1982: NBA players begin wearing Nike's first basketball shoe with an air-tech insole. It has nylon mesh on a leather upper and a Velcro ankle strap. The company calls it Air Force I and retails it for $90 in '83.
1984-87: Air Force 1s are difficult to find in New York City. Michael (MC Serch) Berrin, a Queens deejay, reports that one day on the subway a derelict bent down and kissed his Nikes. "He told me they were the first pair of sneakers he played in at Lincoln High," Berrin will recall, "and that it was the greatest year of his life."
1987: Jay-Z rhymes about and performs in Air Force 1s. Rakim appears on the cover of his album Don't Sweat the Technique in a pair of the sneakers. ("Heads would ask me where I got them," he'll say, "and I would give them all kinds of wrong directions.") And deejay EZ Rock touches off the customization craze by getting his Air Force 1s tarted up at Dapper Dan's on 125th Street in Harlem. The shoes get the nickname Uptowns for their popularity in Harlem and the Bronx.
1988: Air Force 1 is "the staple shoe of the hip-hop community in New York," says sneaker historian and hip-hop polymath Bobbito Garcia.
1990-96: A one-two punch of demand hits the domestic supply of Uptowns: First, Japan's vintage sneaker craze takes much of the stock off the U.S. market. Then, during hip-hop's old school revival, statesiders pick the indie stores clean. The Air Force 1 has earned its cult appeal with no advertising campaign while most of the culture's attention is on Air Jordans.
2000: Rasheed Wallace of the Portland Trail Blazers breaks out Air Force Is for games. Other NBA players—Stacey Augmon, Derek Fisher, Andre Miller-follow.
2002: Nike, cashing in on the customization craze, launches the 20th Anniversary Limited Edition Air Force 1 with embroidered designs on the heel.
2002: On his hit song Air Force Ones rapper Nelly barks out, "I like the all-white high-top strap," referring to the feature that has become as iconographic on Uptowns as the star on a pair of Chuck Taylors.
2003: Twenty years after its introduction the Air Force I is still "a hip-hop staple," declares Vibe—"a canvas for sneaker designers, who [cover] them in everything from Burberry swatches to Louis Vuitton logos." Meanwhile, Slam features the Imelda Marcos of hip-hop, rapper Fat Joe, and his more than 500 pairs of Uptowns.