This week has been a time to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant, which I could get behind except for the fact that I hate Kobe. Hate. Hatred. The opposite of love.
As a lifetime Celtics fan the Lakers are our sworn enemy, and for over a decade, Kobe was a villain without equal. The way he would flail his arms to draw fouls like a marionette suddenly cut loose from its strings, that weird underbite thing he would do to look intimidating, he was the worst. No, I take that back, Sasha Vujacic was the worst. But Kobe was way up there.
But while I won't be penning any tributes to Mr. Mamba, I do love me some hip-hop, and in all the recent articles I've seen about Kobe's rap career, none of them have managed to convey the full depth of his hip-hop aspirations. If you thought the sum total of his rapping was that disastrous single with Tyra Banks you're only just scratching the surface. In fact, Kobe was a seasoned battle rapper who recorded an entire album with Sony, got shelved and dropped, then launched his own indie label.
Using the Rosetta Stone of Kobe rap references as our guide, Grantland's excellent "The Secret History of Kobe Bryant’s Rap Career", let's quickly review:
- Growing up in Philly Kobe is attracted to the battle rap scene and obsesses over "lyrical indie hip-hop shit."
- As a high schooler, he comes together with Broady Boy, Kevin "Sandman" Sanchez and Jester to form the group CHEIZAW. CHEIZAW? Yes, CHEIZAW.
“I thought we were the best in the city at that time. Kobe was nice, man. He was lyrical. I wouldn’t have put him in the group if he wasn’t.” - Anthony Bannister, CHEIZAW manager
- Kobe's basketball career also explodes and it becomes clear he's going to be an NBA star. Ever the opportunistic businessman, Steve Stoute signs CHEIZAW to Sony and moves Kobe to his house in L.A. and, surprise, begins working on separating Kobe from the group with visions of making him a solo star.
- Speaking of which, work on Kobe's solo album, Visions, begins and efforts to mold him into a crossover rap star hit full swing. There's a Brian McKnight remix, a Destiny's Child remix, and of course, the disastrous single with Tyra Banks, "K.O.B.E."
- Kobe rebels against the label's moves to make him go pop, he wants to go back to making more lyrical rap. His Visions album gets shelved, then he gets dropped by Sony.
“He just seemed like one of those guys that wanted to be good so bad that he was trying to use the most intelligent [words] and have the sick vernacular. It was like, ‘Calm down, duke. Just rap.’ He was the lyrical-miracle-genius-type rapper.” - Clark Kent, legendary hip-hop producer
- Kobe takes one more shot at a hip-hop career, founding the indie label Heads High Entertainment aimed at lyrical, underground rap, but the label folds after a year and the Mamba's entire rap career becomes lost in the fog of history.
So shockingly, while Kobe will only get my begrudging respect as a basketball player - I'll objectively call him one of the best ever, but I'll do it with a grimace on my face - when it comes to his hip-hop pedigree, my respect is far purer. A lyrical battle rapper who refused to sell out when a major label pushed him to go pop? Not a phrase most would think describes Kobe Bryant, but it's the truth, and now that he's retired, maybe he'll get that indie hip-hop label up and running again.
For the full, fascinating breakdown, be sure to read "The Secret History of Kobe Bryant’s Rap Career."