Key visionaries exist within the progressive celerity of hip hop’s style and growth who rarely attempt a freestyle or spend their time mastering a crab scratch. Instead, their thoughts are occupied with conceptions of imagery and design that will pave the divergent future of urban fashion.
Hip hop’s surging popularity and lucrative potential has spawned a slew of “urban” clothing companies that are seemingly hatched on a daily basis. Many enter the market with an uninspired label, self-proclaimed hip hop authenticity and a $20- plus price tag, while a select few strive to light up your mind and kindle social change; to preserve and nurture the roots that this lifestyle was founded upon.
Paul Gnu, the founder of Counterpoint Garments, undoubtedly rocks the latter Mr. Miyagi-esque business sense. A native of New York, Gnu “fired the first shots at the urban world of fashion in 1992, from the republic of Brooklyn,” and his bold screen prints now grasp peoples’ attention from Florida to Japan.
The purpose behind his company’s semi-militant designs, which don names like “Phone Tap” and “Population Control,” aspires to undermine alleged political agendas and connote the past, present and future of the black experience in America.
“Once you wear a Counterpoint shirt you’re making a statement, if you’re not doing it because of that then you’re ones of those dudes that wears any shirt, you know, put on a shirt, get a pack of cigarettes and that’s it,” said Gnu, during an interview on the University Center patio.
Skating in his teens, Gnu, now 30, was turned onto the infinite power of the T-shirt by the abstract, electric artwork of legendary skater/artists like Neil Blender and Foundation’s Tod Swank; their innovative and free-thinking works brazened numerous skateboard decks and T-shirts in the early and mid 1980s with messages against the mundanity of suit life.
“At that time, me being a part of hip hop and then going into skateboarding was sort of different,” Gnu said. “It was still coming about, then it was traditionally punk rock.”
His interest in design, however, wouldn’t become a substantial reality until 1992, when he printed his first Counterpoint shirt, with a “fresh” design entitled “Counterpoint Blunt,” which played off of the reveled Phillie Blunts logo. Fortunately, Gnu strayed away from novelty and “Cross Colors cheese,” and took notice of prints that reflected the turbulent social atmosphere around him.
“The first T-shirt that caught my mind consciously was Spike Lee’s ’40 acres and a mule,’ that he did for his films,” Gnu said. “He had a store in Brooklyn, right next to Brooklyn Tech., where he would sell his shirts, and not far from that was this other store called Sticks and Stones that sold a lot of conscious books and t-shirts, just a lot of cool stuff.”
Making shirts that spoke directly to and for his minority communities meant that the shirts would probably garner less apprehension outside of New York. Gnu also wanted Counterpoint’s message to be powerfully candid, so he decided to cut out the middleman and purchase the printing equipment he needed to avoid artistic restrictions inclined to mass production operations. “Imported from Brooklyn” became stitched into the tag of every shirt, while “no sellout” became stitched into the mentality.
The expansion of hip hop throughout the 1990s and into the now allows Gnu to move product overseas and observe how both hip hop culture and Americanization are being cultivated outside of their birthplace. A recent stint in Japan left him with the general impression that urban fashion lines in America are stagnant by comparison.
“We’re so behind over here. We think our market’s saturated, where in Japan everything’s moving three times faster. It’s like, once you’re already known, you’re already forgotten. Your company really has to be a stigma, the place is just like a big giant advertisement.”
Gnu also found humor and relief in the way people in Japan went about buying his gear. “They buy with the intent of buying, if that’s the price that’s the price. They don’t haggle; it’s just like ‘oi!’ and that’s it, and I can respect that,” he laughed.
In the past, Counterpoint has released prints that allude to war metaphorically, the inner city survival themed “Brooknam,” and literally; “G.I. Bro” targets the history of minority soldiers fighting for the causes of the ruling class only to be discriminated against when they return.
Regarding the ongoing “war on terrorism,” Gnu said that he is still viewing it from a distant corner of skepticism and has no plans for Counterpoint to issue designs referencing the tragedies.
“If the question is if there’s a time, then yes, but is this the time? No, because tensions are still too high and people are just taking what the media tells them,” he said. “Everybody’s programmed to say bin Laden did it, but honestly we’re not sure. As Americans we’re just following what our government tells us.”
As Counterpoint continues to strike out at the political jugular, Gnu admits that this nation’s freedoms are what afford his company the opportunity to do so.
“America is a great country. This is the land where you can say whatever the hell you want to say about your government,” he said. “But then our government also has the right to destroy you if you step out of the so-called line, step outta that box, or if you’re just talking too much and making people step out of that box, they know how to put you right down. But we’re basically free to protest or do whatever we want.”
There are many rappers, part time activists and urban companies that talk about leading a revolution to overthrow some vague establishment and encourage youth to lead a society where equality, information and independence flourish. Yet, when the time comes to show and prove their gung-ho voices promoting change, they are silenced by big money contracts that have creative restrictions, sweatshop labor and conformity written in the fine print.
Companies like Counterpoint Garments go against the grain and sacrifice the riches that are currently being mined from hip hop to provoke thought. Sure, it will take more than one clothing company and a bunch of T-shirts to stop oppression, racism and even glossy fish eyed rap videos. But this is a revolution of idealism that is older than all of us and one that takes guts to pursue. It is one that may have no foreseeable end, but the struggle to get there is arguably just as beneficial and productive. Appreciate honest and complex expression or support the commercial, plastic copy of it. Gnu has chosen to express the former affiliation as a career via urban fashion.
As Counterpoint’s slogan entails, “Now we pass the loaded weapon of consciousness to you.”