Hip Hop x Basketball -- 7: The Spirit of Competition

7: The Spirit of Competition
     It is no secret that basketball, like any sport, is competitive in nature.  The fact that score is kept and a winner is declared at the end of the competition defines that.  What may or may not be up for debate is just how similarly appointed as a competitive medium that hip hop is.
On the surface, Billboard releases their Top 200 and Rap/R&B-specific charts once weekly to outline who sold the most copies of their songs/albums each week.  In a 2012 economic climate, every album or song sale is a hard-fought-for sale, and it stands to reason that artists and executives are cognizant of this and work hard at either bending tastes of their audience to the enjoyment of their work or bending their work to the will and tastes of their desired listening public.

     With these things in mind, the heat of the battle has the tendencies to cause the participants to become a bit testy while competing in their craft.  Night in and night out, obscenities are yelled at one another on basketball courts, harder-than-necessary fouls and contextually applicable responses to the hard fouls are a norm on the basketball court.  Similarly, a rapper is known to step on another’s toes or into his lane, or even “borrow a line” in a means to make a sale over the other guy.  In the past, these would (d)evolve into what was known as a “battle,” where the two would square off either on stage or on recording with dueling denigrating lines about one another.  If on stage the crowd’s reaction would determine the winner, but if played out in the media then the court of public opinion and the corresponding reactions – and most importantly, sales and longevity – tell the story.

     The common bond, naturally, is the trash-talking nature of it all.  There is as much smack talk and media chest-thumping on the part of the ball players, whose main goals can all be accomplished on a physical level without it ever needing to be spoken upon, than by rappers whose job directly involves the spoken word.  While this may be seen as either ironic on one extreme and just plain silly on another, it can be chalked up as “boys will be boys,” and the violence that can and has come at the cost or cause of hurt feelings in either medium more than proves just that.

     One example of the two worlds crossing paths and applying as directly applicable is the 2007 NBA playoffs, and the first-round matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards.  The Wizards’ DeShawn Stevenson referred to LeBron James as being “overrated” in the banter leading into the series – perhaps as a means of throwing his opponent off of his game.  Famously, and as previously mentioned, LeBron James had forged a personal friendship with Jay-Z.  Not to be without a rapper affiliation of his own at the time, Stevenson was seen during the series with the likes of Soulja Boy, a personal invite to game three of the series by Stevenson.  Naturally, when asked about it, Jay-Z used his considerable pull to make it known that his unwillingness to get involved would mean that the situation was a non-situation and was – by proxy – beneath both him and his dog in the fight, LeBron.  Then he proved himself wrong when he made a song about Stevenson to be played in a club after the Cavaliers swept the series in game four while members of the Wizards team were in attendance.  Needless to say, Jay-Z and LeBron James won that round.

What can be taken directly from that situation, though, is that the spirit of competition and the understanding of one another on that level may have directly led to the friendships and involvement of hip hop artists with basketball players.  Players are often reference or mentioned fondly – even when in jest, as with Shaquille O’Neal’s free throw shooting – by the rappers who are fans of them.  While situations like the above where one came to the aid of the other are rare, one cannot clearly say that it won’t happen again with a different cast of characters as time goes on.

Taken at face value, the average person may not make the immediate connection between basketball (or sports in general) to hip hop (or music in general).  The connection, however, is not one that is terribly difficult to make and does not come across as manufactured.

     Similar to the nature of sport, the marketplace in hip hop – as with all popular music, really – is just as competitive.  The stakes are wholly different, in that they do not involve the achievement of defeating anyone directly, so much as they involve being the guy whose product the customer makes a decision to purchase when the record store opens on Tuesday morning.  In more opulent economic times it was much easier being the guy who made the sale, so much to the point where everyone seemed to be the guy making the sale and most everyone seemed to be getting along just fine.  When things got tighter as time went on, competition to be “the guy” heated up and the race to be the one on top of that sales pile manifested themselves as outward hostilities sometimes.  There was a period, say between 2003 and 2010, where it was almost a given that a popular hip hop artist would have a bit of strife with another right around the time that they both had something new on the horizon.  Often, the conflict seemed simply manufactured for the sake of drumming up some attention, but it worked.  Just like in the sports arena, fans – indicated by sales numbers in spite of a slumping economy – were paying attention.  As difficult it is to be the guy in a professional sport, the same is applicable to being the guy who sits atop the Billboard Charts on a weekly basis.  The work, blood, sweat and tears that go into making it to either perch is not something to be taken lightly.  The simple act of being the guy(s) from the same neighborhood(s) to made it to that point – one with the basketball and one with a microphone – makes it more than understandable that each would be kindred spirits.


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