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The hip-hop revolution: How the rap game influenced the NBA

The late <a href='https://www.sportskeeda.com/player/kobe-bryant' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer'>Kobe Bryant</a> and his wife Vanessa, along with Beyonce and Jay -Z
The late Kobe Bryant and his wife Vanessa, along with Beyonce and Jay -Z
Michael Tillery

The intersection of hip hop and the NBA has been spoken about for decades. The relationship is a natural one. It's seamless, and will be forever more. Going back as far as the 80's with Kurtis Blow's Basketball, up to Kawhi Leonard appearing in Drake's Way Too Sexy video, hip hop and the NBA are synonomyous. Rappers want to be hoopers; hoopers want to be rappers. Why is that, and also, why is it so cool? The two are the same, and definitely extensions of each other, so let's take it back.

Hip Hop and the NBA

The year is 1984 and I'm a sophomore in high school. Roxane, Roxane, by UTFO took the nation by storm. Many of my classmates wrote the lyrics down to remember and recite them. Hip hop was exploding and gave the NBA a boost. Later that year, rap superhero Kurtis Blow of The Breaks fame dropped a classic called Basketball. "Just like I'm the king on the microphone, so is Dr. J and Moses Malone." The Philadelphia 76ers were coming off an NBA championship that everyone thought they'd win. It was their year. Kurtis Blow documenting that team and many other NBA legends, including Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, made me search the older names and connect the dots. Hip hop did that for us.

Chuck D and Charles Barkley

A few years later, one of the most influential hip hop acts of all time, Public Enemy, dropped their classic album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The conscious project that challenged race in every direction with bombastic production from the Bomb Squad was Public Enemy's second. It contained the classic violin laden track, Rebel Without a Pause. Fans of Public Enemy couldn't wait until Chuck rapped the following bars: "Simple and plain, give me the lane, I'll throw it down your throat like Barkley!" Again, a Philadelphia 76ers reference to the early NBA days of Hall of Fame power forward Charles Barkley. Chuck D has a deeper NBA connection and emulated the voice of Marv Albert, the recently retired Hall of Fame broadcaster who was the voice of New York pro sports. Chuck D, growing up in Long Island, and attending the same school as the aforementioned Dr. J, Julius Erving. Doc would return to his high school, Roosevelt High, in Roosevelt, Long Island, as a young Chuck D soaked up anything and everything from the basketball legend - then starring for the New Jersey Nets of the ABA.

Without Julius Erving and Marviconic, there would be no iconic rapper. There would be no iconic Public Enemy. When I told Marv Albert about how Chuck developed what is basically "the voice of God" as rapper Mack Warbucks told me in a radio interview, Albert was naive to the moment. It was Reggie Miller, also on the call, that made Albert understand what had just been told him. Chuck is an avid follower of sports, and whenever we talk, the NBA is mentioned. In an interview from 2007, Chuck compared legends of hip hop to past superstars of the NBA:

"The most feared rapper of all time was KRS-1. No one wanted to rap around the dude. Jay-Z is Jordan. KRS-1 is Bill Russell – swatting everything in his path. LL Cool J is Abdul-Jabbar for longevity. Kool Moe Dee and I play this game of comparing athletes to rappers. His list would definitely be different than mine."

I then asked Chuck about the lyrical skills of NBA Hall of Famer, Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq dropped 4 studio albums in the 90's and in 2001. He commented on Shaq and also the rap forays of fellow NBA legends Allen Iverson and the late Kobe Bryant:

"The best that’s ever come from sport. The fact that a seven-footer can B-Boy is unprecedented. Allen Iverson lived the life, but you can’t say the things he was trying to say and be in the NBA. It’s when athletics and hip hop arrive on the wrong street. Kobe Bryant has a deft voice. Another thing, out of all the athletes I’ve met, Kobe unquestionably has the most manners. You can tell that he was raised right and coached right."

I asked him who would be the aforementioned Julius Erving and Chuck came with the heat:

"Kool Moe Dee. Like Doc, Mo Dee came out the box already on a high level. He instituted the highlight reel dunk into the rap game."

The topic of Chris Webber and the Fab Five of Michigan was mentioned, and Chuck saw the hip hop parallel in the fabulous freshman:

"They were all great individual entities and Steve Fisher knew that, so he had to incorporate them into the team aspect. I was nodding my head saying these dudes are hip hop for real! They changed the game."

Chris Webber and Nas

Speaking of Chris Webber, the newly minted member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, he produced two tracks for Queensbridge lyricist Nas. He commented by phone about one of the tracks, Blunt Ashes:

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"My father and Nas were talking about the old days. The Chitlin Circuit. How hard it was for artists to come up and that type of thing. I was blessed to be in the study with Sean C and let them listen to a couple of my beats at the time and he put one in and Blunt Ashes came out of that. It was just crazy when I heard him say "I saw on TV today, this man lost his son, his son died, so he had him cremated, took his ashes, and then made it to a diamond ring now he watches his son shine everyday". I got up and ran out the room. That was one of the greatest moments in hip hop in my life."

He also mentioned that after calling the much debated timeout his sophomore year at Michigan, that hanging out with Kay Gee - of Naughty by Nature - and learning to produce music gave him peace after such a hard time to get through. He said he would just go to Kay Gee's house and disappear from making music.

Chris and I later spoke about him being on stage at the 1996 Source Awards. He was a presenter that night, and being a rising NBA star, it was a natural move for Webber to be in attendance as the internet era hit and the emergence of Michael Jordan gave the NBA new prominence. Chris calls that infamous night the greatest collection of hip hop talent ever.

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Covering the NBA, I like to go out to my seat in press row and take it all in. I want to see the Christmas eyes of fans clamoring to see their favorite NBA star. In the lay-up line, the most popular hip hop tracks of the day are played in arenas across the land. Fans in attendance enjoy the backdrop, yet it is the players who are most affected by what they hear overhead. Hip hop seems to get them in their space to go out and perform. This is part of the NBA's entertainment. If the players are in the right mind, they'll perform at a higher level.

Drake and Kawhi Leonard

In Toronto, rapper Drake is a Raptors superfan. Kawhi Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to the NBA championship in 2019, and Drake was right there in support of a magical year for Canada. He was so moved by Kawhi Leonard's Finals MVP play, Kawhi appeared in Drake's Way Too Sexy hip hop video in a self-deprecating ode to Kawhi's dry personality.

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Jemele Hill chimes in

Commentator Jemele Hill an Emmy award winning journalist - who has a very successful podcast on Spotify, Jemele Hill Is Unbothered - spoke of the relationship between hip hop and the NBA:

"It’s just interesting too because some of our favorite basketball players remind us of hip hop artists and some of our favorite hip hop artists remind us of our favorite basketball players. I often compare Drake to LeBron. I think that Drake is the best hit maker in history, so I think of his ability to produce hits, and LeBron’s unique ability to produce championships and go to the Finals. LeBron turned going to the Finals into an art form. I think there’s a symbiotic relationship there between the two on top of them obviously being friends but they remind me of one another in a lot of ways in terms of how they approach what they do. They also get a lot of hate because of they way they’ve chosen to guide their careers. I think there is always comparisons there between some of the best basketball players in the world and some of the best hip hop artists in the world."
new Lil Wayne ‘Kobe Bryant’ verse 🗣🔥 https://t.co/eRc9nMICLs

Jemele touches on NBA superstar Damian Lillard. Lillard's rap name is Dame Dolla and he's well respected for his lyrical gifts:

"You look at someone like Damian Lillard who is very respected in hip hop circles because he’s somebody who has taken the craft of rapping seriously. On top of being talented, I think because he has had such respect for it, that’s why you see him embraced in the hip hop world. Even though he’s obviously a dynamite basketball player, and that’s sort of his number one skillset. The fact that he is so embraced kind of speaks to that relationship."

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Lyricist Flashius Clayton has a dope project titled Mr. October. One of the tracks is a hip hop homage to NBA legend Magic Johnson, I was tipped to it by a tweet from my dude Dame:

@regularbarnett @michaeltillery From the 3:43 mark on. The homage to Magic is the best I've ever heard in Hip Hop form.music.youtube.com/watch?v=iD3t0G…

The third track on Mr. October is Magic Man. Magic Man pays respect to Magic Johnson, NBA Hall of Famer and widely known as the greatest point guard to ever play.

"Triple-double Don, twenty years before LeBron..."

It's an infectious underground hip hop track that again speaks to the brotherly love of hip hop and the NBA.

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There have been many instances of hip hop and the NBA working as a team. From Allen Iverson and Jada Kiss' classic commercial advertising, the latest Iverson kicks, to Skee-lo's I Wish, Skyzoo and Illmind's Winner's Circle or Wayne's Kobe Bryant the symmetry between hip hop and the NBA is here to stay.


live poll LIVE POLL

Q. When was your first connection of hip hop and the NBA?

On the court

On the radio/internet

Edited by Arnav Kholkar

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