Tapping into your childhood memories can be a funny thing. While events are shaping and defining hip-hop we usually don’t even have the presence of mind to recognize what’s going on. Case in point, a huge cultural shift took place during my junior high years. It started while I waiting on my mom to pick me up from school and ended with me mimicking moves from the latest And1 mixtape on school grounds. 15 years ago one of hip hop’s flashiest eras was being defined by one of basketball’s boldest proclamations of style, the And1 Mixtape Tour.
The simplicity of both platforms in comparison to their counterparts is eerily similar. Rocking a basketball is the equivalent to rocking a mic and from there all you need is the court or a stereo to make sure your expressions are amplified for the people to see or hear. The marriage between basketball and hip-hop is now well established, but if there was ever a honeymoon period between the two, the year of 1998 was definitely when it all started.
Rafer Alston hopped around colleges like DJ Drama’s voice hops around on mixtape, playing at three different colleges before finishing up at Fresno State. When his playing career was done he would venture back to New York, his home, and terrorize defenders with a style which became synonymous with the direction of hip-hop at the same time.
In 1998, while everyone was prepping for the Jay and Outkast takeover (they would release Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life and Aquemini in the same year) everyone down south was already hopping on the No Limit train as Master P sold a bulk of his 75 million records. New Orleans had been bubbling for awhile in the south unbeknownst to much of the rest of America, however, 1998 would be the year when their presence would be felt not just on the radio but in the larger culture.
400 Degreez by Juvenile was released the same year as And1’s first mixtape, known as The Skip Tape, and both would send shockwaves through their respective cultures. Songs like “Ha” and “Back That Azz Up” essentially introduced the mainstream to a form of hip-hop unlike many had seen at that point. Under the same light, Skip to My Lou introduced the nation to basketball fans who were still getting over Jordan’s final shot over Russell in the 1998 Finals. Both were simple on the surface but complex underneath because the questions they raised about their respective cultures.
“What the hell does he have in his mouth?”
“Isn’t that a travel?!”
“What kind of rap is this?”
“How does he make it look so easy?”
Cultures were shook, eyes were open and the nation was at attention. Jordan was leaving, Big and Pac were gone and the holes left by both were so massive that it would take something game changing to divert our attention. The bling bling era was rising and the world’s of basketball and hip-hop were about to change the landscapes of one another in a way we can still fell even 17 years after the manifestation of both.
By the end of 1999, And1 Mixtape Vol. 1 and “Back That Azz Up” were world shakers (at least in the world in which I lived). In Texas you couldn’t go to a party that considered itself even remotely good if the DJ didn’t play “Back That Azz Up.” Parents would sit on the sidelines waiting for debauchery to ensue as our adolescence was on full display right after the DJ pressed play on a song even that would find even the most Christian of woman seeking hedonism. This was a new level of mindfuck to every decent parent in the south.
At the same time, on every basketball court in America coaches were going through the same mindfuck. Plays and team ball were now traded for “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd. Style was the ruler over substance and in this new world the adjustment period was hell handed to you in a hand basket. None of this change was going away. This was one of those foundation rockers. The impact was too great to ignore.
Going into the 2000s the eras grew. No longer were names like Juvenile, B.G., Skip to my Lou, or AO relegated to stardom just in their regions, they had become household names. “Bling Bling” wasn’t just a song. It was a statement.
“I’m a 199 driver, I’m a uptown Third Ward, Magnolia T.C. driver
Ol’ ignorant ass always stuntin’
Big ballin’ ass nigga you can see him when he comin’
Booted up, diamond up, golds be shinnin’ up
Muthafuckas be blindin’ up
Niggas at the second line be saying, I’ll be damned
Up in they best fits sayin’, Juve got me again” - Juvenile “Bling Bling”
This was the song which would define the era, an era whose echoes are still being heard in modern day hip hop. Braggadocios, charismatic and straight-forward, the message was loud and impossible to ignore. It was perfect for a new millennia. It represented a group of people who were largely ignored by the mainstream gatekeepers. Traditional hip hop would never have given Cash Money a chance if they didn’t kick in the door with their “fuck you, this is who we are” attitude in the same way the NBA looked down on college players getting their jollies off at the Rucker in front of crowd who could care less if you were a 6’4” post player (no shade towards Barkley) as long as you kept them entertained.
The time’s were a changing. It was funny to hear songs like “Set It Off” with Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube alongside tracks by Kool G. Rap, Prince Paul, and EPMD on these mixtapes. As organic as it felt watching some of the dopest basketball highlights with some pretty good hip-hop music playing as its backup dancer, the increasingly old school music wasn't the greatest representation of the attitude during the times. Granted, the music was good and played a vital role in introducing some of the lesser known artists from the east coast (I’m from Texas, nobody was listening to EPMD like that). However, the flashy, show-stealing, crowd pleasing moves on my screen fit more with the blinged out music coming from my radio.
Regardless, I knew hip hop and basketball reached its zenith when it was personified in NBA superstar and future Hall-of-Famer, Allen Iverson. 2001 was the year the world was put on notice. Iverson was the best pound -for-pound basketball player in the world. He came at the perfect time too. The headbands, braids, attitude, throwback jerseys, jewelry, it was all there. He was the Holy Grail of everything people were beginning to despise about the new era. No longer was the mafioso street boss the guy everyone wanted to be. The world became enamored by the flashy, yet grounded, straight-forward street hustler who shined.
Even during a time when Damon Dash is running around telling people to boss up, the fact is that we still admire the street hustler, the soldier who doesn’t necessarily own the club but stands on that couch in VIP, the guy hustling out the trunk of his car, the basketball player at your local gym who didn’t get a shot but he still plays like he’s trying to get to go overseas. Why? Because these are the guys who make everyday people feel like they still have a shot at success on some level. Every rapper can't be the next Drake or Kendrick, but he can be a local or regional superstar. He can make the big leagues too, but on his own terms.
To a lot of people, the bling bling era represented everything that was terrible about hip-hop and basketball. It was the step child no one wanted to see grow up. The NBA even created an entire dress code policy for its players as a result. But for me, it represented what makes hip-hop great today. And1, Cash Money and the like showed us that we can create an impact in our own way, despite how society tries to outline it for us. With social media, YouTube and whatever else is out there or on the horizon, there is still talent among us fighting to showcase their skills to a world designed to keep them out. It’s a beautiful thing when platforms are created which allow people to express themselves without compromise. And1 never compromised. Allen Iverson never comprised, and hip-hop should never compromise.
[By Reginald Davis, a lover of hip-hop, art and everything in between. His Twitter is @madblkman.]