Long Live The Playground: America’s Affair With Hip-Hop & Hoops

By Coolhand Luke  |  October 25th, 2012  |  Published in Featured, History, Sports, , , , ,

Last week bizarro Berkeley rapper Lil B, tried out for the Golden State Warriors D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz. His focus on basketball seems to stem from childhood aspirations, but the 5’6″ rapper is also seeking to hone his skills in order to defeat Kevin Durant in a game of one on one. Ever since KD called Lil B’s music “wack,” B has been in a mission to avenge this comment by going head to head with him on the court. Last we heard, Durant told Lil B he wouldn’t travel to Oakland for the game (you scared bro?), so Lil B was making arrangements to hit OKC. We’re used to athletes dabbling in rap, but rappers trying out for the league? That’s a new one.

Though Lil B’s most recent antics caught us a bit of guard, we’re actually quite used to the overlap between hip-hop and hoop. We witness rappers sitting courtside at NBA games all the time, and they record hoop metaphors about as often as drug references. Rappers have even been known to weigh into beefs on behalf of players. Look no further than Jay-Z putting out a diss record aimed at DeShawn Stevenson (in defense of Lebron James) over Too $hort’s “Blow The Whistle” beat. Oh, and did we mention that he’s a part owner of the Nets and just christened their new Brooklyn arena with an 8 show stand before the team ever played a game on the floor?

We’ve also witnessed Shaq, Kobe, Allen Iverson, and the artist formerly known as Ron Artest actually try to have real rap careers. And for those of you who have been into local hip-hop for many moons, you might remember Oakland natives Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Brian Shaw and J.R. Rider recording tracks for a 1994 compilation produced by Epic Records entitled B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret. Yup, Brian Shaw rapped.

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“Anything Can Happen” – Brian Shaw

Hip-Hop and basketball have always been kindred spirits. Along with drug dealing, the two complete an unholy trinity of romanticized careers in urban communities (JR Rider anyone?). The struggles of growing up in the hood (poverty, single-parent homes, and a broken education system to name a few) paired with America’s tendency to worship fame and fortune, challenges those with few resources to chase big dreams with few pathways to attain them. It’s no surprise then that poor young men of color idolize professions that deliver big money at a young age with little requisite education.

America’s affair with sports and music manifests in American cities as an affair with basketball and hip-hop. Whether you’re good at sports or not, you grow up playing hoop. And whether music is a passion or not, hip-hop is a culture keeper in the hood… It documents the trends, gives you the game, and represents another potential pathway to success. Increasingly, for those who’s hoop dreams don’t pan out or for whom school doesn’t work out, rapping has become the hood’s new default occupation. Whereas there is a system in place that charts attainment and skill in school and basketball, any one’s able to make and distribute music in the digital age. That’s why everyone from security guards to college students to athletes want in. As Jay-Z once said to Hot 97 in response to being dissed by Jim Jones, “We need a board to approve some of these moves.” In other words, there are no rules or standards in hip-hop. And to some degree, that’s always been part of the appeal.

Hip-hop was born a counter-cultural phenomenon–an industrious sub-culture that put America’s dirty laundry front and center. Whether artists challenged America’s racism and injustice or promoted it’s misogyny, violence, or materialism, the genre has always been unabashedly American. By the time rap was born in the late 1970s, the NBA was increasingly African-American, but the contemporary music of the time wasn’t influencing NBA culture. But as rap took root in the mainstream, we saw Michael Jordan start to wear baggier shorts and change the shoe game with ostentatious designer sneakers. Then Michigan’s Fab Five arrived on the scene in 1991 in baggy shorts, black shoes and socks and a penchant for trash-talking. This new swagger brought increased attention and revenue to the NBA, but the league wanted to profit off hip-hop culture while still maintaining control of the league’s image.

It was Commissioner David Stern who finally went on the offensive in 2000 by demanding the retraction of some controversial lyrics that Allen Iverson had recorded for a forthcoming album. By the time his music came under fire, Iverson had already become the poster child for the NBA problem child with his off-court problems, tattoos and baggy hip-hop attire. And when the Pacers/Pistons brawl broke out in 2004, the league felt a further need to nullify the appearance of a criminal culture in the NBA (Did we mention that brawl protagonist Ron Artest is also a rapper?). So in 2005 a dress code was ratified for all NBA players that outlawed a long list of clothes and accessories popular in the hip-hop community.

In essence, the NBA launched a culture war against black style, swagger, and personal expression, even though they greatly profited from the relevance and revenue those players created. This veiled racism was not just coming from the Commissioner’s office either. Legendary coach Dr. Jack Ramsay said, “My opinion is that hip-hop lessens the image of the NBA. It lends to associating the NBA with street ball — which really isn’t basketball”. The racial undertones could not have clearer. The league’s message essentially was, “thank you for making us millions of dollars, but black culture is only valuable as a commodity that benefits us.” It was a low point for the NBA. But if they were trying to put the hip-hop generation in their place, they failed.

Now every athlete has a stylist that has them looking more dapper than any stodgy owner on their best day. This was the NBA players’ response, and there’s nothing more hip-hop than taking society’s lemons and making lemonade. You can’t water down the game’s hunger with rules and regulations, just like you can’t lobotomize hip-hop with corporate control. The LeBrons and Jiggas of the world may have traded their oversized throwback jerseys for 3 piece suits, but they’re still making power moves and talking shit. And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Just ask Kevin Durant and Lil B.

Long live the playground.

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