamond designs worn by rappers? “My concept was what if we flipped the script and took hip-hop and some Black and brown artists and did the same thing with them?” Gill says. “And use the museum as a subtle commentary on how hip-hop should be viewed through that same prism.”