The Union of Hip Hop and Basketball: Explained

Hip hop and basketball is the most organic relationship between sports and culture the world has ever seen. No two entities in those realms are as inextricably linked and perhaps never will be. Kurtis Blow even wrote a whole song about it. While some other sports have had figures that are prominent in hip hop/urban culture, basketball itself has become a part of hip hop/urban culture. You will never hear Hank Williams belting out the theme song for the NBA on TNT broadcast. There are numerous factors that contribute to why the music and the sport have become joined at the hip. I’m going to examine how this came to be.

We can start with the obvious. Both hip hop and basketball appeal mostly to the same demographic. If baseball is Americas’s pastime, basketball is urban America’s pastime. This evolved naturally as basketball became the most accessible sport to those in the inner city. Which subsequently resulted in hoops basically becoming a staple in the black community. I’m sure this wasn’t what was envisioned when they hung those peach baskets in 1891 but here we are. Hip hop’s origin however was much more intentional. And with basketball’s evolution along with hip hop’s ascension into mainstream culture, the marriage was inevitable.

The hip hop/hoops dynamic is also strengthened by the history they share with New York. It is the birthplace of rap and arguably the most storied city in basketball lore. And while basketball had already been around for decades when hip hop surfaced, they both grew exponentially in popularity at the same time. While hip hop and basketball were bound to find each other, the bonding process was definitely helped by the fact that NYC served as the backdrop for their concurrent rise to the forefront of modern society. By the mid 1980’s, rap gained commercial success and basketball was at its height to that point. At the time, rap music was pretty much centralized in New York City and basketball already cemented a great legacy in the Big Apple. Hoops had been a mainstay in NY since the 1920’s with the emergence of teams like the NY Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters. And hip hop itself was birthed in a basement party in the Bronx in the 1970’s. Another factor that fused rap and basketball together was the emergence of the streetball scene. This connected fans to the game that couldn’t get to arenas to see NBA players. While NY natives like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving established themselves as legends on the professional level, there were guys like Earl Manigault, Pee Wee Kirkland and Joe Hammond who were doing damage on the blacktop. And the court where they were able to marry the game to the streets was none other than Rucker Park. “The Rucker”, as it’s affectionately known by anyone who’s ever picked up a basketball, was instrumental in giving basketball and rap music a permanent association.

In fact, it was this early period of The Rucker that was the precursor to the music and the game ultimately fusing together. Back when Dr. J and Earl Manigault were terrorizing people at 155th, the soundtrack of the time was jazz and later on the soul sound emerged. And as we all know, rap is the offspring of jazz. More importantly, the ball players that were captivating the city and the artists who were providing the musical backdrop for their exploits were all coming from the same neighborhoods. Just like in later years when the grit of rap music would be indicative of how the game was played, the smoothness of jazz and the melodic rhythm of soul would reflect what was happening on blacktops across the city and the NBA hardwood alike. On the playground, you had Dr. J gliding through the air like a musical note careening from the bell of a saxophone. And in the league, there were guys like Walt Frazier who’s game not only embodied the flash of 70’s soul but his overall style and personality would relate to the music like the jerseys, jeans and sneakers the 90’s players wore was a physical representation of hip hop.

Over time, music became just as much a part of the atmosphere at the Rucker as basketball itself. In the summer, you’d hear a DJ blasting music from the park and when the sounds reverberated off the surrounding project buildings everybody knew what time it was. In the late 80’s, rap and basketball went from dating to going steady. Greg Marius started what would become a worldwide phenomenon. This was the first time we saw the two entities intentionally merged together. Marius himself was the perfect embodiment of the union he would ultimately create. He was a hooper that eventually found his way into music. When Marius founded the Rucker Park Tournament, which would come to be known as the EBC (Entertainer’s Basketball Classic), that served as a segway between rap, hoops and the streets. They all were connected but this was the first time they existed in the same space. Biggie said “Either ya slingin’ crack rock or ya got a wicked jump shot”. The streets and the game have always been related but were mostly viewed as having a “fork in the road” dynamic. At the Rucker, it gave the impression that you didn’t have to abandon one in favor of the other. Ball players have always had a special connection with street dudes. Maybe because many of them chose the corner over the court and didn’t want to see other young men do the same. A lot of rappers used to be street dudes and used music as a conduit to a better life. The intersection between these three worlds is seamless because the participants are oftentimes made up of the same population.

The 80’s and early 90’s was the drug dealer era of the Rucker tournament where hustlers were the team sponsors. But soon thereafter, rap and basketball deepened their connection. Before, it was a rapper namedropping a player or league guys showing up in videos from time to time. Now we started seeing the likes of Fat Joe, Diddy and Jay-Z on the Rucker sidelines. And they brought NBA players with them. This was the merger of basketball and hip hop in its purest form. Being able to watch NBA talent without having to deal with the politics and bureaucracy of the NBA with the most famous rappers in the world “coaching” them on a basketball court in the middle of the projects was a dynamic that I’m sure many thought would never happen. While the glamorization of the Rucker made it more of a production, it was still arguably the best basketball you were going to see outside of an NBA arena. I mean Kobe Bryant (RIP) showed up at the Park fresh off a championship to play on a team coached by Irv Gotti. It was obvious at this point that basketball and rap were becoming more intertwined than ever before. And the star power elevated the platform of the EBC.

Around this same time, another phenomenon had arisen and another parallel between hip hop and basketball was established. In the music business, there were very few opportunities to have a lucrative career if you weren’t signed to a major label. The was until independent labels started popping up. If you could equate this to any group in the hoops realm it would definitely be the guys from the And 1 Mixtape tour. They exploded on the scene and their popularity rivaled the NBA’s at the time. Rap and basketball have always shared these types of dynamics. It’s always an underground MC who could go bar for bar with your favorite rapper and there’s always the local hoops legend that never got his shot. The emergence of And 1 gave hoopers another avenue to pursue their dreams outside the confines of the NBA. The emergence of the mixtape scene and independent labels gave rappers an opportunity to be successful outside of signing to a major. Both changed their respective industries forever. Kids born in the last twenty years grow up wanting to be streetballers. Guys are making money off Youtube. Entire media companies have emerged from compiling highlights of dudes playing on the blacktop. On the music side, it’s become possible to have success without being at the mercy of a big time corporation. In both situations, the guys getting it out the mud seemed more relatable to the average fan but still had the aura of superstars. It’s just another way that rap and hoops relate to each other. This union has many levels and that shared fabric will always link them.

But if we’re really being honest, if we look at hoops and hip hop’s marriage certificate the date on the paperwork would be November 1st, 1996. This was the date that basketball would get its first hip hop superstar. It’s the date that Allen Iverson made his NBA debut. Throughout this piece, I’ve had to write about an aspect of one arena and compare it to a similar dynamic in the other. That won’t be necessary here because Bubba Chuck was the perfect embodiment of both. He was a hoops dynamo with the rebellious spirit and flair of hip hop. Iverson wasn’t the first NBA player to like rap music. He wasn’t the first to be friends with rappers. He wasn’t the first to rise out of the circumstances a lot of guys talked about in their lyrics. The guys who checked all these boxes in the NBA before him though went through that inevitable transformation that was required to be a part of the association. Not saying they changed who they were as people, but they definitely cleaned up their image so to speak.

Even though the NBA’s popularity exploded in the 80’s, it was still a turbulent time for the league. There were fights, rampant drug use and frankly people saw the league as too black. David Stern was determined to change the image of the league. The arrival of Michael Jordan helped tremendously. MJ was clean cut, had a wholesome southern upbringing, a million dollar smile and wore suits. It wasn’t hard to convince young men to want to be like the greatest basketball player on Earth. And Mike clearly wasn’t a punk so his masculinity and toughness never came into question. He still wasn’t completely relatable to the people who went to Rucker Park in the summertime. When A.I. came on the scene, he was something totally different. His demeanor was different. His game had a different bop to it. He was one of us. He introduced a move so devastating they tried to outlaw it. His game was violent, explosive, raw and unfiltered. Watching him explode on the scene was like hearing Luke records for the first time. It was something we never saw before. And in postgame interviews, he looked and sounded like us. Baggy clothes and durags weren’t commonplace during media sessions but that changed with A.I. And you couldn’t ignore him because he was the hottest thing smoking in basketball.

Allen Iverson is the connective tissue to this entire piece because he merged hip hop and basketball at the highest level possible. The Rucker was a movement but it was its own entity. The And 1 era was historic but it still existed outside of the establishment. A.I. brought hip hop to the NBA. He infiltrated the system at the highest level. He brought an image to the league that they worked for years to try to eliminate. He is a cultural icon. And he did it all while staying true to himself. MJ sang Anita Baker songs during games. A.I. was rapping Biggie lyrics. He was hip hop personified. And his talent on the court allowed him to bring rap to a place that evaded it for years. I assure you the powers that be wanted to keep hip hop out of the league. They wanted tailored suits at press conferences not jerseys. But in 1996, hip hop came to the NBA and the marriage is going on 25 years. Ultimately, hip hop and basketball are like Shock G and Humpty Hump. They are inseparable; two sides of the same coin.

Hoopers are literally rappers. Shaq went platinum. The DNA has always been mixed. Cam’ron came up in one of the greatest eras of NY point guards and held his own against all of them in high school. Dudes are still having freestyle battles and guys are playing 1 on 1 right now as you read this. Rap and basketball share a symbiotic bond that is damn near spiritual within our culture. It’s a legacy that’s going to be carried on forever. When you see Jamal Crawford hooping in a pair of S. Dot’s, that’s hip hop. Seeing this relationship develop from infancy into what it is now is nothing short of amazing. We went from Master P playing in the league to LeBron serving as A & R on a 2 Chainz project. Hip hop and basketball have moved beyond sharing a bond. They are one in the same.

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