By R. Preston ClarkMoney Manziel,
The same eyes gazed upon its glow. An exit sign, from predicaments, circumstance and generational angst. Some got the chance to pick. Others were picked themselves. Glide across stages with rhythm in your sway, a mic in your hand, lyrics flowing from the cracks in your neighborhood sidewalk. Or pick up a ball and shoot jumpers like your future rested upon each swish or every would-be tackler was a sacrifice to your future earnings. The ballers came first, rising out of the ashes to give their families an opportunity to prosper. But the emcees came roaring from behind, seeing each other’s struggle in every lyric, every rhyme, the backstory different yet the destination all the same. The ballers and the emcees, they just wanted to leave…
Hip-hop scared everyone outside of those it aimed to free from their societal bondage. Acts like N.W.A. blew the doors open on mainstream rap. Run DMC were the first to truly cross over; the mainstream was not scared of them. N.W.A. frightened them all and the mere idea of White teenagers filling their ears with such blatantly defiant music and its loose usage of the N-word put middle-aged White America on skates.
“Hip hop culture has an enormous place in the locker room for today’s athlete,” said Coley Harvey, Cincinnati Bengals beat reporter for ESPN. “Whether it’s in the language and idioms players use in everyday conversation, or the music booming from the speakers or the off-field fashions constantly on display in pre- and post-game settings, hip hop’s influence is everywhere.”
For many Black youth in the 80s and 90s, hip-hop was more than just music. It was a lifestyle. A state of mind. A culture all its own. It was nothing like anyone had seen before. And it was growing, both in stature and in influence. It was infiltrating neighborhoods across the country and producing legions of followers, practitioners and fans. Black and white teenagers altered their appearance to mimic the culture. Those teenagers were coming to basketball games looking and sounding like the music in their ears.
“It’s what they’re wearing,” said Vinnie Goodwill, Detroit Pistons beat reporter for the Detroit News. “It’s their body language. It’s now acceptable to be themselves.”
Hip-hop’s character was solidified. And as the genre cemented its place in pop culture, so did the rapid growth of the pockets of its most prominent fixtures. Once money is involved, the color of those at the forefront and those behind the scenes tends to blur, and all that matters is green. Hip-hop was a money-making machine and those used to making that money had to find their way in.
The NBA tried its best to avoid it. It never wanted it to become its reality. But a new generation of stars was entering the league and they grew up on the very music that was deemed too raw, gritty and Black for whom the NBA considered to be the everyday consumer.
Despite the overwhelmingly Black representation in the NBA, and to a lesser extent, the NFL, the majority of media covering both sports are still white men. They have not had to adjust so much to a group of players in their careers. They cannot just walk in and be in the know. They have to listen intently and figure out what is leaving the mouths of the players in order to properly disseminate their words to the fans that read them.
“A lot of the White writers have to look up what these terms mean and lots of times it moves into the mainstream lexicon,” Goodwill said. “Now, certain things have become so prevalent in the language itself that you have to come to their level. You don’t have to know hip-hop but you have to understand where these players are coming from.”
Stadiums played it. Commercials used it. Promos featured it. It became difficult to watch an NBA broadcast and not hear hip-hop being played at some juncture. With personalities like Allen Iverson putting a face to this cultural ambush, the league that had built its entire empire on the marketing of its top stars now had to adhere to the tastes of its newest cash cows.
“I actually prefer to hear the squeak of basketball shoes,” said Yahoo! Sports NBA Writer Marc J. Spears. “Perhaps the organ is OK, too. But even as much of a hip-hop fan as I am, I don’t want to feel like [I’m in] a club when I’m at an NBA game.”
It seemed to happen overnight. The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird-Michael Jordan era was on its last legs. Long gone were the days when disco was played on CBS Broadcasts. By the end of the 1990s, ESPN and ABC were frequent users of hip-hop music, preferring to cater to the younger demographic than to the older one. They wanted lifelong fans and were willing to sacrifice a few old ones in order to do so.
“They don’t have to have a cookie-cutter image anymore,” Goodwill said. “Guys like Michael Jordan met the masses where they were. Today, the media has to meet the players where they are.”
Business was changing. Rappers found themselves surrounded by athletes. Athletes surrounded by rappers. Both envious of what the other one got to do every day. Kobe Bryant tried to rap, including his own song featuring Tyra Banks and a guest appearance on a Brian McKnight track. Shaquille O’Neal is the most prolific rapper to come out of the basketball ranks with multiple albums and some significant support from other rappers. Iverson, Ron Artest and Chris Webber all have tried.
Master P tried out for two NBA teams during the rapid rise and fall of his sports management company, No Limit Sports–the first entrant into what now seems a growing trend of rappers looking to get into the sports world on the business side–in the late 90s-early 2000s. No Limit Sports ended up a failure but it made enough of a dent that later Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports was able to learn from No Limit’s mistakes to become a truly impactful agency.
Like NASCAR with heavy metal and horse racing with country, different sports are synonymous with different genres of music. Hip-hop chose the NBA. The on-court product became more and more reminiscent of rap videos. Tattoos splattered on the skin of Black and White players, bravado screamed at opponents and strangers within earshot. Cornrows lined athletes’ heads. The NBA’s league office cringed at its league, needing to corral hip-hop’s influence without alienating that demographic and the players that associate with it.
The NBA was not alone in this cultural shockwave, it just happened to dive in deeper than any other league. Black athletes were not the only ones to be engulfed in the phenomenon, either. Recently, at Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel created a persona oozing with hip-hop undertones. On the surface, it was tweeting Big Sean lyrics and associations with Rick Ross, Drake and other rappers. At its core, it was the way Manziel carried himself. The defiance. The swagger. The utter disregard for authority. His game screamed hip-hop, even if his skin complexion did not.
Tom Brady listens to Jay-Z before games. Tony Parker produced an album and multiple music videos. ESPN’s First Take seems to feature a rapper almost every week with Skip Bayless doing his best to look like he belongs in a conversation with the likes of 2 Chainz and Wale.
“One way you can tell how far-reaching hip-hop’s influence is in the places the athletes shop,” Harvey said. “Where I work in Cincinnati, there’s a hip-hop influenced apparel store that players on the Bengals and Reds often frequent. I can’t imagine you saw that type of overlap a generation ago when hip-hop began sweeping the country.”
The NBA thought its business was going to take a hit. Media pundits and naysayers thought the league was getting too Black, that the incestuous relationship with hip-hop was too risky of a business proposition. Jay-Z purchased an ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets. The Toronto Raptors were nicknamed the Toronto Drakes. Each team grasped for some association with the culture that the league wrongfully thought would lead to its demise.
It was too easy to see the tattoos. Too easy to see the swag in their walks. Too easy to hear the incessant profanity. Too easy to feel the angst being released with every dunk, every foul, every crossover. The NBA let fans closer than anyone else. And these same fans routinely did not look like the athletes they came to see. The league worried that this was a problem and tried instituting a dress code to help ease the personal conduct of its players. Executives did everything they could to overtly halt the ever-growing influence of hip-hop on their league.
“It’s interesting from a micro and macro level,” Goodwill said. “You see players now, you see them integrating the language more in regular interviews. They use language like ‘swag’, ‘turnt up’, and certain phrases that can only be associated with the genre. What it does to the mass media is make them come to their level, in a sense.”
When the primary color is green, everyone adjusts. The media has no stories without the athletes. Owners do not make money without the athletes. Leagues crumble and fall without the athletes. So taking their cultural identity in stride is par for the course. Even if that course is one ran by a generation of stars dripping with the remnants of a culture that defied all logic and gave a legion of young athletes an identity all their own.