It’s March 26th, 1979 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
College basketball fans are getting ready for the NCAA men’s basketball finals. The Indiana State Sycamores willed their way to the winner takes all match, led by Larry Bird, who was drafted sixth overall by the Boston Celtics one year prior. Across the court were the Michigan State Spartans led by an exciting young talent in Magic Johnson. With this one game, perhaps the biggest and longest-standing rivalry in NBA history was about to commence.
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Throughout 1979, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were considered the best in the NCAA. Bird represented the white working-class man in rural America, while Magic was beginning to usher in a new era of basketball, one where the players were flashy and marketable. Their personalities were seen as polar opposites and fans were curious about how this final would play out. This curiosity led to staggering ratings, with 40 million people tuning in to the tilt, according to Sports Illustrated. To this day, no other NCAA basketball game has reached that same amount of viewership.
Thanks to a 24-point performance, Magic led the Spartans to a 75-64 win that for many, settled the argument as to who was a superior player. That summer, Johnson was drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers and immediately made an impact. Throughout the 80s, Magic won five NBA Championships, while Bird won three. They would continue to face off in the Finals, in 1984, 1985, and 1987– Bird won the first matchup in ‘84 but Magic won the next two.
Their long-standing rivalry was unlike anything the NBA had ever seen. Two of the best basketball players in the league, one white, one black, were battling against each other trying to prove who had the best dynasty. Prior to their NBA careers, the league had hit a low point in 1979 with a Finals rating share of 24 — essentially, only about a quarter of all TV viewers were tuning in. Once Magic and Bird entered the league, the NBA consistently hit shares of over 30, according to tvbythenumbers.com. They even set a record in 1987 with a share of 35.
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Bird and Magic changed the way both fans and brands looked at athletes. Not only were they players on the court, but bonafide superstars who could stand next to Hollywood elites in terms of notoriety. This was all thanks to how charismatic and likeable they were. With Bird and Magic setting the standard, players like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, who were drafted into the league in the mid-80s, began to exhibit some of the same superstar qualities. At the same time that basketball was ascending into the public’s consciousness, hip-hop was beginning to thrive as a genre. The movement was born in New York in 1973 and remained underground until the mid to late-80s when groups like NWA, Beastie Boys, and Run DMC started to take over. Before long, rappers were referencing the sport in their songs. It was almost impossible to go to a game without hearing the 1984 song “Basketball” by Kurtis Blow. In 1988, Public Enemy and Chuck D came through with the song “Rebel Without A Pause” which referenced Barkley’s ability to throw down dunks. NBA players were starting to dress like rappers off the court. Artists were starting to don Jordans and other basketball shoes.
By the time Shaquille O’Neal was drafted to the Orlando Magic in 1992, basketball and hip-hop were hitting their stride as mainstream successes.
At 7’1,” O’Neal was, not only a huge person but a huge personality. While playing for LSU, O’Neal wowed fans and was immediately given superstar status upon entry into the NBA. In the midst of his first season in the league, Shaq did what no other NBA player had done before. He attempted to crossover into the rap game.
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Shaq’s foray into music may have seemed like a bit of a reach on surface level, but actually, it was quite organic. During an interview with Slam in 2017, Shaq spoke about how he had been rapping since he was eight years old, influenced by the likes of Will Smith and Big Daddy Kane. The Orlando Magic big man eventually gained the respect of the hip-hop community when he appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 and rapped alongside the Fu-Schnickens. Shaq was able to showcase his ability to flow and sounded as though he had been perfecting his craft for as long as anyone else in the game.
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After the success of his Arsenio Hall performance, Shaq signed a record deal with Jive. In 1993, he dropped his first album, Shaq Fu. When it came to production, Shaq was able to work with Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest, as well as Meech Wells and Erick Sermon. Wells is famous for his work with Snoop Dogg, while Sermon has built a career working with the likes of Redman, Jodeci, Method Man, AZ, and Jay-Z. “Shaq flew me to Orlando since he was playing for the Magic then,” Sermon recalls. “The studio was dope, we had our own personal chef. The vibe was cool. The Fu-Schnickens were there.”
“It was unique because he was a basketball player,” Sermon continued. “Him standing 7ft, shoe size 22, it was ill. The whole process was real ill. He was real funny. And he was from Newark, NJ, Redman was his favorite artist, so it was real comfortable.”
The next year, Shaq followed up on the success of Shaq Diesel with his sophomore album Shaq Fu: Da Return. Sermon was tasked with production on this album as well, while Warren G, RZA, and Redman also pitched in. In terms of commercial success, the album didn’t receive the same critical acclaim as his first, but it still went Gold. Shaq would go on to release You Can’t Stop The Reign in 1996 and Respect in 1998, but neither of those projects would have the same impact.
At the time, Shaq’s foray into hip-hop was a bit of an anomaly and people were a little skeptical of his intentions. Rap was always about being authentic, and to see an already-established NBA player delve into hip-hop was jarring, to say the least. Regardless, Shaq always had co-signs from those making a name for themselves in the industry. By bolstering a significant amount of record sales and working with industry legends, Shaq was able to lay the foundation for other NBA players who had artistic ambitions. At the tail end of the 90s, it would be Shaq’s own teammate, Kobe Bryant, who would give hip-hop a go. Unfortunately for Kobe, his rap career wasn’t nearly as lucrative as Shaq’s.
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In 1992, Bryant attended Lower Merion high school at the age of 14.
According to Grantland, Bryant met a kid named Anthony Bannister who introduced him to Kevin “Sandman” Sanchez. Sanchez was seen as the best rapper in the school and they quickly formed a rap group called CHEIZAW which featured two other MCs, Broady Boy and Jester. The group stayed together following high school and after hearing Bryant in a studio session, Sony signed CHEIZAW to a record deal in 1998. During the summer of ‘98, Bryant stayed at the New York home of Steve Stoute, the president of Urban Music for Sony at the time. Bryant was in New York to train for the upcoming season and since Stoute wanted him to hone his artistic craft, it made sense for them to stay together. “During his first or second season, that’s when I realized he’s the hardest working person I’ve ever met, by far, because of his tireless effort to actually watch, film, and shoot a thousand shots and then go to the studio and work everyday,” Stoute said excitedly, speaking to us over the phone. “He wanted to be a really good rapper, it mattered to him.”
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Kobe’s first track, released in 1998, was a remix of Brian McKnight’s song “Hold Me.” The song peaked at no. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and essentially jumped-started Bryant’s career. After the success of the song, Sony decided to move forward with an album. In true Kobe form, he was in the studio for hours at a time, writing and rewriting songs with tireless perfectionism. His group was with him throughout the process, as there was every intention for the project to be a CHEIZAW album. Kobe’s dedication to music was admirable since he was also entering his third full season in the league at the same time. It’s worth noting the music didn’t affect Kobe’s numbers at all — he completed his best statistical season up to that point.
Discussing the legendary NBA player’s brief rap career, Stoute remembers how passionate Kobe was about the music, leading to some big expectations for the first album. Despite the excitement that was building, there was some unfortunate drama on the horizon that would ultimately spell the end of Kobe’s hip-hop dreams. Bryant parted ways with CHEIZAW in November of 1999 before they had a chance to release a proper debut. According to Stoute, it’s because the group members weren’t working hard enough. However, in the aforementioned Grantland piece, Bannister claims it was because the label wanted them to embrace a pop sound that went against the group’s lyrical sensibilities. This falling out allowed Bryant to fully embrace his role as a solo artist. As for the group, they withered away as it became clear that neither Sony nor Bryant wanted them on board.
The solo Kobe Bryant album was never released. A single with Tyra Banks called “K.O.B.E” debuted in January of 2000. Bryant got to perform it that same month at the 2000 NBA All-Star game. Banks’ underwhelming vocals, as well as Bryant’s leather suit and leopard print hat, led to a disastrous performance that had NBA fans recoiling at the very sight of it. The music video shot by Hype Williams was scrapped and Kobe decided to link back up with Broady Boy of CHEIZAW. At that point, however, Sony had had enough. That same year, Bryant’s album was put to bed and he was dropped by the label. “I think we picked the wrong first single,” Stoute recalled. “He went through the process and tried really hard […] I just think that he made the right decision.”
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Things weren’t all bad for Bryant. That same year, he won his first NBA title and went on to win four more. Funnily enough, he won three of those championships with Shaq– which just goes to show their rapper personas never interfered with their play on the court.
Following Kobe’s short-lived career, Allen Iverson began rapping under the name Jewelz during the 2000 offseason.
Stoute, who was around for that as well, maintains Iverson could have been a huge success had it not been for the NBA’s condemnation of his first song “40 Bars.” Iverson was seen as someone who could pick up the mantle left by Shaq and was eventually signed by Universal Records. Despite this, he was criticized for using misogynistic and homophobic language, including lyrics such as: “Get murdered in a second in the first degree/Come to me with f***** tendencies/You’ll be sleeping where the maggots be.”
His song caught the attention of NBA commissioner David Stern, who was quick to issue a statement saying “The lyrics that have been attributed to Allen Iverson’s soon-to-be-released rap CD are coarse, offensive, and anti-social.” Stern even threatened to kick Iverson out of the league entirely. As the threat of NBA expulsion loomed over his head, Iverson scrapped the music he was working on and an album never came to fruition.
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Shaq’s success allowed him to have some credibility within the hip-hop space. However, Kobe and Iverson’s short-lived rap careers completely shifted the narrative when it came to athletes crossing over into music. Now, anyone coming into the space risked being seen as a novelty or simply put, corny. Thanks to this stigma, it would take a long time before we saw another NBA player attempt to immerse themselves in the genre.
After a dry spell plagued the mid to late 2000s, Stephen Jackson came through with a mixtape in 2012 called What’s A Lockout.
As most basketball fans remember, the 2011-12 season was cut short thanks to a long and strenuous collective bargaining agreement negotiation which had some players wondering when they’d get back on the court. This prompted Jackson to get in the booth and express himself away from the bright lights of the NBA.
Jackson immediately looked for ways to make his project stand out and it led to him enlisting none other than DJ Scream to host the tape. Scream had already built a rapport with Jackson and knew his high-caliber raps would surprise fans who didn’t know better. Once they started working on the music, Scream felt it was going to be special as Jackson came with the hunger of someone trying to prove themselves to the world. “That project right there was him saying, ‘What’s a lockout?’” DJ Scream explained. “‘I don’t care about the lockout. The lockout don’t affect me. I got other things going, whether it be rap or other things.’”
As Scream recounted, the NBA star didn’t seem too worried about what the reception would be, and sure enough, his music was welcomed with open arms. Fans began clamoring for more projects after realizing how talented Jackson was as an MC. Scream says he wasn’t necessarily surprised by the music’s reception although it was great to see people giving Jackson a chance. “When he got some free time from basketball, he did another tape,” Scream said. “I think he called it Trill Freestyles and took a lot of Texas classics and freestyled over those. That went well too, a lot of positive feedback.”
With Jackson revitalizing the NBA rapper economy, more athletes would begin making the jump to music. Among the more high profile examples, Lou Williams dropped the project The Album That Never Was back in 2017. Williams was able to get the likes of Jahlil Beats and Honorable C-Note to produce for him. The sixth-man of the year immediately impressed his producers, including C-Note, who deemed him worthy of his best beats. “If you’re really good at one thing, people try to put you in a box but when I first heard Lou Will, I played him my best beats. I was like ‘Bro, you can really rap,’” C-Note said. “I went into that secret stash and played him that shit, shit.”
The NBA rapper craze seemingly hit a new peak in 2017 after an XXL story went in-depth on a secret recording session LeBron James and Kevin Durant had during the 2011 lockout. This story caught the attention of producer/engineer Franky Wahoo who worked at Spider Studios in Canton, Ohio. According to an interview Wahoo did with Vice, he was actually present during the infamous recording session and was surprised to find out people knew about it. During the 2017 NBA Finals, Wahoo took to Twitter and dropped a 30-second snippet of LeBron and KD’s song “It Ain’t Easy,” which was recorded during that same session. Wahoo promised that if he got 1 million retweets, he would drop the full song. The retweet goal proved to be a little too lofty. He never got there, although other opportunities to drop the song came along.
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TMZ offered some money for the track while LeBron’s agent Rich Paul suggested it could be used for NBA 2K19. Wahoo never accepted any of these offers and uncredited demos of the song eventually made their way to radio. This forced the DJ to throw the official song up on SoundCloud without any promotion. “We were like ‘well we sit on it we do nothing, they leak it I don’t get production credit,’” Wahoo told Vice. “In the industry, you have to protect yourself first so I’m like ‘what if I just put it on Soundcloud?’ The worst thing that could happen is that [James’ agent] Paul would take it down.”
The song became a minor sensation, with fans wondering whether or not James or KD would continue to explore their musical prowess. In the end, neither player gave the song much acknowledgment but the fandom surrounding the song displayed a real appetite for more music from some of the league’s biggest stars.
With this in mind, there seems to be one player in particular who has completely changed the narrative as far as the viability of athletes in the hip-hop space. That man is Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers, who goes by the rap moniker of Dame D.O.L.L.A. Unlike Shaq and Kobe, fans have been able to separate Damien Lillard the basketball player from Dame D.O.L.L.A the rapper. This distinction lends to the idea that attitudes are changing towards athletes who make music.
Dame first caught the attention of hip-hop fans with his “Four-Bar Friday” series on SoundCloud.
In 2015, Lillard went on Sway In The Morning and dropped an impressive freestyle which immediately had his supporters clamoring for an album. One year later, Dame would deliver on that promise with his debut project The Letter O. The album had a feature from Lil Wayne and showcased Lillard’s ability to craft songs and deliver some scintillating bars. Once again fans were left asking for more and a year later, he dropped Confirmed.
Lillard has gone above and beyond what you would expect from an athlete doubling as a rapper. In November of 2016, he started his own record label called Front Page Music, where he signed two artists: Danny from Sobrante and Brookfield Duece. Dame’s dedication to the craft is evident. While some do it for the look or for the exposure, he says he does it because he loves it and at the end of the day, he wants the respect of his contemporaries.
“I’ve put two albums out. I’ve done features. I got major artists on all my music. I’ve taken all the steps to be respected as a rapper,” Lillard explained. “I didn’t just come out and say, ‘I’m an NBA Allstar and I do music so respect my music.’ I took all the steps that everybody else does doing music primarily to be respected as an artist.”
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This artistic hunger has led some other NBA rappers to come for his throne. Sacramento Kings young gun Marvin Bagley challenged Dame with a diss track. Lillard immediately replied with a song of his own, called “MARVINNNNNNN???” “After I heard the first track where he mentioned my name, I started writing a diss track just in case he ever came for me again,” Lillard recalled. “So the day that he dropped his, I dropped mine the same day. After I dropped mine, I didn’t know how fast he was gonna shoot back so I recorded another one and dropped another one and the next morning he came back with something else but at that point, I was done with it.”
Interestingly enough, a couple of months after our interview with Lillard, he found himself embroiled in yet another rap beef. This time, Lillard was going up against the OG of the NBA rap community, Shaq. During an appearance on The Joe Budden Podcast, Lillard made some combative comments about Shaq and even perpetuated some of the stereotypes that plagued Shaq’s early foray into hip-hop. Dame claimed he was a better rapper than the four-time NBA champion and said that while Shaq could rap, most people saw him as a basketball player who made music — and not as a bonafide MC.
Even if you agree with Lillard and think Shaq can’t hang with the new kids, there is no denying his influence on the culture. Simply put, without Shaq, there is no Dame D.O.L.L.A. “Shaq paved the way for every NBA player [to rap]. Everybody thought they could do what he did but nobody was able to be as successful,” Sermon said. “Shaq, from the heart, grew up hip-hop, being from Newark NJ, knowing what the styles were, he was able to learn the craft and take it seriously.”
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Sermon went on to acknowledge that Dame is one of the few holding the mantle left by Shaq in the 90s. “There’s only one [NBA player] that’s rapping [right now] and that’s Dame Lillard. That happens to be the one that Shaq is beefin’ with [Laughs]. But Dame is the only one that is taking it seriously, that I know about.”
Regardless of where you fall in the debate, there is no denying how powerful the recent back-and-forth between Dame and Shaq has been for the “athletes that rap” movement. For years, NBA players trying to make a name for themselves in the rap game have been shunned and looked at as a gimmick. This latest rap beef has people talking about Shaq and Dame like they are legitimate artists, which, of course, they always have been. The only difference is now they are being acknowledged as such. If Shaq set the precedent with his debut album, then Lillard has set the standard.