From Kurtis Blow To Lil Wayne: The NBA’s Complicated History With Hip-Hop

Hip-hop has become synonymous with the NBA, but the relationship between the two remains complicated.

In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang’s Big Bank Hank rapped “I got a color TV so I can see the Knicks play basketball.” In 1984, Kurtis Blow proclaimed “Basketball is my favorite sport.” From its earliest days, hip-hop has been intrinsically linked to the NBA, not just in terms of shout-outs, but style and swagger, too. In fact, for reasons that probably aren’t coincidental, the genre’s rise to prominence has directly coincided with the league’s leap in global popularity.

Magic donned Converse, MJ launched the Air Jordan franchise, Shaq and A.I. (and dozens of others) recorded rap albums, and today, rappers not only sit courtside, but own portions of franchises … and the NBA has benefited every step of the way, whether they’d be willing to admit it or not. Because the league’s relationship with hip-hop has been — and seemingly always will be — rather tenuous at best, no matter how deep the bond between artists and athletes has become.

That fact was highlighted this past week, when, during the height of All-Star Weekend, Lil Wayne took the NBA to task for allegedly banning him from all events (a spokesperson for the league has denied that accusation). On Tuesday, rapper Wale confronted the announcers at a Wizards/Raptors game after he was dissed on air. And within the past decade, the NBA has implemented a mandatory dress code that many (players included) saw as anti-hip-hop.

So while rappers remain the league’s most ardent supporters, and hip-hop the soundtrack to the game, the NBA has been slow to embrace the genre, and its stars. And, really, that hasn’t changed much over the past two decades. Why? Well, because that was the era when hip-hop truly began to change the game, and, in doing so, threatened to disrupt the all-important bottom line.

“It all seemed to start in the ’90s, when you had guys who grew up on hip-hop, guys who were listening to Run-DMC or N.W.A in high school coming into the league,” Chris Ryan, editor of Grantland’s The Triangle blog, said. “The negative association peaks with Allen Iverson. He made an album, and it’s not regarded as being particularly good, but it was hard-core. And that was surprising, because all the dalliances athletes had with hip-hop before that had been cartoonish, or safe. Iverson was definitely looked down upon by the league, because they perceived athletes like him as threatening to the marketability of the league.”

“You started realizing that the NBA was really concerned by guys like Iverson, or other players of his generation. They were concerned with their image, and they still are, because a large portion of their season-ticket buyers and corporate clients react poorly to the look and the music,” Ben Osborne, editor-in-chief of SLAM magazine, added. “I think the NBA has long sold out the values of a bulk of its players and a bulk of its fans for the sake of the small minority of fans that happen to invest large sums of money in the league.”

And that new generation of players brought with them the style and attitude of the music they listened to: tattoos and baggy shorts became nearly as ubiquitous as the pick-and-roll, sneakers became high fashion, and trash-talk was elevated to an art form. The line between athletes and artists began to blur — Iverson’s controversial album was shelved after pressure from the league, but Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Chris Webber all dropped records (with varying degrees of success) — and the NBA began to worry. That uneasy tension came to a head following the now-infamous 2004 brawl between the Pacers and the Pistons, when players spilled into the stands and fought with fans.

The league’s worst nightmare had come true, and they cracked down hard, suspending four players indefinitely (calling their actions “repulsive”) and implementing a dress code that banned fashions most associated with hip-hop culture, including jeans, hats, large jewelry and Timberland-style boots. The implications were clear: The NBA would no longer stand idly by while hip-hop took over the league.

“That was huge, because the players were dressing like the guys they grew up with; wearing street clothes, representing their culture, representing the streets,” Ryan said. “[NBA commissioner David] Stern instituted all these rules, that was a direct response to the Iverson-ification of the league that was happening in the time.”

“It was anti-personal style and anti-hip-hop, I think to David Stern and league higher-ups, baggy jeans and big T-shirts carried a meaning they didn’t want associated with the NBA,” Osborne said. “It was a huge trampling on players’ rights, as far as I was concerned. It was anti-individuality, and hip-hop has always been individualistic.”

Still, in the time since, relations between the league and hip-hop have warmed slightly, and now, hip-hop is played in every arena, and rappers like Jay-Z and Nelly are even part owners of NBA franchises. That’s due in no small part to the players’ love of both the music and the culture — “It didn’t happen with the NBA’s assistance,” Osborne said. “More like their resistance” — and the genre’s slow acceptance by mainstream America.

“In the end, money determines everything. And hip-hop has become one of the major cultural forces of our time, it’s not only a musical genre but a lifestyle,” Ryan said. “And that speaks to the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture in general. If you would have told Kurtis Blow when he made ‘Basketball’ that in 30 years a guy like him would be the owner of a basketball team that plays in Brooklyn, he would have laughed you off the set of the video.”

So will there ever come a day when the NBA truly embraces hip-hop? You never know … but for now, it seems the league has come to accept that the genre is as much a part of the game as the official Spalding basketball, and, even though they’ll never come out and say it, everyone benefits from their relationship.

“As a whole, it’s pretty healthy, because in an organic sense, a lot of players love rap, and a lot of rappers love basketball,” Osborne said. “But in a corporate sense, the relationship is insincere. [The NBA] can’t think it’s going away, but they remain resistant to embracing it. It should be a warmer relationship, these guys have influence so why don’t you want them talking well of your sport?”

What do you think of the NBA’s relationship with hip-hop? Let us know in the comments below.