How cute dogs became hip-hop's new canine kings
Each August, a fresh batch of up-and-coming rappers check to see if they've made XXL Magazine's Freshman Class cover, a showcase for the genre's rising stars. The coveted spot has helped launch the careers of household names like Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, and Mac Miller. But this year, for the first time ever, the selections were accompanied by an unexpected guest: an apricot-colored Chihuahua-mix named Vision, swaddled up in the arms of her owner, 23-year-old rapper Chika.
"She's a young artist, she's growing into herself, and I can't wait to see where she goes," Chika says about her dog over the phone from Los Angeles.
Vision is one of a number of pups today who are starring alongside their rapper counterparts, sharing their owner's limelight, teasing out their more waggish side, and even functioning as their muses. Whether it's Megan Thee Stallion's French bulldog 4oe who she lovingly refers to as her "puppy son," Killer Mike's pooch Gigi making a car cameo, or Freddie Gibbs' kicking it with his new Frenchie Bingo, they help to undermine the severity of fame by momentarily taking the spotlight off their artist-owner.
Dogs have played a role in hip-hop for decades, from the animated artwork on Too Short's 1990 album Short Dog's in the House to the motley of mutts Snoop Dogg had on early covers to DMX's snarling, barking ad-libs. (The latter two were recently featured on Timbaland and Swizz Beat's ultra-popular Verzuz series, in an episode called Battle Of The Dogs; the promotional material featured Snoop as a blue-eyed Doberman and X as a red-eyed Pitbull.) But outside a few exceptions the genre's doggy iconography has recently shifted. The days of rappers using big, muscular dogs with sharp teeth as stand-ins for their toughness have given way to something a bit cuddlier.
One place that shift has been documented is @rapperswithpuppies, an Instagram account whose feed is filled with heedless puppies cuddled and bundled into their rapper owners. Since 2014, @rapperswithpuppies has been exhibiting everyone from Wiz Khalifa to 50 Cent in their roles as puppy papas — grins wide, eyes filled with love, tenderness on full display. And for every jacked-up pitbull, you'll see two small, fluffy poodles.
"There's a wider variety of rappers now, and with that comes a wider variety of dogs," says Portland rapper Aminé, who owns a labradoodle named Oliver. "[Oliver and I] clicked from day one. He's got so much personality and is always misbehaving, but I don't mind at all. He's curious, interesting, and really playful like a family dog. That's what I was looking for instead of a rapper-bulldog." While Aminé considers the gnashing dogs of hip-hop old to be as much about practicality as they were image, "they were probably kept around as guard dogs," he says. Perhaps the softer-furred dogs of hip-hop new are a product of a more inclusive culture. "I just had five Bernese Mountain dogs in my 'Shimmy' music video. Back then, you wouldn't have seen a rapper wearing a pink polo. Now if you wear one it's appreciated stylistically."
The rapper RxCKSTxR — who went viral earlier this year with a song called "Puppy Dog Bouncing In A Box," and, on the back of its success, made a concept album named The Dog Album — agrees with Aminé's theory that the changing function and symbolism of dogs in hip-hop mirrors the genre's shift in style and fashion. "We've gone from oversized tees, jackets, and jeans to tank tops, blouses, loud colors, sandals, and skinny jeans with matching purses and belts," he says. "The same apply to our dogs. Most rapper dogs are small and easy to carry and travel with sort of like an accessory."
While Aminé notes that Oliver is a little too gangly to carry, he seldom leaves his father's side. "Having a dog changed the energy at the crib," he says. "There are tedious responsibilities and chores, but they seem less mundane whenever I have Oliver in my lap. Oliver also affects my music in the most positive way. He helps me destress and be more carefree."
While the animal cover star of this year's Freshman Class is a little less family-orientated and a little more world dominatrix, Chika says that Vision (named after Vision the Avenger, with whom she shares a white dash on her head) brings her a similar sense of calm. "I call her my emotional support dog even though she's not technically certified," she says. "Vision keeps me calm during stressful days, and when I'm writing she's usually in the studio in her little dog bed, sitting there, either watching me or fast asleep. She's my number one." Describing their relationship as like a kind of Jesus/Joseph dynamic ("because I'm her mom but also not, like Joseph wasn't really Jesus' son, he was just part of Jesus' journey"), the two up-and-coming stars would butt heads if it weren't for the small sense of authority Chika feels as Vision's owner. Instead, they balance each other out. Often, when Chika cries (which, she admits, is often) Violet will comfort her for the first ten minutes of tears. After that, she'll begin to bark and encourage her mom to snap out of it.
But Chika also insists that Vision isn't a gimmick — she's merely a portable holier-than-thou therapist who accompanies the rapper almost everywhere she goes. The young pup has also begun to play a heavier role in the creative process. On "Balencies," which began as a poem and includes a tribute to Vision (" Already got a puppy, now my child the first of many"), most of the sounds you'll hear — the clip-clop of shoes, ultra deep subwoofers, chipmunk-high vocals — were chosen by the bitch herself. "When we started playing around with sounds, her head would tilt up, or her tail would start to wag," says Chika, "We'd keep all those sounds. I absolutely trust her instincts, she's not steered me wrong. She can pick up great energy."