A pairing of kindred spirits, the Grateful Dead x Nike SB collaboration is the latest instance of popular and sneaker cultures colliding in 2020. Only this time around, it doesn’t feel like a half-hearted stab at gaining attention. Sure, there’s little similarities between a classic rock born out of San Francisco during the 1960’s and Nike’s raucous skateboarding division, though there’s a tangible connection between two of the most popular outfits in their respective fields. And it begins and ends with each entity’s devoted fanbase.
Known as “Dead Heads,” the Grateful Dead’s loyal supporters are among the most passionate in music, often traveling great lengths to attend the band’s shows. The term “Dead Head” was coined by an author in the ‘70s and officially became part of the Grateful Dead’s vernacular after appearing on the inner sleeve of the band’s “Skull & Roses” live album from 1971.
For its part in sneaker culture, Nike SB and its poster child shoe, the Dunk, brought an awareness to what was previously considered a “niche” hobby. Collecting sneakers, Air Jordans, Nike Air Maxes and Air Force 1s in particular, was always a thing, though there’s enough evidence of the Nike SB Dunk putting a new generation onto the virtues of trying to obtain shoes for reasons that go beyond wearing them. No matter how great the Air Force 1 is—and its one of the all-time classics from any viewpoint—we can’t recall there ever being a riot over one of its releases.
With that all aside, let’s take a closer look into what makes the Grateful Dead x Nike SB Dunk what it is—one of the most eccentric Dunk collaborations in recent memory. By Dunk standards, that’s saying a lot.
Right off the bat, there’s a noticeable difference between the Grateful Dead x Nike SB Dunk and every other Dunk ever made—the band’s “Dancing Bear” symbol takes the place of the traditional Nike SB branding on the tongue of all three colorways. The “Dancing Bear” emblem originated on the back of the album artwork of the Grateful Dead’s 1973 LP, “History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear’s Choice.) We’ll have more on the “Dancing Bears” motif later on.
Other playful overtures to the “Dancing Bears” include fuzzy faux fur patches on the toe cap, mid-panel, and heel of all three Grateful Dead x Nike SB Dunks. You may be inclined to know what the correlation is between bears and the Grateful Dead, and the answer is simple. The band’s sound engineer, Owsley Stanley, who went by the nickname of “Bear” in the music industry, is credited for having created both the Dead’s Wall of Sound system as well as the lovable cartoon.
The Swoosh located on the mid-panel of each Grateful Dead x Nike SB Dunk is actually another nod to the “Dancing Bears.” Displaying a frayed black outline, the design mimics the “Dancing Bears” jester collars.
Steal Your Face
“Steal Your Face” is a live double album from the Grateful Dead that was released in June 1976. The album’s cover artwork features a hand drawn skull with a lightning bolt on its head, likely symbolizing the band’s intention of “enlightening” its fanbase. Leaving out this form of imagery from the Grateful Dead’s storied history wouldn’t be satisfactory in the eyes of “Dead Heads,” so Nike SB includes it on the underside of the tongue liner.
Many “Dead Heads” and sneaker collectors will align on this—music of any kind, whether it's consumed at a concert or through speakers and headphones, is enhanced by marijuana. The concealed stash pocket, which features a zip closure, is a wink-and-a-nod to the recreational activity.
“Dancing Bears” Insole
A closer look into the design of the Grateful Dead x Nike SB Dunk reveals additional “Dancing Bears,” this time printed in a repeating graphic on the insole. It’s this kind of attention to detail that has long been appreciated by Nike SB Dunk collectors and fans of the Grateful Dead alike.