Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
I’ve never been one for what the hip kids call “body modification.” I don’t even like to get my hair cut. Tattooing is out, because — even aside from what it must feel like to have a needle stab you thousands of times in the same place — I’ve never had anything I felt strongly enough about that I was willing to say it for the rest of my life. When my nieces were taken to get their ears pierced when they were around 2, I was the one who protested, telling my brothers they ought to wait until their girls could say yea or nay — or at least until they were strong enough to fight off that high-school dropout in the mall with the sterilized nail gun.
I can, however, appreciate the grill.
We’re not talking about anything made by Weber or Charbroil here. This is “grill” for a new century: a gold or platinum dental appliance — usually removable — custom-molded to fit over your own teeth, often inset with diamonds and other precious stones. For those of you who have experienced the wonderful world of orthodontics, think “retainer,” multiplied by “Liberace.”
Smoking hot on the hip-hop scene right now (thanks in large measure to the huge boost supplied in 2005 when A-list rappers Nelly and Paul Wall released the No. 1 hit “Grillz,” celebrating their gold- and platinum-adorned toothuses), grills cost anywhere from around $200 all the way up to “Four-Year Tuition to the Public University of Your Choice.”
While Sigmund Freud could probably write a pretty gripping sequel to “Totem and Taboo” about somebody who spends 30 grand for something to stick in his mouth, there is still something rebellious and absurdly all-American about the grill. If grills had been around in the ’50s, something tells me that Elvis would have been flashing one as big as a truck bumper. Why? Like the ducktail haircut and the chopped Merc in the King’s “Blue Suede Shoes” days, if you have to be told, you’re too old. (Or at least out of the demographic. Though some white guys like Paul Wall and a growing number of women wear grills, the phenomenon is most popular among young black males.)
Though the grill is beginning to reek a bit of fad — Little Rock even has four or five street-corner grill shops, if you know where to look — devotees of the grill, many of them rappers with dreams as bright as their augmented smiles, say it helps them get the look they need to sell records. The idea, when you think about it, is no more bizarre than an up-and-coming business executive buying a Rolex he can’t afford to impress the boss. That is: If you’ve got enough confidence in your earning ability to sink a king’s ransom into something completely useless, how can you possibly fail?
Fred Nash is the publisher of “The Dirty,” a Little Rock-based magazine that follows the ins-and-outs of hip-hop culture and music in the South. He said that the popularity of grills has grown along with the popularity of Southern rap as a whole — especially the growth of the Houston sound, where grill-wearing rappers like Paul Wall and Mike Jones have made their mega-buck smiles a part of their swagger.
“The grill is really for young, urban America that’s into hip-hop, and it’s specifically Southern,” Nash said. “You don’t find many guys from the East Coast wearing grills, or many cats from the Midwest, or many guys from the West Coast.”
The popularity has something to do with the slower tempo of Southern rap, which allows artists to wear a grill while performing, Nash said. “East Coast artists rap a little bit faster, they’re more lyrically driven,” he said. “Southern artists don’t rap as fast. There’s a slower demeanor to it. So if you’ve got a big gold grill in your mouth, it’d be more difficult to rap faster.”
Nash said the grill is all about making a statement. “When you’re on top, there’s certain things you do to show the world that you’re on top,” he said. “You make it to that level, you buy a Bentley, not because a Bentley is the best, smoothest ride out there. You buy it because it’s the most expensive ride out there. It’s just to say: I made it.”
Willie Bigs and Andre “Goldy” Britt express similar thoughts. The co-owners of Hoodtech Inc., Bigs and Britt are the consummate urban entrepreneurs, with a hand in just about any business that might make legal money in the inner city. In the past 10 years, they’ve done it all, from managing comedy acts to concert promotion to providing Internet service. A couple of years ago, just after both moved back to Little Rock — Bigs from New York and Britt from Atlanta, where he had apprenticed to a jeweler and grill-maker — they sold some of the city’s first removable grills.
Bigs, something of a historian when it comes to hip-hop culture, said that he had been seeing removable gold teeth in New York as early as the 1980s. Back in those days, Bigs said, the wearer would literally have to grin and bear it, selecting a gold cap roughly the size of a tooth and then forcing it on. (A mold of the teeth is made today for a custom fit.) The phenomenon faded for a while, coming back as a Southern thing in the new millennium, Bigs said, showing up in urban centers like Houston and Atlanta. Around 2000, Britt and Bigs decided to try to bring the style to Little Rock.
“It wasn’t as big as it is now,” Bigs said. “People would call us up and say, ‘Make me a mold.’ We’d sketch out the design, then we’d do all the molding and when we’d go down to Atlanta where a lot of the comedians we worked with lived, we’d drop off the molds and they’d ship (the finished grills) back to us.”
While the pair sold a good number of grills in those days (including, Britt said, a $7,000 set encrusted with rare yellow diamonds — his most expensive to date) they weren’t able to create a market for something that hadn’t “hit” in Little Rock yet. “We were so far ahead of the game that people weren’t that interested in it,” Bigs said. “They couldn’t afford to really do it. ... If you’ve got a guy making $7 an hour, they can’t spend 500 bucks on something to go in their mouth. They need something that can go down their throat, something they can swallow, like food.”
So Hoodtech got out of the grill-making business for the most part (though Britt did occasionally still mold a grill for a repeat customer). Now that the fad has started flooding the streets of Little Rock, however, Britt and Bigs plan on jumping back into the game in a big way. Their newest venture — a grill shop, clothing, accessories and music store — is coming soon to the corner of Martin Luther King and Daisy Bates drives. With a computer-controlled milling machine on order, Britt plans to mold and make all his grills in-house — with same-day turnaround, no less — all while shooting for a higher level of quality than anything currently seen in Little Rock.
Bigs said the grill is just another way to show your success. As with any kind of conspicuous consumption, just how much status you reap from it depends on the depth of your pockets.
“If you’ve got diamonds in there, it’s a little better than the guy who has got a regular gold one. If you’ve got platinum, it’s a little better than the guy who’s got a gold one with a few diamonds.”
Bigs admits that the idea of a grill has lost its luster for him. “The market is still plentiful for it. The kids do it,” he said. “But I’m 36. I’m not putting a grill in my mouth. My wife don’t want to kiss a mouthful of metal.”
It’s a Saturday night, and a climb up the wobbly stairs to the second floor of Little Rock community radio station KABF finds Joseph “Hog Leg” Davis and DJ Detrich “D-Dirt” Elliott on the air, pumping out another installment of their popular “Underground Hip-Hop” radio show. It’s eight o’clock, on-air guests are stopping by and tipsy callers are phoning in to shoot the breeze. The circus atmosphere is accented when Davis flashes his grin and its $1,500 worth of diamonds, rubies and yellow gold. About a year and a half ago, a friend came to his house and had him bite into an impression material. A few weeks later, his grill arrived in the mail from New Jersey.
Davis and Elliott said they can remember relatives who had gold teeth from their childhoods, though those were “knocked in” — permanent. Elliott and Davis say the fact that their grills are removable allows them to move between two worlds. “The thing about (grills) is, you’ve got an everyday life,” Elliott said. “I’ve got a real job, and you can’t go in trying to get a real job with a mouthful of gold teeth. I’m a college graduate. I can be Detrich Elliott, but then I’ve got to be D-Dirt.”
Davis said that keeping both the grill and your teeth clean to prevent tooth decay is a big commitment. “No smoking, drinking, no eating (with the grill in),” he said. “If it’s permanent, I can see that you’ve got to eat with your grill. But if you can take it out, there’s no use in trying to eat a hamburger with it in. You get all that going, and before you know it, your grill isn’t looking like a grill anymore.”
Davis uses jewelry cloths religiously on his grill, even naming the Little Rock jewelry store whose cloths he has found to be the most effective. Like many rappers, keeping his grill sparkling is a big part of his on-stage persona. He can’t help but chuckle when he talks about a friend whose grill has tarnished to the point it looks like an aluminum pot. “I’m not going to put his name out there,” Davis said, “but I want to tell him so bad!”
“You’ve got to look like a rapper,” Elliott said. “If you’re trying to sell CDs on the street and you look like you need charity, people aren’t going to buy from you. It’s like Sprite says: Image is everything.”
Little Rock rapper Charlie Mack, known onstage as “Li’l Mack,” agrees. “The appeal of grills is, the more ice you have in your mouth, the more gold you have in your mouth, the more attention you’ll get.” Mack said he doesn’t have a grill because it draws too much attention. Still, he appreciates the idea that a grill is an investment, something worth more in the long run than the newest, hottest pair of basketball shoes. “You can spend from $200 to $20,000,” Mack said. “But honestly, I would rather black youth spend their money on a grill than on something that doesn’t have any value.”
“A grill is like a reward you pay yourself for the work you put in trying to make it,” said Tony Robinson, CEO of Little Rock’s Kapadon Music. “Once you get to a certain point, you know, you’ve earned it.” While Robinson said he has always “done pretty good with my pearly whites,” his stable of artists includes the owner of what might be the most extravagant grill in Little Rock: Chuck Mitchell, a.k.a. Ice Smiles.
One look at Mitchell’s grill, and you’ll know exactly how he got his nickname. “They call diamonds ‘ice,’” Mitchell said. “So when people hear my name, they say, ‘This dude had better have some diamonds in his smile if he call himself that!’”
For the last two years, Mitchell has sported the mack-daddy of Little Rock grills: 16 carats of princess-cut diamonds, set in platinum. Cost? “I’ve got over $10,000 in it,” he said. “I’ll say that. It’s five figures. Over 10, under 15.”
Far from riding a trend, Mitchell has been flashing a gold smile for the last 16 years (his original grill was yellow gold, with only a few diamonds). He’s following a tradition set by his father. “It comes from my Pops, my dad, he has gold teeth and diamonds in his,” he said. “He looks just like me — a guy that’s 58, almost 60, with gold and diamonds in his teeth. I guess it’s in the genes, my mother said.”
Mitchell might not have been born with his high-dollar smile, but he’ll almost surely die that way. Instead of a pop-in grill, Mitchell’s teeth are permanent, his original equipment filed down and platinum caps fitted over them. Mitchell had the procedure done in Houston, with his new, more blingful choppers designed by TV Johnny, a jeweler at rapper Paul Wall’s shop in the Sharpstown Mall. “Johnny is the guy who does everybody on the videos’ grill,” he said. “From Fat Joe to Ice Cube to Slim Thug, Mike Jones — everybody on TV with a grill, Johnny has done them. I had to go to the best.”
Like many rappers I talked to, Mitchell said that he has to look the part to sell records. “You’ve got to figure that the main artists that are out there, the artists that are being pushed heavily, this is how much they’re spending,” he said. “I’m an independent cat, and I’ve had this 16 years now. They’re all just catching up to me.”
According to Little Rock grill pioneer Willie Bigs, the fact that mainstream papers like the Arkansas Times are writing about grills might be the surest sign the trend is on the downhill slide. “I hate to say it, but by the time you guys write the story and it comes out, it’ll be old,” he said. “That’s the way hip-hop is. By the time the mainstream gets it, it’s been all across the country and all around the world.” Still, with their new shop soon to open, Bigs and his partner Britt are hoping grills are more of a trend than a passing fad.
As long as the rappers who have hit the big time keep wearing grills, Bigs is sure that mouth jewelry will remain a part of urban flash.
“You don’t have much, especially here in Little Rock, but your reputation, your appeal, your apparel, your look,” Bigs said. “Those are things you can project, to say: ‘Look at me. I’m doing better than you expected. I’m a little bit ahead of the next guy.’ That’s what having a grill’s all about.”