EE: From Gimlet Media, this is The Nod. I’m Eric Eddings.
BL: And I’m Brittany Luse.
EE: So, I have been a huge polo fan for like a long time.
BL: That’s an understatement but yeah.
EE: It was actually kind of a problem for a while.
BL: [laughs] What do you mean by problem?
EE: So like for example in middle school, we had this big bus trip, you know, like you do the overnight trip?
EE: It’s like a big deal. We went from Memphis to D.C. And my mom gave me some money for like lunch and souvenirs. You know, it was supposed to last me throughout the whole time.
BL: What did you do with the money?
EE: See, what had happened was…
EE: We stopped at an outlet store on the way and they had a Polo shop, like a Polo outlet, yeah I went crazy in there. I spent every last dime of my money, but like I wanted to come back with as many different pieces as possible so it looked like I got really high value?
BL: Uh huh. OK.
EE: But I could only afford T-shirts.
[EE + BL laugh]
EE: So I literally bought like six or seven Polo T-shirts and blew all my money to the point where a teacher had to actually loan me money for the rest of the trip to be able to like eat and stuff.
BL: [laughs] I’m gonna give you a pass on this only because you were 13.
EE: Yeah, needless to say, Polo drove me to do some crazy things. And the reason why I was so into Polo, it actually started online. When I was that age, I would Google like to find like images and websites for like Polo inspiration, lospo if you will. You’re laughing with me right?
BL: If only you had Instagram? If only...
EE: Right? Oh my god. But in these searches like I started to like notice something. You know? The same people were actually popping up image after image. It was like candids, uh like folks would be in the club on the corner. It looked like the early 90s. It was a group of people literally in all Polo like Polo from the top down.
EE: Hat. Jacket. Shirt. Shirt over it. Scarf!
BL: You know about that life.
EE: Polo jeans. You know? Polo was like a really preppy brand. You know, it was made for like white folks who do like crew, and shit like that. But the way they wore it, it was different, it felt like hood.
It was a little oversized, everyone’s hat was turned to the back, not like crimped down like a dad hat. This was a big deal for me as a kid. Seeing this stuff up on my computer at home. They were like sooo fresh. In this way that I wasn’t. And I wanted that, you know? I wanted to look just like that.
BL: So who were these guys?
EE: Well, they were like an official group.
BL: They’re like a squad? Like a Polo squad.
EE: They had a name.
BL: They had a name?!
EE: Yes, the Lo Lifes.
And the other day, I was thinking about the Lo Lifes and I started to look into them, and the more I went down the rabbit hole, I realized they put Polo on the map for a lot of kids like me. And the story of how they did that, blew my mind.
I heard all about it from one of the Lo Lifes founders…
TH: This Thirstin Howl the 3rd, Polorican, Skillionaire, Lo Life General. MGV Brownsville all day.
BL: My man said Polorican! [laughs]
EE: And it's accurate though! So the story of how Polo went from the streets of New York to my living room in Memphis–it starts with this guy. In 1988, Thirstin was a teenager, going by the name Vic-Lo.
He and his friends would trek from Brownsville, Brooklyn into Manhattan, and their crew was massive.
TH: Imagine, you know 40 dudes out hanging out partying, and they just link up with another 50, 60 dudes, and they start hanging together in one night.
Our main spot was Times Square when Times Square was considered "The Deuce," when it was grimy and dirty and there was pimps and prostitutes and pushers and, you know, it was a, it was a whole different environment up there. It was pretty dangerous.
EE: Thirstin and his friends were from the Marcus Garvey projects in Brownsville. But they ended up linking up with another crew from Crown Heights to form like a super crew. You know, and, are you ready for this?
EE: So they would go into department stores and just like swarm the place, folks everywhere, grabbing everything that they could, I’m talking shirts, sweaters, pants, even scarfs, definitely hats. They just snatch everything and bolt out the door. Trying to avoid every single cop on the way.
EE: Listening to this shit was riveting.
BL: I mean, I see why, I see why.
EE: And so, all these kids from different parts of Brooklyn and Queens decided to join together and form a massive crew, and together they found a mutual love of looking really fresh, sticking up tourists, and shoplifting designer threads, you know?
EE: And of course the brand that brought them all together was…
BL: Polo, obviously.
EE: Yes, Polo was their favorite brand because it had super bright colors and prints. And they settled on a name, The Lo Lifes, because the other option woulda been like, the Po Life crew? And you know that’s like too close to home.
BL: That’s not aspirational.
EE: Exactly, so the Lo Lifes became a family, and like any family, there was a little sibling rivalry.
EE: Who was the freshest? Was it you?
TH: Oh, everybody in Lo Lifes gonna say it was them. Of course, I'm gonna say it was me. I was, I'm a fly ass mother fucker. Not only that, I was Puerto Rican. You know, everybody was Black in Lo Lifes at this time. But being Puerto Rican, all the Black girls love you. That's all I can say.
BL: [laughs] I don’t have anything to say about that.
EE: OK, so the jury is still out on who was the freshest in the crew, but like Thirstin had the sauce you know? He became like one of the leaders of the Lo Lifes, especially on their boosting sprees. They would take whatever they could grab, and bring it back to Brooklyn. They’d keep some of the pieces for themselves, but the rest, they resold in the neighborhood for a much cheaper than retail price. All of this was exciting for them. Every new boost was an adventure.
TH: Just imagine, you’re going to hit a store you got a target. We all ride in the train together. We know where we're going. People was so anxious to beat out the guy next to you when the train doors would open up, everybody would race to the store to get in. Just race you there and try to take more than you can take and run out with more than the next person, this was a constant everyday thing.
BL: God, you gotta be so fast to do that. I’m trying to think of what it takes a whole group of people walk into a department store and just like rush it.
EE: I don’t know, literally I don’t know. I woulda been the first one caught. Straight up.
BL: [laughs] That’s coordination though.
EE: Yes, so they were boosting, and it was illegal, but it helped them make bread, make ends meet, and like just feel a little better about, you know, life in the PJ’s.
TH: We all grew up poor with shit. Like if you would see me on the street, I was probably one of the freshest dudes you saw in your life, but when you came to my home, I didn't even have furniture. My crib was fucked up, and you know what? I would bring a girl home to my house just like that. She would never complain about how my house looked bad or I didn't have furniture and shit like that because, I was confident regardless. I knew who I was. All of us Lo Lifes were like that.
So all throughout the late 80s and early 90s, they kept boosting. And making serious money off it. And soon, folks outside of New York, wanted in.
TH: My boy Boostin Billy had ventured out to Philadelphia in the late 80s and he spread the culture through Philly crazy.
TH: I would travel to a different state and I would be Polo’d down and somebody in a different state would tell me “oh yeah you on that Lo Life stuff,” not even knowing who I am or anything.
EE: And what was that like to hear somebody tell you about your own shit? Like to bring that back to you...
TH: I mean, we was some egotistic maniacs at the time as well, so that shit was just stroking your ego. There was no humbleness, you know, with it at the time.
EE: So like now the boosting culture is starting to pop outside the city, and love for Polo itself is just spreading like wildfire. And it wasn’t just the boosting. See a lot of folks refer to the late 80s as the golden age of hip hop. And the Lo Lifes were in the thick of it
TH: We were everywhere the rappers were. If you looked at music videos from the 80s, 90s you seen a lot of rappers get with the culture of Polo as well and massive rappers were shouting us out in their songs.
You know it was a long list.
Zhigge, the rap group Zhigge was actually the first rap group out there that was spreading and showing the culture.
Zhigge: So I spin into Macy's and get some Guess and Polo
Got to the show, stepped out the limo with ease...
Talib Kweli, Raekwon was repping it heavy.
Onyx always bigged us up.
Onyx: Sport mad Polo but only if its stolen, I got no morals, my mind is in the gutter...
Jay-Z bigged us up in his music.
Jay-Z: Decepticons, Lo Life niggas snatch the polo off your chest. East New York, Bushwick, fuck it the whole BK, Brownsville where the warriors...
Hip hop was always about being fresh, but these guys were the freshest. And all the rappers all took notice.
EE: And did you guys know them personally? Like was it just, you saw each other in the club and they liked what you were doing? And you liked what they were doing?
TH: I mean um, I was in prison just watching all this stuff on TV.
EE: After the break, Thirstin has an epiphany in his jail cell.
EE: Welcome back.
EE: So like, the thing about crime is eventually you’re going to get caught. Thirstin would find himself in and out of jail. And at the same time, it turned out there was a flipside to getting famous, more and more people knew about the Lo Lifes, and that was cool like, you see yourself in magazines and rap songs, But the cops didn’t care, and more and more Lo Lifes got locked up.
TH: You were representing on in Riker's Island in the same form and manner and wearing all that Polo in jail, that solidified a lot of us and showed what we were. You know, and it really helped to establish the respect we had from prison to the street.
And actually, ending up in jail was one of the better scenarios. See, being a Lo Life meant you constantly had a target on your back.
TH: Just hanging on your own fucking block, is murder and mayhem everyday. People was stealing all the clothes. We bringing that shit home. Mother fuckers was coming to take it from us. You know, like the neighborhood was coming for it, and they knew we were doing this on a daily basis. It it it became dangerous. Like people died.
EE: Yeah so basically they would steal all this stuff, and they were looking real fresh, they’d have like hundreds of dollars of designer gear on and folks in the hood would like come up to them and be like “I want what you got. Run that.”
EE: Yeah, they were losing people all over the place. Members were getting picked off by cops, and by rival crews. And even Thirstin ran out of luck, he went to jail on violent crime charges. Things were looking pretty dire.
TH: I'm sitting in jail looking at life, and then I didn't get life. So I'm like, "I'm not gonna get this shot again. I got another shot.” I gotta do something. I had to put that shit to the side, I had to stop. Or my life was gonna be over. I was gonna be in prison forever.
EE: And that’s when things changed for Thirstin. He linked up with some people in prison that told him even if he gave up boosting, it didn’t mean his life was over. They started pointing out to him… like, Hey man, there are other ways you can get thrills. It doesn’t have to be illegal. And Thirstin, he had always loved one thing–rapping. And when he heard that, he was like, oh well maybe that could be a legal way for me to make money. Plus…
TH: I can still get that same feeling off of writing a fucking song, you know? And then that’s when my career began.
Song (Olde Gold Cypher by Thirstin Howl the 3rd):
Give it up for tha...
Lo Life, from the olde gold cypher
The Polo throw with the night touch
From the era of the DMC leather
Saw in the silk Riviera
So Thirstin’s released from jail, and decides to leave boosting behind. And he’s having the time of his life as an artist. And it was then he realized, like if he could get his shit together, the rest of the Lo Lifes could do the same.
TH: Dudes always had it in them to be every way possible they wanted to be. You know, everybody was mostly forced to be gangsters and shit because of the environments we were lived in. You know? But everybody had senses at the same time and smarts and intelligence to know that this wasn’t gonna be the way forever.
He made it his mission to get the Lo Lifes to go legit. And that wasn’t always easy. Sometimes, Thirstin had to get a little blunt.
TH: Listen, mother fucker, ima tell you like this: You ain't coming around me doing that bullshit. Like when I started doing rap shows and shit. You know I got 30 mother fuckers wanna come with me for me to see me perform. And I let everybody know, "Yo, don't rob nobody when we go to these spots. Don't fuck nothing up. Then if you go against what the fuck we saying, we gon' get you.”
EE: It’s like the conversations we have every time we go out.
BL: I was gonna say, before every live show, you're always telling me make sure I don’t rob anybody.
EE: Don’t rob anybody today.
BL: But I appreciate in this moment like Thirstin is setting an example, and his boundaries, but still being very authentically himself.
EE: Right? So Thirstin’s rap career is blowing up. And meanwhile, he’s trying to turn around the Lo Life’s image.
TH: I needed to do promotions. I needed to do different things, engineering, and you know, a lot of the Lo Life founders and stuff were pure gangsters. I couldn't get none of these gangster mother fuckers to do nothing, like administrative work you know and things like that. Everybody was too focused on being a gangster.
EE: Being a gangster had been a big part of what made the Lo Lifes, Lo Lifes. But as Thirstin went around the globe touring, he saw how people dug the Lo Life culture, and he got an idea.
TH: I was meeting all these other Polo heads, and when I would see how they would embrace me, like, you know, I was fairly, a new, a new artist, not too many people knew about, but they knew about Vic Lo. They knew about me as a Lo Life for what I was on the streets and things like that.
So these people were gravitating to me but out of sincerity and things like that and wanting to help.
I felt that these dudes needed to be mixed up with the gangster dudes, like they all had something to learn from each other to kind of balance it out a little better, and that's exactly what happened.
EE: And after that, it wasn’t even about the boosting. The Lo Lifes expanded to include all sorts of members. People who had never stole a day in their life. I’m talking official Lo Life chapters in places like Toronto. Toyko. New Zealand.
BL: New Zealand?
EE: Yes. Kiwis.
BL: Kiwis–just about to say.
BL: And they’re about that Lo Life?
EE: They were.
And they have have meetups, where a DJ will like, spin records while folks trade rare polo pieces. The boosting was in their rearview. And being a Lo Life became about something more.
TH: It means culture now. It's, it, it evolved into a culture.
And right around when the Lo Lifes went legit… Polo went public. And the IPO was huge. Like over 700 million dollars huge. You know, who’s to say if the Lo Lifes were responsible for that…but you’ve gotta wonder….either way, they’re still obsessed with Polo, and they’re still repping the culture here in Brooklyn. Heavy. My producer James hit me up with some news the other day. The Lo Lifes were having a barbecue, here in Brooklyn where it all began.
BL: How did you even feel?
EE: It was like it was like the promise of Christmas morning. You know? So on this like super hot Saturday morning I went out to like Highland Park in Brooklyn. And like what I saw was wild.
DJ: Welcome to the 12th Annual Lo Lifes BBQ y’all. Salute Rack Lo. Lo Wife. Get your grub on. If you don’t have your orange bands stop being a cheap bastard, it’s only twenty dollars! Go get your grub on alright! Let’s go baby! Sending this one out to my man Killa B….
EE: Imagine the flyest Black and Brown folks you’ve ever seen. All in one spot. Like they were all there, just decked out from head to toe in Polo Ralph Lauren.
Sheena: Now, the culture isn’t about the boosting, but we can never forget that’s where it came from.
EE: That’s Sheena. She’s married to one of the original Lo Lifes–his name’s Rack-Lo. When I caught up with her, she had just put a couple burgers on the grill...and she explained how the picnic got started.
Sheena: Initially it was to just get a couple of our friends together because you know life is going so fast. Everybody is having kids. And you know we didn’t really have a place and time to get together. So we said once a year, you know we want to invite all our friends, feed them, bring everybody together and you know just do something special.
This is what the Lo Lifes do now. They cook out. They have meetups. Thirstin is still rapping, but he’s also running a Lo Life clothing line. And they told me they do a lot of charity work now too.Like back-to-school drives, giving away turkeys at Thanksgiving and raising money for scholarships. It’s like a hood rotary club. But at the end of the day, no one forgets that the Lo Lifes changed hip hop fashion forever.
Ramsus: It’s fun man it’s fun. It’s history, it’s all history, it’s all hip-hop.
And everyone I talked to brought it up. Like this one cat, Ramsus.
Ramsus: I used to read about half of these people here, in magazines, how they used to boost and go crazy for this Lo game and you know what I’m saying? To me it was different but now to be together and show love and spread bread and do all this, it’s all Lo Life forever.
EE: And that’s apart of what’s so amazing about this. Like the Lo lifes went on this crazy journey. Because of them,hip-hop is different. What we wear is different. Hell, if I’m being honest, I’m different.
But even though their lives have changed, so much, and the crew has gotten so big, the original Lo Lifes–they’re just tight as they were in the 80s. Here’s Thirstin again.
TH: Oh, Lo Lifes is my family. Those, they're still my family regardless of success, and you know, people moving around, yo it never changed who my family was. My best friends are still my best friends from 30 years ago.
You know? That, it's really a family. There's really love and loyalty. You know like, that's rare. Yeah, I, know you've heard the term, "There's no honor amongst thieves." I, I beg to differ.
Rack-Lo: Yeah yeah yeah, 2 Ls, much love to everybody that came out, Lo Life BBQ 2017, Representing that Love and Loyalty...
Song (‘Million Man Rush by Thirstin Howl the 3rd feat. Rack-Lo)
You a Lo Life
You not a Lo Life
You wasn’t with us when we was killin B. Altman’s and Macy’s
It was the Million Man Rush
(I was there)
The Million Man Rush
(I was there)
The Million Man Rush
(Big Boo was there)
[Continues under credits]
The Nod is produced by me, Eric Eddings, with Brittany Luse, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and James T. Green. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We are edited by Jorge Just and Annie-Rose Strasser. With editing help from Neil Drumming. Engineering from Matthew Boll and Cedric Wilson.
Our theme music is by Calid B. Other original music in the show by Calid B, Takstar, and Bobby Lord. Additional sound elements provided by Christopher Peifer. Special thank you to Thirstin Howl the 3rd for sharing his music with us as well.
BL: Because we are a new show, we would love if you could rate us on Apple Podcasts.
(‘Million Man Rush’ continues)
Walking through game rooms on 42nd and Broadway...
EE: Alright, have a great day, enjoy the gym [laughs]
TH: Oh I’m about to get brolic on y’all real quick, a good 500 motherfucking sets.