It’s become one of those albums that “real heads” use to test your knowledge, the kind of classic release that garners almost universal acclaim that’s only amplified by the fact that so many still sleep on its greatness.
No One Can Do It Better, the West Coast landmark that cemented Ruthless Records as hip-hop’s first West Coast powerhouse label, was released in the summer of 1989. “Boyz n the Hood” was the spark, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton announced Ruthless to the mainstream and Eazy Duz It proved it was no fluke. But No One Can Do It Better showed that the machine was truly rolling, a hit album from the label’s secret weapon — a young rhymer out of Texas who had little in common with the Comptonites he’d found himself writing for.
Tracy Curry becomes The D.O.C.
Tracy Curry was born in Houston, but after moving to Dallas, a teenage Curry joined the Fila Fresh Crew in 1986 with Fresh K and Dr. Rock. The group made the jump to Compton, California, a year later, where an affiliation with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru connected them to fledgling producer Dr. Dre. He was on the cusp of forming a group with local hustler Eazy-E and a creative collective that included young rhymers Ice Cube and MC Ren, along with Dr. Dre’s friends DJ Yella and Arabian Prince. After 1987’s indie compilation N.W.A. and The Posse launched the group and Ruthless Records signed a distribution deal with Priority Records, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E & Co. set to work on N.W.A’s proper debut album. Young Tray Curry, aka The D.O.C. (a nod to N.W.A’s acronym-themed moniker), rose to the fore as a writer for the creative core of Ruthless Records, penning rhymes for the project and Eazy-E’s debut solo album, Eazy Duz It.
Dr. Dre’s eye for talent would lead to superstardom for Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, and The D.O.C. is a major part of that lineage. He was the 18-year-old phenom penning Dr. Dre’s verses and providing N.W.A with much of its voice. He was largely Ice Cube’s verbal foil, as the two writers gave Dr. Dre and Eazy-E much of their musical personas.
But in the summer of 1989, The D.O.C. finally got the spotlight, and he was more than ready. “It’s Funky Enough,” … Better’s most indelible single, announced Curry as the next big thing from Ruthless. Over a sample of Foster Sylvers’ “Misdemeanor,” The D.O.C. kicks a fierce patois-inspired performance, the kind of instant classic single that makes a career. He showcased his lyricism on standout “The D.O.C. and The Doctor,” and Marvin Gaye-sampling “The Formula” was smooth enough for radio. But “It’s Funky Enough” was the anthem.
“They used to call me ‘One Take Willie,’ ” The D.O.C. recalled to HipHopDX in 2011. “We started that. Kurupt is the only other m—–f—- to do that. … I had begged Dre to make that beat. It took me about three f—–‘ months of begging him to make that beat before he finally made it. And those lyrics were actually meant for another song, but I didn’t have no words for that beat yet. So when I went in, I was just gonna lay something so he could finish adding the instrumental s— into the track. And when the beat came on, it just sounded Jamaican. So that’s the character that came out. And I just spit that s—.”
Now 30 years later, No One Can Do It Better sounds like the bridge between famed producer Dr. Dre’s Straight Outta Compton sound — a more groove-driven spin on Bomb Squad-ish sonic textures — and the slow-rolling G-Funk he would make famous in the early 1990s. As such, it remains one of the more important releases in Dr. Dre’s history, in West Coast music and in hip-hop overall. The D.O.C. had strong East Coast influences, from Rakim to The Fresh Prince, and his emphasis on skill made him arguably Ruthless’ most accomplished rhymer — even more so than early Ice Cube.
A life-changing auto accident
But fans know what happened next: After leaving a party in November 1989, an inebriated D.O.C. veered off Ventura Highway and crashed into a divider. His body was flung from the vehicle and into a tree. He suffered severe facial lacerations and throat damage that cost him his vocal cords. The rapper would survive, but nothing was the same after his throat surgery — his famous voice was gone. At 21, one of the hottest rappers in the game had to face the prospect that his career was over. And his friend Dr. Dre told him to let it go.
“He said, ‘They think you’re the king right now. You should go out like that,’ ” The D.O.C. told Sway In The Morning in 2017. “I just couldn’t accept that, you know? It just wasn’t in my DNA. I couldn’t do it.”
After the accident, The D.O.C. would remain a fixture in Dr. Dre’s orbit and seminal in the shaping of ’90s hip-hop. His ghostwriting would feature prominently on N.W.A’s controversial N—-z4Life in 1991, and The D.O.C. wrote Dr. Dre’s first solo single, the soundtrack single “Deep Cover,” which introduced the world to a 19-year-old kid from Long Beach, California, named Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Along with the new star, The D.O.C. co-wrote the classic “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” released in fall 1992 as the monster first single from Dr. Dre’s highly anticipated solo debut. It was The D.O.C. who encouraged Dr. Dre to break away from Eazy-E and Ruthless Records, and it was The D.O.C. who introduced Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, who would launch the infamous Death Row Records in 1992.
The D.O.C.’s career would founder — 1996’s Helter Skelter and 2003’s Deuce went largely unnoticed — but his legacy as a ghostwriter put him at the heart of West Coast hip-hop’s most classic period. He would work with Dr. Dre again on his comeback hit 2001 in 1999, which means The D.O.C. was in the booth for virtually every classic Dr. Dre recorded for the better part of 13 years. He is inextricable from Dr. Dre’s legacy. But everything that he lost, an acrimonious split from Death Row and his admittedly complicated relationship with Dr. Dre has made for dark moments.
“It’s been a real struggle,” he told Kyle Kramer in a 2015 VICE interview. “And I’m sure that I tried to commit suicide a whole bunch of times. Lots of drugs and alcohol, and not being able to do the one thing that you really love doing. It was a real struggle. But through all of it, I never turned my back on anybody. I never said anything ill of anybody. I love and have respect and admiration for everybody in my past.”
The linchpins of West Coast hip-hop are well-documented. Dr. Dre is the master producer. Ice Cube is the angry superstar. 2Pac is the mythologized martyr. And Snoop is the icon. But we should always remember the glue for so many legacies was a guy who came from Texas. A guy who in the summer of 1989 seemed like he was going to rule the world. He dared to name his debut No One Can Do It Better, and for a few months, he was absolutely right.
At the beginning of the 18-month design process of NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first sneaker — the Zoom Freak 1 — Nike’s product team wanted to get to know its newest signature basketball athlete as well as possible. So, during an initial brainstorming session at the brand’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, in the fall of 2017, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar was peppered with every question imaginable, from, What’s your favorite food? to What’s your favorite movie?
“Giannis said his favorite movie was the ‘Prince Akeem movie’ … and we were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” recalled Kevin Dodson, Nike’s global vice president of basketball footwear. Eventually, Dodson and his team figured out what the native of Athens, Greece, meant. “We’re like, ‘Oh … Coming to America.‘ He’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what you call it here. We don’t call it that. We call it the Prince Akeem movie.’ It kind of inspired us, honestly, on a bigger narrative that was about his journey coming to America.”
— Nike.com (@nikestore) August 2, 2019
Nearly two years later, Antetokounmpo’s favorite movie has come to life on his own shoe. Nike Basketball delivers its first international signature athlete a Coming to America-inspired Zoom Freak 1, “embellished with animal print and rich gold accents to mimic the royal garb worn by Prince Akeem upon his formal entrance to the U.S.,” according to a Nike news release. The brand officially collaborated with Paramount Pictures for the release of the sneaker that hit retail on Friday for $120 a pair, along with an apparel collection that features a hat, track jacket, T-shirt and shorts.
As part of the rollout of the shoe, Nike also swapped out America star Eddie Murphy for Antetokounmpo in a recreation of one of the original posters for the movie, which debuted in theaters on June 29, 1988, the day after the 1988 NBA draft. Halfway across the world three years later in 1991, Antetokounmpo’s parents, Charles and Veronica, emigrated from Lagos, Nigeria, to Athens, where he was born in 1994, and raised along with his brothers.
Though the Antetokounmpo family couldn’t afford certain luxuries like cable, Antetokounmpo and his brothers discovered Coming to America during their childhood and fell in love with the film. It tells the story of Prince Akeem Joffer (Murphy), heir to the throne of the fictional African kingdom of Zamunda, who travels to Queens, New York, with his loyal servant and best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) hoping to find true love with a woman who could be his queen. In a weird way, there are some parallels between the journeys of both the fictional Prince Akeem and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In 2013, Antetokounmpo traveled to Brooklyn, New York, with his older brother Thansasis, hoping to be drafted into the NBA. And similar to Prince Akeem — who in Coming to America ultimately falls in love with and marries Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) — Antetokounmpo got his happy ending. He was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Since then, he’s evolved into a three-time All-Star, the 2019 league MVP, and now has a signature sneaker — with a special edition dedicated to his favorite movie.
“It’s a nod to Giannis’ background — his true journey,” Dodson said.
Nike has also teased additional models of Coming to America-themed Zoom Freak 1s, including a “Soul Glo” colorway. (Fun fact: The Jheri curl worn in the movie by Eriq La Salle’s character Darryl Jenks, as well as the fictional Soul Glo franchise was directly inspired by then-Los Angeles Clippers forward and current Oklahoma City Thunder announcer Michael Cage.) Different flavors of Coming to America Zoom Freak 1s should drop before the arrival of the long-awaited sequel to the movie. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that the Coming to America sequel is, in fact, happening, with a scheduled release date of Aug. 7, 2020.
The question is, will Antetokounmpo make a cameo in the new movie. Perhaps as Prince Giannis from a kingdom in Nigeria. At the very least, Prince Akeem and Semmi should definitely rock pairs of Zoom Freak 1s. Make it happen, Paramount. Do it for the culture.
On July 23, 2004, Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, was released on an unsuspecting public. Intended as a summer blockbuster that would cement Berry’s position as a premier talent in Hollywood, it was a disaster. Universally panned, it lost millions and delivered a body blow to a career that had reached unprecedented heights of mainstream success and critical acclaim. Fifteen years later, Berry is still recovering from it.
Looking back, it’s hard to remember how big a star Berry was up until the day Catwoman was released: From 2000 to 2003, she had major roles in four films that topped the box office: 2000’s X-Men, 2001’s Swordfish, 2002’s Bond flick Die Another Day and 2003’s X2: X-Men United. In 2000, she won an Emmy, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe for her title role in HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Then she won the Oscar for best actress for Monster’s Ball, making her the first — and, to this day, the only — black woman to win that award. Not to mention she topped People magazine’s list of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2003. Berry had reached the rarefied air of box-office superstardom and critical praise. It seemed as though any role she could ever want lay in front of her.
Then it all fell apart.
Catwoman was flayed by fans and critics alike. Roger Ebert named it one of his most hated films of all time, and it earned only a fraction of its $100 million-plus budget. Berry’s career would soon turn into a series of calamities and quizzical choices. She endured the consequences of a truism that’s far too evident in America: Black women don’t get excused for their missteps, bombs or losses.
But the actress’ career may have finally course-corrected this summer. Berry co-starred with Keanu Reeves in John Wick 3, which saw her return to the action star form we thought we would be getting since she popped out of the ocean in Die Another Day. Berry whipped around electric one-liners. She was sexy as only she can be. And she kicked a bounty of butt. The movie finished No. 1 at the box office on the weekend it opened in May and has made more than $316 million worldwide so far.
She’s currently executive producing the BET series Boomerang, an update of the 1992 film in which she co-starred with Eddie Murphy and Robin Givens. Later this year she’ll make her directorial debut in the martial arts thriller Bruised alongside John Wick producer Basil Iwanyk.
These endeavors are reminders that Berry’s career is one defined by resilience and talent while being complicated by the intersection of race and extraordinary beauty. If there was any question before, there shouldn’t be now: At 52, Halle Berry has still got it.
Berry’s cinematic beginnings exemplified the tightrope act of navigating Hollywood as a gorgeous black woman. “I came from the world of beauty pageants and modeling,” she told W magazine in 2016. She was the first black woman to represent the United States in the Miss World competition in 1986. “And right away when people heard that, I got discounted as an actor.”
So when Berry was approached by upstart director Spike Lee in 1989 to read for his movie Jungle Fever, she decided to break the stereotype of a pretty face with minimal acting chops. While Lee asked Berry to audition for the role of his wife, Berry wanted to play Vivian, the crack addict.
The result was a landmark appearance that is equal parts tragic and hilarious. A strung-out Vivian debuts opposite of Samuel L. Jackson by yelling 14 derivatives of “m—–f——” in 28 seconds.
“It was an amazing way to start my career, playing a crack ho, be directed by Spike Lee. It was major for me,” she continued in 2016. “It was intentional to not play the gorgeous girl. … I took on roles early on that really didn’t rely on my physical self at all and that was a good way to sort of get some credibility within my industry.”
Berry’s next breakout performance leaned into her beauty. She played the unforgettable Angela in the black excellence extravaganza Boomerang. The movie, directed by Reginald Hudlin, was Berry’s emergence as a sex symbol. Her ability to tame Murphy’s suave playboy character and break David Alan Grier’s nerdy heart was both believable and captivating. Ebert, who gave the movie three stars, said Berry was “so warm and charming you want to cuddle her.” Variety called the movie “an ill-fitting comedy vehicle that’s desperately in need of a reality check” but said Berry was “alluring throughout.”
But Boomerang wasn’t concerned with white audiences or critics. Her character’s short haircut sent black women across America rushing to salons to request the “Halle Berry cut” and helped make her a black household name.
Her legend in black homes grew with her performance in the TV miniseries Queen, based on Alex Haley’s real-life ancestry. Berry was so moved by the story of Haley’s mixed-race heritage and its reflection of her own past — her mother is white and her father is black — she paid her way to New York to audition. “They were talking about the African-American people in Roots,” Berry said in a 1993 interview with Entertainment Weekly, “and about the white people, the plantation owners, but I remember thinking then, ‘What about the people like me who are mixed?’ Queen directly addressed this for me.”
Berry was gaining black fans, becoming recognized as one of the most gorgeous women in pop culture and married star baseball player David Justice, yet white Hollywood still had no clue what to do with her. She would spend the next five years fighting for roles that allowed her to show off her skill as an actor while still seeking roles that showed off her beauty. Often, those roles were mutually exclusive.
Yet she always had an eye toward breaking boundaries for black people in Hollywood. For instance, when she played the cartoonish, seductive secretary in 1994’s The Flintstones, she saw it as an opportunity to include black actors in American staples: “I thought it was very important that the black community be represented in such an American film,” she said in 1995. “Children need to see us in movies like that. The beauty of the role was that color wasn’t even mentioned. I played a black woman who was beautiful, an object of desire. That puts us on equal footing.”
Then when she was called on to act, she was playing a crack addict, again, in Losing Isaiah, a role she, again, had to fight for to prove she could act. “Paramount didn’t want me,” she said during a press interview for the movie. “They didn’t think I could shed the outer part of myself, or that I could go deep enough. … I just don’t want to be typecast as a crackhead or as a glamour girl. I want to do it all.”
That led to her only comedic lead, 1997’s B*A*P*S, directed by Robert Townsend. The movie was widely panned, but it proved that Berry, often in long, audacious nails and hair that stood a foot above her head, could be hilarious in a physical comedy while maintaining her drop-dead gorgeous looks. But she has never been allowed to revisit that type of movie in her career.
Which is why Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the 1999 HBO movie, was such a monumental accomplishment for Berry: It showed every facet of her talent. She was engrossing yet vulnerable, charismatic yet downtrodden. Like a star athlete finally finding the right system in which to show off his or her talents, Introducing (as well as another black cult classic, 1998’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love) seemed made for Berry to put up MVP numbers. She could show depth as an actor without having to be an addict or homeless. She could be beautiful and talented. The ultimate shame, however, is that these roles are few and far between for talented actresses like Berry.
This is the perception of how Hollywood treats its black female stars. They rarely get to be Emma Stone in La La Land, donning high fashion while dancing and singing their way to best actress awards. Jennifer Hudson’s best supporting actress win for Dreamgirls in 2006 is an outlier, because for every one of those awards, there’s Lupita Nyong’o winning best supporting actress for playing a slave or Octavia Spencer’s Oscar-winning role as a maid in The Help.
Berry is no different, and she’s even more blatant an example of this dynamic because her beauty has been so tied to any discussion about her career. Her Golden Globe, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild awards for playing Dorothy Dandridge is an exception to her career when it should have always been the rule.
That star turn kicked off the blazing run from 2000 to 2003. In the X-Men movies, she played Storm, maybe the most recognized black superhero in the world at the time. The movies were seen by millions, and she was a bona fide summer blockbuster star.
Die Another Day and Swordfish (which featured a controversial topless scene) showed that she could be the femme fatale who fans would flock to see. She could finally appear on screen as the desirable figure she’d been painted as in the tabloids.
“I’ve never really explored that part of myself on screen before,” she told cinema.com in 2001. “That’s what was really exciting, and that made me get over the nudity really quickly. Because I saw this as an opportunity to take a black woman to another place where we haven’t gone before. That’s been my struggle to be just a woman in a movie and not let the fact that I’m black hinder me from getting parts that only my white counterparts are able to play.”
Still, a year later, Berry was being critically acclaimed for playing a drug addict in Monster’s Ball, this time winning the Academy Award.
“This moment is so much bigger than me,” she started in her oft-replayed acceptance speech. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me … and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
The celebration over her win was quickly replaced with debates over what types of black roles win awards, especially as it came in tandem with Denzel Washington winning the Oscar for best actor for Training Day a decade after getting snubbed for playing Malcolm X. “Why Halle have to let a white man pop her to get a Oscar? Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?” Jadakiss famously rapped on his hit 2004 single “Why?”
Even Angela Bassett, whom Berry name-checked in her speech, was critical of the role in a 2002 interview with EW: “I wasn’t going to be a prostitute on film,” she said. “I couldn’t do that because it’s such a stereotype about black women and sexuality. Film is forever. It’s about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later. I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that.”
And in just two years, Berry’s Oscar didn’t matter. Her crossover fame didn’t matter. Her box-office numbers didn’t matter. All that mattered was Catwoman. There is no revisionist history that will save this movie. It’s one of the worst things to ever happen on film, complete with one of the worst sports scenes in cinematic history.
On Feb. 26, 2005, Berry took the stage for another awards ceremony. This time she wasn’t in awe. She was instead taking the embarrassment in stride, bringing her 2002 Oscar with her to the stage in a massive flex move. The award? The Golden Raspberry, or Razzie, for worst actress for her role in Catwoman.
“You know, it was just what my career needed, you know? I was at the top, and then Catwoman just plummeted me to the bottom. Love it. It’s hard being on top, it’s much better being on the bottom.”
But movies such as Catwoman shouldn’t be a death sentence for any actor, especially one with Berry’s resume. Name an actor and you’ll find movies comparable to the failed superhero flick on their IMDb page.
But Berry had a hard time recovering. The 15 years since Catwoman have essentially been a series of box-office disappointments (2012’s Cloud Atlas and 2013’s Movie 43), critical disasters (2007’s Perfect Stranger) and even a Steven Spielberg-produced TV series, Extant, that was swiftly canceled after two seasons of abysmal ratings. Even if Catwoman proved Berry was too toxic or inept to carry an action franchise, there’s no reason she couldn’t enjoy a second act to her career in her late 30s and 40s. Where, for instance, were her slew of rom-coms a la Jennifer Lopez? Why hasn’t she been able to crack into the same spaces as, say, Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, who continue to be leading ladies as they’ve aged? Race may be a factor:
“What’s hardest for me to swallow,” she told The New York Times in 2002, ”is when there is a love story, say, with a really high-profile male star and there’s no reason I can’t play the part. They say, ‘Oh, we love Halle, we just don’t want to go black with this part.’ What enrages me is that those are such racist statements, but the people saying them don’t think they are. I’ve had it said right to my face.”
But when one looks at her black peers, questions and answers become more complicated. What has stopped Berry from getting the roles that contemporaries such as Regina King and Viola Davis are managing to pull in theaters and Netflix? Maybe that’s not even a fair question to ask. But Hollywood superficiality, or her own career mismanagement, have derailed a career that once looked unstoppable.
Maybe, it is hoped, Berry can finally enjoy her long-awaited, overdue and more than deserved renaissance. In 2016, she joined Instagram and Twitter, posting pics that double as reminders that she’s still as fine as ever. Earlier this year, Berry went viral while on the red carpet for John Wick 3 for making sure that black reporters got time to speak with her. The moment reminded everyone that Berry has always been a black pioneer who fought to break as many boundaries as she could. Then there was her performance in the movie — she was the Halle Berry we thought we’d be able to see after Catwoman: intense, action-packed, emotive and scene-stealing. It was a reminder that Berry was once Hollywood’s most talked-about superstar and she absolutely earned it. We saw the unfulfilled promise of a woman who played an X-Woman and Dorothy Dandridge in a year’s span. The woman who yelled, “M—–f—–!” with Samuel L. Jackson and traded insults with Eddie Murphy.
We never should have gone 15 years between iconic Halle Berry Hollywood runs, but the drought needs to end. She can be the hilarious lead. She can be the romantic comedy star. She can be the gun-toting superhero. She can be the mother, the ex, the wife, the businesswoman, the cop, the CIA agent. Anything. It’s time for Berry’s return to prominence. She deserves it, and there’s a lot of lost time to make up for.
The holiday season is five months away, but Earth, Wind & Fire received an early gift Thursday. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., announced that the group will be one of the marquee recipients at the 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors later this year.
Standing alongside Earth, Wind & Fire on the prestigious night in the nation’s capital will be actress Sally Field; singer Linda Ronstadt; conductor, pianist and composer Michael Tilson Thomas; and the founders of the revolutionary children’s television show Sesame Street, the first TV program to receive the award.
The Honors recognize contributions to American culture through the performing arts. A gala performance toasting this year’s winners will be held at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 8 and aired on CBS a week later.
It’s EWF, though, that will give the night an unmistakable groove. The group, formed in Chicago in 1969, spanned genres from soul and Afropop to disco. Its lead singer, driving force and all-around musical savant, Maurice White, died in 2016. Surviving members Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson will be on hand to accept the honor.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s earliest success can be traced back to the ’70s, when the group helped ignite the blaxploitation era by creating the soundtrack for Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. From there, the group, which included up to 10 different musicians during its prime and hoisted six Grammys, carved out its own musical lane and identity during a culturally rich decade that helped shape the sound of black music. Its biggest records include “Reasons,” “Sing A Song,” “Would You Mind,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Shining Star,” “Boogie Wonderland,” their cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” and arguably its two biggest cultural touchstones in “Let’s Groove” and the 1978 dance classic “September.”
“My principle for producing,” White told Billboard in 1979 after the runaway success of “September,” “is to pay attention to the roots of America, which is doo-wop music.”
Forty years later, Earth, Wind & Fire’s music is still at the root of love, peace and the black experience in America. They’ve performed for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and inspired Prince, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder with their aesthetic execution. The band’s legacy continues to pump heartily through hip-hop, their music having been sampled by the likes of Drake, Kanye West, Timbaland & Magoo, Cam’ron, Yo-Yo and Ice Cube, Mac Miller, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and countless others.
In his 2014 biography, Bailey reflected on the process of recording the group’s 1975 triple-platinum album That’s the Way of the World. He dubbed it “a spiritual experience” and said that “when Maurice [White] played us the finished mix … I thought we sounded like angels. … It was as if God had been guiding us.”
When the Kennedy Center commemorates the band later this year, it will be further proof that Earth, Wind & Fire’s journey isn’t done yet.
Look around and it might feel like we’re in a golden age of rap tours.
Rhyme greats De La Soul recently finished a European tour billed The Gods of Rap with the legendary Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier. And the summer concert season is set to feature even more high-profile hip-hop shows.
West Coast giant Snoop Dogg is headlining the Masters of Ceremony tour with such heavyweights as 50 Cent, DMX, Ludacris and The Lox. Lil Wayne is doing a string of solo gigs and will launch a 38-city tour with pop punk heroes blink-182 starting June 27. Stoner rap fave Wiz Khalifa will headline a 29-city trek on July 9. The reunited Wu-Tang Clan continue their well-received 36 Chambers 25th Anniversary Celebration Tour, and Cardi B will be barnstorming through the beginning of August.
With all this rap talent on the road, The Undefeated decided to take a crack at ranking the 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time.
Our list was compiled using several rules: First and foremost, the headliners for every tour must be from the hip-hop/rap genre. That means huge record-breaking, co-headlining live runs such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II Tour were not included, given Queen Bey’s rhythm and blues/pop leanings. We also took into account the cultural and historical impact of each tour. Several artists, ranging from Run-DMC and Salt-N-Pepa to MC Hammer and Nicki Minaj, were included because they broke new ground, beyond how much their tours grossed. For years, hip-hop has battled the perception that it doesn’t translate well to live performance. This list challenges such myopic ideas.
With only 20 spots, some of rap’s most storied live gigs had to be left off the list. Many were casualties of overlap, such as Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys’ memorable 1987 Together Forever Tour and the Sizzling Summer Tour ’90, which featured Public Enemy, Heavy D & the Boyz, Kid ’n Play, Digital Underground and Queen Latifah. The 12-date Lyricist Lounge Tour, a 1998 showcase that featured Big Punisher, The Roots, De La Soul, Black Star, Common, Black Moon’s Buckshot and Fat Joe, also just missed the cut.
You may notice that Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. are missing from the list. But this was no momentary lapse of sanity. ’Pac’s and Biggie’s brief runs took place when rap shows were beginning to become a rarity, leaving most of their memorable stage moments to one-off shows. Dirty South royalty Outkast’s strongest live outing, when Big Boi and Andre 3000 reunited in 2014, was not included because it was less of a tour and more of a savvy festival run.
There are other honorable mentions: Def Jam Survival of the Illest Tour (1998), which featured DMX, the Def Squad, Foxy Brown, Onyx and Cormega; the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money Tour (2000); Anger Management 3 Tour with Eminem and 50 Cent (2005); J. Cole’s Dollar & A Dream Tour (2013); and Drake’s Aubrey & The Three Migos LIVE! tour (2018).
With that said, on with the show!
20. Pinkprint Tour (2015)
Nicki Minaj, featuring Meek Mill, Rae Sremmurd, Tinashe and Dej Loaf
The most lucrative hip-hop trek headlined by a woman also served as the coronation of Nicki Minaj as hip-hop’s newest queen. What made The Pinkprint Tour such a gloriously over-the-top affair was its seamless balance of dramatic Broadway-like theater, silly high jinks and a flex of artistic ferocity. One moment Minaj was in a black lace dress covering her eyes while mourning the loss of a turbulent union during “The Crying Game.” The next, she was backing up her memorable appearance on Kanye West’s “Monster” as the most wig-snatching guest verse of that decade. And the Barbz went wild.
Gross: $22 million from 38 shows
19. The Damn. Tour (2017-18)
Kendrick Lamar, featuring Travis Scott, DRAM and YG
When you have dropped two of the most critically lauded albums of your era in Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), there’s already an embarrassment of riches to pull from for any live setting. But Kendrick Lamar understood that to live up to his bold “greatest rapper alive” proclamation he also needed populist anthems to turn on the masses. The Damn. album and world tour presented just that, as he led his followers each night in an elevating rap-along. It kicked off with a martial arts film, a cheeky nod to Lamar’s Kung Fu Kenny alter ego, before launching into the chest-beating “DNA.”
Gross: More than $62.7 million from 62 shows
18. Summer Sixteen Tour (2016)
Drake and Future
This mammoth, co-headlining tour was a no-brainer: Drake, the hit-making heartthrob, Canada’s clap-back native son and part-time goofy Toronto Raptors superfan. And Future, the self-anointed Atlanta Trap King, gleeful nihilist and producer, whose slapping, codeine-addled bars made him a controversial figure on and off record. The magic of this yin/yang pairing shined brightest when they teamed up to perform such tracks as “Jumpman” and “Big Rings” off their industry-shaking 2015 mixtape What a Time to Be Alive. When the smoke settled, Drake and Future walked away with the highest-earning hip-hop tour of all time.
Gross: $84.3 million from 54 shows
17. Salt-N-Pepa Tour (1988)
Featuring Keith Sweat, Heavy D & the Boyz, EU, Johnny Kemp, Full Force, Kid ’n Play and Rob Base
It may seem preposterous in this outspoken, girl-power age of Cardi B, Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, Kash Doll, Young M.A, Tierra Whack and City Girls, but back in the early ’80s, the thought of a “female” rhyme group anchoring a massive tour seemed out of reach. That was before the 1986 debut of Salt-N-Pepa, the pioneering group who’s racked up a plethora of groundbreaking moments and sold more than 15 million albums. The first female rap act to go platinum (Hot, Cool & Vicious) and score a Top 20 hit on the Billboard 200 (“Push It”), Salt-N-Pepa led a diverse, arena-hopping showcase that gave the middle finger to any misogynistic notions. And Salt, Pepa and DJ Spinderella continue to be road warriors. They’re currently on New Kids on the Block’s arena-packing Mixtape Tour.
Encore: Opening-act standouts Heavy D & the Boyz would co-headline their own tour the following year off the platinum success of their 1989 masterpiece Big Tyme.
16. Glow in the Dark Tour (2008)
Kanye West, featuring Rihanna, N.E.R.D, Nas, Lupe Fiasco and Santigold
Yes, Kanye West has had more ambitious showings (2013-14’s button-pushing Yeezus Tour) and more aesthetically adventurous gigs (the 2016 Saint Pablo Tour featured a floating stage, which hovered above the audience). But never has the Chicago-born visionary sounded so hungry, focused and optimistic than he did on his first big solo excursion, the Glow in the Dark Tour.
Before the Kardashian reality-show level freak-outs and MAGA hat obsessing, West was just a kid who wanted to share his spacey sci-fi dreamscape with the public, complete with a talking computerized spaceship named Jane. Even the rotating opening acts — topped off by the coolest pop star on the planet, Rihanna — were ridiculously talented.
Gross: $30.8 million from 49 shows
15. I Am Music Tour (2008-09)
Lil Wayne, featuring T-Pain and Keyshia Cole
Between 2002 and 2007, Young Money general Lil Wayne was hip-hop’s hardest-working force of nature, releasing an astounding 16 mixtapes. Then Weezy broke from the pack with the massively successful I Am Music Tour. The bulk of Lil Wayne’s 90-minute set was propelled by his career-defining 2008 album Tha Carter III, which by the show’s second leg had already sold 2 million copies. By the time T-Pain joined the New Orleans spitter for a playful battle of the featured acts, Lil Wayne’s takeover was complete.
Gross: $42 million from 78 shows
14. Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em Tour (1990-91)
MC Hammer, featuring En Vogue and Vanilla Ice
With 15 background dancers, 12 singers, seven musicians, two DJs, eight security men, three valets and a private Boeing 727 plane, MC Hammer’s world tour was eye-popping. Rap fans had never seen anything of the magnitude of the Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em stadium gigs, which recalled Parliament-Funkadelic’s army-size traveling heyday in the 1970s.
Each night the Oakland, California, dancing machine, born Stanley Burrell, left pools of sweat onstage as if he was the second coming of James Brown. If the sight of more than 30 folks onstage doing the Running Man, with MC Hammer breaking into his signature typewriter dance during “U Can’t Touch This,” didn’t make you get up, you should have checked your pulse.
Gross: $26.3 million from 138 shows
13. Things Fall Apart! Tour (1999)
Each gig was a revelation. This was no surprise given that Philadelphia hip-hop collective The Roots, formed by longtime friends drummer Questlove and lead lyricist Black Thought, had a reputation for being unpredictable. Still, it’s ironic that a group known for being the ultimate road warriors — they were known for touring 45 weeks a year before becoming the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2014 — is represented on this list by one of their shortest tours.
But the brilliant Things Fall Apart club and hall sprint, which took place throughout March 1999, proved to be an epic blitz fueled by the band’s most commercially lauded material to date, Questlove’s steady percussive heart and the inhuman breath control of Black Thought.
Encore: Neo soul diva Jill Scott, who co-wrote The Roots’ breakout single “You Got Me,” gave fans an early taste of her artistry as she joined the band onstage for some serious vocal workouts.
12. House of Blues’ Smokin’ Grooves Tour (1996)
The Fugees, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Ziggy Marley and Spearhead
While gangsta rap was topping the charts, the hip-hop industry faced a bleak situation on the touring front. Concert promoters were scared to book “urban” acts in large venues. Enter the House of Blues’ Kevin Morrow and Cara Lewis, the booking agent who achieved mythic status when she received a shout-out on Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 anthem “Paid in Full.” The pair envisioned a Lollapalooza-like tour heavy on hip-hop and good vibes. The first ’96 incarnation came out of the gate with Haitian-American rap trio The Fugees, multiplatinum weed ambassadors Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes.
Encore: The series, which has also featured Outkast, The Roots, Lauryn Hill, Gang Starr, The Pharcyde, Foxy Brown and Public Enemy, is credited with opening the door for a return to more straight-ahead hip-hop tours led by Jay-Z, DMX and Dr. Dre.
11. Watch the Throne Tour (2011-12)
Jay-Z and Kanye West
In better times, Jay-Z and Kanye West exhibited lofty friendship goals we could all aspire to, with their bromance popping on the platinum album Watch the Throne. Before their much-publicized fallout, Jay-Z and West took their act on the road for the mother of all double-bill spectacles.
Two of hip-hop’s greatest traded classics such as the ominous “Where I’m From” (Jay-Z) and soaring “Jesus Walks” (West) from separate stages on opposite sides of the venue. Those lucky enough to catch the tour can still recall the dream tag team launching into their encore of “N—as in Paris” amid roars from thousands of revelers.
Gross: $75.6 million from 63 shows
10. The Miseducation Tour (1999)
Lauryn Hill, featuring Outkast
In 1998, Lauryn Hill wasn’t just the best woman emcee or the best emcee alive and kicking. The former standout Fugees member was briefly the voice of her generation as she rode the multiplatinum, multi-Grammy success of her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. By February 1999, it was time to take the show on the road. Hill and her 10-piece band went beyond the hype, especially when they tore through a blistering take of the heartbreaking “Ex-Factor.”
Encore: Outkast (Atlantans Andre 3000 and Big Boi) rocked the house backed by some conspicuous props, including two front grilles of a Cadillac and a throwback Ford truck, kicked off their own headlining Stanklove theater tour in early 2001.
9. No Way Out Tour (1997-98)
Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Lil’ Kim, Ma$e, Busta Rhymes, Foxy Brown, 112, The Lox, Usher, Kid Capri, Lil’ Cease and Jay-Z
The Los Angeles Times headline spoke volumes: “Combs to Headline Rare Rap Tour.” Combs, of course, is Sean “Diddy” Combs, the music, fashion, television and liquor mogul who Forbes estimates now has a net worth of $820 million. But back then, the hustler formerly known as Puff Daddy was struggling to keep his Bad Boy Records afloat after the March 9, 1997, murder of Brooklyn, New York, rhyme king The Notorious B.I.G.
But out of unspeakable tragedy rose Combs’ chart-dominating No Way Out album and an emotional all-star tour. Despite suggestions that large-scale rap shows were too much of a financial gamble, Puffy rallied the Bad Boy troops and a few close friends and proved the naysayers wrong. The No Way Out Tour was both a cathartic exercise and a joyous celebration of life. “It’s All About the Benjamins” shook the foundation of every building as Combs, The Lox and a show-stealing Lil’ Kim made monetary excess look regal. And the heartfelt Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You,” which was performed live at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, had audiences in tears.
Gross: $16 million
8. Hard Knock Life Tour (1999)
Jay-Z, featuring DMX, Redman and Method Man
Jay-Z stands now as hip-hop’s most bankable live draw. In 2017, the newly minted billionaire’s 4:44 Live Nation production pulled in $44.7 million, becoming America’s all-time highest-grossing solo rap jaunt. It’s a long way from the days of Jay-Z lumbering through performances in a bulletproof vest when he was last off the bench on Puff Daddy’s No Way Out Tour.
Surely the seeds of Jay-Z’s evolution as a concert staple were first planted on his Hard Knock Life Tour, which was documented in the 2000 film Backstage. This was a confident, full-throated Shawn Carter, and he would need every ounce of charisma, with Ruff Ryders lead dog DMX enrapturing fans as if he were a Baptist preacher at a tent revival and the duo of Redman and Method Man rapping and swinging over crowds from ropes attached to moving cranes. What a gig.
Gross: $18 million
7. Bring the Noise Tour (1988)
Public Enemy and Ice-T, featuring Eazy-E & N.W.A. and EPMD
There has always been a controlled chaos to a Public Enemy live show. Lead orator Chuck D jolted the crowd with a ferocity over the intricate, combustible production of the Bomb Squad while clock-rocking Flavor Flav, the prototypical hype man, jumped and zigzagged across the stage.
DJ Terminator X cut records like a cyborg and never smiled. And Professor Griff and the S1Ws exuded an intimidating, paramilitary presence. Armed with their 1988 watershed black nationalist work, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, an album many music historians consider to be the pinnacle hip-hop statement, Public Enemy spearheaded arguably the most exciting rap tour ever conceived.
Encore: Along for the wild ride was the godfather of West Coast rap, Ice-T, who was putting on the rest of the country to Los Angeles’ violent Crips and Bloods gang wars with the too-real “Colors.” N.W.A. was just about to set the world on fire with their opus Straight Outta Compton. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella unleashed a profanity-laced declaration of street knowledge that was instantly slapped with parental advisory stickers. And Erick and Parrish were making dollars with their rough and raw EPMD joint Strictly Business.
6. Nitro World Tour (1989-90)
LL Cool J, featuring Public Enemy, Eazy E & N.W.A., Big Daddy Kane, Too $hort, EPMD, Slick Rick, De La Soul and Special Ed
In early ’85, LL Cool J was a 16-year-old rhyme fanatic living in his grandparents’ Queens, New York, home. Three years later, the kid who became Def Jam Records’ signature artist with his iconic B-boy manifesto Radio was the most successful solo emcee on the planet with more than 4 million albums sold and counting. LL Cool J was also headlining some of the hottest events of rap’s golden era. And he was at his cockiest love-me-or-hate-me peak during the Nitro Tour.
But not even LL Cool J was ready for the monster that was N.W.A. The self-proclaimed World’s Most Dangerous Group completely hijacked the spotlight when N.W.A. was warned by officials not to perform their controversial track “F— the Police” at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. A minute into the song, cops stormed the stage and shut down Eazy-E and crew’s volatile set, a wild scene that was later re-created in the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton.
Encore: A few months before the Detroit gig, N.W.A. was booed during a Run-DMC show at New York’s Apollo Theater. “We all had watched Showtime at the Apollo, so we all knew if it went bad what was gonna happen,” Ice Cube explained on the Complex story series What Had Happened Was … “We hit the stage, and as soon as they saw the Jheri curls, all you heard was ‘Boo!’ I mean, before we even got a line out, they was booin’. I guess they just wasn’t feeling the Jheri curls.”
5. The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever (1991-92)
Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Geto Boys, Kid ’n Play, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School and Oaktown’s 3.5.7.
Props to the promoter who put together this awesome collection of hip-hop firepower for a tour that at least aimed to live up to its tagline. What stands out the most was the early acknowledgment of rap’s reach beyond the East and West coasts. The significance of including Houston’s Geto Boys, for instance, cannot be overstated.
Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill carried the flag for Southern hip-hop, winning over skeptical concertgoers with their raw dissection of ’hood paranoia, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” which had become a favorite on Yo! MTV Raps. Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince proved they could still rock the house with PG-rated material. (It helped that Will Smith had just begun the first season of NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Queen Latifah busted through the testosterone with the empowering “Ladies First.” And Naughty by Nature frequently knocked out the most crowd-pleasing set of the night with their promiscuous anthem “O.P.P.”
Encore: The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever made its Jan. 3, 1992, stop at New York’s Madison Square Garden less than a week after nine people were fatally crushed at a hip-hop charity basketball game at City College of New York. Before Public Enemy’s powerful message of black self-determination, Heavy D, an organizer of the doomed event, made a plea for unity. Fans were certainly listening. The gig was a resounding, peaceful triumph.
4. Def Jam Tour (1987)
LL Cool J, Whodini, Eric B. & Rakim, Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, and Public Enemy
From 1986 to 1992, New York’s Def Jam Records was the premier hip-hop label. Its roster of artists, which included Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, EPMD and Slick Rick, was unparalleled in range and cultural dominance. So when it came time for partners Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin to spread the Def Jam gospel on its first international tour, the imprint’s biggest star, LL Cool J, was chosen to lead the way. And he didn’t disappoint.
James Todd Smith strutted out of a giant neon boombox sporting a Kangol hat, dookie rope gold chain and Adidas jacket. Of course, that jacket would soon be thrown to the floor as a shirtless Ladies Love Cool James tore through his ’85 single “Rock the Bells” as if it were the last song he would get to perform.
For many overseas, their first taste of American rap also included DJ Eric B. & Rakim, who were killing the streets with their 1987 masterpiece Paid In Full. Almost overnight in Germany, France, Norway and the Netherlands, hip-hop became the new religion.
Encore: This was the first proper world tour for Public Enemy, who had just dropped their 12-inch single “Rebel Without a Pause.” Although they were the opening act, Chuck D and his posse stole the show, establishing their standing as global behemoths. The now-legendary show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon can be heard throughout It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
3. Up In Smoke (2000)
Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Eminem, Tha Dogg Pound, Warren G and Nate Dogg, and Xzibit
As over-the-top, profane spectacles go, the Up In Smoke Tour has few rivals. Detroit’s Eminem stormed the stage wearing a red jumpsuit with “County Jail” stitched on the back. Ice Cube, before being joined by his Westside Connection cohorts, Mack 10 and WC, emerged from a cryogenic chamber. Hennessy-sipping and weed-toking Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg rode out in a hydraulically juiced lowrider. There was a 15-foot talking skull!
The multimillion-dollar stage design put the concert industry on notice that not only could rap shows attain the lavish production values of the best rock shows, they could surpass them. It was also an emphatic statement that the largely West Coast rap dignitaries knew how to throw a party. And there still isn’t another hip-hop song that matches the first 20 seconds of Dre’s “Next Episode” in concert.
Gross: $22.2 million from 44 shows
2. Raising Hell Tour (1986)
Run-DMC, featuring LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Whodini
There’s a reason Run-DMC is hailed as the greatest live hip-hop act of its era. They understood that less is always more. Because of their stripped-down beats and rhymes, the group amplified the genius of every aspect of their concert presentation up to 11. Jam Master Jay’s scratching was more thunderous than the other DJs on the 1s and 2s. Run’s pay-me stage presence commanded respect. And D had the throat-grabbing voice of God. They wore Godfather hats, black jeans and shoelace-less Adidas sneakers. The Hollis, Queens, crew was the personification of cool.
LL Cool J was just 18 during the Raising Hell Tour, but he was coming after Run-DMC’s crown every night. The hotel-wrecking Beastie Boys co-piloted rap’s bum-rush into Middle America, scaring parents wherever they landed. And Whodini brilliantly straddled the line between electro funkateers and around-the-way dudes representing BK to the fullest.
As “Walk This Way,” Run-DMC’s genre-shifting Aerosmith collaboration, exploded on the pop charts, vaulting the Raising Hell album to 3 million copies sold (the first hip-hop album to go triple platinum), ticket sales followed. The 45-city tour affirmed hip-hop’s cultural takeover.
Encore: The image of Joseph Simmons commanding 20,000-plus fans to hold up their sneakers during a performance of “My Adidas” at a New York show is still a surreal sight.
1. Fresh Fest (1984)
Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Whodini, The Fat Boys, Newcleus & the Dynamic Breakers, New York City Breakers, Turbo and Ozone
Ricky Walker had an idea: The concert promoter wanted to put together the first national rap music and break-dancing tour. In 1984, hip-hop had moved on from its underground beginnings in the Bronx. Run-DMC had just dropped their self-titled debut, and their “Rock Box” became the first rap video to received play on MTV. Breakin’, the first break dancing movie to hit the big screen, pulled in nearly $40 million at the box office on a minuscule $1.2 million budget. Walker saw the future.
He called New York impresario Simmons to tap some of his Rush Productions talent, which included heartthrob Brooklyn trio Whodini, rap’s first solo superstar Kurtis Blow, the comedic Fat Boys and, of course, the hottest hip-hop act in the country, Run-DMC. But when it came time to promote the first show, billed as the Swatch Watch NYC Fresh Fest Festival, in Greensboro, North Carolina, Walker was laughed out of the room by a radio ad man.
Rap was still viewed by many record industry power brokers as a passing fad. In a 1985 interview with Billboard magazine, Walker recalled the salesperson pleading with him. “You’re a friend of mine,” he said. “Can’t I talk you out of doing this show?”
Walker’s instincts, however, proved to be dead-on. Fresh Fest moved 7,500 tickets in four hours. The tour, which also featured some of the best street dancers on the planet, such as Breakin’ stars Boogaloo Shrimp and Shabba Doo, as well as the synth funk-rap group Newcleus, not only did brisk business at mid-level venues but also sold out 20,000-seat arenas in Chicago and Philadelphia. Like the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll shows of the ’50s conceived by Cleveland radio DJ Alan Freed, the Fresh Fest proved that rap could be a serious and profitable art form. The rest is hip-hop history.
Gross: $3.5 million
This is not a report on Anthony Joshua’s prowess as a boxer. This is an unabashed declaration of thirst.
Joshua is, of course, a renowned pugilist. The Watford, England, native holds the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight title belts. He’s 22-0, and 21 of those victories were knockouts. On Saturday he’ll make his American debut at Madison Square Garden, where he’s fighting Andy Ruiz Jr. (32-1). The fight was originally supposed to be against Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, but Miller tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was disqualified.
The bout isn’t expected to be that competitive. What interests me more is that Joshua possesses a set of quads that would make Michelangelo’s David weep with envy.
Boxing is full of men who, if I’m being charitable, look a little like Game of Thrones’ Gregor Clegane, the Mountain of King’s Landing, whose job was ending the lives of those who posed a threat to Cersei Lannister.
That is not the case with Joshua. He’s extraordinarily pretty — the prettiest heavyweight titleholder since Muhammad Ali. This is a moment that calls for some gender-flipped Chi-Lites. As in, Have you seen him? TELL ME. HAVE YOU SEEN HIM?!?!
Joshua, 29, is 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 250 pounds. There does not appear to be a speck of him that is lacking in muscles, and he’s a spokesmodel for Hugo Boss. Fashion rules dictate that a man as broad as Joshua should avoid double-breasted suiting because it tends to turn all but the slenderest of men into fabric-covered refrigerators. And yet here he is on BBC’s The Graham Norton Show, looking very much like a snack after defeating Wladimir Klitschko for the world heavyweight title in 2017:
I have some experience with professional pretty people and am generally inured to their powers. I’ve watched audiences fawn over Michael B. Jordan at premieres for Creed II and Fahrenheit 451 and witnessed whoops of desire directed at Winston Duke at promotional events for Us. I’ve interviewed Mike Colter, the star of Luke Cage. Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Jackson (#TheAffairBae), Christopher Jackson (#HamiltonBae) and Blair Underwood (#JuanitaBae) about Ava DuVernay’s newest project, When They See Us.
They were all lovely.
Then I saw Joshua at a public workout this week at Manhattan’s Brookfield Place mall and tried to keep myself from giggling like a hormonal schoolgirl.
Joshua strolled over to the ring outside the Ferragamo and Burberry stores with his game face on: serious, focused, intense. He ascended the steps and climbed through the ropes, and there was an instant roar. He turned to face his public and gave them a wave and a smile. More roars, which of course prompted casual shoppers strolling through the mall — New Yorkers are more impressed by in-unit washers and dryers than they are by celebrity — to look up, pause and actually take stock. Every time he smiled, or flexed a muscle, or winked, or took a selfie with the crowd: more roars.
Joshua’s workout was quick. Then he did something none of the previous fighters had done that day: He pushed down the top rope of the ring so photographers could get an unobscured shot of his chest and face.
This suggested two things:
1. This is clearly not Anthony Joshua’s first rodeo.
2. He knows exactly what he’s working with.
(Yeah, he definitely knows.)
Like Ali, Joshua possesses a magnetism that attracts people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. Even male members of the media could not restrain themselves from gushing over his physique. I overheard one radio reporter, for instance, marveling over Joshua’s commitment to leg day.
Joshua has plenty of famous male admirers, judging by his Instagram, including Dave Chappelle, Meek Mill, Drake, Odell Beckham Jr. and Tracy Morgan. But black male sex symbols are a bit like Democratic candidates for president: Once they’ve got black women on their side, they’re golden. Given his comfort with crowds and cameras, his smile and his tree trunk thighs, Joshua seems like a shoo-in to be America’s Next Top British Heartthrob now that Idris Elba is married.
The raw material is there; whatever magic Joshua radiates in person is evident in his television interviews too. It’s just that they’ve taken place in England, where Joshua is basically a modern-day Hercules — his matches sell out Wembley Stadium (capacity: 90,000). I first saw him on The Graham Norton Show, where, even next to Tom Hanks and Maisie Williams, he still managed to be the most interesting person in the room:
Fighters are fixtures on late-night shows, especially if they want to expand their repertoires beyond the sport that brought them fame in the first place. Claressa Shields was a guest on The Colbert Report. Many a great moment was recorded between Dick Cavett and Ali. Mike Tyson used to do Arsenio Hall at the height of his career in the ’90s. (While I’m focusing on boxers, The Rock, Ronda Rousey and John Cena also have had great success broadening their images as charming, funny people who can crush your skull when the occasion necessitates it.) Joshua has spoken about his desire to attain success in America and become the next David Beckham. He’s got a good start on the Beckham front in that he’s already friends with Prince Harry. And he did an appearance on Conan a while back, but that’s not enough to break through in America.
My advice? Well, first, he has to whup Ruiz. Maybe come to Brooklyn or Harlem afterward to celebrate. Then find a way to flirt with Oprah or Michelle Obama, book a cameo in the Black Panther sequel, do pushups for Lupita Nyong’o. A shoutout from Queen Serena wouldn’t hurt, either. And then?
Well then, my dear Anthony, you just might be able to credibly quote Nas: “Whose world is this?/It’s mine. It’s mine. It’s mine.”
It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.
That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.
The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.
Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.
“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets
They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast
The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”
Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.
Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.
The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.
But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.
The Plain Brown Rapper
It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.
Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?
The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.
Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”
But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”
As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.
Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”
The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”
Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.
In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.
Triumph of the Will
It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”
The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.
“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”
Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.
His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.
Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.
His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).
This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.
Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”
But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.
Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.
He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”
But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.
His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.
The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”
That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”
Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:
“I believe in God, I believe in destiny
Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined
But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”
He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.
Then he faded from the music scene.
The smartest dude
In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.
Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.
Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.
He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.
“The smartest dude survives the best.”
The idea popped into Bria Janelle’s head in an unlikely place, but it didn’t come out of nowhere.
“I was in the shower one day and thought to myself, ‘WNBA Kicks,’ ” recalled Janelle, a former Division II college basketball player turned professional entertainment emcee and in-arena host. She envisioned a platform that, for some reason, had never been created — one dedicated to women, the WNBA and sneakers.
“People say out of frustration comes creation,” said Janelle, a native of Snellville, Georgia, which is about 35 minutes east of Atlanta. “I’ve always had an interest in shoes and the whole aspect of seeing what different outlets have done with sneakers. But I realized it was so saturated on the male side, and NBA side, of sneakers. I’m like, ‘Everybody is doing the same exact thing … how can I do something so far-fetched, so different that no one is even thinking about?’ ”
An injury ended Janelle’s playing career after three years at Mars Hill University in North Carolina, leading her to transfer to Georgia Southern University, where she graduated in 2011 with a degree in radio and television broadcasting. On-air campus appearances led to opportunities in Atlanta radio, and eventually a career. Over the past several years, Janelle has toured as emcee with WWE, worked with the Atlanta Hawks on a monthly web show and served as a host for the McDonald’s All American Game. Success in the field provided Janelle the means to grow her sneaker collection, which now checks in at about 130 pairs. Eventually, she wanted to find a way to represent a subculture of people like her: female sneakerheads.
Janelle was inspired by the WNBA’s biggest sneakerhead, Tamera “Ty” Young, who in 2008 became the first draft pick in the history of the Atlanta Dream franchise. Young, who now plays for the Las Vegas Aces but keeps her primary residence in Atlanta, has a massive sneaker collection that exceeds 600 pairs, even though she’s never had an endorsement deal with a sportswear brand.
“Ty Young being in Atlanta for years, you peep her at different events and it was like, ‘Yo, I’ve never seen her double up on a pair of sneakers,’ ” Janelle said. In the lead-up to the 2018 WNBA season, she ran into Young and told her she had something in the works. Janelle also hit up one of her close friends in the league, Alex Bentley, a member of the Connecticut Sun at the time who was playing overseas during the WNBA’s offseason.
“I never forget. It was like 3 o’clock in the morning in Russia and I said, ‘Hey, I got an idea. What do you think about this?’ ” Janelle recalled of her conversation with Bentley, who now plays for the Dream. “She said, ‘That’s dope. No one’s covered the WNBA’s sneaker culture. … Go for it. You’ve got my support.’ ”
But to make this thing work, Janelle needed help. So she reached out to Melani Carter, a sports producer who shared a similar frustration about the lack of WNBA coverage, having spent four years working at Turner Sports on NBA TV and NBA League Pass. The two friends remember meeting at a restaurant one night in Atlanta and talking for hours.
“As we started strategizing, I was saying, ‘This could be a segue into really showcasing women in another light,’ ” said Carter, who’s been collecting shoes since the early 2000s. “And what better way to start … than with sneaker culture?”
In February 2018, Janelle and Carter co-founded @WNBAKicks. And for the past year, the platform’s Instagram and Twitter accounts have served as the authoritative voice of sneakers in the WNBA despite not being officially affiliated with the league. Original video, interviews and, most notably, exclusive photos and videos of shoes players are copping and lacing up on and off the court — WNBA Kicks offers all this and more.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by WNBA Kicks (@wnbakicks) on May 21, 2019 at 4:55pm PDT
“We’ve never really had anything like WNBA Kicks,” said Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird, a 17-year veteran and three-time league champion, in April at the 2019 WNBA draft. “Yeah, the WNBA page can post our shoes, but sometimes you need people on the outside, different voices, to show people what’s what. To have this separate page that’s completely independent, showing the sneakers that we wear and really our personalities, it’s crucial.”
WNBA Kicks has amassed more than 20,000 followers on Instagram and another 2,300 on Twitter. It’s an operation that quickly transformed into a legit media outlet after establishing a network of contributors in WNBA markets across the country and expanding its staff to include a head of marketing and digital strategist. Now, the start of the 2019 WNBA season brings the launch of wnbakicks.com, marking the next chapter for a platform that’s evolved from the unique vision of its two co-founders.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by WNBA Kicks (@wnbakicks) on May 23, 2019 at 8:11am PDT
“WNBA Kicks has become that safe haven for WNBA players,” Janelle said. “We told them, ‘Trust us to tell your story and show how dope you are, and we won’t steer you wrong.’ … It’s not about athletic ability, sexuality or the themes you always see talked about surrounding the WNBA. It’s about the fact that these players have sneaker collections just as good as some of the guys, if not better. And here’s a platform — just for them.”
What makes WNBA Kicks so authentic is players in the league support the platform 100% by providing daily content.
“Whenever they need a photo of my shoes, I’m always open to sending it to them,” said Phoenix Mercury guard Essence Carson. “The check-ins, they’re great, especially when a lot of players are gone and playing abroad in the offseason. It’s a good way to keep the fans’ attention and have them interact with the players.”
View this post on Instagram
Oh this how you coming @pr3pe! Essence Carson on the #WNBAKicks check-in with a Mercury inspired Kobe A.D. Exodus PE! We see you #WNBAKicks #NBAKicks #Nike #Jordans #Kyrie #KobeBryant #Sneakerhead #Basketball #NBA #WNBA #KOTD @kobebryant
A post shared by WNBA Kicks (@wnbakicks) on May 20, 2019 at 11:42am PDT
When Young uploads a picture of the sneakers she’s wearing to her Instagram Stories, she often tags @WNBAKicks. Janelle will then reach out for the original image to post on the page. Sometimes, Young even sends photos to the account via direct message so the platform can exclusively share the latest shoes she’s picked up.
“The cool thing is you have players taking pictures and videos of their own shoes or their teammates’ shoes to post on that page,” said retired WNBA Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo. “It’s not like they’re always posting themselves. The players are doing it for WNBA Kicks. I think that’s a really, really cool thing. It’s a partnership in a way.”
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by WNBA Kicks (@wnbakicks) on May 19, 2019 at 5:12pm PDT
Sneaker culture in the WNBA has evolved quite a bit since Lobo played in the league from 1997 to 2003 and received her own signature shoe from Reebok, called The Lobo, during her rookie season.
“The only sneakers that were really covered back then were the Nike Air Swoopes, because Cheryl Swoopes was the first woman to have a signature shoe. That was a really big deal,” Lobo said. “In my generation, they didn’t even make women’s basketball sneakers. You figured out which men’s size you wore, because they didn’t even have them in women’s sizes. Sneakers in the WNBA weren’t really a thing. For the most part, everybody in the league wore the same style of shoe.”
The landscape has also changed since Carson and Young entered the WNBA more than a decade ago after being taken back-to-back with the seventh and eighth overall picks, respectively, in the 2008 draft. At the time, the WNBA was sponsored by Adidas, and strict uniform guidelines required players to wear league-approved shoes that were either predominantly white or black. Two years later in 2010, Instagram was founded as a social network that fostered creativity and expression while helping people transform into their own brands. And in the realm of style and fashion, Instagram became a place where both men and women could put on a display of their passion for sneakers.
“In previous years, women weren’t really looked at as sneakerheads,” Carson said. “But over the course of time, in the sneaker community, you’ve seen that change. As women move forward, so does the WNBA, because we’re women first and basketball players second. And now we have the platform to showcase that we can push sneaker culture even further.”
There’s a new era in the WNBA of players wearing whatever sneakers they want, whenever they want, due in large part to the emergence of WNBA Kicks in 2018.
“Last year, because of WNBA Kicks, people wanted to have more heat for games,” Young said. “They wanted to get that notoriety on social media. Like, ‘Oh, look what shoes she’s wearing!’ It made people who weren’t sneakerheads before want to bring out exclusive shoes or stuff that was more cool to show out. It became a popular trend, something to do.”
“The most unique thing we’ve did is attract the brands to the players,” Carter said. “So if brands said, ‘We don’t know if she has a following … we don’t know if she could help sell a product,’ we were showing them that they can. … It’s really about more than just sneakers.”
Janelle recalls a conversation she and Carter had with a sportswear company (the identity of which they chose not to disclose) in which they learned that the brand had sent out more pairs of sneakers to WNBA players last season than it did in the past 10 years. “Players were requesting shoes,” Janelle said, “because they wanted to be on the page.”
In the early days of the platform, Janelle and Carter wanted to ensure they acknowledged the players in the league with the hottest shoes. So last May, WNBA Kicks dropped its 2018 “Top 10 Sneakerheads List.”
“We really didn’t think it was going to be controversial,” Carter said. “It was more so like, ‘Let’s get this out there. Let’s let people know we’re here.’ When we released the list, people were like, ‘I didn’t make it? How am I No. 10? How am I No. 8? Why is she No. 1?’ Some players were mad. This was league news at this point. So it was like, ‘OK. This has to be our staple.’ That Top 10 list was the point that we can say the players really started paying attention, and the fans did too.”
The full list:
10. Monique Currie, Washington Mystics (now retired)
9. Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
8. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
7. Alex Bentley, Connecticut Sun (now of the Atlanta Dream)
6. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm
5. Erica Wheeler, Indiana Fever
4. Seimone Augustus, Minnesota Lynx
3. Epiphanny Prince, New York Liberty
2. Cappie Pondexter, Los Angeles Sparks/Indiana Fever (now retired)
1. Tamera Young, Las Vegas Aces
“When it got to No. 1, a lot of people didn’t expect it to be me,” Young said. “People didn’t know at the time how many kicks I had or how much I was into this. But it was a great feeling to know that something I’ve always loved I got notoriety for — even without having a shoe deal. I did this on my own. This is a hobby. I love sneakers. And I’ve always been that way, even since I was a little girl. I’m not just a collector. I wear all my kicks. So I thought it was superdope.”
Will she defend her crown in 2019?
“Of course. Not much has really changed. People have been showing all of their sneakers, but I don’t think anybody is topping me,” said Young, who in 2018, for the first time in her career, was posted on mainstream sneaker platforms such as @brkicks and @slamkicks. “WNBA Kicks started bringing different attention to us. I’ve never been a signed athlete, so people didn’t even know the type of heat I had.”
Hoping to capitalize on the trend of viral online challenges, the platform launched the #WNBAKicksChallenge, which encouraged players, broadcasters, coaches, fans and others to take a video showing off their collections, then dare others to do the same. The Minnesota Lynx’s Seimone Augustus, Indiana Fever’s Erica Wheeler, Chicago Sky’s Diamond DeShields and more active players partook, while retired WNBA stars such as Lobo, Tina Thompson, Dawn Staley and Lisa Leslie also got involved. ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe even did the challenge and showed off her favorite pair of sneakers, which were given to her by WNBA sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike when Rowe was first diagnosed with cancer.
— Lisa Leslie (@LisaLeslie) December 1, 2018
“WNBA Kicks is showing we got sneakers like P.J. Tucker, James Harden or Kyrie Irving,” said Seattle Storm guard Shavonte Zellous. “To showcase what we have is a blessing, so everybody can stop putting us in a box and expand their brains a little bit.”
WNBA Kicks has even put the NBA on notice. Tucker, Harden and their Houston Rockets teammate Chris Paul have all been interviewed by the platform, and Irving has reposted one of its videos to his Instagram. Future NBA Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade posted a picture of Young after she became the first WNBA player to wear a pair of his signature Li-Ning Way of Wades, ending the caption with @wnbakicks.
“We randomly saw the page, and it was verified,” Carter said. “I was tryna figure out who made it, and if it was an independent site like ours.”
That’s right — @WNBAKicks launched nine months before @NBAKicks. “A coincidence? I don’t know,” Janelle said. “The NBA has been around for so long. We started WNBA Kicks, then NBA Kicks pops up. It was like, ‘All right, well, somebody’s paying attention.’ ”
Yet, Janelle and Carter truly knew they had created something special when Lobo showed WNBA Kicks some love live on air during the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game.
— #WNBAKicks (@WNBAKicks) July 30, 2018
“I’d been following them for a while and really enjoyed their content,” Lobo said. “In a production meeting, we said we were gonna come out of a commercial break and show some of the players’ shoes … so I knew I was gonna give them a shout. It feels to me that they’re the ones leading the charge in terms of exposing the fans to what the WNBA women are wearing. It seemed fair and only right that we let people know about them.”
So, heading into season two, what’s next for WNBA Kicks? The strategy seems to revolve around the platform’s newly launched website.
“Being a social media page is only going to get you so far,” Janelle said. “For us, the dot-com is what everyone respects. It was about wanting to have that next level. We wanted to be able to explain that we’re not just a fan page. We’re a full-fledged, running site.”
WNBA sneakerheads such as Young and Wheeler hope to see a stronger backing of the platform from the league.
“I don’t think the WNBA shines a light on WNBA Kicks as much as they should. I don’t think they give them enough credit,” Wheeler said. “WNBA Kicks knows what they’re doing. They’re up to date, they’re with the times. And they’re with us as players.”
WNBA Kicks has come a long way since Janelle paired those two words.
“To this day, I tell Bria, ‘Keep this going,’ ” Zellous said. “It’s really helping us … and it’s crazy because it’s kicks that are helping people get in tune with our league.”
Yet, if there’s one thing that the two co-founders of WNBA Kicks have never seemed to lose sight of, it’s that the platform is about much more than sneakers.
“Our whole purpose is to leave the league better than we found it,” Janelle said. “If we do our part, then we’re on the right track. How do we get more fans into seats? How do we get arenas full? If sneakers is the way, or at least a starting point, I think we can feel like we did something right.”
In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.
However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.
“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”
Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.
Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.
Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.
In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.
Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.
Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.
If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.
Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.
City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.
Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.
In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.
Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.
The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.
Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.
Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.
The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?
“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”
Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.
Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.
LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”
Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.
Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”
When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”
Stay undefeated with our culture newsletter
Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”
Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.
Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.
Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.