America’s favorite pastime has been baseball, no question about it. But that was in the ‘80s. Things have changed. Although sports like baseball and football are still extremely popular, they have not transcended to connect with this generation.
There are only two forms of entertainment that have broken the barriers of their genre to create a cultural marriage that reaches both young and old: basketball and hip-hop. Over the past 20 years, these forms of entertainment have become more than sport or music; they have become a culture. Now, before I get burned at the stake for making such outlandish claims, I urge you to hear me out on why the two separate entities have impacted American culture in a way that other sports and music never could.
One of the similarities we see right away is that they both glorify the testimonies of those climbing the ladder from humble beginnings to a life of success. The Notorious B.I.G. hits this topic in “Things Done Changed,” “Because the streets is a short stop. Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”
What Biggie references in his song is the sad reality that the only thing keeping some kids off the streets is their basketball ability. Numerous players can relate to this narrative. A great example is LeBron James.
“I was a kid who grew up in the inner city. There’s the notion that you either play basketball or sell drugs. That’s it. There’s no out,” LeBron said when asked about how he related to Kendrick Lamar’s song “HUMBLE.”
LeBron grew up in Akron, Ohio in a single parent household. Kendrick Lamar is a native of Compton, Calif. Despite being from different parts of the country, they both grew up in neighborhoods where most kids end up living lives that involve gangs and drugs. Overcoming this stereotype is a quality that many basketball players and hip-hop artists have in common. LeBron is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time and Lamar is considered to be the king of west coast rap.
LeBron also considers himself to be a hip-hop enthusiast. Whether it’s jumping on stage with Drake and Travis Scott, or sharing which song he’s vibing to on his Instagram story; he is the bridge that connects hip-hop and basketball.
Sometimes it’s not enough to have similar backgrounds. There have been a lot of rappers that have flirted with basketball careers and basketball players that have attempted rap careers.
Rap artist Drake sums it up perfectly on his track “Thank Me Now” from his debut album Thank Me Later” when he says, “I swear sports and music are synonymous. Cause we want to be them and they want to be us.”
Drizzy may not have the skills to make it on the court (see University of Kentucky Midnight Madness game, 2014). However, he broke his way into the NBA in 2013 when he was announced as the new global ambassador for the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors hired Drake for a very simple reason: to make their team cool. Since his arrival, the Raptors have reached new heights. Their fanbase is know as one of the most passionate in the NBA, and the team has consistently been one of the top teams in the eastern conference.
There have been plenty of NBA players that have tried to break their way into the rap scene. Some attempts have been more forgettable than others; nobody will remember Kobe Bryant or Tony Parker for their debut rap songs.
But Damian Lillard, all-star point guard of the Portland Trail Blazers, has made some noise in the rap world in recent years. Under the name of Dame D.O.L.L.A., Lillard first turned heads when he performed a freestyle rap on SiriusXM hip-hop show “Sway in the Morning.” The video has over 8 million views on YouTube.
While it’s been common, players releasing their own rap songs or even promoting rap culture wasn’t always embraced by the NBA. The stage needed to be set for players like Lillard to express themselves through rap. Allen Iverson accomplished this but not without overcoming obstacles.
Iverson, an NBA hall-of-fame player, is very well known for his style of clothes. Shorts and shirts that were three sizes too big with a durag and baseball hat was the style that embodied hip-hop in the early 2000s.
He released a rap album during the height of his stardom and received some heavy criticism. NBA commissioner at the time, David Stern, said that Iverson’s lyrics were “coarse, offensive, and anti-social.”
Fifteen years after the backlash from his album, Iverson admits that his rap venture was regretful. “Looking back on it, it’s embarrassing when I think of all the kids that could’ve ended up hearing all the things I was saying and portraying someone that obviously I’m not because it was gangster rap and I’m not a gangster,” Iversion said in an interview with Complex.
If Iverson were playing in today’s NBA, he would’ve been accepted for his personality. In today’s league, players make fashion statements all the time and create music that isn’t frowned upon. His decisions weren’t perfect, but it definitely set the stage for others to embrace who they are and create art.
The long-standing relationship between basketball and hip-hop culture goes beyond the songs heard during warm-ups. It surpasses the highlight compilations that preview the NBA finals featuring songs from popular rappers. The marriage between hip-hop and basketball has lasted through the people that have embraced it as part of their own culture.
Basketball and hip-hop will continue to persevere through the generations. After reading this I encourage you to watch the games, listen to the music and embrace the culture.