Let Me See Ya Grillz: The History Of Grillz In Hip Hop
From gold fronts to platinum grillz, both removable and permanent, rappers from all walks of life have adopted the trend.
by Megan Ambers
January 20, 2022 at 11:15 pm
There is no doubt that the majority of people do not know the history of grillz. Yes, we know about the fronts and grillz worn by our favorite musicians and influencers, but do we know where it all began? Who started it and why? For us to acknowledge grillz' impact on Hip-Hop and Pop Culture, we must first acknowledge its past. Many people believe grillz originated in Egypt, but they were actually first worn by wealthy women of Etruscan society to signify royalty. Throughout history, Grillz has remained synonymous with wealth and riches.
So let's look into the history of Grillz and why it's still prominent in Black History.
Ancient Grillz: Etruscan and Mayan Civilizations
Dating back to the ancient days of the Etruscan civilization, the very powerful and wealthy wore grillz as a sign of prominence. In what is now modern-day Italy, or Tuscany, the ancient Etruscan civilization thrived from approximately 800 B.C. until approximately 200 B.C. The excavation of graves and tombs has allowed archeologists to piece together this information, even though there are no written records of this era. According to archeologists, Etruscan women had gold bands woven around their teeth, indicating that they removed their front teeth and replaced them with gold ornaments.
Similar to the Etruscans, the Mayans had jade, quartz, and hematite drilled into their teeth to symbolize their wealth and fashion style from 300 A.D. to 900 A.D. Archaeologists have examined the Mayan skeletons and found that the dentists could insert jewels into the teeth without damaging them. According to archeologists, about half of all Mayans wore jewels in their mouths. But, unlike the Etruscans, they were not symbols of status. Anyone could get them, regardless of gender or social status.
Gold Grillz: Eddie's Famous Gold Teeth
In the early 1980s, rappers began to wear gold Dookie rope chains and four-finger rings, along with gold fonts on their teeth. It was, however, a New York jeweler who first created the gold grillz for rappers back in the 1980s. At a young age, Eddie Plein, a Surinamese migrant, emigrated to Brooklyn, New York, with his family in the hopes of a better life. Plein's exposure to gold caps started back home in Suriname, where wearing gold caps was traditional. Because gold is Suriname's biggest export, gold jewelry, including tooth caps, was very familiar to Plein.
"My mom had a gold, my dad had a gold, my uncles and my aunts had golds," Eddie said. "That’s how I grew up."
From the mid to late 1980s, as the owner of Eddie's Gold Teeth, Plein made gold fronts and caps for numerous famous rappers of the time, including Flava Flav of Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap. After moving from New York to Atlanta, Plein changed his company's name to Eddie's Famous Gold Teeth. Over the next two decades, Plein would continue to work with rappers, creating more elaborate grillz for many artists, including Outkast, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon, Ludacris, and more.
Diamond Grillz:TV Johnny and Paul Wall's Grillz Empire
By the early 2000s, gold fronts were popularized by a newer generation of rappers such as Juvenile, Lil Wayne, Lil Jon, etc. However, Vietnamese-American jeweler Johnny Dang and his partner Paul Slayton were about to take the grillz industry by storm, one diamond at a time. Before Dang and his family reunited with his father in Texas in 1996, he was a jewelry maker in Vietnam. Through his mall store, TV Jewelry, founded in 1998, he met and later partnered with local Houston rapper Slayton, famously known as Paul Wall.
However, Houston artist Thurston Slaughter introduced Paul Wall to the Grillz game years prior. Slaughter made his recording debut on 8Ball & MJG's 1994 LP, "Outside Looking In." Despite not having the same success as the other Houstonians, Slaughter would influence Paul Wall in various ways. As a result of Slaughter showing the rapper how to design and mold grillz, Paul Wall opened his first temporary Grillz shop in Houston in 1996. Afterward, he started his own grillz business in Houston's Sharpstown Mall, where he met Dang, also known as TV Johnny. And as a result of Dang's jewelry-making skills and Paul Wall's hip-hop connections, a new trend was born.
Grillz in Pop Culture
As of 2004, Paul Wall and TV Johnny were selling everybody grillz. From Kanye West to Diddy and even socialite Paris Hilton, everyone wanted to wear grillz from the dynamic duo. By the following year, TV Johnny and Paul Wall had drawn attention from some of the most popular rappers of that era. Enamored with the quality of their work, St. Louis rapper Nelly collaborated with Paul Wall on the smash hit "Grillz." The track would reach number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 and stay in the top spot for two weeks.
According to Custom Gold Grillz, the song personified the social life of rappers at that time. As a whole, the song captures what rappers and their fans consider to be the peak of success. Paul Wall would soon become a prominent figure in the world of grillz, a trend that started with gold fronts from Eddie's famous gold teeth. The more popularity Paul Wall gained with his music, the more diamond-studded grillz he would sell to celebrities. Rappers such as Meek Mill, 2 Chainz, Ludacris, and more all would become returning customers of Paul Wall and TV Johnny. In addition to some of the more expensive Grillz sets made by Paul Wall, Lil Jon had a platinum and diamond-studded set of grillz made for approximately $50,000. Lil Jon was named King of the Grillz in 2009. Kelis and Nas also received matching grillz, designed by Paul Wall, to celebrate their engagement. Each grill was valued at $36,000.
During an interview with Rap-Up, Paul Wall discussed making grillz and working with Beyoncé, crediting himself and TV Johnny as the first to create grillz for both Bey and Jay-Z.
"It's a great sense of pride to be able to work with Beyoncé," Paul said. "She's from Houston. She's an H-Town hero. Everybody loves her everywhere…But for her to be from Houston and to represent Third Ward the way she does, we're so proud of her."
Rappers dumping grillz for Natural Choppers
Towards the end of the 2010s, we began to notice a change in rappers and their choice of mouth candy or lack thereof. Rappers began taking drastic measures to gain a new Hollywood smile by bleaching, straightening, and fixing their teeth, becoming a new sign of success.
According to Complex, Dr. Daniel Naysan, a dentist at Bedford Dental Group in Beverly Hills, talked about how he has given countless rappers the aesthetic smiles they desire for over a decade. Dr. Naysan explained that most rappers would go to him for porcelain veneers and how he started collaborating with Gold Teeth God, Ian Marks.
"I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Gold Teeth God but he does a lot of grillz for a lot of rappers, people in the music industry, and athletes," Dr. Naysan said. "We started working with each other, and he sends business here for me to take impressions of people’s grillz, and I actually send my patients to him as well. We have a little collab thing going on. If we’re talking about rappers and people in the hip-hop industry, recently they’ve been doing a lot of porcelain veneers to glam their smile up. They’ve also been doing a lot of fixed gold crowns with diamonds."
Rappers such as Lil Pump, Famous Dex, Tory Lanez, and more have gone to Dr. Naysan for his dental expertise.
It is true that grillz are popular with your favorite rappers and influencers, but mouth jewelry has been around for a long time. Since ancient times, grillz have been worn as a symbol of wealth, social class, and status. As the years have passed, grillz are still seen as a sign of success. Rappers from all walks of life have contributed to the trend, from gold fronts in the 1980s to platinum and diamond grillz in the 2000s. Although rappers today are leaning more towards a clean, Hollywood-esque smile, Grillz will remain a key player in the Black history of Hip-Hop.