The intersection of hip-hop and basketball has been well-documented. Rappers want to be ballers, ballers want to be rappers, and every MC worth his salt has name-checked the NBA. From the early hip-hop days of Big Bank Hank getting a color TV to watch the Knicks, through Ice Cube's good day when the Lakers beat the (dearly departed) SuperSonics, and on to young global dudes like Joe Budden honoring Drazen Petrovic and Action Bronson repping Arvydas Sabonis, rapping basketball is a time-honored tradition. And yet, for all the rhymes devoted to hoops, one 30-year-old song reigns supreme.
They're playing basssketballlll, we love that bas-ket balllllllll ...
(Step up to the mic, John Condon.)
Now rapping basketball, No. 1, Kurtis Blow.
(Do your thing, Kurt.)
Basketball is my favorite sport, I like the way they dribble up and down the court ...
This is the story of "Basketball."
In 1984, Kurtis Blow dropped his fifth album "Ego Trip." The Harlem native was already hip-hop royalty as the first rapper signed to a major label, the first to tour the United States and Europe, and the first with a gold record, his 1980 smash "The Breaks." Other hits include his debut record "Christmas Rappin'," the Run-DMC collaboration "8 Million Stories," and "If I Ruled the World," which would be famously sampled by Nas. Blow's had a long career and remains one of the few rap game elite who actually were down from day one.
KURTIS BLOW: I've always been a big music lover thanks to my mom, who'd been a great dancer in Harlem at the Renaissance, the Savoy and the Cotton Club. She was popular throughout the neighborhood. I followed in her footsteps. Guys used to come get me for the local dance competitions, I became a B-Boy. I also used to play all the music for the family, spinning James Brown, Motown, the Isley Brothers, Jackie Wilson — all the stuff my mom loved. The first time I ever DJ'ed was in 1972 at my buddy Tony Rome's birthday party. I was 13 and I put together two component sets, my mom's and his mom's, and we had continuous music throughout the party ...
WILLIAM "BILLY-BILL" WARING (Lyricist, "Basketball"): Kurtis and I are lifelong friends. We grew up together, maybe 100 yards apart. We started out breakdancing in 1972, house parties and block parties.
BLOW: William is three years older than me and he was the only kid my mom would let me hang around with because he was headed to college. He was doing something good with his life, not like a lot of the other thugs and criminals in Harlem. Billy-Bill was the guy who got me into all the parties to breakdance.
We learned to appreciate the elements of hip-hop before such a thing existed.
WARING: Eventually, we were dancing in the clubs. We learned to appreciate the elements of hip-hop before such a thing existed, but we didn't start writing anything down until the late 1970s.
BLOW: I was doing my thing in Harlem and the Bronx, keeping up with what the better known DJs were doing, when I met Kool Herc. This was seven or eight years before the first hip-hop record came out, but I knew that here was something new and fresh. As a DJ, I was already different because I wasn't playing disco. Billy-Bill and I saw ourselves as rebels, that was our ideology for people who came to our more obscure parties, what I called "ghetto discos."
MICHAEL OBLOWITZ (video director, "Basketball"): I was part of the No Wave movement, which came out of the downtown arts scene, punk rock and experimental film and the like. Around that time, the first hip-hop shows were taking place in the South Bronx. I‘d become good friends with Charlie Ahearn, who would go on to direct "Wild Style," and we'd cruise up there on the subway to these concerts. It was amazing, an art form that only existed in the Bronx, parts of Brooklyn, and the upper reaches of Manhattan. It was super dangerous, and I was definitely the only white kid from South Africa up there, but I'd never felt anything like it. Television was banned under the apartheid government and I was coming from a place of surfing in the morning and diving for lobsters for lunch. Here we had chain-link fences surrounding these basketball courts, and hundreds of people jammed in there to hear Afrika Bambaataa or Grandmaster Flash. I saw Kurtis Blow rap "The Breaks" up there, it was insane energy.
PAUL EDWARDS (author, "How to Rap" and "How to Rap 2"): Kurtis Blow wasn't particularly ground-breaking on a technical level, but that wasn't what he was going for, he was going for hits, sort of like the Will Smith of his day. He was a "party MC" who made dance songs that people could sing along to — and I don't say that disparagingly at all, it's a very important area of hip-hop and he was crucial in making it a viable force in the marketplace and music industry. People like to focus on the more virtuoso lyricists of the time, such as Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, and Kool Moe Dee, but the genre needed the balance brought by people like Blow in order to spread it far and wide and get it on the radio.
BLOW: I went to City College of New York, where I met Russell Simmons. I majored in Communications and Broadcasting and learned that building up a track record in the boondocks was the path to follow. Every record store had its own chart, its own top 10, which coincidentally, is how I learned to read, by studying the charts. I figured out to compete in the big city with the 40 or 50 other popular DJs, I needed to come in with a couple of No. 1's in a secondary market. So Russell and I opened up a club in Hollis, Queens called Night Fever Disco, where I worked on being a DJ and an MC for about two years. A writer from from "Billboard," Robert Ford, did a story on hip-hop and they listed the best DJs in the city, including a young college kid, Kurtis Blow Walker.
It sold like a son of a bitch that summer, everywhere I went "The Breaks" followed me out of those giant boom boxes.
J.B. MOORE (producer, "Basketball"): I was in ad sales at "Billboard," but I'm a musician by trade. Robert Ford covered the R&B charts and together, we'd discovered this new thing coming up from the streets, like in the early days of rock ‘n' roll. I believe Robert wrote the first ever article about hip-hop for an aboveground publication. We both knew it was going to be big, we could smell it. We wanted to produce a rap record, talked to Russell, and decided Kurtis was the guy. He was an incredible performer. I'd seen him wake up groggy as hell in the nurses office at Wollman Skating Rink, shake it off, and absolutely kill on stage. I knew it would be easier to sell the label on a perennial, so our first record was "Christmas Rappin.'" We followed that up in the 1980 with "The Breaks." It sold like a son of a bitch that summer, everywhere I went "The Breaks" followed me out of those giant boom boxes kids carried around back then. If PolyGram would have backed it, that song would've gone platinum.
BLOW: Having a major label means having major press. PolyGram was flying me all over. I'd get to the office and there would be a full day of press in every city, TV, magazines, newspapers, it was documented all over the world. London, Paris, Belgium ... I'm traveling to places I've only read about and there's paparazzi clicking my picture? It was incredible.
MC SERCH (rapper, former member of 3rd Bass, talk show host of "Serch"): In the beginnings of hip-hop, Kurtis Blow was a bigger-than-life character, almost iconic. He wasn't a battle rapper, he was designed to be a party rapper. Kurtis' influence on hip-hop is in his showmanship and the fact that he made songs, he didn't just rap over beats.
Coming of age in New York in the late-60s/early-70s meant rooting for Knicks teams that competed for, and actually won, NBA championships year-in and year-out. Kurtis Blow remains a Knick fan for life, but his deep love for the game was actually inspired by a high-flyer from Long Island who never called Madison Square Garden home.
BLOW: I played everything as a kid: baseball, tennis, track, swimming, football, and basketball. I was actually a better football player than basketball, because I'm kind of short, you know? As a spectator, I liked them all, but basketball became my favorite after I met my idol. I loved Walt Frazier, Dick Barnett, Earl Monroe, those Knicks teams of course, but I was a big, big fan of Julius Erving. Dr. J., he was the guy and I hated — hated — that he was in the ABA. Things would have been much better for everybody if Dr. J. was winning those championships rings in the NBA where he belonged.
WARING: In 1973, the Rucker Tournament moved from 155th Street to CCNY and Dr. J. was who everybody wanted to see. When Julius would come to Harlem, he'd have people sitting on top of the roofs and in the trees overlooking the courts. People couldn't get seats, but they had to get a glimpse of him. I was totally inspired by Dr. J., he was doing things on the court I'd never seen before.
Then Dr. J. said, "I'm glad to meet you little Kurt, you keep up the great work."
BLOW: At 14, I was in the CCNY summer youth program, which had all kinds of sports activities. My track coach, Barbara Floyd, had gone to college with Julius Erving at UMass. Coach Floyd knew I was Dr. J's biggest fan. One day, we'd returned to CCNY from a meet where I'd won three big trophies. All the sudden, here comes Dr. J. getting ready to play in the Rucker. He's walking down the block and stops to get a hot dog. I tell Coach Floyd, ‘You know him! Call him over! Call him over!' She said, ‘Julius, come over here and give me a bite of that hot dog!' He took a bite, and handed her the rest. She introduced me, and Dr. J. saw my trophies and said, ‘Man, you had a good day.' I could hardly breath, ‘Iwonthe50yarddash Iwonthe100yarddash Iwonthe4by400relay itwasagreatday.' Then Dr. J. said, ‘I'm glad to meet you little Kurt, you keep up the great work.' From that moment on, basketball and music was it. I grew up without a dad, so I created these fictional "Pops" in my head. James Brown and Dr. J. were two of my Pops.
"Basketball" was the second single off of "Ego Trip." Breaking it down into its components, the song is made up of the concept, the lyrics, the hook/chorus, the sound effects, and the guys-at-the-playground-riffing-about-hoops that closes it out.
"You need to make a song about basketball, it's the No. 1 sport for African-Americans and nobody has done it yet."
BLOW: The idea came from my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time. She said, "You need to make a song about basketball, it's the No. 1 sport for African-Americans and nobody has done it yet."
MOORE: First time Kurtis mentioned it, I knew it was a terrific concept precisely because it hadn't been done. I thought it could have a larger life than some of our other records. We'd been disappointed with the reception to "Party Time," which we thought would be a breakout hit, but I still had confidence in the basketball idea. I was a fan, but Robert Ford knew everything about the sport. One time, he was in Indiana at a VFW or something and he got into a conversation about basketball. He knew more about the Indiana teams than they guys at the bar. Ford knew oceans about hoops, so if he believed the record would be a good thing ...
MC SERCH: Kurtis always had that amazing ability to pick regular everyday themes, like Christmas or basketball, and turn something ordinary to extraordinary.
Hover to read "Basketball" lyrics
BLOW: Billy-Bill and I think a lot alike and we talked basketball all the time, so he knew exactly who to put in the song. He chose the players and included all the greats. We wanted the guys we grew up watching who were all out of the league by the time the song came out, and the best of that time.
WARING: The only explicit thing Kurtis told me was Dr. J. had to come first.
BLOW: Almost every guy in the song is in the Hall of Fame, except for maybe Darryl Dawkins — but we had to have him, he was the first guy shattering backboards — and Ralph Sampson. But during that time, Sampson was the hottest cat. He was destined for the Hall of Fame, it's hard to believe he didn't make it. He got hurt a lot, and got sidetracked or whatever, so he's forgotten a little bit, but in college, Sampson was the man. End of story.
WARING: I wrote the lyrics quick. Sometimes creatively, it just comes to you. Only a few little things got changed. I didn't write the line "Or when Willis Reed stood so tall ..." at first. My original was "When Marv Albert made the call, Yes and It Counts! That's basketball." When I submitted it, I guess they knew the legal ramifications of getting clearances from Marv or whatever, but there's also an old practice where producers put in a line or two to get a songwriting credit. I'm not mad at ‘em. I was cool with the change because it was still about the Knicks.
MOORE: We recorded it at the Power Station, which has a 8088 Neve console that allowed us to just kick the shit out of the track. The tremendous equipment and supremely talented engineers allowed us to do some mind-boggling stuff. We wanted "Basketball" to sound a bit removed from what was going on then in hip-hop. It all starts with that catchy vocal hook.
Blow was instrumental in introducing choruses to hip-hop, as most of the earlier records were just one long continuous rap with no hook.
EDWARDS: Blow was instrumental in introducing choruses to hip-hop, as most of the earlier records were just one long continuous rap with no hook. Kool Moe Dee even calls Kurtis, "The inventor of the rap hook."
BLOW: The hook was all mine. That was my thing, hooks were my specialty. I did the hooks on "8 Million Stories," "Fat Boys," "Fat Boys are Back," "If I Ruled the World ..." Simple sing-y melodic hooks stick in your head.
MOORE: To our very good fortune, we had Alyson Williams doing the backing vocals. She nailed it. I also had Jimmy Bralower, the drum machinist, make a sample of a basketball being dribbled on the studio floor. We got the best recording of it we could, pre-digital, and sent it off to be burned into a chip. Every drum on the record has a bit of that basketball in it. I don't know if it made any difference, it's hard to tell, but it was a nice piece of ear candy.
WARING: I was thrilled when I came into the studio and they had John Condon doing his thing, "Now rapping basketball ..." I don't think he knew what he was getting into, but he was the voice of the Knicks, the guy we saw from the Garden every Sunday, and I knew fans would love it. He died a few years later, so we have history on top of history on that track.
MOORE: One underrated or forgotten part of the record is the riffing, the guys just talking hoops.
WARING: I wanted to rap on the record, but they didn't let me. I did get on the track though, at the end. That whole section was ad-libbed. I'm the guy who says, "Did you see that kid Michael Jordan?" He was still in college. I'm a prophet, for better or worse.
EDWARDS: If you're making a concept track, which this essentially is, then it helps to stay on topic, which "Basketball" does. It includes a surprising amount of detail with its references. It's nothing intricate, but it moves way past the simple "wave your hands in the air" style of most party tracks.
MOORE: Everything just came together, that song kicks ass six ways from Thursday.
MC SERCH: The main thing that makes "Basketball" so special is that Kurtis was reflecting on what we all dug about the game. He was talking about athletes of the time, running plays, streetball vs. NBA ball, taking the temperature of fans and what they loved about the sport both on-and-off the court.
Kurtis Blow actually had bigger selling records, but "Basketball" took off in ways no previous recording of his ever did.
BLOW: "Basketball" got huge radio play. But as a record, it didn't sell like "The Breaks," which as a 12-inch almost went platinum at 940,000 units. "Basketball" was also put out as a single, but only 50,000 records were released. Once those were gone, the record company put out more copies of the album "Ego Trip," which went gold.
WARING: Kurtis ended up meeting a lot of NBA stars, they loved it. I didn't travel around with him as much, but I remember the Knicks had a backup forward named Eric Fernsten who got us tickets to a game. That was cool.
It was bigger than the NBA though, it became the theme song for teams everywhere.
BLOW: I met ‘em all, Ewing, Starks, MJ, Oakley is a good friend of mine, Isiah ... I made a point to reach out to the guys in the league. It was bigger than the NBA though, it became the theme songs for teams everywhere. College, high school, summer youth, elementary school. I heard all the time from professionals and amateurs that "Basketball" was the backdrop for the layup lines. I can absolutely say it's the No. 1 layup line song of all time.
WARING: I don't think it's the best song I ever wrote, but it certainly had the most impact.
BLOW: When the song was peaking, the NBA started flying me around to do shows. They would send me to a game like the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the New Jersey Nets, games that weren't even close to being sold out. I would do a live performance right after the game to fill the arena. We sold out the San Antonio Spurs stadium and Goerge Gervin came to the show. The Iceman was the first player mentioned in "Basketball" that I met. That was amazing, but in Philly, Dr. J. came backstage and gave me a huge hug. He thanked me for putting him in the song and he's still a good buddy of mine today.
At a time when few black artists, and no rappers, were seen on MTV, a crazy "Basketball" video was shot featuring cheerleaders, martial arts, Adam West-esque Batman graphics, players dunking on short hoops, nunchuks, a blue sky, a lightning bolt jumpsuit, an old-timey photographer, random black-and-white shots of Michael Ray Richardson, Lite Beer from Miller jerseys, a mascot in a chicken costume, the Fat Boys, Whodini, and a man inexplicably eating a giant hot dog slathered in mustard.
I knew next to nothing about basketball. I was basically straight off the boat from South Africa, I'd never seen it.
OBLOWITZ: I made this experimental avant-garde punk film called "King Blank" that played as a midnight movie double feature with "Eraserhead" at the old Waverly Theatre. Somebody saw it, and off of that, hired me to direct these really slick videos for Carly Simon of all people. I think I may have directed the first videos ever shown on VH1. Anyway, from that, I got hired to do "Basketball," which was ironic because there is a sequence in "King Blank" set to rap music, which I also don't think had been done before. At first I thought I was being hired to do a video for a re-release of "The Breaks," so I was really excited. I even wrote a treatment for it. I so wanted "The Breaks," it would have been a game-changer, a life-changer, and the song talks about universal experiences. I knew next to nothing about basketball. I was basically straight off the boat from South Africa, I'd never seen it. I came from a country where black people were basically enslaved. The main sport the government supported was rugby, a brutal sport of the white ruling class where big drunken burly descendants of Germans and Dutchmen banged their fucking heads into one another like Vikings. And here you have a finesse sport where tall graceful descendants of Nigeria fly around the court. It was so far out of my frame of reference. To me, basketball was the hip iconic image of America. When I got to New York City, streetball was everywhere, it was part of the Bob Dylan line, "Music in the cafes and revolution in the air." It was fucking great.
BLOW: The video was shot before the song became a hit, so the NBA didn't want anything to do with it. Our initial idea was to get footage of all the players in the song and we couldn't get clearance for anyone except Michael Ray Richardson. That was the only guy they gave us, so we used his photos. He's not even in the song. Not quite the same as having Dr. J. soaring to the hoop.
MOORE: Unfortunately, Kurtis split with Robert and I before the video was made. Had we known what was going to happen I think we would've marched into the studio with a gun to put an end to it. Ford had all these personal connections to the NBA and I think he could have gotten the footage, which would have made for an all-time classic video.
OBLOWITZ: It was the first thing I ever made through my own production company and we had a $25,000 budget. My concept was to use those motifs from the Bronx, the chain-link fence, the gang-bangers, the martial arts. I wanted it to be edgy. I wanted to get some of those gnarly dudes from the Bronx involved, recreate what I'd seen, but PolyGram had other ideas.
All the cheerleaders in the video are white. Oh, do you know the problems I had with black women around the country?
BLOW: I didn't have any understanding of why the director wanted the martial arts and the gangs and stuff. Looking back, it's a little bit cheesy to me, but I was excited to have cameras focused on me, now I'm a super-duper-star. Let's do it.
OBLOWITZ: One thing the label demanded was blonde MTV babes.
BLOW: All the cheerleaders in the video are white. Oh, do you know the problems I had with black women around the country? All the African-American militants started coming at me, saying I wasn't real and I sold out ... I wasn't thinking about all that, I was just happy we had cheerleaders. I mean, c'mon, they were cute girls.
OBLOWITZ: One of the cheerleaders is a light-skinned black girl, but I guess that's a cop-out. I decided to just go with it, to make it a pastiche of all the things I'd seen on TV and at Madison Square Garden. This is what PolyGram wants? Let's have fun with it, let's just make it a blur of colors, cheerleaders, a guy wolfing down a huge hot dog, a guy in a chicken suit, the Fat Boys shuffle, and a fetishization of television itself. It was supposed to be funny, but Kurtis and I had a seriousness of purpose, to get in heavy rotation on MTV.
BLOW: It was cool to get my friends in the video, the Fat Boys and Whodini came and did a guest appearance, but some stuff I didn't understand. What was with that guy in the chicken suit?
WARING: I wasn't in the video. I'm not disappointed about that.
OBLOWITZ: I couldn't believe how much flack we got for the white cheerleaders, for selling out, for not being street enough. I got slammed, but what choice did we have? Without the record label, the "Basketball" video doesn't exist. Besides, we had a hell of a lot of fun making it. I built a court and we had hoops of all different sizes. We had vivid colors and a real Pop Art aesthetic. It was all stylized. I shot from the ground, and used slow motion, and we had trampolines, all to give the appearance of guys flying through the air. And they were real players, semi-pro or something, who showed up with matching jerseys, which I thought was fantastic. Whodini is here? Let's put them in. The Fat Boys? Go for it. One thing I remember from the shoot is how much pizza The Fat Boys ate. Mountains of pizza and piles and piles of cardboard boxes.
MOORE: When I first saw it I was pissed off, "What the fuck is this?" It was so stupid, so not Kurtis Blow. I knew it wouldn't do a whole lot of damage because it never played on MTV.
When I first saw it I was pissed off, "What the fuck is this?" It was so stupid, so not Kurtis Blow.
BLOW: I believe that was the first rap video that got on MTV, but Run-DMC claims it was one of theirs, so I don't know, but there was no rap videos before us, that's for sure.
OBLOWITZ: We did what we set out to do, it played on MTV and millions of people got to see Kurtis Blow, this ball of energy who hadn't been exposed to the country.
EDWARDS: It's a slick, commercial rap video, before that kind of thing became widely prevalent. Girls, basketball, flashy editing for the time ... it even has a martial arts thing going on in the background at times, nearly 10 years before there was such a thing as a Wu-Tang Clan.
MOORE: So this was all PolyGram's doing? My apologies to the director. I take it all back. I've been bad-mouthing the poor guy since 1984.
OBLOWITZ: It was sanitized, sure, but I still think the "Basketball" video works as a surreal moment of its time. The HOF International Film Festival in Germany recently did a retrospective of my work, and "Basketball" was one of two videos of mine they selected, the other being "Chill Out" by John Lee Hooker and Santana, and it's not like MTV ever showcased blues legends either. I blew it up to 2K, real cinema HD, and it really popped. The crowd went nuts. The world at-large loves it. I love it. The video was fucking full-on fresh. Even today, it really flows. "Basketball" doesn't have over two million YouTube views by accident.
On its 30-year anniversary, "Basketball" is still played wherever people gather to shoot or watch hoops. And while Kurtis Blow hasn't had a hit rap record in years, he's had a long career performing Christian music, leading the Hip Hop Church, a musical youth ministry for any church to teach kids about the gospels, Jesus, and salvation, all with a hip-hop flair. He's even branched out into rock music, collaborating with Bride Dressed in Black on the new release "Hip-Rock."
BLOW: A classic song never dies, but "Basketball" did get new life when Michael Jordan put it in NBA 2K12. It's the first thing you hear when you pop in the game. Nothing lasts forever though. Last year, I was at All-Star weekend, I introduced myself to LaMarcus Aldridge, told him I did "Basketball" and that I had him on my fantasy team. He just shook my hand and walked away. Younger kids don't know me, but the OGs do, so it's all worth it.
WARING: Kurtis and I have talked about updating it, getting all those guys we missed out on like Barkley, Olajuwon, LeBron, Duncan ... I think we could pull it off.
BLOW: I have connections with the Miami Heat and I've thought about a new version and letting guys like LeBron and Wade rap on the record.
MOORE: I think a 2013 "Basketball" is a great idea and I'd love to do it. I think the world is ready for a record that's all whacked up like we used to do it, old-school style.
MC SERCH: Rap in the 1980s existed in a New York bubble, you didn't think about rhyming for California, Texas or Florida, it was for your city, your borough, your neighborhood, for the dudes on your block. In 3rd Bass, we made a song about streetball, "Soul in the Hole," and other artists have attempted to make songs about the sport, but Kurtis still owns it. The original survives. It's not that the record was that great as it was great back then. I'm always happy to hear it on Backspin in that moment, but I don't want to hear it 60 times a week. It takes me to when I was young, so I don't know if it's a good idea, no matter how talented Kurtis is, to duplicate or remake it. Maybe if he did it with A$AP Rocky or Action Bronson, some of the young guys to get their take on basketball, that would be interesting ... I'm torn to say the least. I think he should leave it alone. Certain things should just live in their own cosmos.
His songs stand the test of time. I take a lot of pride in the music we made together.
WARING: We were first, we were pioneers in that way. It was a group of talented people doing what they do best. We taught people the history of the game.
MOORE: To this day, I regret that I didn't listen to Russell and move Kurtis in a harder-edged direction, which is where rap was going. But his songs stand the test of time, why else would we be talking about "Basketball" 30 years later? I take a lot of pride in the music we made together.
OBLOWITZ: I was a draft dodger from South Africa, I skipped out on my country because fighting on behalf of an apartheid government was not something I was ever going to do. But living in downtown New York City back in those days was still living apart from the United States. The country ended at the Verrazano Bridge. We never left. Working with Kurtis Blow was my gateway to America. It opened all kinds of doors for me and got me all kinds of work. After "Basketball," for the first time, I felt like I had a place in America.
BLOW: The live performance of "Basketball" is big time. Everyone knows the hook, so when it starts I ask all the ladies to sing along, then I do a thing where I ask the crowd, "What is the name of your favorite team?" And say I'm in L.A., I go through the Knicks, Heat, Bulls, and say the Lakers last. Huge crowd roar. Then I ask their favorite player, "Is it LeBron?" Booooo "Kevin Durant?" Booooo "Kobe Bryant?" Big cheers. Then I end it with, "I know everyone loves Michael Jorrrrrrrrrrrrrdan!" The fans scream, go nuts. "Basketball" is a house rocker.
After all these years, people still love it. I thank God for basketball, the song and the sport.