In an Instagram post paying tribute to Virgil Abloh, Ghanian rapper Jay Bahd described the late visionary as his mentor, crediting Abloh for changing his life and helping asakaa – a distinctive version of drill from the city of Kumasi – gain global popularity.
Anyone who has closely followed the asakaa movement will have spotted the cosigns from Abloh, who was, himself, the son of Ghanian immigrants. Whether it was gifting Jay Bahd Off-White sneakers and apparel, FaceTiming artists in the scene, promoting the sound on his own Televised___Radio platform or simply liking their Instagram posts, Abloh made it clear that his love for asakaa was genuine. “He made us KINGS amongst men,” reads a post about Abloh from the asakaa collective Living Life Records. “We love you! Forever in our hearts!! We gon’ make you proud!!!”
This is just one of the many examples in recent years of musicians feeling flattered, encouraged and inspired by Virgil Abloh’s support. Despite appearing to be one the busiest people in the creative industries, Abloh always seemed to find time for the artists who caught his ear, from underground acts to the world’s biggest superstars.
To understand how Abloh gained so much influence in contemporary music, it’s important to at least know the basic backstory of his creative relationship with Kanye West.
Virgil was first recruited by Ye’s team in 2007. The pair then interned together in Rome for Fendi in 2009, also working on Ye’s seminal album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the same year. “Here’s this guy always in the studio,” Pusha T said of his memories of Abloh at those MBDTF sessions, “and he’s pulling every reference under the sun from his computer – architecture, fashion. His laptop was like a library of everything that was aesthetically beautiful and relevant.”
In 2010, it was announced that Ye had made Virgil Abloh the director of his somewhat mysterious creative agency Donda. Abloh is credited as the art director on a hot streak of early-2010s releases with striking aesthetics – namely My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Ye and Jay‑Z’s collaborative album Watch The Throne and the 2012 GOOD Music compilation Cruel Summer.
In 2012, alongside Matthew Williams, Justin Saunders, Heron Preston and football player Florencia Galarza, Virgil launched the DJ and club night collective Been Trill. After helping a young A$AP Rocky and his underage friends into a Been Trill party at The Standard hotel in New York City, Abloh went on to design the merch for Rocky’s first tour, also creatively directing his 2012 debut studio album Long. Live. A$AP.
After My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye began work on his radically experimental 2013 album Yeezus. From 2008, Virgil Abloh would make an effort to show face at Benji’s much-loved Deviation club night whenever he was in London. Abloh helped bring Benji B on board as a key music consultant. The wide-ranging influences on Yeezus and contributions from leftfield producers such as Arca, Evian Christ and Hudson Mohawke are largely rooted in this creative relationship.
In 2018, Abloh was announced as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton Men’s. On the runway in Paris, which was inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Yellow Brick Road, Abloh seemed to pledge his commitment to supporting Black musicians in his new position. At the end of the show, Abloh and Ye shared a tearful hug, while Playboi Carti, Kid Cudi, Dev Hynes and Steve Lacy were among those who walked as models.
Abloh recruited Benji B as musical director at LVM straight away. With a “live only” policy, the shows have been scored in collaboration with artists such as Detroit techno legends Cyboyton, Ms Lauryn Hill, Yasiin Bey and London jazz musicians like Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Theon Cross and Yussef Dayes. In coordination with Vuitton’s SS22 presentation, Abloh creatively directed the short film Amen Break, while Benji gathered the likes of Wu-Tang wordsmith GZA, Unknown T and Goldie together to contribute to the music.
An invite from Virgil Abloh to Paris Fashion Week could help boost the career trajectory of an artist, hence why he’s been referenced in the lyrics of UK rappers like Digdat and Headie One, for whom Abloh designed a stage set and one-off tracksuit for this year’s BRIT Awards. Griselda’s Westside Gunn was so inspired by a trip to Paris with Abloh that he basically made an album about it.
Although Abloh’s artwork for Pop Smoke’s posthumous album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for The Moon was eventually scrapped following online criticism of its merit, Abloh had bonded with the late Brooklyn star in Paris, where they’d filmed a music video as part of the new Off-White™ International Rap Video Production Studio project.
Inexplicably, in recent years, Abloh even managed to commit to an increasing number of DJ gigs, securing coveted slots such as Movement festival in Detroit, Circoloco at Ibiza club DC-10 and Manchester’s Warehouse Project. “I don’t know what possessed me to take on the task to do a DJ set, as if I don’t have anything else to do,” he joked ahead of his 2019 Coachella appearance.
Born in Rockford, Illinois and coming of age in Chicago during the ’90s, Abloh was inspired by the house music scene, revealing to DJ and journalist Ash Lauryn in a Resident Advisor podcast that he worked the door at parties run by Ron Trent and Sonia H. In the club music world, Virgil developed friendships with artists like Peggy Gou, Honey Dijon and The Blessed Madonna, and recently hung out behind the booth with AceMo, MoMa Ready and Kush Jones – a group of young, energetic NYC DJs and producers who celebrate house, techno, jungle and footwork as Black genres.
Back in September, Abloh shared a clip of an intimate, dimly-lit party he’d hosted after the Met Gala, featuring the jam from the jazz band Badbadnotgood and impromptu freestyles by Kid Cudi and A$AP Nast. There was something typically pleasing and fun about the free-spiritedness of the footage, and the way Abloh so effortlessly made musical worlds collide.
Virgil Abloh used his positions to bridge gaps between luxury fashion runways, street anthems and sweaty dancefloors. His curation completely ignored any ideas about “high” and “low” culture, which are so often built on prejudices about race and class. One lesson we can learn from his time on this planet is that there should be no other approach.