Before the Western and Eastern conferences duked it out at the 2017 NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, The Roots delivered an entertaining-yet-educational introduction with a basketball-themed musical titled The Evolution of Greatness. Tapping Jidenna, actor Michael B. Jordan, Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, DJ Jazzy Jeff and iconic hip-hop duo Run-D.M.C.‘s Darryl McDaniels, the star-studded production paid tribute to every generation of the NBA, calling out the simplicity, style and superstardom in each.
According to Tariq Trotter, more popularly known as Black Thought of The Roots, the idea was pitched two years ago when NBA All-Star Weekend landed in New York City, but the timing wasn’t right for both parties. “The NBA came back to us this year, and it worked out,” he tells Billboard. For Mardi Gras weekend in New Orleans, an NBA-themed musical seemed an appropriate way to usher in the 66th All-Star Game — especially with the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop-meets-history musical Hamilton.
“[The league] told us the story they wanted to convey — how can we spin through 50 years of the NBA and touch upon how each decade was represented by the actual sport, the playing, the style and the music?” says Questlove. “We suggested that we do a high theater presentation, which you know in the age of Hamilton, is happening. Especially having worked on that project, I’ll say that [a musical is] probably easily adjustable to the audience, and I think that’s due to the fact that people’s minds are open to the idea of musicals, whereas I don’t know if we could’ve pulled that off in, say, 1996, ’97.”
For the production, which centered on the culture’s obsession with identifying the greatest of all time, The Roots and the NBA paired each generation from the ’50s onward with a performer whose energy and vibe aligned with that era. Jidenna, whose first hit was the dapper dude’s anthem “Classic Man,” represented the simplistic vibe of the ’50s and ’60s, anchored by basketball forefathers like Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Bill Russell. Hamilton star Daveed Diggs led the charge for the ’70s, which saluted the style and swag of ballers from that decade.
Questlove admits that depicting the ’80s — which featured The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air favorite and fellow Philadelphia native DJ Jazzy Jeff, as well as DMC — put him to task. “The ’80s was the one I was struggling with the most,” he says before sharing his light-bulb moment. “My favorite DJ of all time [Jazzy Jeff] is a pioneer of that era and really defined the DJ’s role in the ’80s. And DMC, of all figures in hip-hop, was probably the most iconic figure of the ’80s, and it was a perfect match.”
Adds Black Thought, who penned the rhymes for the musical within a four- to six-week period, “DMC is probably the hugest for me, in having the opportunity to write actual lyrics that were recited by him. He is arguably one of the most iconic MCs of all time, and he was influential in the careers of myself, Questlove and our manager, Shawn Gee.” While DMC made minor changes (like “Dominique Wilkins” to “‘Nique Wilkins”), Black Thought says, “I tried to put myself in the mind state of the people that I was writing for, and I feel like it didn’t come off as someone reading someone else’s words.”
To top off The Evolution of Greatness, Michael B. Jordan — who shares the name of Air Highness — represented the ’90s and aughts by spitting bars about the superhumans dominating the league like Jordan, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Shaq, Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant and Tim Hardaway. While the Creed star may be known for his big-screen roles, perhaps a rap career may be in his future. “The funny thing with Michael B. Jordan was when we were initially brainstorming, I was like, ‘Guys, you know who we got to get to do the ’90s, right? Michael B. Jordan representing Michael Jordan — it’s two birds with one stone here,'” recalls Quest. “He worked hard on his verse and his delivery and, you know, [a rap career] can happen.”
While taking over the All-Star stage was an amazing experience for The Roots crew, both Questlove and Black Thought can envision future performances and opportunities following their baller musical. “The Evolution of Greatness was an amazing experience, and it’s something that we hope to have been a steppingstone for us to come back and not only do more NBA All-Star performances, but do halftime performances at events like the Super Bowl. I think we could really play the Olympics,” says Black Thought.
Questlove adds, “The thing about The Roots is that as long as we stay consistent and creative, we’re reliable. We’re entertaining, we’re dependable and we’re also expandable and adaptable, so if you put us in any situation, we have that experience under our belts to come up with something really cool.”
Revisit The Roots’ The Evolution of Greatness below: