Abandoning his athletic dreams, a young Eddie Plein learned both the art of dentistry and jewelry, combining the two at Eddie’s Famous Gold Teeth: the Atlanta institution that became synonymous with hip-hop history and broader Black cultural spheres. Whether you call them removable fronts, golds, caps or grills, one thing is true: without the Plein family, gold teeth would have a very different reputation. To celebrate the release of forthcoming biography Mouth Full of Golds, Amani Bin Shikhan speaks to the family about their glittering history.
The story of Eddie Plein is also a family story. One version – told through Mouth Full of Golds, the forthcoming biography by Lyle Lindgren on Eddie and his famous gold teeth – goes something like this: a family of seven emigrates to Brooklyn from Suriname in pursuit of the American Dream, balancing their ambition and uncertainty. The family finds their footing in their new city, learning English together while watching American television and throwing basement parties from time to time. Early on, they learn to stick together. “We used to do parties in the basement at my mom and dad’s house,” says Eddie’s brother, Lando (real name Orlando). “My dad would organize, my brother would be the DJ, my sister would be the bartender.” Their childhood and adolescent years were pretty traditional: dad worked, mom stayed home, and together, they raised the kids that would go to school and try to stay out of trouble.
Eventually, the Pleins’ middle child Eddie (an aspiring footballer like his idol, Pelé) proposed a new idea to his family. He wanted to start a business, fashioning and fitting gold teeth. Not long after, Eddie and the Plein name became legendary.
Back in 1983, Eddie was born into what he calls his “second life.” “I wasn’t thinking about the teeth [yet],” he says, reminding me of his other ambitions as a professional footballer. On his commute every Monday, he’d leaf through the local paper, sometimes noticing an ad for Magna Dental Institute in Queens. Soon, he noticed his noticing. He enrolled and began a course that would teach him how to safely and effectively work with teeth and molds, among other things. In classes, Eddie practiced with acrylic and metal, mentally configuring the process and style to fit the caps he’d seen and imagined creating. “I was like, ‘OK, if I can do metal, I can do gold, too.’” Both at home in Suriname and in its diaspora, caps were and are standard. Gold is one of Suriname’s biggest exports, and gold jewelry, especially on the teeth as caps, is very common. “My mom had a gold, my dad had a gold, my uncles and my aunts had golds,” explains Eddie. “That’s how I grew up.” Those same people turned out to be the first to receive original Eddie caps as he figured out his technique, learning how to make tight-fitting sets that could also be swapped with ease. He perfected it the best he could, then he began to assess the market.
As he looked around, Eddie noticed that people who wanted gold teeth in America (remember: this was the 80s) usually opted for dentist-fitted permanent gold caps. With removable gold teeth, Eddie was putting a new spin on an old classic. Some people instantly warmed to the idea, while others took a little more convincing. Placed over either natural teeth or pre-existing permanents, Eddie’s fronts were versatile, beautiful and an attractive alternative to permanents.
Eddie remembers Bronx rapper Just-Ice, a regular customer whose Eddie-crafted smile would gleam all over the five boroughs on album covers and posters, a huge look for him at the time. “Remember, this was in the Run-DMC, Adidas era,” he tells me, explaining his trips from Brooklyn to Queens to try to make some sales. “It was poppin’. I remember courtin’ guys, tellin’ ’em, ‘I can make you gold teeth. All I gotta do is take your mold, a couple dollars of deposit, we can make it happen.’”
As local hustlers, rappers and money-getters saw more of Eddie’s work, his clientele expanded. “[People] always had one gold, a skipped [tooth, then] one at the top. Never on the bottom,” Eddie explains of the then-standard placements he saw. In Suriname, that restriction didn’t exist. The prevalence of caps with more creative adjustments – multi-tooth, different teeth within the mouth – was more ordinary there, and so it was more ordinary to Eddie. And so he returned to his parents’ basement and worked with his own experiments, bridging cues from both worlds. Before he knew it, his fronts were catching on, and it was time to upgrade his scale of operations. He briefly worked with then-business partner and contributor to the biography, Ralphie the Russian out of his shop, Angelica’s. Soon, he was attracting too much attention there, too, and after a falling out with Ralphie, Eddie moved on. Quickly, Eddie was becoming Famous Eddie, teaching anyone who was watching lessons on adaptability, networking and determination.
From there, the business took Eddie from New York to Virginia, then to Atlanta. They took Eddie’s brother Lando to Miami, where he still operates from today. At the height of their fame, which overlaps with the golden age of hip-hop, the family was working non-stop, the brothers flying in and out of cities to handle overflow of orders. From the Colosseum in Jamaica, Queens (a flea market and significant center of local commerce and trendiness), to crowd-side at the infamous Freaknik, to their legacy shop in Atlanta, every place of work was also a place of cultural connection. “My dad’s shop in Atlanta was kind of like a hang-out spot,” says Kyra, Eddie’s daughter and an aspiring jeweler herself. “We had a big screen TV, a pool table, people out front and in the back. It was like, the Mecca.”
Anyone who was anyone in Atlanta was a regular at Famous Eddie’s, from Goodie Mob and other members of the Dungeon Family to partygoers, prepping to smile wide in the moonlight. Whether that sense of togetherness is a symptom of the times or Eddie’s penchant for hosting, the fact remained: Famous Eddie’s was a place where work, play and family didn’t just cross over, but were one and the same. Take it from Kyra, who casually mentions playing pool with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, regularly being cared for and gifted by fans and friends of her father, and attending exclusive video shoots and other kickbacks before realizing how rare this all was. Mouth Full of Golds features short essays by some of those same players, from Big Gipp to Va$htie to Goldie, sharing just how it all came to be, what Eddie’s means to them, then and now. From Atlanta to Memphis to New York, of all ages and genders, Eddie became the standard. “His gold teeth were different to any of the gold teeth being made now,” wrote Just-Ice of Eddie’s singularity from the outset in Mouth Full of Golds. “The quality of the gold, everything, it’s different.”
But throughout the years, the Pleins have faced their fair share of disappointments, too. One is copycats. Since the beginning, Eddie and Lando have both had competitors imitate their style. At their peak, the brothers didn’t think too much of it, taking others’ attempts at replication as a compliment to their own skill. This changed in the years following Eddie’s retirement and the closure of the Atlanta location. Now, as jewel-encrusted smiles make a resurgence in popular culture (Lil Durk, Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, et cetera), Eddie’s omission from the scene poses a problem in accurately telling the history of gold teeth, especially in the American hip-hop space.
“I guess, once somebody seen it on TV or once a famous rapper starts talking about it, it becomes trendy [again],” Lando shrugs. It’s worth noting that while gold- and diamond-accessorized teeth are intertwined with hip-hop culture, popularity of the teeth far precedes any current popularity in music.
In Mouth Full of Golds, Eddie writes about his father, and how his no-nonsense parenting kept Eddie and his brothers focused on their goals. Throughout the book and his story, those lessons come to the surface over and over again. Eddie retired to spend the last decade caring for his father before his passing earlier this year. “My dad was a visionary who we really looked up to,” Lando recalls. “I never knew my dad to work for anyone. [He] was like the original octopus hustler, you know what I mean? Good hustle, not the hustle that’s gonna get your door kicked in.” As a result of his influence, none of the Plein kids ever really had any dreams of working a regular job. Quick on his feet and resourceful, their father blueprinted his children’s future. “I’m sure it was hard, but all I’m saying is this: [my granddad] made it happen,” adds Kyra. “My dad never worked a nine-to-five. It’s not really a thing in our family.” Eddie feels the same way. When I ask him about moments he’d felt truly successful, he lists a few of his favorite clients: Flavor Flav, Big Daddy Kane, André 3000, Ludacris. When I ask why, he echoes his brother, his daughter, his father – the success is in doing it yourself, doing it as right as you can, and in having the stripes to prove it.
“I feel like now it’s really in me to keep my father’s legacy going,” Kyra says to me. “I think the jewelry business is something that will never ever, ever die. It's been around for centuries. And my daddy built this for us. Like, how could I not keep this going?” To Eddie and his family, hustle didn’t begin and end at acquiring money. Hustle also didn’t begin or end at money or fame — instead, hustle kept him clear-eyed and going. “I used to keep all the hundred dollar bills that come through the shops,” Eddie writes in Mouth Full of Golds. “It was just a little something to do that motivated me.”
But all the hustle in the world couldn’t rewrite history, or grant the Pleins a second chance at doing it right. There’s always room for would’ve, could’ve, should’ve and Lando mentions that maybe taking better precautions around copyrighting their style could have led to a healthier financial legacy for the family. Kyra points out that the shift into the online space might have stunted meaningful, cross-generational growth for the business. But there are about a million scenarios just like either example. At the end of the day, Eddie tells me that he has no regrets. When I ask him what he wants people to know about Eddie Plein, simple and plain, he says, matter-of-factly: “I’m the originator of the grill. I’m a pioneer.” With Mouth Full of Golds, Eddie Plein finally pauses to tell his version of the story – a beautiful, honest, complicated one of family, fortitude and a whole lot of gold.