Why do Boston hip-hop artists raise their pinky, ring, and middle fingers to make “three stripes” in photos?
This article was first published in DigBoston in October 2007. With a lot of chatter about Boston hip-hop history bubbling around the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, which is based at UMass Boston but has hosted several recent events at the BPL Copley Square branch, there has been demand for us to break “A Mean Team” out of our own archives. Without further ado, here is the answer to a question that a lot of people around here have but may not even know who to ask.
What do the three stripes stand for?
I’m not the only one asking.
There hasn’t been much prior research, but an inquiry into why Mass. rap cats “throw threes up” went down in a Boston-Online.com chatroom last year. The initial thread asked: “We all know that three stripes represent Boston. What’s the origin behind it? What do the three stripes stand for?”
Caucasians should hope that no Def Comedy Jam jokesters get hold of any answers offered by the site’s presumably yuppie regulars. One responder guessed the stripes represented the Zakim, Longfellow, and Harvard bridges. Another dug deeper: “Tremont Street (always pronounced TREH-mont, never TREE-mont) is derived from ‘Trimountain’ or maybe ‘Trimontaine’ which refers to three hills that we used to have, back in the 1600s. Two of them were cut down to fill in places like the Mill Pond (near today’s North Station). The remaining one is Beacon Hill.”
After several dozen ludicrous suggestions, one commenter referring to himself as Notorious Nate Dogg nearly nailed it: “It’s a rap thing,” he wrote, possibly tipped off by the popular rhyme team named 3 4 Da Stripes. “Rappers from Boston talk about the three stripes a lot. That’s why people in hoods in Boston wear Adidas a lot more than people elsewhere. I’ve heard that it’s because, when you make a lowercase B (as in ‘Boston’) with your hands, your middle, ring and pinky fingers come together in three stripes.”
Excluding his sign language hypothesis, Nate Dogg was correct. The three-finger flash—as well as its derivative handshake—has roots in Boston sneaker culture. But as it turns out, the relationship runs deeper.
“It’s street shit, and that’s what it is,” TDS Mob and Made Men veteran Cool Gzus says. “Even though it comes from a pair of sneakers, it means a lot more.”
They make a mean team, my Adidas and the Bean
If there’s one thing that the 50-plus people interviewed for this story agree on, it’s that Boston’s worn Adidas since pimps in fish tank pumps pushed pink Caddies through Scollay Square. Most true-schoolers trace the trend back to the early ’80s, though Floorlords founder Lino Delgado remembers heads religiously rocking stripes as far back as 1979. Roxbury rap bishop Edo G says that although Adidas had a presence in the late ’70’s, the fever spread around 1986, when, on the strength of “My Adidas” and “Walk This Way,” Run DMC’s Raising Hell became the first rap album to go platinum.
“Run DMC might have been from New York, but everybody in New York wore Nikes, so Adidas just became part of Boston’s identity,” Edo says.
“I remember how big Adidas was around Run DMC because I used to always try wearing mine with no laces,” Dorchester hip-hop manager D. Large says. “I was late to class a lot, and my sneakers were always flopping down the hall.”
Before chain stores took over and Adidas parked a flagship mecca outside Harvard Square, there were four sacred spots that Bostonians relied on for stripes. At Harry the Greek’s in the South End, fiends came from all directions to get laced. For shell toes, whiteboys hit the Jones Department Store (better known as Jonesy’s) in Southie. On Washington Street in Roxbury, patrons have forever frequented Alpha & Omega—the sole survivor of the bunch. And in Downtown Crossing, rappers, thugs, and wannabes alike flocked to the almighty Mickey Finn’s.
“We had every single Adidas shoe on the planet down there,” says JAM’N 94.5 DJ Geespin, who manned the Mickey Finn’s counter back in high school. “Way before Harry the Greek’s and Hip Zepi, people came to us for suede Gazelles and Yum Yums. We had that reputation—people would fly all the way from London to buy Adidas there.”
With Boston serving as home base for Adidas nuts—despite, mind you, Reebok, Saucony and New Balance headquartering in Massachusetts—legendary collections were built. There are tales of some crews hoarding more than 500 communal pairs; another story involves a Southie kid with shell toes for each day of the year. Just about everybody knows at least one person whose brand allegiance is famously obsessive … someone like South End-raised kick collector Sut.
“Adidas stands for All Day I Dream About Sut,” he brags. “I’ve been wearing nothing but Adidas since I was 10 years old, and I’m 38 now. I live in apartment number 3, my birthday is on October third, and I’ve got Adidas chains. There’s no pair I haven’t had.”
Sut adds, “One time, Run DMC came up here to play at WaterWorks, and [Jam Master] Jay—rest in peace—asked if he could rock my chain through the whole show. That’s the best Adidas moment of my life.”
Trees and threes
Even eternal fads fade from time to time. Geespin remembers years when Fila swarmed the local sneaker forefront; others recall Lotto making short-lived moves in the mid ’90s. But in Boston, Adidas always boomeranged—largely because “three stripes” handshakes and signs became ingrained early on.
“When everything else fell off, there was always Adidas,” Geespin says. “It was more of a handshake than anything else—cats would always throw that dap.”
“Back in the day, you would catch a bad one if you wore Nikes,” Cool Gzus says. “Even though it’s not like that anymore, the handshake still stuck. It used to be the first three fingers [pointer, middle and ring], but now that’s considered disrespectful. You don’t want to give anyone you love your trigger finger.”
Gzus isn’t exaggerating about the past perils faced by those without Adidas. Though the “three stripes” pound has come to signal solidarity amongst Boston neighborhoods, early incarnations spawned from gang culture. One infamous example is even immortalized in case law.
“During the 1990s, members of the IVP (Intervale Posse) sold crack cocaine in the Intervale neighborhood of Dorchester,” a document from the United States Court of Appeals states. “The IVP was the successor to an earlier gang known as ‘Adidas Park.’ The gang gave a new spin to the concept of brand identification. IVP members wore Adidas clothing [and] identified themselves and referred to the gang by signifying the Adidas brand logo (a sign of three fingers signifying the three stripes on Adidas products).”
A 2001 report published by the National Institute of Justice further details Intervale’s new jack hustle: “The Intervale Posse had essentially taken over its neighborhood,” it reads. “Working primarily out of a large, wooded lot that it had equipped with couches, television sets (powered by extension chords run out of nearby houses that residents had abandoned because of gang activity), a large barbecue, and even firing ranges, the gang sold crack cocaine, invaded homes, and attacked young people who dared to venture onto its turf (a huge ‘Adidas tree’ adorned with hundreds of pairs of shoes taken from interlopers was a principal feature on the lot).”
“I went to middle school across the street from Intervale, and you couldn’t walk past the cats in there wearing anything but Adidas,” Edo G remembers. “If you did, they would throw them in the tree. I swear, there were 400 pairs of Nikes and Reeboks in that tree.”
Although feds castrated Intervale’s Adidas shrine when they swept the crew circa ’97, its legacy—like the brand that inspired such rituals—lives on. For some, the memories are of detouring Adidas Park at all costs; for others, it conjures nostalgia.
“Everybody who had respect in the street would go down there and throw their sneakers on the tree as a tradition,” Boston clothier and MC Antonio Ennis says. “That tree never grew leaves, but people would come from everywhere to see it. I’m actually designing a T-shirt that has a big-ass Adidas tree. I’m just going off of memories, but if I could find a picture of that tree it would be priceless.”
So for any kids, young MCs, or carpetbagging reporters who missed the Hub’s Adidas heyday, there’s the history. Which leaves just one question: Who is allowed to “throw threes” and sport “A-dogs”?
“It all depends on who you are,” Cool Gzus says. “If you’re ’bout it, then you can rep that. But if you’re just doing it because everyone else is doing it, then that’s like crip walking when you’re not a crip.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.