Basketball and Hip-Hop: The Venn Diagram With No Middle
Basketball and hip-hop exist as two dominant cultures in urban communities, naturally opting to coexist, rather than surrender to strict one-or-the-other makeups. But at the same time that this registers as true, such a relationship also presents a puzzling dichotomy: if the practices can operate so well within each other’s vicinity, why can’t the people do the same? (IMAGE: via the FADER)
A year ago, in the evening hours of Wednesday, November 18, 2020, Sheck Wes officially announced to the general public that he had declared for the NBA Draft. In stark contrast to a bubbling social media-driven rap era that thrived on performance gimmicks, this was not the PR tactic that many followers (including myself) were led to dismiss it as: not a single photo in the nine-slide Instagram post Wes used to drop the news was posed for – some saw him attempting tedious layups with impossible mid-air contortions; others captured him fielding intense triple-teams; in one, he dribbled two basketballs at once at Summit New York, the illustrious Manhattan luxury apartment gym that could bear the fresh footprints of Lebron James, J. Cole, and Kevin Durant upon its hardwood on any given night.
“Damn… it’s really real , The 2020 NBA DRAFT , all my life I always wanted to follow my passion for music and basketball,” Wes wrote in a lengthy caption to the post. “Playing basketball and going to play pro in the @nba is something that I always strived for. Tonight that dream comes true!”
Sheck Wes was not selected in the 2020 NBA Draft.
“Many modern-day rappers only befriend professional athletes after their status gives them permission to do so. For Sheck Wes, the opposite: the connections were there before the money showed up. Mo Bamba was a buddy before he was a bar.”
It reminds one of an omnipresent determinism – basketball or hip-hop – that rings true for many students of the poverty-ridden ghetto from which Wes hails. In Wes’ case, over his lightning-fast ascent to mainstream relevance, he was able to dabble a foot in each pool. He was a talented basketball player far before a rap career ever began to come into form, and when the latter finally overtook the former, rather than let his childhood dream melt away amidst the lights and cameras, he sought to carry it right along with him into the limelight. Like it often does for both the rappers who try to launch successful basketball careers, and the basketball players who try to launch successful rap careers, this ultimately failed to live up to any hype created by prior stardom. If anything, yet, it added yet another layer to an ever-evolving fallacy of hip-hop culture: as much as we often say that multi-faceted outputs are positive – are they really possible?
Ironically enough, although he went undrafted in the NBA, Sheck Wes’s rise to fame was more or less contingent on the league’s terms. His breakout 2018 single, ‘Mo Bamba’, titled after the then-rookie Orlando Magic center of the same name, quickly caught fire in circles of high school hypebeasts and sports-adjacent executives alike. At the same time that curly-haired teenagers in Cactus Jack Flea Market long-sleeves were mini-moshing to it in their school cafeterias, professional MLB baseball players were requesting that it be played over stadium intercoms while they walked up to the plate. Following in the creed of it’s writer himself, the track was able to simultaneously exist in the arena and the lunchroom because of its contagious energy, the kind that exists in both the mind of a tenth grader who has just realized that his parents could be wrong on occasion, and in the locker room of a championship team en route to Game 7. “That song, ‘Mo Bamba,’ hits like a bomb,” New York’s Craig Jenkins wrote in a review. “It’s simplistic almost to a point of amateurishness — deceptively so, if you followed the Twitter tiff where Zedd criticized the song, and co-producers Take A Daytrip popped in to explain the music theory behind the melody. Sheck Wes’s raps are loud, churlish, and direct, pulsing with the same cocky, blunt-force energy that codified the hip-hop, punk rock, and streetball movements in the city decades prior.”
My first encounter with ‘Mo Bamba’ was an accident. It was the winter of my freshman year of high school, and although I hadn’t found myself in any of the major music circles that often grouped up together at lunchtime – limited knowledge of early 90s East Coast hip-hop wasn’t going to cut it with connoisseurs of the SoundCloud era – there was the impending sense that modern rap was a zeitgeist I would either have to embrace, or be eclipsed by. My high school shared a building with a middle school, with the middle school having full use of the auditorium during morning hours. One morning in December, I walked in early, and ‘Mo Bamba’ was blasting at an ear-splitting level from the assembly. I peered through the glass, expecting to see mischievous students that had somehow gotten their tiny hands on school-issued speakers. I was wrong: it was the teachers playing the music. And the entire auditorium – both middle schoolers and faculty alike – was in a frenzy. Not having listened to the song in December of 2018 felt a lot like forgetting your homework.
For Sheck Wes himself, the song was more about his reality than it was about the pop culture that would eventually adopt it. Perhaps the most emblematic manifestation of such an approach, the song’s namesake was not the kind of random NBA player shout-out that gave clean edits of earworm tracks free airplay on ESPN: Mo Bamba was Sheck Wes’s childhood friend, a fellow Harlemite who used to frequent the basketball courts with him, and a sharer of his African heritage. Even more so, for that matter, the song was never originally intended for official release. It was derived from an impressively lengthy SoundCloud loosie, where over a period of about 20 minutes, Wes freestyled menacing lyrics about his Harlem upbringing over equally menacing bass-heavy warbles sourced from producer friends. It’s easy to picture a rapper like Drake strategically squeezing an NBA name-drop into the writing process of a peppy summer jam. (Fun fact: “I been Steph Curry with the shot / Been cookin’ with the sauce, Chef Curry with the pot, boy” has been featured, in some capacity, in over six million Instagram captions written by junior varsity basketball players. Okay, this is false. I made it up. But still.) On the other end of the spectrum, just as easy as it is to envision this, it is no issue to picture a familiar name bubbling up in a bedroom freestyle – not because it belongs to an NBA player – but because it belongs to a longtime friend. Many modern-day rappers only befriend professional athletes after their status gives them permission to do so. For Sheck Wes, the opposite: the connections were there before the money showed up. Mo Bamba was a buddy before he was a bar.
Sheck Wes had been on Kanye West’s radar some considerable time prior to ‘Mo Bamba’’s cultish radio streak. While Wes was in high school – of course, a devoted member of the basketball team – he was approached by a fashion talent scout while riding the NYC Subway. The encounter culminated with Wes skipping a playoff game to model for the Yeezy line at a highly sought-after event at Madison Square Garden. Soon afterward, his music would catch the attention of both West and Travis Scott, who would go on to sign him to their respective GOOD Music and Cactus Jack labels in 2018, following the success of his debut single. (He also signed a deal with Interscope Records on the same day).
One would expect a starstruck quality to be somewhat present in any young rapper thrust into such a position – a sudden overwhelming desire to be a student of the game far outshining any brashness that may have characterized the ascent to this level.
“Listen, I don’t need anybody’s help. If Kanye tells me something, I don’t really use it. If Travis tells me something, I am going to push the other way,” Wes, then 19 years old, told Dazed in a 2018 profile. “I will always make my own path. I love them both for their support, but I am my own man. My energy probably inspires them (and not the other way around).”
It takes a vigorous character to (1) blatantly and intentionally reject the advice of Kanye West and Travis Scott, and (2) have the music to back up your decision. Sheck Wes grew up in a place – locationally and socioeconomically speaking – where there was no autonomy to take any route but the one you forged for yourself. “There’s three ways out of the ghetto, the old saying goes: either you rap, you ball, or you rob,” Jenkins wrote in the aforementioned New York review. “Sheck Wes tried a little of everything.”
But once one avenue failed, he was already on his way to the next. You listen to lyrics like those of the anarchic ‘Live Sheck Wes Die Sheck Wes’, where he seethes through dismal reflections (“it gets tragic where I live, everything is negative / Hold the roaches in the crib, elevator full of piss”), and the future you envision is one of the same exact viscera. Roaches. Piss. Violence. Look at him now, and, although he isn’t on an NBA roster, he has already rapped his way out of the ghetto he originally dreamed a draft selection would rescue him from.
“I have a lot of fun,” he said in the Dazed profile, speaking on the creation of his debut album MUDBOY. “I inspire people in my hood to step outside the box as you don’t always gotta be super tough! I used to fight and did so much crazy shit, but sometimes you gotta teach people that you don’t have to be like that, there’s another way.”
Sheck Wes emerged onto the mainstream hip-hop climate in an era peppered by nihilist acts like 6ix9ine and the late XXXTentacion. It was the early stages of a neo-Internet-era business framework, one that saw Instagram provocateurs – Boonk Gang, Supreme Patty, etc – lather in a growing system that turned (sometimes fake) social media antics into (very real) money in the bank. Soon, the music industry began to catch on. In the same decade that saw Drake and Meek Mill beef with the studio as a foreground, and the internet as a background, the likes of 6ix9ine and Lil Pump handled their business exclusively in captions and comment sections. Musical.ly, a social lip-syncing app popular among middle school girls, became TikTok, a more all-inclusive dance-friendly brainchild that was a hotbed for viral hits. It was easy to overlook ‘Mo Bamba’ as a come-and-go earworm club bop that had no meaning besides being perfect to turn up to, because in the era it was born part of, it was beginning to matter less and less what you said if you could make it look good on camera.
It was, more or less, because of this shifting online climate that Sheck Wes’ declaration for the NBA Draft was easily brushed off as an elaborate PR scheme. (There is some credit to be offered in that direction though – after going undrafted in 2020, he released another single, #BEENBALLIN. The cover image features a suit-clad Wes standing over a podium labeled 2020 DRAFT, as if he had been selected by a team). Basketball was Sheck Wes’ sole hope before a more monetarily promising rap career came within reach, and even though it remained a desire of his to follow through on athletics, the demands of sudden hip-hop stardom proved to make this increasingly unattainable. “I knew I was bad as shit,” he told the FADER in 2018, “so I was never gonna go to college for my grades, so basketball was my only way out.”
His falling out with the sport had been a rough one, too. Missing out on an all-important playoff game – with no warning, for that matter – is bound to make one’s team anything but happy. Wes’ coach grew angry with him. His relationships with his teammates became strained. Then he quit the team. “I was like fuck everything, I don’t want to play no more,” he said. “That was a tough time, ‘cause basketball is something I do everyday.”
Leaving one dream for another was less of a matter of choice than it was a matter of instinct. Yes, you can be married to the game of basketball – but when Kanye calls you to model for Yeezy, where are you going to be at 6 PM: the school gymnasium, or Madison Square Garden? It’s a threshold that requires one to sever a live version of themself from their own body, finally squeezing into a narrow, long-elusive doorway that the past is too hefty to fit inside of. Yes, the lifelong mission of getting out of the ghetto is accomplished. But the dream that died in order for it to happen often never comes back to life.
As of right now, Sheck Wes is joining fellow East Coast MC J.Cole on a road that few rappers take, and far fewer – none, actually – have found much success on in the past: rapping and playing professional basketball at the same time. This past May, J. Cole released The Off-Season, his first solo full-length LP since 2018’s KOD. Just a matter of weeks after the album came out, social media was ablaze with news that he had signed a deal with the NBA-affiliate Basketball Africa League team Rwanda Patriots BBC.
The Off-Season itself registered as a sort of victory lap, solidifying a well-regarded legacy that prided itself on maturity, rawness, and intellect. It was fourth in a series of basketball-adjacent tapes that spanned as far back as his late-aughts beginnings: where The Come Up (2007), The Warm Up (2009), and Friday Night Lights (2010) were vibrant snapshots of a superstar coming into his own, The Off-Season was supposed to fill followers in on advances made during the titular gap, a long-awaited check back into an allegory that pitted his rap career against that of athlete with all of the lights transfixed to his climb. The album sounded angry. There were NBA name-drops, but somehow, “Ja Morant, I’m on my Grizzly” felt more like a threat than a shout-out. “That’s why sometimes you gotta come through and just do it at the level that you do it in front of every nigga face,” he antagonistically sneered on ‘applying pressure’. “So they know the difference between you, the real niggas, and the mothafuckin’ fraudulent niggas, man. Don’t never get it fucked up.” The gist was quite clear – J. Cole was back – and he was furious at the slightest inkling of a thought that he wasn’t.
“I lasted 12 years in the NBA, and y’all made me a poster boy for being a loser. If that’s what a loser looks like, then more black boys should become losers.”
But then again, much like the position Sheck Wes finds himself in today, basketball wasn’t solely a thematic motif in his work; it was something he very seriously wanted to pursue. In his initial stint with Rwanda Patriots BBC, he went nearly as viral as his new LP for two reasons. Reason number one: there was a very inspiring moment in which he was filmed warming up as his own music played on the arena intercom. Reason number two: he had only recorded 5 points, 3 assists, and 5 rebounds in 45 minutes of three preliminary games. He withdrew from the league on May 26, citing personal reasons.
“J. Cole is set to play as many as six games with the Rwanda Patriots, and will likely achieve at least a few career milestones with this latest record,” Jeff Ihaza of Rolling Stone wrote of the matter prior to Cole’s withdrawal. “But as the shape of the world around him changes, it remains to be seen how significant these accomplishments will be in the long run. What does it mean to be the best if the game evolves from keeping score?”
Basketball and hip-hop exist as two dominant cultures in urban communities, naturally opting to coexist, rather than surrender to strict one-or-the-other makeups. But at the same time that this registers as true, such a relationship also presents a puzzling dichotomy: if the practices can operate so well within each other’s vicinity, why can’t the people do the same? Put rap first and compromise basketball. Put basketball first and compromise rap. Even if you do your job objectively well – Kobe Bryant’s delivery on the mic was comparable to Tupac and Will Smith, and J. Cole’s Rwanda stat-line is typical of some NBA role players on the average day – the pressure of what you are already known for sets a bar that is impossibly high. You are tasked with filling your own shoes. And you will always fall short.
Sheck Wes has played just 4 minutes as a member of Paris Basketball, a team that competes in LNB Pro B, and his per-game stat-line for the 2020-21 season consists of 1.3 points, 0.7 rebounds, and 0.3 assists. It’s fairly easy to look at the standard set by his prowess in the rap game, and use it as reason to eviscerate his efforts on the court. But in both Wes’ case, and that of J. Cole, a more holistic image is painted by the stat of dreams turned into reality. Call on a kindergartner and ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, and he’ll likely say either rapper or basketball player. Most fail in each field. Both rappers are two for two.
In a cultural climate that gravitates more and more towards numbers as a signifier of success, the brand of feel-good prosperity Sheck Wes and J. Cole’s simultaneous basketball-slash-rap initiatives boast is gradually seeing its relevance peeled away. An encompassing example exists in Kwame Brown, the oft-ridiculed Wizards center who quickly became a punchline after Stephen A. Smith tore him apart on national television. Earlier this year, he took to Instagram Live to offer a series of passionate responses. The recordings spread like wildfire on Instagram and Twitter alike – prompting both reconsiderations, and further condemnations, of a legacy that already seemed to be out of the question.
“I bought my momma a new house on a golf course at the age of 18, and y’all spent the past 20 years trashing me, and calling me a bum,” he said in one video, fury oozing out of every last word. “I graduated from high school with honors. I qualified academically to attend the University of Florida on a full-ride scholarship. I lasted 12 years in the NBA, and y’all made me a poster boy for being a loser. If that’s what a loser looks like, then more black boys should become losers.”