The Ancient Egyptians never actually wore grills. That’s a myth. But don’t tell Katy Perry — back in 2014, she dressed all Cleopatra-like and shoved a grill in her gob for the opulent video to her not so opulent single “Dark Horse.” Backed by a budget that could feed a continent, Perry’s team splashed $1,000,000 on the glittery mouthpiece. One million dollars. Before long, Guinness World Records got involved, confirming that the item was the most valuable grill ever.
It’s hard to imagine Perry — or any other pop megastar — ever wearing a grill if it wasn’t for hip-hop. Not long after the genre’s inception, grills became known as hip-hop’s shiniest, most pointlessly excessive status symbol. Thanks to Slick Rick, Flava Flav, Paul Wall, and Nelly, the grill now shines whenever pop culture opens its mouth. It has played a role in an Oscar-winning film, perplexed fans of Madonna and Kim Kardashian, appeared on runways at Paris Fashion Week, been banned in schools, and even earned a dedicated page on Colgate’s website. But how the hell did we get here?
The Etruscans did it first, then the Mayans; ancient civilisations who stuck bits of metal over their teeth as a statement of wealth between about 800 BC and 900 AD. Grills faded from fashion between then and the 1970s, when people started using gold to replace missing teeth. This was especially popular among poor, Black New Yorkers, perennial progenitors of style (who we can also thank for inventing hip-hop around the same time).
What began as a dental necessity soon became a fashion item. It’s not obvious who the first rapper to wear a grill was — some credit Atlanta rap pioneers Kilo Ali and Raheem the Dream — but when Slick Rick released his debut album in 1988, his glittery grin changed hip-hop forever. Though he had risen to fame four years earlier, performing as MC Ricky D as part of Doug E. Fresh’s Get Fresh Crew, the release of The Great Adventures of Slick Rick is what established the London-born rapper as a style icon. On the sleeve of the album’s lead single, “Teenage Love,” Rick unleashes a smile that would dazzle a dentist, sporting three gold teeth, the middle of which is beset with twinkling diamonds.
But Rick’s gold teeth were distinct from the grill we know today. Around the same time, grills began appearing in the mouths of New York rappers like Just-Ice, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G. Rap. This was mostly thanks to Eddie Plein, a Suriname immigrant who started making grills in his Brooklyn apartment after damaging a tooth. As detailed in Lyle Lindgren’s recent book Mouth Full of Golds, Plein was offered a gold tooth cap by a dentist, but didn’t want to commit to a metallic mouth for life. He came up with the idea of temporary gold crowns and soon began selling them out of a pawn shop in Queens.
Plein later opened his own shop, Famous Eddie’s, and began selling grills that could be easily attached and removed. Among his customers was Public Enemy’s Flava Flav, who wore Plein’s gold grills for so long that you can now scarcely find a photo where his real teeth are showing. Another famous grill merchant was the British drum and bass pioneer Clifford Price (aka Goldie) — he was literally named after the gold teeth he both wore and sold from a shop in Miami before moving back to Britain.
Over the subsequent decade, grills began taking on whole new forms. Wu-Tang Clan members The RZA and Method Man were pictured with metal vampire fangs. Plein, meanwhile, moved to Atlanta, opened a new shop called Eddie’s Famous Gold Teeth, and made increasingly flashy grills for OutKast, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon, and Ludacris.
Then, in 1996, a Vietnamese immigrant called Johnny Dang (later known as TV Johnny) moved to Texas, shortly before turning the grill industry on its head. While working in his family’s jewelry repair business, Dang met Paul Wall, a Houston rapper gaining notoriety in the local hip-hop scene after releasing a few mixtapes with fellow Texan rapper Chamillionaire. In 2002, Wall persuaded Dang to go into business with him, combining Dang’s jeweller skills with Wall’s rap connections, eventually selling grills to some of the biggest names around. Lil Jon bought a diamond-encrusted number, complete with exaggerated canines, for $60,000.
Paul Wall soon became the smiling face of hip-hop’s new favorite accessory. In 2005 the grill was immortalized when Nelly released the Grammy-nominated single “Grillz” featuring Paul Wall and starring Johnny Dang. Nelly grinned through a mouthful of fluorescent blue diamonds while Wall rapped: “My teeth are mind blowing / Giving everybody chills / Call me George Foreman ’cause I’m selling everybody grills.”
It was true. During the 2000s, stars from Gucci Mane to Beyoncé to Kanye got fitted with a custom grill bought from Dang and Wall. But not everyone was on board. Following the surge in popularity driven by Nelly’s “Grillz,” an inevitable backlash drove four districts in Texas to ban kids from wearing grills to school. “They’re gaudy,” said one teacher, “so let’s leave them in the videos or in the shopping malls.”
While they were deemed a potential distraction to schoolchildren, grills have never been found to cause any serious harm. According to Colgate and the American Dental Association, wearing a grill is safe as long as you keep it clean and don’t wear it all the time. But as its popularity reached its zenith towards the end of the 2000s, the grill started to lose some of its cool. “It becomes super commercial and a bit of a pastiche,” Plein’s biographer Lindgren told Huck earlier this year.
In Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning 2016 film Moonlight, the grill takes on a symbolic role when Chiron, a young adult in the midst of an identity crisis uses a set of gold-plated fronts as part of a steely outer shell. Grappling with Black masculinity, Moonlight’s use of the grill calls into question the effects of hip-hop’s excessive exterior on the inner selves of the young men who listen to it. As Hilton Als wrote in the New Yorker, Chiron’s grill is “just another form of armor” to shield him from his deepest feelings.
Running parallel to the grill’s increasingly loaded meaning was its entry into the world of high fashion. When Dolly Cohen, a Parisian dental technician who had turned her hand to making jewelery, met A$AP Rocky around 2012, he popularized the designer’s work by sporting A$VP and crucifix grills on Instagram. Flacko then introduced Cohen to Rihanna, who was soon pissing off tabloids with a grill shaped like an AK-47. Cohen went on to design increasingly batshit grills (seriously, like horror film type stuff) for runways at fashion shows.
In recent years, rappers have embraced the grill as a horror-core fashion item. Hip-hop’s least pleasant person Tekashi6ix9ine completes his nightmare-in-a-Crayola-factory ensemble with a rainbow grill made by celebrity jeweller Jimmy Boi. 6ix9ine’s associate Trippie Redd makes more palatable music, but is no less terrifying to look at: he recently unveiled a set of blue diamond shark teeth, courtesy of Johnny Dang.
Grills are becoming increasingly popular outside the US, too. They took a while to catch on in UK rap — in a guest verse on Jme’s 2015 grime hit “Man Don’t Care,” Giggs rapped about preferring tea and biscuits to OTT bling, content to be “down south hustling, with no gold grill in his teeth.” But the rise of drill has seen artists like M1llionz and Backroad Gee bear shiny teeth with growing regularity.
Add those names to the laundry list of other celebrities who have co-opted this trend and you start to realize how big the grill has become. Expensive, ostentatious and profoundly unnecessary, it is perhaps the greatest symbol of hip-hop’s world domination.