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Top four with deep cuts and solid canines, Atlanta Mid-90s.Courtesy of Eddie PleinMouth Full of Golds. IDEA (2023)

This photo book charts the underground history of grills

Eddie Plein, grills legend and inventor of the gold front as we know it, shares his best stories in new illustrated book Mouth Full of Golds

Lyle Lindgren was in the Bronx making graffiti films for Goldie when he first heard about Eddie Plein. Up to that point, the director had never really thought about the origins of grills, although he was, as he describes it, obsessed with them. Then, Goldie mentioned that he knew the guy who invented gold fronts and why didn’t they go visit him in the Brooklyn basement where it all began. While there, Lindgren heard a “Keyser Söze-style forgotten story that seemed too good to be true”, and it set him off on a years-long investigation. The result is a documentary film and an illustrated history photo book. 

The man in question is “Famous” Eddie Plein, a jeweller from New York and the inventor of the grill as we know it today. After arriving in Brooklyn from Suriname with his family in 1973, Plein grew up idolising football and Pelé, and was training to be a dentist when he saw the opportunity for golds and grills. What followed was a new era of dentistry, as an emerging generation of rappers found Plein’s work to be the perfect way to demonstrate their style and self-expression.

“When [Plein] first told me the story, as a fan of hip hop I was shocked that I’d never heard this story before,” Lindgren tells Dazed. “I remember him telling me about making teenage Jay Z’s teeth and Ludacris’ trademark canines, and being really drawn to just digging deeper. The story just kept on growing, spanning 30 years and multiple cities like NY, Miami and Atlanta.”

Lindgren began interviewing and filming for a documentary, but then the pandemic hit and he was worried all the work would be reduced to a “three-minute teaser trailer” and nothing more. To prevent that, he took everything they’d done and put it into a book, ensuring that Plein’s legacy and the part he played in shaping culture would be remembered. Self-published in 2021, Mouth Full of Golds sold out immediately and is now getting a second issue with IDEA. Alongside interviews with the founding father of gold fronts himself, the book includes contributions from ASAP Ferg, ASAP Rocky, Goldie, Janette Beckman and Marc Jacobs.

Here, Dazed speaks to Lindgren and Plein about the enduring appeal of grills, the future of gold fronts, and who they believe has the best grill in the world.

For you, what is the magic of the gold front? Why do people keep coming back to them?

Lyle Lindgren: Grills, fronts, slugs, they’re all cyclical. Every decade or so there will be a massive wave of popularity and invention, and I think that comes with each new generation wanting to put their spin on what inspired them before. I think Marc Jacobs summarised it best in the book – ‘With piercing, with tattooing, with grills, it’s all indicative of youth culture; it’s like every opportunity and creative way you can imagine to decorate yourself.’ You had Pharrell wanting to emulate Slick Rick and then Rocky wanting to emulate Pharrell; with each artist building on what came before, and I don’t think this will ever really stop.

Why do you think they hold such cultural significance? 

Lyle Lindgren: Grills hold such a cultural significance because they embody hip-hop culture in a single form; they signify the pursuit of success, success itself and the individuality of the wearer. How many times have we seen artists during their rise with a mouth full of golds; from Wu-Tang with their aggressive styles to Rosalía with two caps and the butterfly? Grills allow you to show who you are. Everyone’s teeth are different, so the creative choices you make can show a lot about your character.

Why did you feel it was so important to ensure that Eddie’s legacy was documented?

Lyle Lindgren: Eddie’s run of success ended right as that first big wave of the internet broke, he missed out on digitising his legacy with early social media like MySpace and then Tumblr. So when he first told me, as a fan of hip-hop I was shocked that I’d never heard this story before. I remember him telling me about making teenage Jay Z’s teeth and Ludacris’ trademark canines, and being really drawn to just digging deeper. The story just kept on growing, spanning 30 years and multiple cities like New York, Miami and Atlanta. For me, Eddie is up there with Dapper Dan and the ShirtKings in terms of shaping culture, so I’m really proud that we’ve got this whole story down on paper for the world to see.

Are you excited by the future of gold fronts and what you are seeing in space right now?

Lyle Lindgren: It’s a really exciting time for innovation, grills traditionally are exclusively handmade, carved carefully in wax before being smelted into gold. It’s like a miniature form of sculpture. And what we’ve seen in the last five years are jewellers really pushing the limits of CAD (computer-aided design), 3D printing and the use of enamel paint. So now you’re ending up with these pieces that are immaculate renderings of tiny icons – like Kaws characters, spray cans, vulvas, emojis etc, all beautifully hand painted. It’s like watching peoples’ dreams come alive in real time. It’s the grill equivalent of seeing how Pixar completely changed animation first-hand.

Who has the best grill?

Eddie Plein: I’m biased but the best grill ever was for a customer I had in Atlanta in the mid-2000s. They came to me with a bag full of diamonds that were the size of an engagement ring. You know the type of rocks a woman might have if her husband worked on Wall Street. We’re talking ten stones and he wants each one set within its own tooth, and for days we’re trying to figure out how to make this so the stones fit, and so he could get his lips over the grill. We wound up remaking the grill at least three times before we could set the stones. For me, it’s the illest, because it hadn’t been done on that level before. No matter who you were, the minute you saw him open his mouth you knew you were witnessing something special. 

In the book, you tell the story of a client asking you for five gingerbread men teeth. What’s the wildest grill you’ve ever made?

Eddie Plein: We made a set of rose gold top and bottom teeth for Allen Iverson during All Star Weekend in Atlanta when he was at the height of his fame. It wasn’t the wildest per se, and I don’t think he ever really wore them out in public. But! During the few hours he was in the shop with his boys from Virginia, it clicked that we’d known each other since he was a kid – to me that was wild, such a small world. I filmed all that Iverson footage in the shop on a camcorder but lost the tape and I’ve never seen one flick of him wearing those teeth since.

“Mouth Full of Golds” is available now online at IDEA and at Dover Street Markets worldwide.