Basketball and hip-hop have been integrated for a long time, and much like hip-hop, it is said that the 90s was the golden era of basketball. It started a long time before the 90s, but that is when the relationship between the two really started to have an impact on both hip-hop and basketball culture. It doesn’t come as a surprise when you take into consideration that a lot of rappers and NBA players have grown up in the same areas, come from the same streets, probably even played basketball on the same courts. Basketballers Allen Iverson, Stephen Jackson, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James, to name a few, are all from quite rough neighbourhoods; on the hip-hop side, we have rappers like N.W.A, UGK, and Big L from similarly rough neighbourhoods. Hip-hop is considered an outlet for the struggle and issues faced in these neighbourhoods and basketball is seen as a way out – both offer opportunities for a better life for them and their families.
Every rap album tends to have at least one basketball reference on it, and every NBA video game has a rap soundtrack. Rappers idolise NBA stars, just as NBA stars idolise rappers. The earliest reference I can think of dates back to 1979, when The Sugarhill Gang released Rappers Delight; they rap “I got a colour TV, so I can see/ The Knicks play basketball.” This was just a couple of years after the NBA and ABA merger. Players like Dr. J, Connie Hawkins, Kareem, Tiny Archibald, who had grown up playing street ball on the now famous courts of NYC became mainstream and were paid big money, comparable to the rappers of the time such as Run D.M.C., Kurtis Blow, and Sugarhill. But not only were the players now on the TV regularly, but the more flashy ways to score points (the three point shot and slam dunk) were now NBA norms, which really appealed to those still out at the Rucker Park street court.
This was all happening around the same time as the b-boy era, where people would walk around with their boom boxes and play music during the street ball games, and everyone would either be dancing, playing, or just hanging out. Hip-hop brought a sense of community to those wanting to play basketball. I can’t tell you how many CDs and cassette tapes I’ve lost to a missed shot bouncing off the rim and landing on my stereo. Hip-hop was the soundtrack to the ballers, and because of hip-hop always being background music, it was only a matter of time before the two merged language – such as the word “baller”. It has come to mean someone who has ‘made it’ to the big time, but was originally a reference to someone who played basketball. Now, every rapper thinks they’re a baller. The trend has crossed into the rap music videos as well, and most rappers at one point or another have worn an NBA jersey (like Biggie Smalls in Juicy, who wears a basketball inspired Bad Boy jersey, and P. Diddy’s Bad Boy for Life where he wears a throwback “Pistol Pete” Maravich jersey).
In the mid ‘90s, Allen “The Answer” Iverson joined the NBA, and was last week voted into the NBA Hall of Fame. A vote that some thought wouldn’t happen – many NBA officials decided long ago that Iverson didn’t belong in the NBA, but his impact on the game will forever be remembered. From the start, The Answer refused to be something he was not. His general attitude, the way he dressed, and his undying loyalty to the Newport News community that raised him came as a shock to the basketball community. He brought a hip-hop mentality to professional basketball; he’d emerge from the locker room wearing throwback jerseys, oversized sweats and flashy jewellery. On the court, he wore baggy shorts, had his hair cornrowed and sported sleeves of tattoos. At one point, he was nearly suspended due to the lyrics from his sub-career as the rapper Jewelz.
The NBA league introduced a dress code not long after, which is widely believed to have been implemented after he influenced players to wear T-shirts, do-rags and fitted hats during postgame press conferences. As fashion in hip-hop has changed to a more ‘formal’ outfit, it is interesting to wonder if the NBA’s more strict dress code had an influence on this. Hip-hop and basketball culture was so entwined that the streets were not the only source of inspiration and culture.
It wasn’t just Iverson who was a rapper/NBA player; it seems dozens of players have had backup careers as rappers. The most well know rapper/basketballer, and maybe also the most successful (which isn’t very), is Shaquille O’Neal. He released four studio albums of varying success and recorded with some of hip-hop’s biggest names: Notorious BIG featured in Can’t Stop The Reign, The RZA and Method Man on No Hook, WC and Ice Cube on Connected, and Common and Black Thought on In The Sun. Was his success due to his rap skills? Well… more likely it was the massive mutual respect between hip-hop and basketball.
During basketball halftime shows, hip-hop music is often played and the camera occasionally even cuts from the action to show Drake or Jay-Z in the front row, rapping along. Hip-hop is even seen in the ownership ranks of the NBA, with Jay-Z being a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets. Some of the NBA’s biggest names are huge hip-hop fans. Before games, Lebron James pumps hip-hop through his headphones, and is said to blast the music in the locker room. During NBA’s All-Star weekend, many rappers are asked to perform and many are seen at events. Many years ago, Kobe Bryant, one of the absolute legends of basketball, performed at an All-Star weekend. He performed his one-hit ‘wonder’ K.O.B.E. which featured Tyra Banks. It was, as you’d imagine, a flop, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the greatest player in the NBA and going on to be mentioned in numerous hip-hop songs. Now that he is one game off his retirement, the tributes have been rushing in from the hip-hop community.
Hip-hop is undeniably the soundtrack to basketball. The two have long been linked, and these days, it is near impossible to imagine one without the other – hopefully, we never have to.