Pay-per-views, Reddit rabbit holes — and a semi-ridiculous new TBS show: battle rap is back — if it ever left The gloves-off battles are sweaty, verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces

On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.

The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.

Iron Solomon vs. Rum Nitty

For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.


The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.

Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers.

“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.

Shells and Jae Millz

Mychal Watts/WireImage for KSA Publicity

The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.

Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.

Eminem in 8 Mile which was one of the first time mainstream America got a glimpse into battle raps.

Universal Pictures

But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.

Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness.

Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.

The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.

While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.

Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.

Courtesy of Underground Rap League

“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”

Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.

Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.

There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.

And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.

The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”

America is comfortable with protesting athletes on their screens, but not in their stadiums In the movies and on TV, white players join in and no one demands athletes kneel on their own time

From Curt Flood to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to Colin Kaepernick, there’s a long tradition of black athletes standing up for themselves and the rights of others.

Such protests are highly controversial, both with authority figures in sports and with fans: Carlos and Smith were immediately banned from the Olympic Village, Abdul-Rauf’s NBA career came to an early end and President Donald Trump called players who kneel during the national anthem “sons of b—-es” and demanded they be fired. Some of those still-employed kneeling players met with NFL owners earlier this week to discuss a path forward.

Yet when America sees protesting athletes in movies and on TV, the dynamic is different from what happens in real life. Really, really different.

In the idealized settings of television and film, just as in real life, the protests come with great cost and risk. Still, when screen athletes stand up for their principles, not only do they win, they’re clearly identified as the “good guys.”

Audiences are comfortable with fictional athletes who stand up to corporate bullies, in part because movies and TV demand character development. Even when fictional players begin as compliant automatons, being told what to do and how to do it, their personal journeys are characterized by growth and self-awareness. There’s an expectation that once athletes discover their power and witness injustice, they will be compelled to act. After all, a bunch of guys looking at a problem and shrugging their shoulders doesn’t make for good drama.

But those expectations don’t translate well to real life, as polling data on NFL player protests has shown.

When fans and political critics demand that players “stick to sports,” they’re saying they want the excitement of games and terrific athletic ability, but they want it divorced from players’ full humanity. They want the action sequences, but no plot or character development. Which is how we get people saying athletes should protest “on their own time” — essentially, after the credits have run and no one’s watching.

In TV and film, once we’ve gotten to know characters as people who have the same emotional needs as we do, it becomes easier to digest the necessity of their protests. Their motivations drive our sympathy. We want them to win.

The racial dynamic is different on-screen as white characters are cast as protest leaders. And these works also communicate why the element of public spectacle is so important: It raises the stakes. Public or near-public showdowns are a key trope in these stories because they’re seen as necessary to achieving the desired results.

Here’s a look at some of the movies and television shows in which athletes stood up to the man(agement):

Survivor’s Remorse (2014-17)

Courtesy of Starz

The recently canceled Starz comedy starred Jessie T. Usher as Cam Calloway and Chris Bauer as Jimmy Flaherty, the owner of Cam’s professional basketball team in Atlanta. The two have a few standoffs, but the disagreement between Cam and Jimmy that carries special resonance these days comes after Flaherty signs a $5 million contract with a firm to put advertising patches on players’ jerseys. The problem is that the company is the second-largest funder of private prisons in the country. Cam, flanked by his lawyer and manager, tells Flaherty he won’t play as long as the patches are on the jerseys. Every great fortune may have a great crime behind it, but this is where he draws the line.

This standoff takes place in the arena, hours before tipoff, and Flaherty, who knows he can’t win without Cam, backs down. This confrontation takes place not in the first season but at the end of the fourth, after we’ve had plenty of episodes to witness how Cam’s activism has been inspired by the suffering he sees around him, and after we know that Cam’s commitment to criminal justice reform is motivated in part by his own father’s imprisonment. Not only that, we know that Cam is generous to a fault. His manager is constantly trying to talk him out of giving away more of his money. If Cam hadn’t taken a stand on the patches, it would seem unnatural given what we’ve learned about the content of his character.

Varsity Blues (1999)

The cast of Varsity Blues.

Getty Images

I forgive you if the only thing you can remember about this movie is Ali Larter in a whipped-cream bra, but it really did have a bigger message.

James Van Der Beek starred as Jonathan Moxon, a backup quarterback for a Texas high school football team that has won two state titles under coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight). But Kilmer is merciless, racist and megalomaniacal — traits the school and community at large are happy to overlook so long as he keeps adding wins to West Canaan High’s record books.

Kilmer uses his star black running back, Wendell (Eliel Swinton), as little more than a mule, repeatedly deploying him for physically taxing runs but never allowing him to score a touchdown. The audience is treated to a bruising up-close-and-personal experience of those hits and the toll they exact on Wendell’s body. They’re gruesome.

Moxon is talented but not nearly as invested in football as his father or his coach are. And he hates Kilmer’s racism and mercenary disregard for the health of his players. Moxon gets tapped to lead the team because first-stringer and all-state quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) suffers a career-ending injury. It’s Kilmer’s fault — he insisted on pumping Harbor full of cortisone and forcing him to play until he was no longer physically able, costing him a college football scholarship.

When Moxon starts calling his own plays, gets Wendell into the end zone and generally pisses off his coach while still winning, Kilmer goes ballistic. He threatens to alter Moxon’s transcripts and derail his plan to attend college on an academic scholarship. But Moxon’s teammates have had enough of Kilmer’s antics, and they mutiny during halftime of the final game of the season. Kilmer’s team will only take the field of the second half without him, and the coach must relent or risk further public humiliation. The team wins the game, and Kilmer is forced to leave West Canaan and football for good.

The Longest Yard (2005)

In this remake of the original 1974 film that starred Burt Reynolds, prison inmates play a football game against a group of racist, sadistic prison guards who are constantly abusing their power.

In the 2005 version, Adam Sandler plays Reynolds’ role of washed-up quarterback Paul Crewe. Crewe isn’t an easy person to root for. Besides point-shaving, Crewe endangers himself and others when he gets drunk and leads police on a high-speed car chase in his girlfriend’s Bentley.

When he gets to prison, the warden, Rudolph Hazen (James Cromwell), forces Crewe to assemble a ragtag team of prisoners to give the guards an easy, confidence-boosting win before their season playing against guards from other prisons begins. The other prisoners sign on because they see an opportunity to give the guards a taste of their own depraved behavior. They’re comically bad at first, but under Crewe’s stewardship, they pull together. They start to develop hope and confidence of their own. Maybe they can really win this thing!

The black prisoners, led by Cheeseburger Eddy (Terry Crews), are loath to join the team until another prisoner, Megget (Nelly), is forced to swallow his dignity and pride. The guards confront Megget in the prison library and repeatedly call him “n—–,” in an attempt to cajole him into a fight. Megget resists the bait but relishes the opportunity to get his revenge on the field.

Once game day arrives, the prisoners are unaware that Hazen has made a deal with Crewe to throw the game. Crewe must comply or face life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, one that resulted in the death of his closest jail friend, Caretaker (Chris Rock).

When the big day arrives, Crewe starts out leading the prisoners in what looks like a rout of the guards. Hazen reminds Crewe what he has to lose, and Crewe begins to throw the game. But he has a crisis of conscience and tells his teammates what’s happening. He decides to try to beat the guards anyway, leading the prisoners to a game-tying touchdown and a two-point conversion to win as the clock runs out.

In both Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the protests are led by charismatic white quarterbacks who have their own grievances but are happy to loop in those of black players as well. Would kneeling be more acceptable if Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady had started doing it first, citing the same reasons as Kaepernick? Would Brady and Rodgers be criticized as un-American and unpatriotic, or praised for their compassion and for using their privilege to help minorities? And if the reactions to them would be different from those to Kaepernick or other black players, what does that say?

Both The Longest Yard and Varsity Blues feature unambiguously terrible antagonists in the warden, prison guards and Kilmer. They paint pictures of racists as unsubtle, selfish and uncultivated. They portray bigotry as a problem of individual extremists rather than something that’s endemic to the country. Again, we’re faced with the luxuries afforded by (admittedly uncomplicated) character development. If we don’t know NFL players and owners as well as we know the characters in these movies, how do we judge their actions?

The White Shadow (1978-81)

Ken Howard (right) portrayed high school basketball coach Ken Reeves and Byron Stewart (left) portrayed student and athlete Warren “Cool” Coolidge in the CBS series The White Shadow.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Ken Howard stars as Ken Reeves, a former player for the Chicago Bulls who injured his knee, ending his professional career. One of his college teammates, Jim Willis (Ed Bernard), offers him a job coaching basketball at the dilapidated, majority-black Carver High School in Los Angeles. The team is a band of undisciplined misfits — Reeves has a bad habit of referring to them as “animals.”

Carver’s star player, James Hayward (Thomas Carter), needs a job to care for his mother, who has ulcers, and his siblings because their father is dead. Another player, Curtis Jackson, doesn’t want to face the fact that he has a drinking problem.

Unlike the other examples here, the relationship between Reeves and the team is more symbiotic than purely adversarial. The chief conflict doesn’t hinge on Reeves being a bad person. Rather, Reeves is blindly navigating his new job and everything it entails. He’s in charge of a group of players who talk back and who are skeptical of authority because they’ve learned that no one expects much of them. The state of Carver’s campus — strewn with detritus, missing letters on its signage — communicates to its students that they don’t matter much. And if the students know they don’t matter, how is anyone going to be able to get them to care about school?

Vice principal Sybil Buchanan (Joan Pringle) acts as interpreter and student advocate in her interactions with Reeves, giving a credible voice to the players’ concerns. She tells Reeves he’s not a “white knight” and won’t be able to swoop in to the school and fix everything in 20 minutes. She’s indignant when Reeves enlists the team to move him into his new apartment on a Saturday for free, telling him the days of slave labor are over. Reeves and Buchanan are working toward the same goal, which is helping the students. But she and the basketball team are teaching a man who probably doesn’t think he’s racist not to behave like one. Created by Bruce Paltrow, The White Shadow offers a more nuanced view of race and racism than The Longest Yard or Varsity Blues. And it also says something about what it takes to be a useful ally.

Eddie (1996)

Whoopi Goldberg (center) starred in Eddie.

Getty Images

Eddie (Whoopi Goldberg) is a limo dispatcher and devoted New York Knicks fan who wins a public relations contest to coach the floundering team. There’s a twist though: Eddie’s a pretty decent coach. Fans like her.

Eddie becomes more than a novelty act. She quickly discovers there’s more to coaching than calling plays. She’s the team’s chief haranguer, marriage counselor, therapist and mother. Her pestering and rule-setting pays off, and the team starts not only winning but also enjoying basketball again. They lose their arrogance and sense of entitlement once they realize they have a person who cares about them as more than ball-dribbling widgets to be yelled at, traded and cut. She’s a real coach.

Meanwhile, the team’s owner, “Wild Bill” Burgess (Frank Langella), a Texas billionaire oil baron, has decided to convert the Knicks’ unbelievable good fortune into profits — by secretly negotiating a move that would send the team to St. Louis.

Eddie, once she gets wind of the plan, stands up to the man whose ego is about as inflated as the 10-gallon Stetson on his head. Burgess sees the Knicks as chess pieces he can move about the country at his pleasure. When he won’t listen to Eddie privately, she takes their disagreement public, revealing Burgess’ plans to a packed house at Madison Square Garden and daring him to censure her for it. After Eddie risks the job she loves and the cushiest salary she’s ever had in her life, it’s not just her team who backs her up. It’s the city of New York.

In Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the athletes in question are not millionaires. The audience doesn’t have to overcome feelings of class resentment to sympathize with them. But what happens when that’s not the case? What happens when the players in revolt are professionals who make piles and piles of money?

You use an intermediary.

Eddie received terrible reviews when it was released in 1996, but it’s really smart about one thing: It uses Eddie first as a vehicle for criticizing spoiled players. And then, once it’s clear that Eddie is a sports fan, just like the audience, the perspective of who is “good” and “bad” begins to shift. Once we see Eddie and the Knicks players as part of the same team, working toward the same goal of making the NBA playoffs, we’re willing to accept their revolt — which, again, is public — against Wild Bill.

There’s a delicate balance that’s achieved, and there’s a thoughtfulness in positioning Eddie this way. When she stands up to Wild Bill, she’s a fan advocating for other fans. Eddie comes the closest of these shows to placing fans (particularly the ones who have been vocal about wanting athletes to sit down and shut up) on the same side as the pro athletes who make so much more than they do. Even though the movie isn’t directly about race, it illustrates how being rich doesn’t automatically zero out the balance on life’s problems. It doesn’t matter how much money you make if your boss simply sees you as a moneymaking property, and that’s a sentiment any populist can get behind.

Rapper Dupre ‘Doitall’ Kelly now wants to do politics and join the Newark, New Jersey, City Council Member of ’90s group Lords of the Underground says arts and culture can create jobs

It was the early ’90s. 1993 to be exact. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was top of the charts. “Whoomp There It Is” by Tag Team was rocking clubs. “That’s The Way Love Goes” by Janet Jackson was the swoon fest of probably the decade. And this was all according to Billboard‘s top charts. Meanwhile, BET crowned Lords of the Underground, a hip-hop trio from Newark, New Jersey, as the best rap group for hits from their album released March 6 of that same year, Here Come the Lords.

Twenty-four years later, group member Dupre “Doitall” Kelly has traveled the world, achieved fame, and is now bringing his talent back to his hometown. He is running for another title — an at-large council seat in Newark. If elected next year, he will be the first platinum-selling hip-hop artist to be elected to public office in a major U.S. city.

Newark is no stranger to being led by men within the arts community, as poet Ras Baraka, son of the late Amiri Baraka, serves as mayor. Kelly is a native of Newark’s West Ward, where he attended public school and honed his craft as a rapper. He attended Shaw University, a historically black university in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he became a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. With his group he earned platinum and gold success, and as an actor he appeared in hit shows such as The Sopranos, Oz and Law & Order.

He currently serves as co-founder and executive director of 211 Community Impact, a nonprofit that promotes literacy, good health and giving. Alongside a host of other organizations in early 2017, Kelly helped raise funds to purchase a lift bus for children at John F. Kennedy School in Newark.

After a meeting with his campaign staff, Kelly spoke with The Undefeated about his run for City Council.


How did you decide to engage in politics?

My decision was made because of my journey through living the hip-hop culture and seeing how it has grown into a culture that influences and inspires the world. I decided, why not use it to help my community on an elected-official level?

Why is it important for hip-hop to have representation in government?

It is super important to have someone at the table of politics that understands and speaks the language of the community. For the last 20 years, hip-hop culture has been the most popular on this planet and is indeed a movement by definition. Hip, meaning in the now, and hop being a form of movement. If looked at that way, you can see that hip-hop is the now movement.

How do you feel about Jay-Z’s latest album?

I feel like it’s part of the evolution of hip-hop. The points and subjects Jay chose to address with a feel of honesty were topics that a 25-year-old Jay-Z would have never talked about. The experiences that he has encountered on his journey, using hip-hop as the vehicle allowed him to articulate to the rest of the hip-hop community and beyond in such a way that in my mind displayed his genius.

Do you hope more people within the hip-hop culture engage in local government?

Yes, I pray so. I hope to be the spark that ignites the flame of any and everyone who has a platform that can galvanize citizens in every city. If that happens, we can really effectively make changes in our communities.

What plans do you have for the city of Newark?

I plan on making a greater investment into our youth by bringing new innovative ideas that will generate revenue through arts and culture that can be used to spur job creation. Keep our young people engaged and residents invested into making the quality of life better for everyone in every ward of the great city of Newark, New Jersey.

What did people say when you decided to run?

It depends on which person you or I ask. When asking seasoned political figures, they would say, ‘Maybe you should wait until the next election to be ready.’ If you asked a person from 35 to 55 years old, they would say, ‘You have my vote and I’m with you.’ If you asked a 25- to 34-year-old, they would say, ‘You are going to win this by a landslide,’ but clearly don’t know what it takes to enter into a political race, let alone win one. If you ask an 18- to 24-year-old, they want to know more about me and once they find out, by searching the internet and doing their research of what I have done in the community, they also say that they are with me. The 60-year-olds-and-over residents want to know who I am, but more importantly where I stand on certain issues and policies.

Interesting theory based upon age ranges. How old are you?

Well, if you have heard the classic Lords of the Underground single ‘Funky Child,’ the intro begins with ‘The year is 1971.’ … I will let you math experts figure out what age that makes me. [Laughs.]

Who are you mirroring this campaign off?

I am mirroring chess players like grandmaster and Hall of Famer Maurice Ashley and Garry Kasparov.

What is your mission statement for your campaign?

My mission is [to] add on to the great things that are happening in the city of Newark, New Jersey, and help create bigger and better opportunities for the residents, entrepreneurs and local businesses. I also will talk to the people of the community in every ward to work on a solution to get residents to come from out of their individual silos, making every neighborhood in the entire city inclusive. When people love their city, they can change it.

As someone passionate about our home teams, will the New Jersey Devils win the Stanley Cup this year?

Absolutely. (Laughs)

LL Cool J talks hoops, giving back and being a Kennedy Center honoree ‘Wherever I go, hip-hop goes. When I stand there, I’m standing there for the culture.’

LL Cool J is often mentioned as one of hip-hop’s young pioneers who burst onto the scene years ago and remains a relevant staple in culture. His head-bumping beats, charismatic concrete rhymes, and swagger of a Kangol bucket hat and heavy gold chains introduced hip-hop in a way that can never be ignored, only used as a blueprint.

His first single in 1987, “I Need a Beat,” put the music label Def Jam on the map. Thirteen albums later, at 49 years old, rap’s first sex symbol will be the Kennedy Center’s youngest honoree since Stevie Wonder and the only hip-hop honoree in the center’s 40-year history. It’s no coincidence that the Grammy Award winner hosted the Grammy Awards five consecutive years from 2012-16. And then there’s acting. He’s starred in several hit films and shows, which landed him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year.

August 2017 marks the 13th year that the Queens, New York, native is holding his annual Jump & Ball community camp in his hometown. The summer camp is free, and hundreds of kids participate in competitive basketball as well as double Dutch, chess, kickball and handball.

At Daniel O’Connell Playground in Hollis, Queens, LL spoke with The Undefeated about his commitment to giving back to his hometown, how Michael Jordan’s dominance in the game corrupted his New York Knicks fandom, his report card on Magic Johnson’s leadership at the Los Angeles Lakers and, of course, hip-hop and fashion.

Using a line from his ’90s hit “Mama Said Knock You Out”: Don’t call it a comeback; I’ve been here for years. With more than 30 years in the game, LL Cool J is not slowing down one bit.


What started Jump & Ball, and what keeps it going as it celebrates its 13th year?

I know from growing up in this neighborhood [Southeast Queens] that there’s nothing to do. My grandmother always told me that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, so when you don’t have anything to do, you’re on the corner [selling drugs]. I wanted to give the kids in the community something to look forward to. There were a lot of hustlers out here when I was growing up. They weren’t doing everything right, but they would throw ball tournaments. And for us as kids, we were like, ‘Wow, we’re having fun.’ I wanted to do it the right way and pay it forward, back to the kids.

For 12 years, I was just throwing basketball tournaments and letting the kids play ball. But we have kids looking up to players like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, so I felt this year going forward that I needed to introduce them to a little more structure where they could learn skills and how to play competitively.

How would you describe Queens, New York? What does it mean to you?

For me, it’s home sweet home, but it’s something different to everyone. If you came out here and got your chain snatched, it might not mean the same thing to you that it means to me (laughs). But I love being here; it’s a family. I just want to keep doing the right thing for them and keep it going.

Are you still a recovering New York Knicks fan?

I’m a loyal New Yorker, but I’m going to keep it absolute 100 with you: Michael Jordan ruined everything for [all other players for me]. I was trying to be a Knicks fan, but MJ was killing the game. But, yes, I’m a Knicks fan first. I love my man [Charles] Oakley and Anthony Mason. Antoine Mason, Anthony’s son, is an unbelievable player too. I’m in Los Angeles, but I’ll never be a transplant. That’s never going to happen! The idea that I’ll be in L.A. and become a pure L.A. guy is ridiculous. I’m New York all the way.

How do you feel your friend Magic Johnson is doing as the new Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations?

That’s my great friend, I love him, and I’m just so happy for him. I believe in what Magic is doing with the Lakers. He has the right formula and understands the players and life after basketball. Look at me, it’s like I’m doing recruiting for the Lakers (laughs). Lonzo [Ball] is going to be incredible. His father is hilarious; shoutout to the entire Ball family.

You’ve been a huge supporter of the BIG3 tournament. What drove that fandom?

It was a genius idea by [Ice] Cube. I love to watch Al Harrington, DeShawn Stevenson and all these guys go out there and play. It’s going to keep getting better and better. Players can go from Jump & Ball, then a Division I or II college, maybe the NBA afterwards and then the BIG3 league. The BIG3 is a perfect complement to the NBA for the players that get out but still want to hoop. It’s crazy dope.

LL Cool J spins a basketball during week four of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Wells Fargo Center on July 16, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Rob Carr/BIG3/Getty Images

Is hip-hop evolving or do you feel it’s losing heart?

[You have to first ask yourself,] ‘Lost heart to who?’ If you’re a 35-year-old and you grew up listening to one thing and now you have a 15-year-old listening to another thing, then maybe it lost heart to you in that sense. But from an artist to fan connection, it hasn’t lost any heart. I feel the connection is as strong as ever. I’m always going to love the culture of hip-hop and be a believer of its original foundation. I’ll forever be LL Cool J The Original, but at the same time, I don’t have a problem with new music. There are a lot of great artists out here … but there’s always going to be someone putting out some garbage [music], whether it’s 1987 or 2077.

How does it feel to be the first hip-hop artist to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors?

I would have never imagined it in my wildest dreams. Wherever I go, hip-hop goes. When I stand there, I’m standing there for the culture. I’m not standing there necessarily with or against the powers that be. I’m standing there for the hip-hop culture.

You recently did a photo shoot with [fashion designer] Marc Jacobs and Salt-N-Pepa for the fashion issue cover of InStyle Magazine. What inspires your style?

My style is inspired by where I’m at right now [Queens]. I just have the resources to maybe get every piece instead of just one now. I can wear what I have on right now for a magazine cover or if I was at Mr. Chow’s [restaurant]; it would look fancy. But here in Queens, it looks regular. I didn’t forget where I came from. I dress, talk and walk the same. I’m just growing and making my dreams come true.

It’s no surprise Drake dropped three new tracks — here are the three reasons why He owned ‘Summer Sixteen,’ and now Aubrey Graham’s quest to stay relevant this summer has officially begun

On the last track of his long-awaited playlist More Life, which was released mid-March, Drake did the unthinkable: In the final four lines of the song, he informed the world that he was taking a sabbatical from music. Even more shocking, the Toronto hitmaker professed that the time off would take place during a time of the year when he always flourishes creatively.

Takin’ summer off, ’cause they tell me I need recovery / Maybe gettin’ back to my regular life will humble me / I’ll be back in 2018 to give you the summary / More life, Drake floated on the playlist’s 22nd track, titled “Do Not Disturb.”

The declaration itself is jarringly out of character, and its contents are strange. For the past four years, when the weather heats up, school’s out and the rooftop parties are in full swing, it’s inevitable that the season’s soundtrack is brought to you by Drizzy. Receipts below:

2016

One Dance,” “Controlla,” “Too Good (featuring Rihanna),” you name it. “Summer Sixteen” — the name of his track that inspired a 60-show journey across North America with Atlanta rapper Future, the highest-grossing hip-hop tour of all time — belonged to Drake, all sparked by the release of his fourth studio album, Views, in April 2016.

2015

The smash hit “Hotline Bling” sticks out, but don’t forget the two diss tracks directed at Meek Mill, “Charged Up” and “Back to Back,” from which the Philly rapper has yet to recover.

2014

Diddy gave Drake a beat and asked him to ghostwrite for it. But Drake took it for himself and delivered the undeniable “0 to 100/The Catch Up” in July 2014 — one of his definitive tracks that never made one of his albums.

2013

Drake gave us the smooth “Hold On We’re Going Home” in August 2013, which teed up one of the best albums — if not the best — of his career, Nothing Was the Same.


After such prolific summers, how would Drake take off in 2017?

It looked like he wouldn’t. Until now. But Drake recently made his way onto three new tracks. There’s the Louis Vuitton 2018 spring/summer runway theme “Signs,” a remix of PartyNextDoor’s “Freak in You” and a Metro Boomin-produced collaboration with Migos rapper Offset, titled “No Complaints.”

As his trademark season was approaching, Drake’s bold proclamation at the end of “Do Not Disturb” proved to be a bluff. He couldn’t resist the urge to release music this summer, and here are the reasons:

  • For a brief moment, Drake wasn’t the man anymore

Nearly a month after More Life dropped, Drake became a bit of an afterthought because of the release of the already certified platinum album DAMN., from Kendrick Lamar. The drop had to irk Drake at least a little bit, for the simple fact that it was Kendrick. Those two have been going at it for years, with a subtle beef dating back as far as 2013. And now, to Drake’s chagrin, Kendrick is the current leader in the clubhouse of critical acclaim.

  • Jay Z is set to drop his first album in four years

I shouldn’t even worry, backward n—-s / 12 solo albums, all platinum, n—- / I know you ain’t out here talkin’ numbers, right? / I know you ain’t out here talkin’ summers, right? These are Jay Z’s seminal lines from DJ Khaled’s Grateful track “Shining” (also featuring Beyoncé) that debuted in early 2017. Was Hov taking a shot at Drake? That’s what everyone thinks. Even though Drizzy began his career by rapping I never cried when ’Pac died / But I probably will when Hov does, asserting his admiration for the man many consider the greatest of all time— GOAT of hip-hop. The two MCs have butted heads quite a bit over the years, through bars and petty chess moves. Drake continued the trend with three new tracks on the brink of Jay Z releasing 4:44, his first album since 2013. Coincidence? Probably not.

  • Drake’s personal life became a bigger focus than the music

Not once, but twice, since the release of More Life, claims have been made that Drake has gotten a woman pregnant. First, a former stripper named Layla Lace alleged that the Toronto artist was the father of her unborn child, though the rumor was quickly dispelled. Then, TMZ reported that former porn star Sophie Brussaux was pregnant with Drake’s child — and she’s got a baby bump to support her claim. “If it is in fact Drakes child, which he does not believe, he would do the right thing by the child,” one of the artist’s reps said in a statement to the New York Daily News. So, in a way, the new music is a proclamation from Drake that, after all that’s happened out of the studio in the past few months, “I’m still here.”

Regardless of why you think Drake made a return, the reality is he’s back with new music that will certainly be in rotation this summer. The question, though, is this: Is there a new summer 17 project from the 6 God in the works? We shall see.

Baltimore kid stunts on chess tournament in Nike slides Cahree Myrick is a gawd for this

When I grow up, I want to be like Cahree Myrick.

I didn’t know who he was until this morning when this crossed my desk. I have no context for this photo other than what’s tweeted. Alec Ross, by the way, is running for governor in Maryland. But his political career aside, let’s talk about the sport.

Chess, for years, was the purview of dudes on park benches and European dudes who took things extremely seriously. Over the past decade, it’s grown quite a bit in the black community, with after-school programs being the primary vehicle. Here’s a story about one in Ferguson, Missouri, for example. As a concept though, the effect of teaching black kids to play chess is such a marvel that it’s been the subject of pretty serious academic study, too. You might be familiar with Maurice Ashley, the first black chess grandmaster, who’s been at the forefront of this movement.

But let’s talk about this kid. I have a kid brother in middle school. He dresses exactly like this every day possible. When I was his age, I dressed exactly like this, every day possible. It was my outfit for walking to the gas station to get snacks, maybe hitting the mall with a friend or lounging at my cousin’s house. This young man decided to rock it to a chess championship. And he won.

I have no clue what any of his competitors wore, but I like to imagine that they wore the kind of stuff your parents forced you to wear to Sunday school — you know, just in case someone took a picture. My man Cahree rolled up in some slides, banged a couple of checkmates and walked away with a trophy.

This is black boy joy.