There is no contemporary analogue for it, really, and no way to conceive of 2014's heroically brand-aware NBA making a similar decision. But 1989 was a different and, in many ways, weirder time than our own. Different and weird enough that the NBA's head office would think to ask Bronx avant-gardeists Ultramagnetic MC's to record a rap song celebrating that year's NBA All-Star Game.
Ultramagnetic was, of course, more than weird enough to do it, and obliged with a strikingly comprehensive nine-minute opus that features Ced Gee paying homage to Terry Cummings' floor game and Kool Keith repping for Ray Melchiorre, the athletic trainer for the Western Conference All-Stars. None of this sounds real. All of it, I promise, is real:
Sadly, there was never another NBA-sanctioned hip-hop introduction for an All-Star Game, which leaves us only with these nine precious minutes of a Tom Chambers tribute and the hope that, if only for a minute, Kool Keith and David Stern had a casual conversation. But that is not the end of this story.
In 2006, three college friends heard Ultramagnetic's efforts and were inspired to try their hand at producing, writing and rapping their own tribute to that year's All-Stars. Nine raps of various length later, Brian Richardson, Beau Alessi and Doug Schrashun are still doing it. Last year's effort was a sprawling 20-minute opus -- perhaps the most ambitious of their efforts together, but also at some point 20 minutes of raps about Deron Williams. This year's, in contrast, is a comparatively lean and strikingly contemporary six-minute effort in which each All-Star gets an Ultramagnetic-al four bars instead of last year's 16.
It's one of many musical collaborations for the trio, who were in bands together through school. Given that one of those produced a wildly historically-inaccurate song suite about the Boer War, it's hard to say that their near-decade of NBA All-Star raps is even their strangest collective work. Nine years is a long time to do anything, though, and the collaboration has become more of a work-intensive reunion.
Richardson lives in Philadelphia, where he's a public school teacher. Alessi and Schraschun live in Brooklyn, where they still make music. Every year, for a weekend, they get together and rap about Carmelo Anthony. Put it that way and it sounds ... well, still pretty strange, honestly, although they've gotten a lot better at doing it. I talked to them about this tradition, the challenges of rapping about Joe Johnson and other things:
You've now had almost decade to refine your creative processes. Or, alternately, a decade to totally burn out on the idea of rapping about Dwight Howard. How does the song get made, now, and how has the process evolved over the years? Do you think that any of you have improved as rappers?
DOUG: The process this year wasn't too different from the first year we did it, in 2006. Someone put together a basic beat, then we got together in a room, wrote our verses, and recorded them. Then one person generally took the verses back to the lab and did all the mixing, stitching things together, production stuff. For a few years, geography made the getting together part difficult, so we just recorded things separately and did things over email. As for improving as rappers, I hope that we have, since we were starting at basically zero.
BEAU: I personally look forward to this project so much every year, and basically start jotting down ideas and couplets starting in March. So far it's never felt like it's a chore. We're good friends but we're only all in the same room a few times a year, so I'm sure that helps keep it fun. In terms of creative content, there's just a lot to say about basketball. Every year one of us will come up with something that makes you stop and think, "I can't believe no one's said that already." Basketball and rap go together extremely well.
BRIAN: For me, trying to be responsive to the current hip-hop landscape drives a lot of creative decisions, and that desire prevents the project from getting stale. As for repeat players: On the one hand it can be irritating when there aren't enough new players to rap about, but at a certain point it gives you the freedom to expand beyond basketball. I don't think we've mentioned any of Kobe's real on-court attributes for the last five years or more, for example. When we divvy up who's rapping about who, I always look forward to the perennials because I use them for more experimental verses.
This year's song is much shorter than in years past -- shorter by nearly half than the Ultramagnetic MC's song that inspired it and significantly shorter than last year's sprawling 20-minute epic. What led you to decide to cut it down and how did you manage to trim so much?
DOUG: We're not very good at keeping things from ballooning unless we make a conscious decision to put limits on things. If we hadn't gone shorter this one would have been like half an hour, and that's really trying anyone's patience as far as a rap song goes. Other than that, I think we were just getting sort of bored with the old format. Trading fours is more fun, more immediate and gave me a chance to pretend I'm MCA wandering around the woods in a flannel shirt, which is all I ever really wanted to be.
BRIAN: Last year's was so long because we slowed the tempo -- we had been operating at 90-to-95 BPM for the first seven, but I felt that hip-hop has moved away from that '90s breakbeat style to a more slowed-down, double-time "trap" style, and I wanted to reflect that. But it was just too long to expect anyone other than ourselves to be into it. This year's was actually way harder for me, because it's really difficult to create a narrative or a "concept rap" in only four bars, and that's all we did for each player.
BEAU: The song got longer every year for nine years. Enough was enough. I was very apprehensive about the idea of short verses at first, because it wasn't keeping with the formula that the Ultramagnetic MC's created. But now that we did it, I think it's the best one we ever made.
There are a bunch of first-time All-Stars this year, which must be kind of exciting. Or maybe not, and maybe it actually is as difficult to rap effectively about Paul Millsap and DeMar DeRozan as it seems like. Who were the players you most looked forward to taking on in this format, and what were the challenges of pulling together your bars for these first-timers?
DOUG: It's definitely more fun to think of things to say about new players after you've done Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade for so many years. The NBA produces some great personalities, and delving into them is always an interesting exercise. This year each player only got a few seconds of time on the track, though, so it was hard expound too much on anyone's unique basketball talents. Luckily that's not really the point.
BEAU: I was really hoping Lance Stephenson would make the cut, so that I could mention his brother Lantz. Do you know he has a brother named Lantz? He does. Also, Serge Ibaka has to make it one of these years, right? His verse practically writes itself.
BRIAN: My first-timers this year were Steph Curry and Millsap. When I get new players, I want to try to touch on their geography or what makes their game distinctive. So this year, Millsap's first with the Hawks, I wanted to rep Atlanta with a "Versace"-style verse, and with Curry I wanted to reference E-40's "Yay Area" and Scandal's "The Warrior." I also personally think Beau totally destroyed the DeRozan verse.
So, Joe Johnson is an All-Star again. Any thoughts on this? Because I am pretty sure that there isn't a rapper alive who could do much with this particular subject. Which All-Stars are the most and least fun to write and rap about?
DOUG: Last time we did Joe Johnson we decided that if he got in again, our verse would just be "Joe Johnson is an All-Star" repeated ad-nauseam. So that's what we did. Not to slight Joe Johnson, he's a really entertaining player to watch, but there's not much to talk about there outside of "he has a great jump shot." Brian once used the phrase "crazy fundamentals" when talking about Tim Duncan, though, so can get pretty deep into things like that if you try.
BEAU: Honestly, I think we've each written some of our best-ever verses about Joe Johnson. Brian had a great one in '08 and I'm really proud of mine from 2012. When a player doesn't have any pre-existing baggage, you're forced to step your game up as far as the generic references to athleticism go. Either that or just get weird with it. I think this year is the first time one of us has actually tackled the "Joe Johnson is uninteresting" narrative.
BRIAN: I always look forward to LeBron verses, because the whole "King James" thing opens a lot of avenues in my mind. Tony Parker's are fun because you get to talk about France, teardrops, Eva Longoria, bar fights with Chris Brown -- I don't think any other All-Star gives you the opportunity to do any of those things. And I'm always pumped when my teams (Blazers, Sixers) send anyone, since they're both kind of NBA backwaters (don't tell any Portlanders that though).
Talk a little bit, if you would, about the "stalker" verse -- what it is, how it became a tradition, and how you decide its recipient. Who's this year's lucky All-Star?
BRIAN: Unfortunately, no stalker verse this year. Last year I was pretty proud of the Westbrook verse, but it was hard to incorporate this year with only four bars per player. I like building a character, setting the scene, misdirecting -- if you're pretending to be a stalker, you don't want to just come right out and say it from the first bar, and with these super-short verses it was important to be action-packed from the first word.
DOUG: The "stalker verse" is something that just happened organically, where we started inhabiting characters that were a little bit too into the players. I did one in the form of Mitch Albom's diary entries about Amaré Stoudamire once that was pretty strange. Like Brian said, the format this year made that sort of thing difficult, but another tradition we could still dip into is to date each track by doing imitations of whatever kind of flow is popular at the moment. We got in a fake Migos verse and a fake Drake verse this year.
A decade is a long time to be rapping about basketball players, and I imagine all your lives are pretty different now than they were back when you were rapping about Antawn Jamison and Rashard Lewis. Is there any sense of an endgame for this? Do you imagine you'll be doing them in five years? Have you already started roughing out verses for Giannis Antetokounmpo?
BRIAN: Next year will actually be number 10, but yeah. I think we'll be doing them as long as possible, because it's a great excuse to see my best friends from college, and it's the sort of thing we usually bang out in a weekend, so it's an annual ritual I really look forward to.
BEAU: When we were in our third year of doing this, I remember thinking that in 2015, I'll have had written 10 different verses about Gilbert Arenas. So I'm bad at predicting stuff. But yeah we'll probably be doing this forever.
BRIAN: I hope my offspring get to roll their eyes about this dumb project Dad gets so excited about each year when they're sullen teenagers. By then I imagine we'll be tired of rapping about Anthony Davis and Dante Exum, and the NBA will already have commissioned a rap-generating algorithm from Beats By Dre or something. This started with a very niche audience -- we do this every year with the expectation that about 10 people will hear it, giggle once, and forget about it -- so it's not as though we'll stop doing it because of declining public interest or something.
DOUG: Making our exit with David Stern would be poetic in a way, but no, no end game at the moment. It is getting to the point, though, where we need to think every year about how to keep it interesting. Shortening it, making it more the length of an actual song was the move this year. We've talked about doing a full three-minute song for each player. Maybe next year will be a whole record.