On Christmas Day, Kevin Hart, his “Ride Along” co-star Ice Cube and ESPN will help cap off a triumphant year for hip-hop’s most unexpected comeback.
Skee-Lo’s “I Wish,” a hip-hop anthem for would-be ballers that peaked at No. 13 on the Hot 100 in 1995, has had a banner year marked by a series of highly viewed Toyota Super Bowl commercials starring Kaley Cuoco and an updated take from UK pop singer Cher Lloyd that scored Skee-Lo a slot on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” alongside Lloyd and The Roots in November.
In the latest spot, which will air on ESPN and ABC’s coverage of the NBA’s five-game Christmas Day Games coverage, the 5’2” Hart is seen chastised by Ice Cube (who at one point calls him a “little man Smurf”) for his inherent advantages as a basketball player. Hart proceeds to launch into his own version of “I Wish,” which was approved by Skee-Lo and his publisher Modern Works Music Publishing. NBA players Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant all make cameos, though none are perhaps as memorable a certain Golden State Warrior who gets name-checked several times in Hart’s rap -- “I wish I was a little bit taller / wish I was a baller / wish I could throw it down like Andre Iguodala.”
The spot, produced by ESPN CreativeWorks and production company Maggie Vision, was pitched to Universal Pictures, the studio releasing “Ride Along” Jan. 17, and met with instant approval. “Everyone felt that when you can take a song that resonates in pop culture, but put in a different spin with custom lyrics about the NBA, it just felt right,” says Ashley Smith, senior director at ESPN CreativeWorks. “We knew it would be something that would cut through on the air and entertain our fans which at the end of the day is always important for us. We always want people to have that moment of, ‘What was that song?’”


The renewed attention has helped double as a campaign for Skee-Lo and his latest album, “Fresh Ideas,” released on his label Skee-Lo Musik in late 2012. “This past year has just been me showing what I got -- this huge history behind me. It’s really reminding people of what it is I do and the effect it has on people,” Skee-Lo tells Billboard.
Antonio Moore, Skee-Lo’s entertainment attorney at Freeway Studios, chalks up “I Wish”’s cultural resurgence to its “impact across a lot of race and cultural lines. It’s a happy version of hip hop,” he says. “Especially coming from the West Coast -- to have a guy admitting all his faults in the middle of the gangster rap trend really created a phenomenon. Unlike a lot of other hip-hop artists, he wasn’t saying ‘What I have,’ this is ‘What I don’t have. I’ma try to move forward and make the best of it.’”

Plus, "whenever you hear, see 'I Wish' I'm getting paid," says Skee-Lo with a laugh. "That’s what it's all about."

Scoring such high-profile, long-term synchs like Toyota can command licensing fees for "I Wish" in the high-five-to-low six-figure range, according to Billboard estimates of similar campaigns with prominent music licenses. And even publishing fees for an ESPN remake that airs on two national networks and online can command fees in the low-to-mid five figures. Though Skee-Lo says "Fresh Ideas" wasn't funded directly by "I Wish," it's an extension of the same idea. "'I Wish' is the dream. 'Fresh Ideas' is going out to feel the dream. It's about actually going out and making things happen. Twenty-three years later I'm still in the business, making money, wearing more hats behind the scenes."

And as he preps more promo work for “Fresh Ideas” in 2014, Skee-Lo is anxious to see the response from the “Ride Along” promo. “It’s funny to see somebody actually imitate me,” he says of Kevin Hart’s turn, which apes several key scenes from Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” video. “I thought it was not only hilarious, but it was also in good taste and respectful to the brand. He just did it his way.”