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I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
Scoobie Johnson is sporting a hip-hop version of stygian cruise wear: black baggy breeches, black Los Angeles King T-shirt, black King jacket and boots that appear to have been cobbled out of a black reptile. Perched at a jaunty angle atop his pyramid—a high-rise 'do clipped with box-hedge precision—is a King cap in bleakest black. For the boys in Johnson's L.A. 'hood, black rage has a new shade of meaning. "The fact I'm in black's got nothing to do with hockey sticks or Wayne Gretzky," he says. "It's like black is the shadow of everything that's on it. It's like black's got a nice villain approach to it. Ninjas, they wear black. Cat burglars, they wear black. It's like, black makes you look nasty and mean, and if you're already mean, you look meaner. It's a fashion thing, a black thing."
A red-hot black thing. Black is back—in the streets, in the shops, in the stadiums. The top-selling team merchandise in each major sport—that of the Los Angeles Raiders, the Chicago Bulls, the Chicago White Sox and the San Jose Sharks—features black. Black-and-silver caps, shirts and jackets adorned with the Raider emblem account for 17% of all NFL gear sales. When the White Sox turned black at the end of the 1990 season, the South Siders catapulted from 18th to first in baseball's licensed-apparel standings. Michael Jordan's Bulls do as well in the malls as they do on the floor. And while the two-year-old Sharks are floundering in the deep waters of the NHL, they've fueled a feeding frenzy among consumers, outselling every team in the league. In the licensed-apparel business, the color of money is not green.
Nowadays everyone seems to be looking for that old black magic. Following the lead of the black-and-silver Kings, the Minnesota North Stars went black in 1990, the same year Jerry Glanville's Atlanta Falcons returned to their original black regalia. This season the New Jersey Devils ditched red, white and green for red, white and black, joining the expansion Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning on the list of hockey's nine black-bearing teams. The Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies, both fledgling teams, put black into their color schemes and now rank eighth and fourth, respectively, in baseball merchandising.
It seems league licensees can't put out a product and paint it black fast enough. The purple-and-gold Los Angeles Laker insignia appears on black caps and jackets. Ditto that of the green-and-white Philadelphia Eagles, the red-and-white Cincinnati Reds, the Los Angeles Dodgers—Dodger black? Indeed, one wonders how long it will be before things look black for blue-white-and-silver Dallas Cowboy gear, which, the NFL says, is selling briskly in the wake of the team's 1993 Super Bowl victory.
The binge began in 1985, soon after the Raiders defected from Oakland, when members of the emerging rap group NWA—Niggers With Attitude—swaggered into the L.A. office of the team's marketing director at the time, Michael Orenstein. "I was a little nervous," recalls Orenstein. "There were six of them, and they looked like a gang." He was relieved to learn that all they wanted were team caps and jackets. "The group promised to perform in Raider gear," say? Orenstein. "So I gave them eight boxes of stuff. I didn't know what rap was. I figured they'd be onstage in front of 20 people and the exposure would be good for us."
What happened next is the stuff marketing directors have built careers on. Rap artists—young, black and vocal—became the Raiders' ultimate sales team. Thanks to all-powerful MTV, Raider fashion was beamed around the country, molding a teenage subculture. Since then the black look has asserted itself everywhere, from halfway houses to houses of haute couture.
You don't have to be a colorphobe to love black. "It's the color against which other colors are set," says Danny Noble, a Philadelphia-based designer whose clothes are sold throughout the country. "It slims you, doesn't show dirt and you can hide behind it. Plus, if your wardrobe is all black, everything matches."
No team has exploited the anger and protest symbolized by black more successfully than the Raiders. Their very insignia—a one-eyed pirate with crossed cutlasses jutting from behind his helmet—is an implied threat. "Kids wear Raider jackets because they want to have that look of control about them," says Raider defensive tackle Bob Golic. "It's part of the Raider mystique."
That mystique draws heavily on the allure of black, the color that cancels out all others. "Black has always been—and may always be—associated with the diabolical, the supremely sinister, that which is most greatly feared," says black activist Harry Edwards, a special consultant to the San Francisco 49ers. "On one hand there's the white dove of peace; on the other, the black raven of Poe. Black compels and it terrorizes."