The 2017 NBA All-Star Game will kick off with a blast from the past. Prior to the introductions of the All-Star East and West teams on Sunday, Feb. 19 in New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center, The Roots will orchestrate an NBA-themed musical titled The Evolution of Greatness, which will feature contributions from DJ Jazzy Jeff, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of legendary hip-hop group Run-D.M.C., Jidenna, Hamilton star Daveed Diggs and actor Michael B. Jordan. The production is set to take viewers through each generation of the NBA, from the 1950s to the present.
Twenty-four hours before his rehearsal with the talented crew, the Queens-bred rap icon hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss his involvement in the show, the connection between basketball and hip-hop, how Run-D.M.C. could have convinced Michael Jordan to team with Adidas over Nike, as well as his love for Chicago upstart Chance The Rapper. The NBA All-Star Game begins at 8 p.m. EST on Sunday, Feb. 19 on TNT.
You are working on The Roots’ NBA-themed musical The Evolution of Greatness. How did that production come together?
I got a call from The Roots, and they wanted to do something that was gonna be educational. With sports or music — it could be anything nowadays, for some reason — the current generation has no idea of the people before them, and that applies especially to hip-hop. I guess for the last 20 years, it’s been happening with sports. Everyone’s so caught up on who’s on the radio, TV or court now, who’s on the TV now. They wanted to do something that wasn’t just based on the entertainment value. While you’re entertaining people, you should be able to educate, inspire, motivate and teach, which is the basis of hip-hop.
DJ Jazzy Jeff, Michael B. Jordan and others are also contributing to the show.
The coolest thing is that when [The Roots] said Michael B. Jordan, I was like the “great actor dude?” Tariq was like, “Yeah, he gon’ be rhyming. He gon’ be spitting.” I won’t put it past [Jordan], because he’s so good when he plays his roles. I’m really excited to see that.
What makes the connection between basketball and hip-hop work?
Years ago, before hip-hop was a recorded entity, before rappers were allowed to go into the studio and record, before [Sugarhil Gang’s] “Rapper’s Delight,” growing up in the inner city in the ’60s, ’70s, even ’50s, you just had to find things to do. Before the birth of hip-hop, it was basically basketball, manhunt, tag and all those other games that young people did to keep themselves busy.
Basketball to a little inner-city kid was the most acceptable thing you could do without really having to have all the other equipment. For kids in the ghettoes of America, it was basketball. For the kids in the ghettos in South America and overseas, it was soccer. With soccer, you just need the ball, some ground and you can set up some garbage cans to be the goal. So same thing with basketball.
But in the ‘70s, we was influenced by disco. We didn’t have no resources — we ain’t have no money, no real estate — but people got together, and they played music and had a good time, so the early DJs was just emulating what they was doing in the disc. But a lot of the records that was going on in the disco didn’t apply to us. We had to kinda add our own dialogue.
We’d come outside at 8:30 in the morning and go to the park and we’d stay in the park until 8:30, 9:00. This was most likely in the summertime and when the sun started setting, the DJs would bring out the turntables and the crates of records and the big speakers and they would rope off the park. We would bust a light pole open and steal the electricity from the city, and we’d play our music for that one hour, two hours, maybe three hours if we was lucky if some knucklehead didn’t pull out a gun, shoot it and make everybody run.
For those three hours, after we played basketball and did all those things young people could do to help us survive and get through the daily grind of life, music became the peace. The music thing was our nirvana moment. We played the music, and it evolved, because a lot of those people had a story to tell.
Basketball and hip-hop are synonymous within the inner-city streets because of one important facility, and that was the park. The park was our go-to for goodness and relief. We played ball all day and when the sun went down, we turned the music up real loud because we had to take a break from the daily grind of life. It’s just a beautiful thing. As with sports and athletics, we was just doing this hip-hop thing in the streets for fun, but it led to a lot of us having great careers, and this artistic form was created so that a lot of people — not realizing it at the time — could have a better life.
Were there any NBA legends that personally resonated with you as you were coming up?
Dr. J [Julius Erving] was the man. When I was younger, everybody wanted to be Dr. J. And then once I started getting into this music thing, Run-D.M.C. had the honor and pleasure to meet this other legend that was soon to blow the roof off the whole game, and that was Michael Jordan. And by the way, the world needs to know that Michael Jordan wanted to come to Adidas first because of us but he wound up going to Nike. [Laughs.]
In the ‘70s, if you was an MC and you was rhymin’, you had to put Dr. J n the rhyme. In the ‘80s going into the ‘90s, you had to put Magic [Johnson], [Larry] Bird and then Jordan. I mean Jordan’s legendary in everybody’s rhyme, even kids that didn’t even experience Jordan personally know they gotta throw him in there, because it’s a cool hip-hop thing to do…
Could Run-DMC have convinced Michael Jordan to sign to Adidas?
We could’ve! He over at Nike now, he got his own brand, I heard he got his own land and factory because he did so good for Nike. But what would have 150 percent, surely definitely worked, was if me, Run and [Jam Master] Jay walked in [to his meeting with Adidas] with him. That would have been the game-changer.
Do you remember what your pitch would have been to Adidas to get Jordan on-board?
Oh, yes. At that time, we met Michael Jackson and he said, “You guys are the most powerful thing on the face of the Earth. Everywhere I go, I see you.” So [Run-DMC would have told Adidas], you have the baddest three individuals on the face of the Earth trying to let you know about the next baddest thing that’s about to happen. That’s all it needed. The proof is in the pudding. [Begins rhyming] Jay’s like King Midas as I was told. Everything that he touched turned to gold. [Adidas] would have definitely said yes.
We made a damn record about our sneakers. We wasn’t chasing fame, fortune, endorsements or nothing, we were like hey, let’s make a record that’s just about having sneakers. So we even made the sneaker corporations see things that they didn’t even have vision to see. So if we had walked in there with Michael Jordan, we would’ve had a physical embodiment, something to represent that energy that we said on this record — we did the record first and then they came knocking. We spoke that into fruition. I think they needed to see that we were the first non-athletic entity to be offered a major endorsement by a sports apparel company.
Hip-hop has always been a cultural reference in the NBA and vice versa. What do you remember of Run-TMC, when you had Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin killing it for the Golden State Warriors?
What we remember is how crazy all of these established institutions had enough confidence and respect to say we were worthy of being incorporated with what was going on. People made it a big thing when Grandmaster Flash [and the Furious Five] was the first rap group to get inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and then the Beastie Boys and everybody else followed. But we took a step back and we said hold up, even if we don’t win, the most incredible thing is to be considered worthy enough for the nomination. That’s saying something.
When we first started and had “Walk This Way” and all this Adidas stuff going on, there was still some critics and non-believers going like “That’s a fad, they won’t be here, where do you see yourself in five years?” To be respected as a legitimate form of whatever you are is a huge huge accomplishment. So it gave us a sense of pride that in the midst of the non-believers, whatever happens tomorrow, we rolling with the NBA. We got this professional basketball team [co-signing us] and the crazy thing was they was all the way in Golden State, halfway across the country away [and we’re like] they want us?
A lot of times, to be truthful, when stuff would happen like “MTV wants y’all” or “you need to go perform and open up at the Grammys” and “the NBA and the Golden State Warriors want to utilize you,” we were like, what’s going on? We always said they were trying to ruin us. ‘Cause it was at a time where [we would say to corporations], “Y’all tryna ruin rap, you want the commercial rappers so you can make us into a joke.” That’s what we thought they were going to do. Our thing was we rhyming and we’re staying in the street. We didn’t know no better.
When we got off the plane and went to go sit down with Tim, Chris and all of them, they were really enthusiastic and really honored that we said yes. So that kind of made us scratch our head. But it’s a good feeling.
Which young rappers make you excited about hip-hop now?
The last artist that gave me that oh-snap moment, those chills up and down my spine was Andre 3000. He’s new to me, but a lot of these younger kids are like “He’s old,” and I’m like, no, he’s old until the current people that you’re praising defeat him. [Laughs.]
I also had the honor and the pleasure last year at Bonnaroo to be on the [Super Jam] stage, where artists of all walks of life and genres get together and perform each other’s records. Before I got to Bonnaroo, everybody was telling me the whole year about this guy Chance The Rapper like, “Yo, Chance The Rapper could be your son, DMC.” And I’d always get on Instagram, “Is Chance your son?” Chance did the show at Bonnaroo with me, so as soon as I walked into the rehearsal room, he walks up to me and says, “Yo, DMC, everyone thinks you’re my father.”
So I got to meet him, and just this past Christmas, I get a call from Saturday Night Live when he was doing this Christmas skit. They recreated [Run-DMC’s] “Christmas in Hollis,” and they did a political skit about Obama and Trump, and it got to the part in the script where they needed somebody to play Chance’s father. [Chance] said he stopped the whole meeting and said, “I got just the guy to do it.” Then he called me and I played his father on the show.
But it was crazy how I got introduced to him a year ago, and I was seeing what he was doing artistically. He’s a very, very, very excellent person, first and foremost, and now, for him to win the Grammys and him blowing up, out of all these dudes now, ain’t nobody better than Chance The Rapper. ‘Cause he is my son. [Laughs.]