On Sunday, Wale, Fabolous, and Big Sean performed at the Barclays Center as part of the celebrity basketball challenge. With the three performing in a venue that a rap artist help build, it’s a reminder of the long and storied history rap and basketball have had together — hip-hop and hoops have proven to be quite the slam dunk of a dynasty. With that in mind, here’s our history of Rap and Basketball.
See also: The 10 Best Male Rappers of All Time
While there’s been basketball references in rap going back to a New York Knicks shout-out in “Rapper’s Delight,” the second rap song ever released, the first time the subject took center stage court was in Kurtis Blow’s 1984 classic “Basketball.” You can tell Blow had a blast recording the track, utilizing the litany of untapped rhymes for basketball plays, and the sheer zeal he brings to rapping about dribbling. Hip-hop and modern basketball both grew-up very quickly in the ’80s with the occasional moments of intersecting like Chuck D’s Charles Barkley reference in “Rebel Without a Pause” and the Chris Webber and Jalen Rose lead University of Michigan Wolverines basketball team allegedly ending their huddles not by yelling “Defense!” but quoting Geto Boys’ Scarface with “Let Your Nuts Hang.”
The turn of the decade saw rappers re-writing their own signature songs to get some playing time on the court. The most bizarre being Kool Keith and The Ultramagnetic MCs’ rapping the players’ introductions at the 1989 NBA All Star Game. There’s also Wreckx-N-Effect rechristening their chart-topper “Rump Shaker” as “Rim Shaker.” Such creations eventually lead to the compilation CD NBA Jam Session that included the Heavy D/Notorious B.I.G. collaboration “Jam Session.”
With the ’90s came the biggest business both hip-hop and the NBA had ever seen. Of course, this lead to the inevitable rapsketball crossovers. Shaq is widely credited with kicking the phenomenon off by rapping along the Fu-Schnickens, most notably on “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock)” where he brags about being the #1 pick (“not a Christian Laettner, not Alonzo Mourning”). Shaq had a few minor hits of his own, including “(I Know I Got) Skillz” and the autobiographical “Biological Didn’t Bother,” where Shaq’s rap prowess is somehow strong enough to successfully rhyme “Want” and “Front.” We sadly haven’t had a proper Shaq single since his 2001 single “Connected” with Nate Dogg and WC from his scrapped double-disc album Shaq Presents…His Supafriendz Vol. 1. In fact, the last time we really heard Shaq get nasty on the mic was in 2008 with a battle rap tirade against Kobe, briefly popularizing the phrase “Kobe, tell me how my ass taste?”
While the debate of Kobe vs. Shaq is a tale as old as time (or at least more well known than Shaq vs. Aaron Carter) it’s hard not to acknowledge that Shaq has Bryant beat on the mix. Even with Tyra Banks on the hook an an interpolation of the classic “8th Wonder” break, “K.O.B.E.” is notoriously underwhelming, even by basketball players with jacked ’90s Cam’ron flows standards. Yet, while Shaq faired well against Kobe, he needed a few years to recover from his absolutely puzzling beef with notorious rap ghostwriter and underground hero Skillz. When Shaq, for reasons still unknown, called out Skillz in one line on a mixtape track in 2004, Skillz’s notoriously diligent work ethic kicked in, and he responded to Shaq with an entire mixtape worth of diss tracks, including the still funny Jay-Z remake “99 Freethrows.”
But before the Bryant conflict with MC Shaq, around the time Rasheed Wallace dissed E-40, record execs realized there might be something to this rap and basketball connection and released B-Ball’s Best Kept Secrets, a compilation record of basketball players rapping.
It’s a pretty surreal release. There’s some major hip-hop producers involved with the project, including Warren G and Diamond D, and it’s all well mixed and mastered, but then you have several clear instances of individual’s first (and last) times rapping in a booth. This lends a certain charm to a few of the tracks, including Jason Kidd’s “What the Kidd Did” and J.R. Ryder’s “Funk in the Trunk.”
It was only a matter of time before a basketball player made his way to the NBA. Breaking that barrier was Master P who played for about a minute in a pre-season game with the Charlotte Hornets. The rap and basketball genes proved to be hereditary about a decade later when P’s son Lil Romeo received a basketball scholarship to the University of Southern California.
As the ’90s came to a close, the 2000s saw the biggest, if not the best, impact of a basketball star on hip-hop from Chris Webber. While his single “Gangsta Gangsta” with Kurupt might not be for everyone, his production work on Nas’ “Surviving the Times” is helped make the career-retrospective track one of Nas’ post-Stillmatic best.
But not everyone can be Chris Webber. The bulk of 2000s rapsketball endeavors were riddled with controversy and disappointment. Allen Iverson recorded an entire album under the name Jewelz, but played the foolish game of trying to be one of the NBA’s most visible players while casually threatening to murder anyone who approaches him with “faggot tendencies.” It was enough of a faux pas for NBA commissioner David Stern to intervene, adding to the controversy that eventually seemed to stop the album from being released. Arguably just as embarrassing was the performance of Ron Artest’s My World album which, when released on Halloween 2006, managed to get outsold by even Kevin Federline. Then, there’s Kevin Durant’s public feud with Lil B that saw the Based on put a curse on Durant, which some believe to be the reason Durant came up short in his visits to the NBA Playoffs. Lil B has since lifted the curse (although he still will randomly diss him while spelling his name incorrectly) and Durant has most recently been heard rapping alongside fellow NBA hoopsmith Stak5, better known as Stephen Jackson on his track “Lonely At the Top.”
Fairing much better in the rap-basketball crossover has been the surprisingly extensive history of rappers appearing in basketball video games. While things got off to a shaky start with Rap Jam: Volume 1, a Super Nintendo basketball game that featured everyone from Coolio, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah to Warren G, House of Pain and Yo-Yo, the transition became much smoother once rappers just started appearing in ready-made basketball games. NBA Jam gave us the hidden player options of Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, Heavy D and all three Beastie Boys. The 2000s saw rappers return to the court in NBA Street Vol. 2 which featured Nelly and the St. Lunatics as an unlockable team, and later the third installment brought back the Beastie Boys.
Then there’s that Gheorghe Muresan cameo in Eminem’s “My Name Is” that, for some reason, nobody ever talks about. There’s also the Space Jam soundtrack that saw rappers rapping about cartoon characters playing basketball. Lest we forget Waka Flocka Flame’s series of mixtapes with the barely-a-pun title of DuFlockaRant. The rapsketball connection has dribbled us down some strange roads, but whether it fouls out or sinks the three, we’ll be gladly watching courtside.