Happy birthday to Kurtis Blow, the original ‘King of Rap’ ‘The Breaks,’ ‘Christmas Rappin,’’ ‘If I Ruled the World’ made him rap’s first major solo star

As a genre, hip-hop hits the big 4-0 this September. That’s when the seminal 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight” celebrates its 40th anniversary. Widely lauded as the first hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight” opened the floodgates for a host of rap records to gain mainstream appeal in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Cold Crush Brothers, The Sequence, Busy Bee, The Funky 4 + 1 and The Treacherous Three took hip-hop from the South Bronx parks to the recording studio. But of all the early hip-hoppers who broke that ground, no one crashed the mainstream quite like Kurtis Blow.

Blow’s musical legacy is without question. Born Kurtis Walker in 1959, Blow, who turns 60 on Aug. 9, was the first rapper to sign with a major label and the first to become a mainstream star. Signing with Mercury Records in 1979, Blow was managed by an up-and-coming Russell Simmons and had instrumentalists Orange Krush playing on his tracks. His charisma made him hip-hop’s first major solo star, and his hooky songs got him airplay in places most of hip-hop hadn’t reached yet. Before forming Run-DMC, a teenage Run got his big start as Blow’s deejay, and Blow would collaborate with rhythm and blues stars René & Angela and produce tracks for the platinum-selling Fat Boys. Between 1979 and 1985, Blow delivered classic radio hits like “The Breaks,” “Christmas Rappin’,” “If I Ruled the World” and “Basketball” — songs that would be sampled and revisited by everyone from Nas to Next. With the possible exception of turntablist Grandmaster Flash, Blow is arguably the most famous of hip-hop’s pre-Run-DMC pioneers.

It may not be realistic to expect early rap acts to suddenly be thrust into the epicenter of contemporary pop culture. But it’s not a stretch to suggest we show these artists the kind of love we’ve shown to beloved rock and soul legends of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

Flash turned 60 back in January 2018, and there wasn’t much celebration for the hip-hop legend. But that’s not an anomaly. Forty years after “Rapper’s Delight,” early hip-hop tends to be celebrated for its historical importance but not as classic music. It doesn’t help that the music born of the Bronx and spread via boutique labels like Sugar Hill and Enjoy had a fairly limited audience. Artists who laid the foundations in the days before Yo! MTV Raps and multiplatinum albums weren’t always visible outside of the 1970s and ’80s New York City, so acts like the Cold Crush Brothers and The Treacherous Three didn’t have the reach that their funk and disco contemporaries enjoyed — and so many of those acts can still sell tickets and enjoy major streaming numbers today.

But that’s why Kurtis Blow matters so much: He had the most mainstream appeal. He broke through to pop and R&B audiences at a time when rap music was still seen as a novelty. His signing with Mercury gave him a platform most of his peers didn’t have. Dubbed “The King of Rap,” Blow gained a much higher profile. As hip-hop is lauded for its ability to affect contemporary trends and tastes, it should also be recognized as a genre and art form that has a long history. This is no longer a “young genre” per se; it’s been four decades since the Sugarhill Gang and more than 25 years since The Chronic. Part of recognizing the maturation of hip-hop would be to acknowledge how rich its legacy is. That means celebrating the greatness of its pioneers, not just for “paving the way” for what came after but also for the merits of their actual music.

The 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time

On April 30, Blow announced via Instagram his hospitalization for heart surgery. He explained that he would be undergoing surgery at UCLA Medical Center.

“I am preparing for an aortic artery repair procedure tomorrow morning,” read the post’s caption. “The procedure will stabilize the artery from further damage caused by the hematoma I contacted from my recent travels to China.”

And just three days later, Blow shared that he was on the road to recovery. “Hey everyone- I started physical therapy yesterday and occupational therapy today. I am on my way to a full recovery 100%. Thank you for all of your prayers and well wishes. I love you all and I will be back really soon!!God is most powerful in these times!!!! Please keep the prayers going up so the blessings will come down!!!To God be the glory Amen!!!”

But shortly thereafter, Simmons shared troubling news:

“F—, Captain Kurt damn!!! He just informed me that prayers are needed ..Please put @kurtisblow THE ORIGINAL ‘KING OF RAP’ back into your prayers. He has been called to second emergency open heart surgery. Kurtis Blow is a survivor, but this is not good. I say this to all who loved his music, his heart is bigger than his music. His family is a testimony to his goodness. His loving wife of at least 35 years and beautiful children are examples of his willingness to give. Let’s all give him the prayers and our blessings. Update from his wife Shirley ‘Kurtis’s heart is beating on its own. They are closing should finished closing in less than 2 hours. Glory to God Glory to God hallelujah hallelujah’ 🙏🏽❤ Shirley Let us continue to pray.”

Kurtis Blow performs during an old-school hip-hop show on Day 3 of the NAACP’s 108th Annual Convention at the Baltimore Convention Center in July 2017.

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Blow recovered from the ordeal and shared that he was recuperating, but his health scare was a reminder that hip-hop’s earliest stars are truly elders now. Those names like Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, The Treacherous Three and Spoonie Gee, as well as even earlier pioneers like Kool Herc, Busy Bee and DJ Hollywood, deserve more than to be relegated to niche status.

It may not be realistic to expect early rap acts to suddenly be thrust into the epicenter of contemporary pop culture. But it’s not a stretch to suggest we show these artists the kind of love we’ve shown to beloved rock and soul legends of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. A Kurtis Blow tribute at a hip-hop awards show doesn’t sound all that impossible, does it? Couldn’t you see a cool little medley? With Nas flipping “If I Ruled the World” as a nod, Romeo milking the nostalgia with his cover of “Basketball” and maybe having Next remind everyone where “Too Close” originally comes from (that would be Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’”) — and close with the everybody-knows-this universality of “The Breaks.”

Maybe that’s wishful thinking. Or maybe it’s already on the radar — let’s be positive. But as hip-hop enters middle age, it’s past time we start treating it like a classic genre. And it’s time we treat its founding fathers like the music legends that they are. Give Kurtis Blow his flowers. The man who would rule the world.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown show that cultural appropriation ain’t nothin’ but a G thang In the debate over profiting from black creativity, these country singers prove that turnabout is fair play

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

Amid ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the pain caused when corporations and white entertainers profit off the customs of black people and other minorities, along come Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, two African American rappers whose tunes have penetrated the upper reaches of — get this — the country music charts.

Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, having also charmed its way into the pop Top 20. Juxtaposing weepy pedal steel guitar against automated rap beats, the tune is a boot-scootin’ dance craze tune along the line of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1990 breakthrough hit, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon for Lil Nas X (left) and Billy Ray Cyrus (right). It completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 the week of July 30, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Cyrus, of course, makes a cameo appearance on the mega-popular remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-rap track that uses a Nine Inch Nails sample to celebrate rhinestone cowboy extravagance (“My life is a movie/ bull ridin’ and boobies/ cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty”). As you’ve probably heard by now, “Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon, having topped charts throughout North America, Europe and Australia. The week of July 30, it completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

The timing of that achievement is eerily auspicious. Aug. 2 was the 40th anniversary of the recording of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop track of any consequence and the song that started a musical revolution. What better way to celebrate rap’s 40th birthday than with a country-rap single whose historic success underscores hip-hop’s border-bounding global appeal?

A track like “Old Town Road” doesn’t spend 17 weeks at No. 1 by appealing to black people alone. Indeed, we can assume that more than a few fans of “Old Town Road” are white Southerners. That raises interesting questions, because perhaps no other art form is more associated with white racism than country music, which flourished during a period when the South’s white ruling class viewed black music as a plot to “mongrelize” America. “The obscenity and the vulgarity of the rock ’n’ roll music is obviously a means by which the white man [and] his children can be driven to the level with the n—–,” said Asa “Ace” Carter, founder of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, in 1958.

Lest the irony of black performers such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown appropriating white country music be lost, understand that in the minds of many black folks, cultural appropriation is something only other races do. For the past century right up to the present, white artists from Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones and Eminem have made a mint assimilating African American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, rap and more. We’re so used to churning out new art forms that the idea of appropriating white artists seems almost unseemly, like the crassest of sellouts.

Perhaps that perception will change with the success of Lil Nas X and Blanco. The fact that these black iconoclasts are making inroads with country music fans in an era of resurgent white nationalism challenges much of what we think we know about cultural appropriation and race in America. Are Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown pirating white culture? Or is the controversy over their blackified country sounds just musical racial profiling? Let’s explore.


The Cambridge Dictionary describes cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By this definition, Lil Nas X and Brown are tough nuts to crack, though the country music industry has weighed in officially on Lil Nas X. After reviewing “Old Town Road” in April, Billboard elected to remove the tune from its country chart, stating that for all its country/cowboy imagery, the song does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Blanco Brown performs during Day One of the 2019 CMA Music Festival at Ascend Amphitheater on June 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

While Billboard may be clear about the song’s lack of country authenticity, it’s harder for us laypeople. Do Lil Nas X and Brown “understand and respect” white country culture, at least judging by their hit debut recordings? It should be noted that there was little demand for black country-rap performers before these two guys showed up. So they recorded these twangy singles with little expectation that their songs would make them chart-toppers. Successful black singers such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker notwithstanding, African American country stars are as rare as desert rain.

Moreover, as any aspiring country performer will attest, it’s danged hard to write and perform a hit. Yet Lil Nas X and Brown nailed it on their first attempts, which suggests they understand and respect country culture, big-time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Lil Nas X and Brown really are culture vultures just looking to make a buck in country music. Isn’t it about time we black folks did more cultural borrowing? In the never-ending appropriation debate, we are often the most egregiously offended people, and understandably so. From redlining and voter suppression to racial profiling, we’re constantly reminded of the institutional disdain this country has for its African American citizens. Given this contempt, it’s maddening to witness the white ruling class appropriate our culture, imitating and commodifying everything from our music and fashion to our colloquialisms and mannerisms.

Billy Ray Cyrus (left) and Lil Nas X (right) perform at the 2019 BET Awards on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

Now, with Lil Nas X and Brown tearing up the charts, a turnabout-is-fair-play dynamic has been brought to the debate. For decades, some white people have brushed off black concerns about appropriation, an indifference that was dramatically illustrated when rock legend Paul Simon visited Howard University in 1987. The singer/songwriter hoped to explain how South African Zulu music inspired the songs on his acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. But instead of a warm welcome, Simon was treated to a healthy helping of student scorn —”For too long, artists have stolen African music,” asserted one Howard undergrad. “I tried to introduce this music to people who never heard it before,” a stunned Simon responded. “Sincerity doesn’t seem to be held in high regard.”

Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from its country chart suggests that some proportion of white fans are sensitive to their music being hijacked. Curiously, the purists weren’t complaining a few years back when a growing gaggle of white country artists started appropriating black music, all to the profit-making benefit of the industry. “Old Town Road” could be considered the latest product of a trend that emerged roughly six years ago. Dubbed “Bro Country,” the subgenre came to life when acts including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell began incorporating rap-style party rhymes and R&B- and blues-inflected rhythms into their songs. With its satiny melody and hip-grinding beat, Jason Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down” is virtually a R&B makeout song, yet it reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. Unlike its action on “Old Town Road,” Billboard never questioned the authenticity of Aldean’s tune.

Bro Country was so all-consuming that black performers such as Jason Derulo and Nelly started showing up in remixes, and hip-hop iconography started seeping into music videos. Florida Georgia Line’s 2014 clip for “This is How We Roll” features singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley swaggering and fist-bumping like boyz from the ’hood. The song’s opening verse drops iconic names designed to resonate with both white and black listeners. To wit: “The mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake …”

The “Hank” referenced in that verse is Hank Williams, the pioneering singer/songwriter who wrote and performed some of the most popular songs in country history, including “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” An acknowledged influence on superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Williams is held in such high esteem that he is affectionately known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And right here is where the whole Lil Nas X/Blanco/cultural appropriation thing gets really interesting. You see, Williams learned to play guitar from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black bluesman who performed in and around Lowndes County, Alabama. Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music. Williams was but one of many white musicians influenced by the African American string band music that proliferated around the South at the turn of the 20th century.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling. Instead of being appropriators of white folk music, Lil Nas X and Brown are actually taking up where their banjo-plucking ancestors left off. Swish!


From its modest 1979 origins up to now, hip-hop has thrived on masterly mooching. The genre’s aforementioned inaugural hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” quoted verbatim from Chic’s sophisto-funk classic “Good Times.” Perhaps more than any musical style in history, rap is defined by the shameless borrowing of other people’s music.

Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Hank Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But rap also owes some of its survival and current mainstream popularity to outright cultural appropriation. In 1986, hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC teamed with white rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to record a remake of Aerosmith’s 1975 shuffle, “Walk This Way.” At the time, Aerosmith was all but washed-up and struggling to remain relevant. The Run-DMC collaboration changed all that, rocketing to No. 4 on the pop charts. “Walk This Way” not only rescued Aerosmith, it thrust Run-DMC into the pop music major leagues and helped broaden hip-hop’s popularity among white people.

Just as Run-DMC helped salvage Aerosmith, so has Lil Nas X delivered Cyrus from cultural mothballs. And both these examples reveal how appropriation can work to the mutual benefit of artists from different backgrounds. The blues-influenced music of Elvis and other white rock musicians ultimately improved the fortunes of many African American performers. Asked in 1968 about the high esteem in which white rockers held black blues virtuosos, B.B. King said, “I’m grateful … the doors are open now … because of people like Elvis Presley [and] the Beatles.”

This cultural reciprocity is the promise of appropriation, and only time will tell if Lil Nas X and Brown can make cowboy culture more palatable to black people. But even if such a miracle never occurs, who cares? The ultimate message of “Old Town Road” is be yourself, even if that means emulating someone else’s culture. The song’s declarative chorus — “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” — appears to epitomize Lil Nas X’s defiant philosophy about his unhip country lifestyle, a notion underscored by the song’s surreal music video in which Lil Nas X stares down a hip-hop dancer. Lil Nas X is refusing to be lumped in with anyone simpleminded enough to only embrace the products of their own race and culture. In this sense, “Old Town Road” is as thematically beholden to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as to any rap or country song of yore.

This rebelliousness, along with the sincerity of their left-field hits, helps explain Lil Nas X’s and Brown’s startling success. They’re part of a growing class of black creators redefining what it means to be an African American artist in the 21st century. This new determinism is evident in the endeavors of the Black Rock Coalition and AfroPunk, two organizations that celebrate diversity in black music, offering a fellowship platform for wayward African American musos. Black folkies such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, J.S. Ondara and Dom Flemons are at once contemporizing and preserving the seldom acknowledged legacy of African American country and bluegrass musicians.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown rank among this band of musical gypsies, and they can’t be easily dismissed as cultural poachers. Are they borrowing elements of white country culture? Absolutely. But they’re also combining that with rap and reclaimed bits of their own black folk heritage.

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

2Pac’s birthday, GOATs and how we get hip-hop wrong Tupac’s place in hip-hop history was never about being the best rapper. It was always about his artistry.

June 16 would have been Tupac Shakur’s 48th birthday, and the iconic rapper’s legacy is still one of music’s most lauded — and one of its most contested.

Recently, author/commentator Marc Lamont Hill stirred a semi-hornets nest by declaring 2Pac “the most overrated rapper in the universe” on BET’s Black Coffee. “2Pac is overrated” sits alongside “the Beatles are overrated” as one of those “unpopular opinions” that have actually been quite pervasive for quite a long time. And, almost every time this conversation plays out, it reveals more about how we appraise greatness than it says about the uber-popular artist being slammed. 2Pac’s mythologized status makes him an easy target, and Hill’s co-hosts’ cries of outrage and disgust let him know they did not agree with his take.

“I know you love what Pac stands for!” Hill acknowledges to the others. “But actually rapping?!”

Tupac, seen here onstage at the Palladium in New York on July 23, 1993, is one of hip-hop’s most revered artists.

Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

That’s almost always where the “2Pac is overrated” opinion starts. To be sure, 2Pac has never been the kind of lyricist that Jay-Z, Rakim, Biggie, Andre 3000, Big Daddy Kane, Kendrick Lamar, Black Thought, Big Pun and lots of other upper-echelon rhymers are. His early rhymes are almost alarmingly stiff and basic, and his later flow, while much more nimble and fluid, relies more on his melodicism than verbal agility. But 2Pac’s place in hip-hop history was never about him being the best at rapping, it was always about his artistry. And at some point in conversations about hip-hop greatness, the appraisal of artistry took a back seat to the critique of ability.

“Greatest of all time” (“GOAT”) conversations can be both fun and tiresome, the kind of barbershop debate that can go on for hours but has become the de facto way for too many actual platforms to appraise greatness. Disseminators are supposed to be a bit more thoughtful about these things, but even the most celebrated of rap commentators can sometimes have a reductive lens when it comes to canonizing the genre as a genre. To be certain, hip-hop has never been just a genre, but the ways in which we’ve underserved it as a genre specifically speak to how oversimplified our view of it has remained. And it’s apparent in how we see “greatest rapper” conversations.

At some point, in conversations about hip-hop greatness, the appraisal of artistry took a back seat to the critique of ability.

In the 1980s and ’90s, rap groups were among the biggest acts in hip-hop, so any “greatest hip-hop artists” lists would have included Run-DMC, Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, etc. But because we’ve oversimplified the conversation as “greatest rappers,” it’s led to further muddying. “Greatest rapper” suggests a ranking/appraising of individuals. Can you extract individual members even if they’ve never released a solo album? That’s fine if you’re focused on rhyming ability — you can tell if someone can rap regardless of whether they’re solo or in a group. But if you’re appraising legacy/discography, you can’t give the entirety of that legacy to someone who was just one facet of what was a collective.

When discussing the “GOAT,” so many people don’t seem to consider that “greatest rapper” is an insufficient and cloudy distinction. Is that the artist you feel was greatest at rapping or is it the artist you feel has the greatest artistic legacy in hip-hop? Because greatness in hip-hop, like every genre, isn’t limited to a specific skill set. There are lots of people who can rap better than Gucci Mane, but Gucci Mane’s artistic legacy (quality of discography, the impact of that discography and scope of creative influence) is fairly untenable. If 2Pac was never rated so highly because people thought he was a supreme lyricist, that shouldn’t be grounds for calling him “overrated.” He was never “rated” so highly because of that in the first place.

The constant conversation around 2Pac as lyricist also seems to suggest that Pac is the only legendary figure in hip-hop who isn’t a top-tier rhymer. Artists like Too $hort and the late Pimp C are widely respected, but it’s not necessarily because they spit Black Thought-level bars. DMC has one of the most iconic hip-hop voices ever, but it’s apparent that Run was always much more dexterous on the microphone. The entirety of No Limit’s late-’90s roster (excluding Mystikal, Fiend and Mia X) was stacked with rappers of questionable ability. Chuck D is no slouch on the mic, but is he what you think of when you think of the most skilled lyricists? If we recognize that these legends’ skill as rhymers isn’t what totally defines their respective legacies, it’s hard for me to understand why 2Pac doesn’t get such allowances.

Appraising hip-hop greatness should not be about ranking who can rap the best; if you want to have that conversation, a “greatest MCs/lyricists” list works just fine. But just as there’s a difference between “greatest rhythm and blues singers” and “greatest R&B artists” (see also “greatest rock guitarists” and “greatest rock artists”), there is a difference between “greatest MCs” and “greatest hip-hop artists.” Critiquing the artists focuses more on their body of work and impact, less on specified skill proficiency. We should embrace that mindset more in hip-hop.

In the late 1990s, The Source published a “100 Greatest Albums” list that recognized the classic albums from the previous 20 years of hip-hop history. It was a great issue, with one of the all-time great covers: a pic of a brazen LL Cool J holding five mics. I remember picking up that issue eagerly and feeling like hip-hop had achieved a certain place; it was now a mature genre, old enough to go back through its history with a long lens and start canonizing that history. But as media moved from print to the web and as our attention spans got shorter, such lists started to change. I saw less “100 Greatest” and more “Top 5” and “Top 10.” I saw less that emphasized history and lineage and more that focused on “hottest rapper in the game” and “richest rappers.”

2Pac’s ability to meld social awareness, street bravado, ladies’ man come-ons and party raps proved to be a template that so many have attempted to follow in the decades since; his fatalism fetish and self-mythologizing are just as influential.

There was definitely canonization of the artistic merits of artists and music, but it seemed to take a back seat to easy rankings designed to spark debate or just to stroke our fetish for vicariously basking in the luxuries of celebrities. That condensed canonization led to a dumbing down of our conversations around this genre as a genre. As a result, nuances like “great rapper or great hip-hop artist” fell by the wayside as we rushed to name an easy “G.O.A.T.” without ever distinguishing between technical prowess and creative legacy.

As an artist, 2Pac is one of hip-hop’s most revered, as Hill himself acknowledged. His artistic legacy deserves that reverence: 2Pac’s ability to meld social awareness, street bravado, ladies’ man come-ons and party raps proved to be a template that so many have attempted to follow in the decades since; his fatalism fetish and self-mythologizing are just as influential. His brief career yielded a three-album run that still stands alongside the best in hip-hop (Me Against the World, All Eyez On Me, The Don Killuminati) and one “group” effort that should be mentioned way more (1994’s Thug Life: Volume 1).

He’s also been overly sanitized for the sake of easy martyrdom and hypermythologized to the point of caricature. But in this age of “I said what I said” hyperbole and overstatement, it’s easy to hurl gigantic rocks at our most popular figures. Is 2Pac overrated? Yes, but not uniquely so. And, as these things often do, the backlash against his legacy is leading to him becoming underrated by those eager to dismiss him as a mediocre artist just because he couldn’t rap as well as some others. If that’s not what your legacy is in the first place, then it sounds like building a straw man, offering an arbitrary dismissal. Hip-hop warrants more nuance than that.

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

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.

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.

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?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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”).

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.

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.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

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.”

Matthew Cherry moved from the practice squad in the NFL to first string in Hollywood His second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ ‘Red Line’

The fact that Matthew Cherry was a wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens is the least most interesting thing about him.

He was a star at the University of Akron, where he still holds the school record for most yards on punt returns in a season, with 305 in 2003, the same year he was named second-team All-Mid-American Conference.

But Cherry gave up the game in 2007. He walked away from the Ravens, his final team, with a $30,000 pretax settlement for a shoulder injury after being placed on injured reserve.

His professional career lasted about three seasons — some of it on practice squads, some of it on a roster. It was time for a pivot.

The settlement money helped him move to Los Angeles, where he was just another kid from the Midwest trying to make a go at this Hollywood dream.

He worked at it hard. For 12 solid years, including a stint of unemployment that sent him back home to Chicago to live with mom and dad.

And finally, his grind paid off — and then some. Cherry is now a TV director, an executive at Jordan Peele’s highly successful Monkeypaw Productions, helping to bring some of Ava DuVernay’s vision to life on CBS’ new limited series Red Line and working on an animated short in partnership with Sony Pictures Animation. He also is directing in ABC’s new series Whiskey Cavalier.

None of this came easy. Not when he set up fundraising accounts to finance his first feature film. Not when his mother died suddenly of an aneurysm — after telling him the previous night how proud she was seeing him begin to fulfill his dreams.

For a long time, that’s exactly what they were — dreams.

“I really didn’t even tell people I played ball,” he says now, sitting behind his desk at Peele’s Monkeypaw production compound in the Hollywood Hills. “I look at it how athletes are received when they break into music. People always roll their eyes like, ‘Ah, Kobe’s trying to do an album,’ or ‘Shaq is trying to do a project,’ or I remember specifically Allen Iverson, when he tried to drop an album. Athletes are always looked at weirdly when they try to do something outside of what they’ve been known for, and I was always conscious of that. …

“It helped that I really wasn’t a big name when I was in the NFL either. It made it easier just to be like: ‘Matthew. P.A. [Production assistant] I want to learn this from scratch.’ … Because people will have a perception of you, for whatever reason. In my experience, people assume that former pro athletes aren’t hard workers. Or we just want stuff handed to us, and we’re not willing to put in the work and grind for it.”


Matthew Cherry played briefly for the Baltimore Ravens.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Cherry grew up on Chicago’s North Side, and the first sport that caught his eye was baseball. He wasn’t a standout athlete, but his dad was a big Chicago Cubs fan, so he stuck with it. His earliest memory of the sport? It was horrible. He couldn’t remember which hand his mitt went on.

But there was always a lesson to be learned.

“I saw very quickly, if you put the time in and you practice, you can get better at it,” he said.

He also was growing. Rapidly. He decided to try football. Although his parents were middle-class, there weren’t enough resources for travel teams. But with practice, he became good enough to catch the eye of the coaches at a private Jesuit school in the northern suburbs, Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

“I very much felt like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Cherry said of his high school experience. “Just being this kid that’s actually from Chicago, a black kid, [and] at the time, it was not diverse at all. I remember my graduating class, we had five black kids in a class of 500.”

In fall 1999, he headed off to Akron, Ohio, and by his senior year he was an All-MAC candidate. Maybe this pipe dream of playing in the NFL — something he never thought seriously about before, as football was merely the means to getting a scholarship — could come to fruition?


He wasn’t drafted. And life in the NFL didn’t look like it looked in the movies, that’s for sure. He was on the practice squad most of his rookie year, until the Cincinnati Bengals signed him to the active roster for the last two games of the 2004 season.

Cherry started thinking of a different plan in 2005. A friend from college called him before training camp of his second season. Cherry had studied broadcasting in college and had worked in campus radio as a music director and on-air personality. He interned at a Cleveland radio station.

“One of my guys that I worked with on the Cleveland radio station, he was like, ‘Man, I’m going to L.A. for the BET Awards. Will and Jada are hosting. We’re doing a live remote there. I don’t know what you’re doing, but we’ll let you kick it with us if you want to come out,’ ” he recalled.

“He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.” — Angela Nissel

“In the back of my mind I was already starting to think about what my Plan B was going to be. Because my rookie year, I got cut and placed on practice squad, and that was really the first time I’d ever dealt with a situation like that, where I felt like I was good enough. But because of some of the politics around coming in as an undrafted player, sometimes if you’re not in the right situation, regardless of how well you do, you’re not gonna get a shot,” he said.

Arriving in Los Angeles, “I just remember my mind being blown. The weather. The mountains. The palm trees — but also how the entire city was just based off entertainment. It was all coffee shops, people in there writing scripts. The print/copy place, they’re talking about a discount for headshots and script printing. I was like, ‘This entire city revolves around this industry. That’s crazy.’ I just remember coming back from that experience just being really inspired. And I met this person who knew this other person who knew this other person who had been part of this program called Streetlights … a nonprofit organization that basically helps men and women of color get jobs as production assistants.”

Fast-forward to year three as a professional football player and Cherry is playing for the Baltimore Ravens after stints in NFL Europe with Hamburg and in the Canadian Football League. He had lived in nine cities and three countries in that three-year span.

He’d had enough. And he was ready to see what Hollywood was about. So he got into the production program, and his first job was working on Mara Brock Akil’s comedy series Girlfriends. On his off weeks, he worked on her spinoff series The Game, about a newly minted NFL player navigating his rookie year with his college sweetheart.

He was earning $300-$400 a week. It was low. But he loved it. This was his film school. He got to see how TV directors such as Debbie Allen, Sheldon Epps and Salim Akil worked, used camera equipment, set up shoots.

His next gig was on NBC’s sci-fi drama Heroes, but this time he took some extracurricular initiative: asking if he could use the camera equipment on off days to shoot music videos. He’d scour MySpace and reach out to rhythm and blues artists, offering to direct their music videos free of charge if they could make it out to L.A. He’d come up with the concept and he’d have the equipment — he just wanted a chance to tell a story. He got his first credit in 2008 directing a video for R&B artist Terry Dexter.

His side hustle served him well. He ultimately directed music videos for Michelle Williams featuring Beyoncé & Kelly Rowland, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred the Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Chloe x Halle.

Which brings us to now. Cherry has hit the place that he’s worked nonstop for since he arrived in 2007. He’s a creative executive at Monkeypaw. An executive producer on the award-winning BlacKkKlansman and a producer on The Last O.G. for TBS, where he just directed his first episode of TV.

“I thought he was going to be a stereotypical, kind of misogynist-without-recognizing-it, football guy,” said Angela Nissel, the co-executive producer of The Last O.G. “I remember the first time he was on set. Sometimes when you bring things up and there are a lot of guys, sometimes they tend not to hear you. He was the first one to say, ‘Wow, Ang, I hadn’t thought of that perspective. I’m glad we have a woman on set.’ He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.”

Cherry’s second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ Red Line, an eight-episode limited series about three Chicago families forced by tragedy to think about how race and racial biases affect their lives. The series is executive produced by DuVernay, who encouraged Cherry to write and direct a film about his experience in the NFL years ago. The result was The Last Fall, which aired on BET in 2012 after having its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and receiving an award for best screenplay at the American Black Film Festival.


Matthew Cherry (left) with Tracy Morgan (right) on the set of The Last O.G.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Now, as he thinks about that decade-plus of struggle, Cherry can smile. He met Peele in the midst of the successful run of Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. Peele liked a tweet Cherry tagged him in, started following Cherry and later sent him a direct message and asked to meet him. That was 2017, right after Peele announced his first-look overall production deal with Universal and Cherry thought maybe he’d be asked to direct a small-budget film. Instead, Peele wanted to hire him. Peele shared with him in that meeting that he was creating a space where he could continue what he did with Get Out: tell stories that have a social message and use genres such as horror, sci-fi and thrillers to make films and TV that are fun and commercially viable.

One of those projects is TBS’s The Last O.G., which stars comedian Tracy Morgan as a newly released felon who is trying to acclimate himself to society, get to know the twins he never knew he fathered and adjust to the new whitewashed affluence of his old Brooklyn neighborhood. The series also stars Cedric the Entertainer and Tiffany Haddish.

“Jordan really has given me that boost. When I first started working here, I was always looking at it like, man, what are the opportunities for directing? Maybe I can do some shows here and try to get that first opportunity. And The Last O.G. was always on my mind … just really fell in love with that show. The heart that it has, seeing Tracy in a way you’ve never seen him before,” Cherry said.

And for what it’s worth, we’ve never seen Cherry like this before either. He’s in the zone. And there doesn’t appear to be a slowdown anytime soon.

“It just literally felt like all these 10-plus years of being in L.A. and struggling, and living out of my car at some point, all these things you would do just to stay in L.A., stay in the game … if you could just stay here long enough, you might be able to make it,” he said.

He did that as a high school football player trying to get a college scholarship. He found it when he was struggling in the NFL and knew he needed to pivot.

And now, he’s figured it out in Hollywood. That early life lesson was key.

“It really is an athlete thing,” he said. “I would even go back further to that first time I picked up a baseball glove and put it on the wrong hand. Being able to see progress is something as an athlete that’s probably been the most important thing. Knowing that if you work hard enough, if you just stick it out long enough, you’ll get your shot.

“And then when you get your shot, you gotta take it. Or you have to go back to the bench. And that’s just always been a thing that’s been with me. I never felt like I had any opportunities that were just given to me. I’ve always had to create my own opportunity or give my own look or try to figure it out myself. And I just think, luckily it’s worked so far. And I think that’s the biggest thing about being an athlete, is being able to set a goal and knowing if you work hard enough, you can reach that goal for sure.”

Is the Death Row music from ‘Above the Rim’ the last great hip-hop soundtrack? Even bigger than the film — and from Warren G to The Lady of Rage to Tupac — this West Coast project still rules 25 years later

It’s early 1994. Robin Allen, the bruising emcee first introduced to millions as The Lady of Rage on Dr. Dre’s 1992 opus The Chronic, had been asked by Dre if she had anything in her arsenal for a new joint he was working on.

Rage was the second rapper signed to Death Row Records, which during the height of its ’90s run grossed an estimated $100 million per year. After the multiplatinum success of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s stunning 1993 Doggystyle, The Lady of Rage had next. And unbeknownst to her, the mashing, funk-injected “Afro Puffs” was set to be included on the soundtrack for a basketball drama called Above the Rim.

Because after the self-proclaimed “lyrical murderer” had knocked out her bars at the famed Can-Am Recording Studio in sleepy Tarzana, California, Rage wasn’t impressed with the playback. In fact, she hated the song.

“I didn’t think ‘Afro Puffs’ should be my first solo track because I didn’t believe it was lyrical enough,” Allen says more than two decades later. “I thought those rhymes were just child’s play.”


This was the high-flying age of black cinema, first reignited in the mid-’80s by future Academy Award-winning director Spike Lee with his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It. What followed was an “urban film” explosion exemplified by the surprise success of New Jack City (1991). The Wesley Snipes/Ice-T drug drama was a hit with audiences, pulling in nearly $50 million at the box office. And when record label executives saw its eclectic soundtrack — featuring the likes of Color Me Badd (“I Wanna Sex You Up”), Guy (“New Jack City”), 2 Live Crew (“In the Dust”) and the aforementioned Ice-T (“New Jack Hustler (Nino’s Theme)”) — reach double platinum status, executives scrambled to repeat its success.

“I thought those rhymes were just child’s play.” —The Lady of Rage

Having a chart-topping soundtrack soon became as important as scoring a box-office hit. Musical accompaniments to Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Juice (1992) went gold. The soundtrack for the Eddie Murphy romantic comedy Boomerang (1992) hit triple platinum. There was also the gold soundtrack to Poetic Justice (1993) and the platinum one for Menace II Society (1993). The soundtrack for multimillion-selling, Babyface-produced Waiting to Exhale (1995) remains a classic, as does the platinum one for The Nutty Professor (1996), the double platinum one for Soul Food (1997) and the platinum Bulworth (1998).

So, despite her protests, The Lady of Rage became a vital part of the success of one of that era’s most celebrated soundtracks. “I even begged Suge to take me off Above the Rim,” Allen recalls. “One day I was riding in the car with my manager at the time and I said, ‘I’m sure glad Suge dropped ‘Afro Puffs’ from the soundtrack.’ And she’s like, ‘Girl, Suge didn’t take that song off the album.’ I lost it. I had no idea how big the Above the Rim soundtrack would become. But Suge knew.”

Of course, Suge is Marion “Suge” Knight, the infamous co-founder and CEO of Death Row who today sits inside a California state prison cell. He was sentenced last October to 28 years for voluntary manslaughter. In recent years, the 53-year-old’s fearsome reputation has taken a hit. But back in ’94, Knight was fast becoming the most intimidating man in the music industry: a rap boogeyman known for imposing violent will on friends and foes alike. Few people said no to Suge Knight.

Yet, the former Compton, California, football standout was also an ambitious businessman who negotiated the ownership of his label’s master recordings as part of its partnership with Interscope, a rarity in the music business. Knight saw Above the Rim as a chance for Death Row to step outside of its gangsta rap confines. The bet paid off.

“The album was more successful than the movie.” — Brian Alexander Morgan

Released 25 years ago on March 22, 1994, the Above the Rim soundtrack sold more than 2 million copies and topped the R&B Albums chart for 10 consecutive weeks. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, the pop album chart, raising the profile of Death Row as a major industry player.

It’s true that the cultural impact of the black star-powered movie soundtrack started way before the ’90s. There’s Isaac Hayes’ monumental Shaft (1971), Curtis Mayfield’s riveting Superfly (1972) and the Aretha Franklin/Mayfield gem Sparkle (1976). Prince’s Oscar-winning, bar-raising Purple Rain and Whitney Houston’s 18-times platinum global smash The Bodyguard are revered icons of the form. But Above the Rim flipped the proverbial script. “The album was more successful than the movie,” Brian Alexander Morgan says with a laugh. He’s the principal songwriter and one of the producers of SWV’s infectious “Anything” remix featuring Staten Island, New York, hip-hop heroes the Wu-Tang Clan, one of several great songs on the Above the Rim soundtrack.

On the set of Above the Rim in Harlem, Tupac Shakur was a larger-than-life presence.

Photo by Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

And it’s true. While Above the Rim today stands as a cult classic, the film — written by Barry Michael Cooper and starring Duane Martin, Leon, Tupac Shakur, Bernie Mac and Marlon Wayans — stalled out in theaters at little over $16 million. But the Above the Rim soundtrack succeeded in part because of its very oddness: a hard-core West Coast rap label handling the music for a movie set in Harlem USA. But somehow it all worked.

The Lady of Rage’s “Afro Puffs” song, the one she fought Knight over, became the biggest hit of the underrated emcee’s career during the summer of ’94, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart. And the rhyme empress was joined by her seemingly unstoppable Death Row label mates.

Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound’s Daz Dillinger and ’hood-certified crooner Nate Dogg showed out on the ride-out track “Big Pimpin’.” No-nonsense songstress Jewell — who had previously contributed soulful vocals to Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” and Snoop’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” — was featured on two standout tracks, including the sensual Aaron Hall duet “Gonna Give It to Ya.”

Washington, D.C.’s Majic 102.3 Radio One host and former BET personality Madelyne Woods joined Death Row in the winter of ’94 as a production coordinator for the Above the Rim soundtrack — at times doubling as an executive assistant for Knight. She still marvels at the vocal prowess of Jewell Caples.

“There was nothing fake about Jewell,” says Woods, forever immortalized by A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife on their 1993 “Electric Relaxation” (“But hon, you got the goods, like Madelyne Woods …”). “She made it very clear what she thought about you. And the talent that woman had … Jewell could blow the doors off of anybody in the industry today with her rich tone and delivery. That’s what was so amazing about Death Row. The stable was so deep with talent.”

Suge Knight saw Above the Rim as a chance for Death Row to step outside of its gangsta rap confines.

Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Deep is an understatement. Daz’s in-the-zone Dogg Pound partner Kurupt delivers the most potent verse on the sinister “Dogg Pound 4 Life”: “Before I even step m—–f—–s hit the deck / I gets wreck with a tech so cash in like checks, fool.” Even now Kurupt’s face beams when he speaks of those wild but productive Above the Rim studio sessions.

“The key to ‘Dogg Pound 4 Life’ is that was the reality for us,” says Kurupt, who is revered as one of the most devastating West Coast lyricists to pick up a mic. “We were really Dogg Pound for life: me, Daz, Snoop and Nate Dogg. I wanted to prove that … I was the greatest. And I really believed that, because we had the best team. That’s what you hear on Above the Rim. We had Rage, who would come to the studio before anybody because she wanted to be the first one on the mic. We had Snoop, who was a monster. We had Dr. Dre, who was a genius. And we had Suge making s— happen.”

And of course there was the larger-than-life presence of the enigmatic Tupac Shakur, the brilliant, scene-stealing star of Above the Rim who was quickly becoming known as much for his Thug Life-propelled street anthems as he was for his high-profile run-ins with the law. When you hear the heartfelt ode to the dead homies “Pour Out a Little Liquor” and his bonus soundtrack cuts — “Loyal to the Game,” featuring Treach and Riddler, and the haunting “Pain” — you are listening to an uncompromising artist just a few verses away from becoming a pop culture antihero.

But at its heart, the story of Above the Rim is one of brazen musical curveballs. And the biggest one of them all was Warren G and Nate Dogg’s million-plus-selling “Regulate,” that era’s most unlikely pop triumph.

Everything about “Regulate” is blissfully absurd. From the blue-eyed soul easy-listening sample of Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” to its fairy-tale opening: “It was a clear black night, a clear white moon.” That segues into a harrowing back-and-forth tale between Warren G and Nate Dogg about surviving a violent carjacking.

“Suge didn’t ride around listening to a lot of gangsta rap.” — Madelyne Woods

But “Regulate” almost missed the cut. Although Warren G — who came up in Long Beach, California, with Snoop and Nate as a member of the group 213 — made solid contributions to both The Chronic and Doggystyle, he was still a man without a country, so to speak. Warren G was looking for a record deal, but Knight was slow to recognize.

Meanwhile, Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Records, which was in a slump, desperately wanted in on the West Coast rap takeover. Chris Lighty signed Warren G to his Violator Records, which was distributed by Def Jam, and the rest is history. “Regulate” was chosen as Above the Rim’s first official single and was unleashed on the public in the summer of ’94. The monster track zoomed to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles, a massive anchor for the soundtrack and an MTV staple.

But it wasn’t just Warren G’s come-up that had the industry buzzing. Death Row, the imprint known for behind-the-scenes beatdowns and the hardest gangsta rap around, had proved it could compile a savvy soundtrack dominated by the sounds of rhythm and blues. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the perfectionist Dr. Dre, today a near-billionaire music mogul and revered hip-hop visionary, had carte blanche over all selected tracks on Above the Rim.

“The sound had to be just right for Dre,” says veteran video game, music and film sound mixer Phil Brewster, a former assistant recording engineer at Death Row. “He’d come in the studio, listen to a mix and go, ‘Oh, no. F— that.’ And he would take all the faders and bring them down and start EQ-ing even when the track wasn’t playing. Within 10 to 15 minutes, Dr. Dre had the best mix. It was incredible to see.”

But the throwback attitude of such Above the Rim cuts as “Old Time’s Sake,” “Part Time Lover, “Hoochies Need Love Too, and Al B. Sure’s “I’m Still In Love With You” carry the DNA of Suge Knight. “This was a fantasy album for Suge,” says Woods. “If you were in the car with him, during the whole ride there would be nothing but old soul and R&B like Teddy Pendergrass, the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke and New Birth played. Suge didn’t ride around listening to a lot of gangsta rap.”

Decades later, the towering shadow of Above the Rim still hovers over all modern soundtracks (such as Kendrick Lamar’s vital 2018 Oscar-nominated project for Black Panther) that have the audacity to risk it all. For Kurupt, who in recent years has moved into the commercial cannabis business, Above the Rim will always be in heavy rotation.

“You can find a lot of greatness and genius on the streets,” he says. “Death Row was giving outlets to people who had no other way in life, but they had talent, and Above the Rim was another outlet for us. Suge and Dre wanted us to make a soundtrack that was equivalent to a classic album. That’s why we are still talking about it all these years later.”

Aux Cord Chronicles XVIII: An obsessive, 57-song playlist of Drake’s sports obsession Aubrey has never been able to stop talking about sports — all of them

LeBron James‍ (and what’s left of) the Los Angeles Lakers stagger into Toronto on Thursday night to take on the Raptors. At this point, the Lakers have more of a realistic chance to land Zion Williamson than to make the playoffs, which takes much of the luster out of what was supposed to be a late-season meeting between two playoff-bound squads. Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam aim to keep Toronto within reach of the Milwaukee Bucks for the Eastern Conference’s top seed. And while it’s the longest of shots, Drake is always a subplot at courtside — although he’d have to jet over from Paris on his off day from his Assassination Vacation European tour to make it happen.

In addition to the fact that he announced today the OVO Athletic Centre, “the official training facility for the Toronto Raptors,” the Scorpion rapper has a multitude of reasons to hop on a Cessna and pull up to Scotiabank Arena. Drake has been the Raptors’ global ambassador since 2013, and he doesn’t pass up many opportunities to see his friend James up close and personal.

Plus, Drake — who is currently sitting on Billboard’s pop singles charts for the 193rd (!) time, for his “Girls Need Love (Remix)” collaboration with Summer Walker — has long been a fountain of sports references and analogies. What we have here is a vault of those Drake sports lyrics. An anthology, if you will. The references span a range of sports, athletes and moments dating back well over a decade. This isn’t all the looks, but the best and the most of them. So grab a drink. Order some food. Spark up. Get comfortable. We’re going to be here for a while.

Below you’ll find 57 songs, in chronological order, dating to 2007’s Comeback Season up to the current day. Some you’ll remember. Some you’ve probably forgotten. And some you may have never known existed. What’s not up for question, though, is the power and legitimacy of Drake’s co-sign. “When your favorite rapper puts your name in a song,” 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant said, “it makes you feel like you made it.”

Going In For Life” (2007)

If Hov is Jordan, I guess I’m cool with Pippen / ’Til I mention that I wanna play a new position / No team playin’, no screen settin’ / Because I wanna win games / Coach, I’m through assistin’ …

Less than two years before he became a household name, Drake’s sights were already set on rap’s pinnacle. And he knew how to get there: He’d have to look Jay-Z in the eyes. The two artists’ on-again, off-again friendly war of words/peacetime admiration has deep roots.

Drake feat. Lil Wayne — “Ignant S—” (2009)

The same n—a I ball with / I fall with/ On some southern drawl s— / Rookie of the Year / ’06, Chris Paul s— …

Chris Paul’s presence is felt throughout So Far Gone. He’s actually on the outro of the Lil Wayne and Santigold-assisted “Unstoppable.” Meanwhile, earlier on Gone, Drake calls his own shot, dubbing himself rap’s best newcomer — just like Paul, the former Wake Forest Demon Deacon, had been a few years beforehand in the NBA.

Say What’s Real” (2009)

And to my city I’m the 2-3 …

Jordan or James — both apply here. Drake wasn’t the first musical artist to put Canada on the map; names such as Kardinal Offishall, Nelly Furtado and Tamia predate Aubrey Graham. That being said, it’s hard to say the notoriety and legacy Drake brings to his own city aren’t similar to the legacy of 23 in Chicago and Cleveland, both of whom are big fans of Toronto’s figurative 23.

The Calm” (2009)

Tryna enjoy myself with Tez in Miami at the game / I just wish he knew how much it really weighed like Dwyane …

The landmark mixtape’s somber standout is the on-wax meeting of Drake and Wade.

“You know,” Dwyane Wade told me last month in Miami, face beaming with pride, “I was on So Far Gone. That was so cool. That’s when I first heard of Drake.” Such is true, the landmark mixtape’s somber standout is the on-wax meeting of Drake and Wade.

Gucci Mane feat. Drake — “Believe It Or Not” (2009)

OK, I’m all about it, all for it / I’m All-Star Team Jordan, small forward / I’m never putting up a shot unless it calls for it / No hesitation so I’m shooting if I draw for it …

Drake knew from the moment So Far Gone propelled him into superstardom he’d have to defend his name against those who thought he didn’t deserve to be there. Little did he know how much though

9AM In Dallas” (2010)

I’m nervous / But I’ma kill it cause they ’bout to let the realest team in / Throwing up in the huddle, n—a, Willie Beamen / But still throwing touchdown passes/ In tortoise frame glasses hoping that someone catch it …

The first installment in Drake’s famed time/location series. Nearing the end of the decade, it’s fascinating to hear some of the anxiety and uncertainty in his lyrics. Who could’ve really predicted all of this?

Drake feat. Alicia Keys — “Fireworks” (2010)

I’m flying back home / For the Heritage Classic …

The first song on Drake’s first studio album, Thank Me Later, is positioned there for a reason. In the first verse of “Fireworks,” he goes into his fear that fame would eventually drive him and Lil Wayne apart. The second verse is about Rihanna. And the third verse focuses on the relationship with his parents and being the product of a divorced household separated by an international border. The Heritage Classic, by the way, began in 2003 and is one of the NHL’s storied outdoor regular-season games — in Canada.

Thank Me Now” (2010)

And that’s around the time / That your idols become your rivals / You make friends with Mike / But gotta A.I. him for your survival / Damn, I swear sports and music are so synonymous / ’Cause we wanna be them / And they wanna be us …

One of Drake’s most popular and lasting lines speaks to how the cultures of sports and music have always been intertwined — tip your cap to Master P, who not only opened the door but also brought the marriage mainstream in the 90s. Not a single lie was told.

You Know, You Know” (2010)

Game time b—- I hope you’re proud of us / King James s— watch me throw the powder up …

Tell your girlfriend /That I can pull some f—ing strings / So we’re courtside / When LeBron get a f—ing ring …

Back when Drake and Kanye West were on speaking terms, they created this gem, which came with a duo of powerhouse LeBron references — it’s Drake’s most high-profile athlete friendship.

Nicki Minaj feat. Drake — “Moment 4 Life” (2010)

Young Money the Mafia that’s word to Lil’ Cease / I’m in the Dominican, Big Papi Ortiz …

David Ortiz went from being just another random Red Sox signing in 2003 to getting name-dropped by Drake on a hit single — to one day being inducted at Cooperstown. Not a bad come-up for Big Papi.

Rick Ross feat. Chrisette Michele & Drake “Aston Martin Music” (2010)

Which one of y’all got fleets on your key chains? / The seats for these Heat games?

Drake, who originally played post-hook duties on Rick Ross’ “Aston Martin,” obviously had more to say as OVO’s top dog released his own verse called “Paris Morton Music” — dedicated to a model of the same name whom he ended up making two songs about. By the time the official video dropped, Ross made the executive decision to add Drake’s verse. Smart move. Also, sitting courtside during the Miami Heat’s “Big Three” era was the ultimate flex.

Rick Ross feat. “Made Men” (2011)

I’m in the condo posted watching Miami kill / I might just walk to the arena and watch it for real …

Yes, in case you haven’t caught on to the trend yet, we’re in the Miami Heat era of Drake’s career.

Over My Dead Body” (2011)

Are these people really discussing my career again? / Asking if I’ll be going platinum in a year again / Don’t I got the s— the world wanna hear again? / Don’t Michael Jordan still got his hoop earring in?

This picture, taken in 2011, actually does feature Michael Jordan rocking a hoop earring. There’s your answer(s).

Under ground Kings” (2011)

I swear it’s been two years since somebody asked me who I was / I’m the greatest man / I said that before I knew I was …

You might’ve heard someone say that before. Rest in peace, Muhammad Ali.

The Ride” (2011)

I’m out here messing over the lives of these n—as / That couldn’t fuck with my freshman floater …

There’s an argument to be made that “The Ride” is a top-three Drake song, ever. I am more than willing to have that discussion. Just not on social media.

Drake feat. Tyga & Lil Wayne — “The Motto” (2011)

My team good, we don’t really need a mascot / Tell Tune, “Light one, pass it like a relay” / YMCMB, you n—as more YMCA …

It seems like a lifetime ago, but who remembers the controversy — well, controversies — around the phrase “YOLO” (You Only Live Once)?

Rick Ross feat. French Montana & Drake — “Stay Schemin’” (2012)

Kobe ’bout to lose $150M’s / Kobe my n—a, I hate it had to be him / B—- you wasn’t with me shootin’ in the gym (B—- you wasn’t with me shootin’ in the gym!)

For as popular as this line became — and it was extremely popular around the time that rumors were rampant that Kobe Bryant and his wife were barreling toward divorce — the misogyny in the lines is something Drake grew to regret. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, was none too pleased, especially as the lyric became a true cultural moment.

“I love when immature kids quote a rapper that has never been friends with Kobe and knows nothing about our relationship,” Vanessa Bryant shot back. “I don’t need to be in the gym. I’m raising our daughters, signing checks and taking care of everything else that pertains to our home life.” She wasn’t done. “I really wish people would stop, think and then realize that they are being sucked into someone’s clear intention to monetize and gain attention off of our family’s heartache. This is real life. I hold down our home life so my husband can focus on his career. It’s a partnership.”

Yikes. Vanessa Bryant’s anger got back to Drake, who apologized via text. The line even temporarily put LeBron James in hot water last year, too.

Tuscan Leather (Nothing Was The Same)” (2013)

Bench players talking like starters / I hate it …

I’ve reached heights that even Dwight Howard couldn’t reach …

The Howard comment is true. Drake and Howard were young superstars at one point, but the two have seen their careers veer in different directions over the past eight years. But the bench players and starters bar? A critique very applicable in so many walks of life. We’ll just leave it at that.

DJ Khaled feat. Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne — “No New Friends” (2013)

H-Town my second home like I’m James Harden / Money counter go *brrr* when you sellin’ out the Garden …

Since we’re on the topic, earlier this season, reigning NBA MVP James Harden dropped a career-high 61 points on the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. The mark tied with Bryant for the most points scored by an opponent vs. the Knicks.

PARTYNEXTDOOR feat. Drake — “Over Here” (2013)

I’m back boy for real / I’m that boy for real / I got hits, n—a / You just a bat boy for real …

This one doesn’t normally get mentioned when Drake’s best guest verses are debated. But it should.

5AM In Toronto” (2013)

Some n—a been here for a couple / Never been here again / I’m on my King James s— / I’m tryin’ to win here again …

A lot has been made of Drake’s supposed sports curse. But here’s one instance where Drake hit the nail on the head in an installment of his time/location series. This song was released in March 2013, and the Heat went on to repeat as NBA champions in a thrilling seven-game series against the San Antonio Spurs three months later. As for the aforementioned James, he secured his second consecutive Finals MVP award as well with a 37-point, 12-rebound (and game-icing jumper) virtuoso performance in Game 7.

French Montana feat. Rick Ross, Drake & Lil Wayne — “Pop That” (2013)

OVO, that’s major s— / Toronto with me that’s mayor s— / Gettin’ cheddar packs like KD / OKC, that’s player s— …

It’s 2019, so it’s not a stretch to proclaim this now. **plants flag** You’d be hard-pressed to find many better party anthems of the 2010s.

Furthest Thing” (2013)

I had to Derrick Rose the knee up ’fore I got the re-up …

Drake, like former NBA MVP Rose, had his own very public stint of injuries. The artist embarked on his America’s Most Wanted tour in 2009 with a torn ACL, MCL and LCL. Drake fell and reinjured his leg again at a performance in Camden, New Jersey. The diagnosis from Lil Wayne (who actually does have a song called “Dr. Carter”), saw it happen firsthand: “That n—a really got a bad leg.”

Worst Behavior” (2013)

I’m with my whole set, tennis matches at the crib / I swear I could beat Serena when she playin’ with her left …

Outrageous boasts and hip-hop go together like Nick Cannon and paychecks. But, yeah … no. Sounded good, though. No denying that.

0 to 100 / The Catch Up” (2014)

Been cookin’ with sauce / Chef Curry with the pot, boy / 360 on the wrist, boy / Who the f— them n—as is, boy …

F— all that rap-to-pay-your-bills s— / Yeah, I’m on some Raptors-pay-my-bills s— …

No need for an apology to the wife of an NBA superstar this time around. This is the song that ignited Drake’s short-lived beef (over beats) with Diddy and also gave credence and aura to the nickname “Chef Curry” — which Stephen and Ayesha Curry both parlayed, on and off the court. For context, Ayesha Curry’s already on her third International Smoke restaurant.

Nicki Minaj feat. Chris Brown, Drake & Lil Wayne: “Only” (2014)

Oh, yeah, you the man in the city when the mayor f— with you / The NBA players f— with you / The badass b— doing makeup and hair f— with you …

No shade at all for this next sentence. But Minaj could really use a single like this in 2019.

Draft Day” (2014)

Draft day, Johnny Manziel / Five years later, how am I the man still?

Well, Drake can still attest to being a marquee attraction a half-decade later. Johnny Football? Not so much. Manziel, to whom the song was dedicated (and who is mentioned by 2 Chainz in his new song “NCAA”), was an incredibly hyped NFL rookie at the time. A Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, Manziel was undeniably one of the most popular, and controversial athletes of his generation. Manziel spiraled out of the NFL after two years with underwhelming play on the field. And just last month, Manziel was kicked out of the Canadian Football League.

10 Bands” (2015)

I get boxes of free Jordans like I played at North Carolina / How much I make off the deal? / How the f— should I know?

In terms of Cocky Drake, consider this one of his best bars to date. You can feel the disgust in his voice.

6 Man” (2015)

Boomin’ out in South Gwinnett like Lou Will / 6 man like Lou Will / Two girls and they get along like I’m … (Louuu) Like I’m Lou Will / I just got the new deal …”

It’s time we put Lou Williams in the conversation of all-time great sixth men, if we haven’t already. But while this line immortalized Williams, the NBA’s new all-time leading scorer off the bench and a rapper himself, he played it cool with his response to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. “I hear about it every day. Every single day,” he said. “More players do that than you know. I was just the first person to have it mentioned in a song.” Somehow, that’s not surprising. Like, at all.

6PM In New York” (2015)

Every shot you see them take at me they all contested / Allen Iverson shoe deal / These n—as all in question …

Given all the athletes Drake has referenced over the years, it’s low-key wild that he hasn’t mentioned Iverson more. But both entries on this list (see above) are definitely impressive.

Fetty Wap feat. Drake — “My Way” (Remix) (2015)

They should call me James / ’Cause I’m going hard in this b—- …

What’s true: This was one of the biggest records of that year and a day party mainstay. What’s also true: It’s far more fun to drunkenly recite than it is impressive to just read on the screen.

Meek Mill feat. Drake — “R.I.C.O.” (2015)

OVO, East End, Reps Up, we just might get hit with the R.I.C.O. / Everyone home for the summer, so let’s not do nothing illegal / I go make $50 million then I give some millions to my people / They gon’ go Tony Montana and cop them some Shaq at the free throws …

Drake and Mill’s beef, which started almost immediately after the release of this song in the summer of 2015, dented both careers. But perhaps one of the most innocent bystanders was this song — it never received the video and push it more than deserved.

Charged Up” (2015)

Come live all your dreams out at OVO / We gon’ make sure you get your bread and know the ropes / I get a ring and I bring it home like I’m Cory Joe …

Cory Joe is, of course, Cory Joseph, the Toronto native who won the 2014 NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs and later signed with his hometown Raptors. But when you think about it, this wasn’t the first time a Spur found himself smack-dab in the middle of a high-profile Drake beef.

Back To Back” (2015)

Back to back for the n—as that didn’t get the message / Back to back, like I’m on the cover of Lethal Weapon / Back to back, like I’m Jordan ’96, ’97, whoa!

It was never confirmed whether this video of Jordan dancing (exactly how you’d expect Jordan to dance) to “Back to Back” was real. But it does go to show how deeply the Meek beef permeated pop culture.

Future & Drake — “Big Rings” (2015)

This game is different / You only get one shot when n—as gon foul on you …

With the Meek beef still very much on the minds of everyone, Drake continued to take the reins of the narrative by teaming up with Future for a collaborative album. While Drake’s presence was felt on 10 of the 11 tracks, the lingering effects of his fallout with Meek, and the ghostwriting accusations that haunted him, resonated within Drake’s aggression.

Future & Drake — “Scholarships” (2015)

I’m ballin’ outta control, keep on receiving the scholarships / Mail coming to the house / N—a please watch your mouth / I’m the one without a doubt, yeah / And I rock Kentucky blue on these hoes / Drafted, I’m getting choose by these hoes …

No matter how many No. 1 hits he amasses, Drake still has to redeem himself from this moment while wearing said Kentucky blue.

Future & Drake — “Jumpman” (2015)

I hit the Ginobili with my left hand up like, “Woo!”

Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman, f— was you expecting? (woo!) / Chi-Town, Chi-Town Michael Jordan just said text me (woo!)

Jumpman, Jumpman, live on TNT I’m flexing (ooh!) / Jumpman, Jumpman they gave me my own collection (ooh!) … Mutombo with the b—-es, you keep getting rejected (woo!)

If nothing else, there should at least have been a video for this project. Nike could’ve fronted the budget and just made it an informal infomercial.

30 For 30 Freestyle” (2015)

S— is purely for sport, I need a 30 for 30 / Banners are ready in case we need to retire your jersey / I got a club in the Raptors arena / Championship celebrations during …

Peyton and Eli when n—as called me they brother the season start / And I don’t wanna see you end up with nothing / Y’all throw the word “Family” around too much in discussion / Rookie season, I would’ve never thought this was coming / They knees give out and they passing to you all of a sudden / Now you the one getting buckets …

With a title such as this one, there had to be a slew of sports-related lyrics.

Summer Sixteen” (2016)

And I blame my day ones / You know Chubbs like Draymond …

Golden State running practice at my house …

Yes, now we’ve entered the Golden State portion of Drake’s discography. And no one was more appreciative than Draymond Green, who views his mention as a career-defining moment.

Weston Road Flows” (2016)

A lot of people just hit me up when my name is mentioned / Shout out to KD, we relate / We get the same attention / It’s raining money, Oklahoma City Thunder / The most successful rapper 35 and under / I’m assuming everybody’s 35 and under / That’s when I plan to retire, man, it’s already funded …

I used to hit the corner store to get Tahiti Treat / Now the talk at the corner store is I’m TBE / The best ever, don’t ever question, you know better …

Drake gives a nod to Floyd Mayweather Jr. with the TBE nod. But it’s Drake’s Kevin Durant mention that raises the most eyebrows. Perhaps Drake knows something we don’t? He and KD are close, and the impending megastar free agent has long called Drake his favorite rapper. The two-time NBA champion revealed last June that he could realistically, as Drake says of himself, envision himself retiring at 35. “This game, your craft, you have to continue studying,” Durant said. “No matter how much you enjoy it, nobody wants to be in school that long. I know I don’t. At some point, you have to be ready to graduate. Thirty-five, that’s just a number in my mind.”

Still Here” (2016)

I gotta talk to God even though he isn’t near me / Based on what I got, it’s hard to think that he don’t hear me / Hittin’ like that 30 on my jersey, man, I’m gifted …

Conversations with God. Comparing himself to the greatest shooter who ever lived. Drake’s confidence was higher than telephone wires.

Pop Style” (2016)

This was when we received confirmation Drake and the Bryant family were still cool.

MVP, MVP, ’09 all the way to ’16 / Even next season looking like a breeze / Lot of y’all ain’t built for the league …

Drake wasn’t the MVP every year from 2009-16, but he was certainly in the conversation. “Pop Style” also rings off in concerts something serious.

Views” (2016)

Me and Niko used to plot on how to make a change / Now me and Kobe doin’ shots the night before the game / Still drop 40 with liquor in my system …

This was when we received confirmation Drake and the Bryant family were still cool. Drake and Kobe, at least.

YG feat. Drake — “Why You Always Hatin?” (2016)

I’m a star like Moesha’s n—a / Runnin’ up the numbers like Ayesha’s n—a …

A subtle Fredro Starr mention here. And Ayesha Curry’s husband was for sure running up the numbers in 2016. That was the year he become the only unanimous MVP in NBA history. Speaking of Steph …

4PM In Calabasas” (2016)

We established like the Yankees / This whole f—ing game thankless …

OVO, the rap game Bronx Bombers?

OVO, the rap game Bronx Bombers? Drake thought so, even if the industry would never acknowledge it as such. Regardless, “4PM” remains one of Drake’s sharpest cuts, with a tidal wave’s worth of Diddy disses throughout.

Free Smoke” (2017)

I took the team plane from Oracle / Mama never used to cook much / Used to chef KD / Now me and Chef, KD / Bet on shots for 20 G’s …

Drake albums are always a big cultural event from coast to coast. Needless to say, in 2017, this song was anything but a fan favorite in the Cleveland area. Especially in Quicken Loans Arena.

Fake Love” (2017)

Soon as s— gets outta reach / I reach back like 1-3 …

To date, this remains the lone Odell Beckham Jr. reference in Drake’s catalog. And that’s a wild stat, given their very public bromance.

Lil Wayne feat. Drake — “Family Feud” (2017)

Super Bowl goals, I’m at the crib with Puff / He got Kaepernick on the phone / He in a whole different mode …

An oft-forgotten collab between Drake and Lil Wayne. It was also one of the earliest nods to the fact that Drake and Meek were, behind the scenes, putting bad blood behind them even as Meek sat in prison. I need my paper long like “A Milli” verse / Or too long like a sentence from a Philly judge, he rhymed. F— is the point in all the beefin’ when we really blood?

Diplomatic Immunity” (2018)

’Cause n—as started talkin’ to me like I’m slowin’ down / Opinions over statistics, of course …

Like Sanders on the Detroit Lions/ Get a run around and I’ll bury you where they won’t find ya …

This is a hard track Drake dropped at the start of 2018 along with the Grammy-winning “God’s Plan.” Both songs were a welcome change of pace, his first new ones since dropping More Life almost a year earlier. But for as tough as Drake’s “Diplomatic Immunity” is, the above phraseology will always belong to the royal family of Harlem. Not even Drake can overtake that.

Nonstop” (2018)

I just took it left like I’m ambidex’ / B—-, I move through London with the Eurostep (Two) / Got a sneaker deal and I ain’t break a sweat / Catch me ’cause I’m goin’ (Outta there, I’m gone) / How I go from 6 to 23 like I’m LeBron?

Money for revenge, man, that’s hardly an expense / Al Haymon checks off of all of my events / I like all the profit, man, I hardly do percents …

While never confirmed, it is widely speculated that the “revenge” line is confirmation of Pusha T’s suspicion that Drake was offering money for dirt on him. Regardless, “Nonstop” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard’s Hot 100. But it’s unclear how many people who chant the “6 to 23” line understand its real meaning. Drake’s from Toronto, which he calls “the 6.” Drake’s got his own sneaker deal — just like No. 23 for the Lakers.

8 Out of 10” (2018)

Miss makin’ ’em pay / Helipad from Will Smith crib straight to the stage / Three Forum shows, but I played Staples today …

All in a day’s work.

Mob Ties” (2018)

Lead the league in scoring, but man look at my assists …

Lightly similar to Jay-Z’s High school crossover, waved away picks / Music is the same s—, gave away hits from 2000’s “Best of Me” (remix). Somewhere, on the slim chance he’s even aware the line exists, NBA great Nate “Tiny” Archibald is smiling. He was living that same life during the 1972-73 season with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings when he led the league in scoring (34) and assists (11.4). That’s the only time in league history that’s happened.

Sandra’s Rose” (2018)

They don’t have enough to satisfy a real one / Maverick Carter couldn’t even get the deal done …

Louisville hush money for my young gunners / Rick Pitino, I take ’em to strip clubs and casinos …

Just when Rick Pitino maybe thought the Adidas pay-for-play scandal that got him ousted as head coach at Louisville was in the rearview mirror, here comes a mention on the most streamed album of 2018.

Drake feat. Jay-Z — “Talk Up” (2018)

This isn’t that, can’t be ignoring the stats / Based off of that, they gotta run me the max / They gotta run me the max / They gotta double the racks …

In other words, the mindstate of every big-name free agent this spring or summer, from Le’Veon Bell to Kevin Durant to Kyrie Irving and others. Look what knowing your worth did for Bryce Harper: $330 million later, he’s set for life.

Drake feat. Future — “Blue Tint” (2018)

Way this s— set up, I live like Ronaldo / But I never been in Madrid, whoa …

It’s impossible to believe Drake has never been to Madrid, considering he’s toured the world several times over. Not exactly the thing I was expecting to have in common with Drake, but alas.

Lil Baby feat. Drake — “Yes Indeed” (2018)

My cousins are crazy / My cousins like Boogie / Life is amazing / It is what it should be / Been here for 10, but I feel like a rookie …

One of the most popular Instagram captions of the past year. Going back through the list, too, it appears the only Golden State Warrior who hasn’t been name-dropped in a song by Drake is Klay Thompson.

Fire In The Booth” (2018)

El chico, this verse is the explanation for the large ego / $100 mil’ hands free like Ronaldinho …

Click the link to the song. How Charlie Sloth didn’t blow a vein in his neck is both a blessing and scary.

Today in black history: Michael Jackson takes home 8 Grammys, ‘Porgy and Bess’ opens on Broadway, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 28

1704 — Elias Neau, a Frenchman, opens a school for black students in New York. Neau, who worked as a cabin boy and a sailor in his early life, was always willing to lend a helping hand. But Neau was especially inspired to help enslaved communities after being captured by a French privateer near Jamaica in 1692 while out to sea. After being transferred to Marseille, France, for not renouncing his faith — he wrote letters to his wife, prayers, poems and hymns to pass time — Neau landed himself in solitary confinement, where he remained for six months. He was released from prison six years later.

1879 — Blacks flee political and economic exploitation in the South. Kansas became the land of promise for African-Americans, both free and enslaved, who sought educational, political and economic opportunities in the 1860s and 1870s. Although slavery still existed in surrounding areas, Kansas seemed to be a much better option than the tumultuous climate for African-Americans in the South.

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a runaway slave from Tennessee who sheltered escaped slaves once he was free, noted the conditions African-Americans were subjected to in the South and eyed Kansas. Singleton enlisted the help of Columbus Johnson, who helped Singleton circulate posters across the South that explained their plans. The withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, marking the end of the Reconstruction era, caused the “Great Exodus” to peak in 1879. By then, at least 50,000 blacks, known as Exodusters, sought freedom in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois with the help of Singleton, who became known as the father of the Black Exodus.

1932 — Richard Spikes, an auto enthusiast and industry innovator, receives a patent for the automatic gear shift for cars. In 1962, while losing his vision, Spikes continued to work on creating the automatic safety brake for cars. All of Spikes’ creations are still essential components of cars today.

1943 — Porgy and Bess opens on Broadway with Anne Brown and Todd Duncan in starring roles.

1948 — Sgt. Cornelius Frederick Adjetey, a member of the 81st and 82nd divisions of the Royal West African Frontier Force, became the first martyr for national independence of Ghana while on a peaceful march. Adjetey, along with unarmed ex-servicemen, began their journey from Accra, Ghana’s capital, to meet with the governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Gerald Creasy, to air their grievances and present a petition in regard to ending service entitlements that had not been received. Creasy dismissed the men, ordering them to leave. After the ex-servicemen refused to leave without a resolution, Creasy ordered police to open fire, instantly killing Adjetey and his cohorts. The killings were investigated, but not before causing general disorder and disturbances in Accra.

1984 — Michael Jackson wins eight Grammys. It was a night to remember for musician and entertainer Jackson, who took home eight Grammy Awards, including seven for his best-selling album Thriller. The album, which produced seven Top 10 singles after its November 1982 release, swept several categories, including best male R&B vocal performance and best R&B song for “Billie Jean,” best male rock vocal performance and record of the year for “Beat It,” best male pop vocal performance for “Thriller” and album of the year. Thriller broke all sales records to date and remains one of the top-grossing albums of all time.

1990 — Philip Emeagwali, known as the “Bill Gates of Africa,” receives the Gordon Bell Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of computing, for solving one of the 20 most difficult problems in the computing field.

The 1999 NBA All-Star Weekend that never was What if the lockout never happened?

Vince Carter’s 2000 All-Star Weekend in Oakland, California, is etched in NBA history thanks to his instantly iconic performance in the Slam Dunk Contest. In actuality, though, Oakland should have been his second All-Star trip. The 1999 NBA All-Star Game, booked in Philadelphia — on Valentine’s Day, at that — was the most high-profile casualty of an NBA lockout that threatened the entire 1998-99 season.

“That’s where it was supposed to be? In Philadelphia?” Carter says after a January practice in Sacramento, California. Even over the phone there’s genuine shock in his voice. “Wow,” he says. “I [really] had no idea.”

But what if the NBA hadn’t had to cancel the 1999 All-Star Game? What if, in a new, post-Michael Jordan NBA, there had been a huge Philly basketball celebration to help ease the pain of losing basketball’s biggest star?

What if there had been an All-Star Weekend in 1999? You’re in luck. There is.

But first, some backstory.


Noren Trotman/NBAE/Getty Images

It’s tough to fault Carter for not recalling. The 1998-99 season is a forgotten, or at least rarely discussed, chapter in NBA history. Owners locked out the players on July 1, and the NBA season was shortened to 50 games. There were “no trades, no player signings, no NBA-sanctioned summer leagues, or contact between players and team representatives.” There was no All-Star Game. Shortly after the 1998 NBA draft, which featured future Hall of Famers such as Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, labor negotiations came to a screeching halt as growing profits, and how those profits would be allocated in coming seasons, became the glaring issue.

Team owners, among other things, talked salary cap issues and blamed Kevin Garnett’s 1997 $126 million contract. “That … changed the landscape,” said former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik after the lockout. “This was the one where owners said something had to be done.” Players talked about the NBA’s swelling revenues, especially from television, and the rookie salary scale, among other things.

Players unfairly shouldered much of the public blame for the lockout, though in fairness, some players didn’t make it easy on themselves from a public relations perspective. While attempting to organize a charity game in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to benefit UNICEF — and NBA players — then-union president Patrick Ewing said pro athletes “make a lot of money, but spend a lot, too.” The gesture of the game did anything but win the fans’ favor back to the players. The Boston Celtics’ Kenny Anderson joked about selling one of his eight cars. And Grant Hill took a temporary hit to his reputation for, in the eyes of many, not taking more of an assertive role during the lockout — and his Sprite commercial with Tim Duncan reportedly angered several players.

By mid-October, the NBA’s preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season had been canceled. “If the [NBA] isn’t back by Christmas,” said Neil Hernberg, then the sports marketing manager of apparel behemoth Pro Player, “we could lose 75 percent of our NBA business.” The effects of the lockout hit the pockets of other business partners as well. “The market is soft,” noted Steve Raab, vice president of marketing for Starter. “Retailers are reducing and canceling orders.”

Networks were forced to revamp programming, and shortly before Christmas, the NBA announced for the first time in its history — and, to date, still the only time since 1951 — that the league would cancel its annual midseason classic. The city of Philadelphia lost out on an estimated $40 million.

“[The lockout] didn’t set me back because I had nothing to be set back from,” says Carter. “I went back to [the University of North Carolina]. I did a semester … and had a chance to work out with Coach [Dean] Smith and the team while I was waiting for the lockout to end.”

The players approved a new deal 179-5 at 6 a.m. on Jan. 6, 1999, and the league’s Board of Governors unanimously agreed to ratify the compromise. The deal was widely viewed as a win for the owners, but the players did walk away with more money for non-franchise players, and for the superstars. “Did [the players] blink?” then-NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter asked rhetorically. “I guess we both blinked.”

JOHN ZICH/AFP/Getty Images

Less than a week after the return of pro basketball back, Jordan retired for a second time.

The announcement wasn’t much of a shock, but the impact was massive and multidimensional. Television networks, which for years profited from Jordan’s magnetism, were forced to adjust to an uncertain new reality. “It’s unique to have been in a partnership with the NBA for eight years, and to have had this fairy dust sprinkled on us,” said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. “Now we have to reintroduce this generation of stars … will we get Babe Ruth tomorrow? No.”

“I’m sad to see him go,” rhythm and blues singer/actress Aaliyah said. “But he’s had an incredible career and we will miss him. … He’s worked hard and he deserves to relax now.”


It’s Valentine’s Day weekend in Philadelphia. In real life, the 1998-99 season is just over a week old. Teams and players are working their way back into a groove.

Instead of the pageantry of an All-Star Game, the 76ers are hosting the Atlanta Hawks. Allen Iverson is his usual self — 32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals and 2 blocks — helping Philly improve to 4-1 to start the season. He’s the game’s lone bright spot in a 78-70 Sixers victory. Unfortunately, the biggest news to hit the city that weekend is a fire that engulfed South Philly’s St. Barnabas United Methodist Church. And the biggest sports-related news? Wrestlemania XV invading the city in March, headlined by a no-disqualification title match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.

But let’s imagine an alternative history

Philadelphia is abuzz with Hollywood’s elite, music’s biggest names and NBA legends — both established and in the making. West Philadelphia’s Will Smith, fresh off “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” and Enemy of the State, is one of the biggest stars on the planet — he’s down front. So is Lauryn Hill — she’s one of the biggest musical artists on the planet. And Iverson? He’s in his third season and already one of the league’s most prolific scorers. But more than that? He reaches and represents a generation fueled by counterculture and soundtracked by hip-hop. While Iverson’s cornrows and tattoos are to some a sign of basketball’s decaying morals, to a younger generation he’s a symbol of defiance, swagger and perseverance.

“It’s unfair, but it’s true,” Iverson told Chris Rock. “People look at the way I dress, who I hang around, [my] jewelry — people try to make me 34 years old and I’m only 24.” People hated Allen Iverson and people loved Allen Iverson. It’s that dichotomy and that polarization that make him the obvious de facto mayor of the 1999 NBA All-Star Weekend that never was.

Team owners, among other things, blamed Kevin Garnett’s 1997 $126 million contract.

Also at courtside for the game are hometown heroes such as Mike Schmidt and Moses Malone. There’s plenty of room also for the other stars ruling culture: Denzel Washington, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Spike Lee, Snoop Dogg, Jim Carrey, Djimon Hounsou, Kate Winslet. Bill Russell is there, along with Wilt Chamberlain, whose relationship with Philadelphia is both storybook and tragic. The meeting at the 1999 NBA All-Star Game (that never was) would be one of their final times together, as Chamberlain would die eight months later.

Muhammad Ali and Philly’s own Joe Frazier, in the imaginary weekend’s most touching moment, publicly end a bitter feud that had lasted nearly 30 years with vicious taunts from both men. In real life, the two boxing icons squashed their beef at the 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia. Places of honor go to Julius Erving, as well as Jordan, whose presence is impossible to avoid given that most fans have yet to accept his second retirement.

Jazzy Jeff is the weekend’s official DJ. Hometown daughter Patti LaBelle performs the national anthem — paying homage to the city’s soulful musical roots with the most soulful rendition since Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl. The aforementioned Hill, following the August 1998 release of her The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is tapped to perform at halftime with a string of hits, including “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Everything Is Everything” and “Lost Ones.” Less than two weeks later, Hill’s place in history is cemented with five Grammys, including album of the year.

Celebrities are a necessary part of All-Star Weekend. As are big-name performers. But the biggest celebrities and performers are the ones voted in by the fans to start the game. Unlike 2019, the teams were still separated by conferences in 1999. Yet, like 2019, the game’s starters will be selected via fan vote. Here are your 1999 NBA All-Stars, for a game that never was — current and future Hall of Famers each one.

Eastern Conference

Glen James/NBAE/Getty Images

G — Allen Iverson | Philadelphia 76ers

The weekend’s point person, if you will. Though if you’re in the mix, you’ll see Bubba Chuck at every party in the city. Iverson’s popping bottles, rocking jewelry bright enough to light up the nightclub and partying to DMX, Jay-Z, Cash Money. You’re probably wondering when he sleeps? It’s All-Star Weekend! No sleep! It’s Philly, and it’s Allen Ezail Iverson, and you know he’s bringing the city out. Iverson did eventually capture All-Star Game MVP in Washington, D.C., in 2001 — also a homecoming of sorts, given his Georgetown roots. So, needless to say, the league’s leader in points per game and minutes per game in the 1998-99 season would’ve put on a show before a crowd that treats him like a demigod to this day.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

G — Ray Allen | Milwaukee Bucks

Penny Hardaway really could’ve won a popular vote over Ray Allen, aka Jesus Shuttlesworth, in 1999. Penny started every game in ’98-’99 and led Orlando to the playoffs. But Hardaway’s injury history works against him here and is beginning to paint the picture of what could have been an all-time great NBA career derailed by factors beyond his control. Riding the wave of 1998’s He Got Game, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar-in-the-making gets the nod, and you best believe he’s rocking the HGG 12’s in the process — with Washington, Lee and Jordan all sitting courtside too. Hardaway was a magnificent shooter from the day he entered the league, and in his later years he became a marksman who nailed the 3 that saved the Miami Heat’s dynasty in 2013. But young Ray? Oh, young Ray could do it all. Including put you on a poster.

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

F — Vince Carter | Toronto Raptors

All the hoopla and hysteria we see around Luka Doncic now? That would’ve been Vince, the eventual Rookie of the Year, 20 seasons ago — had he actually had a real rookie season to lay ruin to. How massive was the Vince hype? Let his cousin and teammate, Tracy McGrady, tell it. “[Carter] lit the league on fire with his athleticism, his spectacular dunks,” he says with a smile you can almost see through the phone. “That momentum carrying into the ’99 All-Star break just would’ve been on fire.” Even in the abbreviated season, Carter’s athletic prowess became the theatrics of legend en route to a runaway Rookie of the Year campaign. Carter starts as a rookie in the All-Star Game because, why wouldn’t he?

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

F — Grant Hill | Detroit Pistons

One of the best (and most popular and marketable) stars in the league was set to be leaned on heavily in the post-Jordan era. His ability to do nearly any and everything on the court — Hill averaged 21.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6 assists and 1.6 steals on 47.9 percent shooting in ’98-’99 — made him an undeniable superstar with crossover appeal. Hill’s marriage to R&B star Tamia, whose brilliant 1998 self-titled album produced the hit “So Into You,” also made the former Duke Blue Devil a star far beyond the court. The sky is the limit for Grant Hill in February 1999. One question no one’s really asking at this point, though. Should we be talking about Hill’s impending summer 2000 free agency? Too early, right? Yeah, you’re right.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

C — Alonzo Mourning | Miami Heat

When the center position actually counted in the All-Star Game, here is Mourning. Shaquille O’Neal had long defected to the Western Conference. And Patrick Ewing’s prime years are behind him. Mourning is, without question, the East’s best center on a team many believe will compete for a championship come June. His 20 points and 11 rebounds per night would’ve made him an All-Star in any season — but his league-leading 3.9 blocks per game make getting into Fort Knox easier than getting to the rim when Zo’s in the neighborhood.

Getty Images

Coach: Pat Riley | Miami Heat

With Jordan retired and the Chicago Bulls team a shell of its former self, Pat Riley’s Heat had real-life title aspirations and the squad to do it. Just a hunch, though: They should probably try to avoid the New York Knicks in the first round.

Western Conference

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

G — Gary Payton | Seattle SuperSonics

With fellow Oakland native and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd in Phoenix, there’s competition out west for the starting guard spot, but The Glove gets the nod because he’s still very much the floor general who led the SuperSonics to the NBA Finals three years earlier. The Sonics aren’t the dominant force in 1998-99 they were in the mid-’90s, but Payton’s output was still up there with the best point guards in the league: 21.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.2 steals. Plus, Payton’s a showman of the highest order, and being able to mic him up in-game is too much basketball trash-talk nirvana to pass up.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

G — Kobe Bryant | Los Angeles Lakers

It was pretty much written in stone that from the moment this teenager started his first All-Star Game in New York a year earlier, one of these guard spots would be his every February for the foreseeable future. In️ this alternate reality, Kobe Bryant returns to Philadelphia — the city he claimed, although it didn’t always reciprocate his love — and puts on an absolute clinic. Not many players have had a higher flair for the dramatic than the perpetually dramatic Bryant. With Ali, Frazier, Hill, Jordan, Will Smith and others at courtside, maybe, just maybe, Bean captures MVP honors in Philadelphia in 1999 — just like he did in 2002.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

F — Kevin Garnett | Minnesota Timberwolves

The Big Ticket, like Bryant, is inked in here for as long as he can put up with Minnesota, largely accomplishing very little during his prime years. By the end of his third season in 1997-98, Garnett had become a one-of-one generational talent. He was a complete freak on the defensive end and was the only player in the league to put up 18 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists per night. If that wasn’t enough, the now three-time All-Star had no problem talking an opponent’s ear off.

Getty Images

F — Karl Malone | Utah Jazz

Quick question. Don’t use Google, either. And please don’t Ask Jeeves. Who won MVP in 1999? If you guessed Malone, buy yourself a drink. Because of the lockout, his ’99 MVP, won in his 14th year in the league at age 35, is relegated to obscurity, sandwiched as it is between Jordan’s final MVP in 1998 and O’Neal’s virtuoso 2000 campaign. Malone, the game’s future second-all-time leading scorer, gets the fan selection here, but it does come with a caveat. There’s a young phenom in his second season at San Antonio by the name of Tim Duncan who will make this spot his very, very soon.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

C — Shaquille O’Neal | Los Angeles Lakers

Like Iverson, if you’re in Philly for the 1999 All-Star Weekend that never was, it won’t be easy to miss Shaq. Sure, because of his stature. But more importantly because of his larger-than-life personality. O’Neal’s a megastar not just on the court but with a broad appeal similar to Jordan’s. And with Bryant in Philly too, there was the slight chance O’Neal and Bryant could’ve performed their long since forgotten rap collaboration “3X’s Dope” from O’Neal’s 1998 album Respect at some random party in the city.

Getty Images

Coach: Gregg Popovich | San Antonio Spurs

Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, with a young Duncan and a wily vet in David Robinson, seem poised for something special in San Antonio. They might be on to something here.


Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Bonus: Is the 1999 NBA All-Star Dunk contest the greatest dunk contest that never happened?

Aside from a few special moments — see Cedric Ceballos’ blindfold, Dee Brown’s no-look, Shawn Kemp’s double pump, Isaiah Rider’s Eastbay Funk Dunk or Brent Barry’s jump from the free throw line — the dunk contest lost steam in the ’90s. Bryant, as a rookie, won the contest in 1997. There was no contest at all in 1998 — and no dunk contest in Madison Square Garden spoke volumes. The contest returned in 2000 with a bang. At the Golden State Warriors’ home arena, Steve Francis, McGrady and Carter proved to be human defibrillators, reviving the contest with legendary swag.

“Bro, I’m trying to tell you. It was some highfliers with creativity and young legs! It would’ve been crazy!” — Tracy McGrady

Yet, McGrady still wonders what would have happened in Philly at the All-Star Game that never happened. Could the greatest field that never happened … have actually happened in 1999? “You had Kobe in [’97]. Then you got Vince come in. I mean, who knows?” McGrady says. “Kobe probably would’ve entered that Slam Dunk Contest that year with Vince. You just never know.”

Carter agrees, although the missed opportunity doesn’t hurt as much given the light show he and his cousin put on in Oakland. “As far as what could’ve been? Yeah, maybe that year — as far as a dunk contest,” Carter says.

A potential field of Bryant, McGrady and Carter? “Bro, I’m trying to tell you. It was some highfliers with creativity and young legs!” McGrady exclaims. “It would’ve been crazy!

Carter doesn’t want to play the “what if” game too much, though. But he realizes what those three could have brought to the floor in the 1999 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest that never was. “Kobe and I played with each other in AAU … Tracy and Kobe were good friends. The friendly competition and the mutual respect we had for each other as athletes and dunkers would’ve brought the best out of each and every one of us,” Carter says. “That would’ve been legendary.”

Charlotte native Anthony Hamilton to sing national anthem at NBA All-Star Game ‘I’m singing for my whole community and the people who loved me for so long’

Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker isn’t the only local talent feeling himself heading into NBA All-Star Weekend. Charlotte, North Carolina-born rhythm and blues singer/songwriter Anthony Hamilton is happy to return home and do what he does best. But Hamilton is also seasoned enough to know that home-court advantage can lull even the biggest performers into a false sense of security.

“I know I’m not boo-proof,” said the 17-time Grammy nominee, who won the Grammy for best traditional R&B performance for 2008’s “You’ve Got the Love I Need” with Al Green. Hamilton will sing the national anthem before the NBA’s midseason classic on Feb. 17 at the Spectrum Center, home of the Hornets. “The safest thing to do is to not do too much,” said the 48-year-old father of six boys who range in age from 6 to 30. “People like the national anthem more standard, but you can also make it your own with different inflections and vocal textures.”

“Anytime you’re home amongst your people and your peers, you tend to hold stuff a little closer to your heart.”

The Spectrum Center is hardly unfamiliar territory for Hamilton, as he’s sung the anthem five times for Michael Jordan’s team. But this performance, which will be seen and heard by fans in more than 200 countries and territories, will have an extra helping of Carolina barbecue, and he finds that comforting. “Anytime you’re home amongst your people and your peers, you tend to hold stuff a little closer to your heart,” said Hamilton, who attended South Mecklenburg High School, the largest high school in North Carolina. “I’m not just singing for me. I’m singing for my whole community and the people who loved me for so long and supported me. So it’s like the whole broader community is coming out to sing.”

Known for his raspy and soulful voice, Hamilton, a musical descendant of Green and Sam Cooke, has achieved global sales of more than 50 million albums. He rose to prominence in 2003 with his platinum-selling second studio album Comin’ from Where I’m From, featuring the title track and follow-up single “Charlene.”

Anthony Hamilton has already sung the national anthem five times at the Spectrum Center.

Ted Wimbush

There is no doubt that All-Star Weekend will spotlight the best that North Carolina has to offer. Besides Hamilton, Walker will make his third All-Star appearance (and first-ever start), Fayetteville native J. Cole will perform during halftime of the 68th annual game and Hornets rookie Miles Bridges will be among the league’s highfliers competing in the Slam Dunk Contest.

As a bonus, the NBA’s first family — the Currys, who have ties to Charlotte — will get plenty of looks, with brothers Stephen and Seth dueling in the 3-point contest on Friday night. All this familiarity will add to a nice vibe, Hamilton said. “That’s true,” said Hamilton, who’s also known for the song “Freedom” from the soundtrack album of Django Unchained. “I’m gon’ have family in the stands … some family outside trying to get in and some at home watching on TV,” he joked. “It’ll be a little bit of everything.”

“People like the national anthem more standard, but you can also make it your own with different inflections and vocal textures.”

A North Carolina Music Hall of Fame inductee who is working on his ninth studio album and has performed for former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, Hamilton said his “game prep” is bigger than a simple sound check.

“The night before, I make sure I’m rested up, hydrated and get a good sleep,” he said. “I make sure my outfit is going to be comfortable enough and I feel really good about it. And the day of [the performance], I wake up, have breakfast, get to the venue in time to do sound check. When it’s time to perform, maybe like an hour or so before going on, I just like to sit quiet, and before I go on stage, I pop an extremely strong mint gum, I say a prayer, and I go out there and give it all I’ve got.”

Once his job is done, Hamilton plans to take in as much of All-Star Weekend as his schedule allows — while being his city’s biggest cheerleader.

“Charlotte is a beautiful city that’s capable of hosting one of the most amazing and big events of the year, and it’s a place you should see and experience,” Hamilton said of his hometown, which is hosting its second All-Star Game since 1991. It’s also among the three fastest-growing big cities in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released last year. “But [experience it] not just around All-Star, but throughout the year. Take in some of the beautiful sites: the greenery, the Southern hospitality and the love that we have here to offer. This is my city.”