By Will Baldwin
For a long time, Ryerson men’s basketball point guard Tevaun Kokko was a headphones guy when he worked out. In the last couple of years, however, he’s become a proponent of the speaker. Normally, he won’t use the Mattamy Athletic Centre’s loud sound system unless it’s only him in the gym. But on a grey winter day in February 2020, Kokko got lucky when he descended the stairs from the Rams’ locker room.
The court was empty.
To become one of the best players in the country (and, by the end of his first year as a Ram, a U Sports second-team All-Canadian) requires lots of work, much of it without anyone else in the room. In those moments by himself—accompanied only by a ball and the court—Kokko can focus on the finest details of his game. For him to get in the right headspace, though, he needs something that unites most of the basketball world: hip hop.
Across North America, the latest tracks in music’s most popular genre has filled the air of basketball courts for decades. From the outdoor courts of New York City like Rucker Park, to Ryerson’s MAC on a Rams game day, hip-hop music is the accepted soundtrack of the sport. So it’s no surprise that when Kokko unplugs his phone from his headphones and attaches it to the gym’s aux cord, the bars of popular rappers like Lil Durk, King Von, Meek Mill, Pop Smoke and more bounce off the gym’s walls. Now, Kokko can get down to work.
Kokko said there’s a “weird relationship” between his music and his training. “You just listen to the music, you shoot it and just vibe,” he said. “It’s kind of like a poetry type of thing.”
The Markham, Ont. native has made a name for himself in U Sports basketball by crafting his way around larger defenders and finding space to make plays. According to Kokko, for him to be at his best, he needs to be in constant motion. Putting pressure on the defence by always moving gives him the opportunity to be creative, as opposed to being in a stagnant standstill. This ability to glide around the court and operate at an elite level, despite his shorter stature at a listed five feet and 11 inches tall, is “creative” and “free-flowing” in a way he likens to his favourite rappers and players.
“It’s kind of like how Steph Curry would play,” Kokko said. “Just the way he moves on the court, I think that’s kind of where you get the creative side, just to be able to find those spots and use your mind and see outside the box, just like a lot of artists and hip-hop artists think outside the box.”
This flow and creativity is what Kokko loves so much about the game of basketball.
“It’s kind of like a poetry type of thing”
Chris Baguma, a former NCAA basketball player turned hip-hop artist, feels the same way about the game. Known by the name “YaYa” in the music scene, the Toronto local fell in love with both music and basketball at a young age. For him, one of the best parts of his two biggest passions is the duelling artistry in each.
This artistry in YaYa’s mind comes out best when someone is rapping in a way that their words find a unique connection with the listener that “hits even more.” Comparatively, in basketball, he notices it when a player makes a move. When they shake their defender in a unique way or find a way to create space, YaYa said he thinks they are expressing themselves in basketball.
“It’s really an art.”
YaYa got into the music industry over quarantine. Stuck inside during lockdown, he and his friends started messing around with some beats at one of their homes. Quickly, YaYa’s voice connected with his friends and they insisted he release the song. Though initially uncertain, YaYa was swayed after “hearing [support] from a bunch of people.”
His early work received praise in the hip hop community and was featured on Lyrical Lemonade. The Torontonian is preparing to release an EP soon. His goal with his music is to reach people on a deeper level.
“Music that you can feel is something special,” he said.
For YaYa, this special feeling isn’t exclusive to music; in fact, he finds that it’s actually directly related to why he loves the game of basketball so much.
“You know when you listen to an artist for the first time and you hear a song and they say something, like, just a line in the song that you just really fuck with?” YaYa said. “It’s like, damn, I felt that part. It’s kind of like when you see a dunk or something spectacular, or you see a move and you’re like ‘Ouuu, I felt that.’”
Memorable moments like this are what helped build YaYa’s passion for music and basketball. Seeing great plays or listening to striking bars helped define who his favourite artists and hoopers were because they both found a way to “hit you up at that point within yourself.”
YaYa and Kokko are far from alone in finding these connections between these two industries. As the business of hip-hop’s has grown rapidly in recent years, the NBA has seen an influx in relationships with some of the industry’s biggest names.
“Music that you can feel is something special”
Rappers like Jay-Z, Common, Quavo and more have their imprint on the franchises in their respective cities. For a local example of this connection, look no further than the Toronto Raptors’ global ambassador, Drake.
With hindsight as a benefit, the relationship between basketball and hip hop seems obvious. They both rely on a unique level of self-expression that, compared to their contemporaries of other sports and musical genres, makes them really stand out.
However, the two weren’t always linked.
It wasn’t until the final 15 years of the last century that it all changed, when basketball and hip hop collided to form a bond that has only grown in the subsequent generations since they first met up.
Taking it back to the beginning
Compared to other popular musical genres, hip-hop is pretty young. The movement got its start in New York’s predominantly Black communities in the 1970s and has been growing at astonishing rates ever since.
Meanwhile, basketball was first invented in 1892 by Canadian-American physical educator and athlete James Naismith. Although it found success in other areas, the game became arguably the most popular sport in predominantly Black neighbourhoods across the United States in the 20th century. By the time the 1980s rolled around, the sport’s highest level, in the NBA’s popularity, began to explode thanks to a rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Basketball had become a fundamental part of the American sports machine.
As hip hop took over the urban playgrounds and courts of America’s inner cities, it was only a matter of time before basketball started producing players from the “hip hop generation.” In 1984, Kurtis Blow released his single “Basketball” and suddenly the two were tied together on Billboard’s charts.
“You’d see ballers kind of like flexing their homes and flexing their cars and…that kind of just ties into that whole hip hop bravado”
Up next, the two would find a connection on the courts of March Madness’ Final Four.
Mark Campbell is an assistant professor and associate chair at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s department of arts, culture and media. He first noticed the influence of hip hop on basketball with the University of Michigan’s famous Fab Five recruiting class in 1991.
The Wolverines brought in four McDonald’s All-Americans (McDAAG). A fifth member of the class would also eventually join the four McDAAG alumni in the starting lineup, creating an unheard-of, all-freshmen starting unit. While only Chris Webber and Juwan Howard went on to achieve All-Star level success in the NBA of the five, their impact on the sport’s culture remains felt today.
“The Fab Five were the ones who really publicly helped connect hip hop,” Campbell said. “They were all into hip hop and after some of their games, there’s images ingrained in my mind of Chris Webber jumping on the scorer’s table and then waving this whole crowd to Naughty By Nature’s ‘Hip Hop Hooray.’”
Of the things the Fab Five is most notably credited for today is their baggy shorts and black socks. According to Campbell, their legacy should also include the beginning of the mainstream relationship between hip hop and basketball.
“You could see in everything that they were. They just took [Michael] Jordan’s style to another level and crossed it with hip hop.”
By no coincidence, the Fab Five enrolled at Michigan in 1991, the same year influential hip-hop group N.W.A. made history by becoming the first rap group to have an album go number one on Billboard’s charts.
“Black people expand [Black culture] to make everyone feel welcome and want to be a part of it, and I feel like that’s one of the best things about Black culture”
The decade started with the Fab Five, a group with shades of hip hop’s influence. It would end with Allen Iverson, who became just as famous for how he looked as how he played. His style became one of the defining characteristics of the basketball and hip hop marriage; Iverson blended together tattoos, cornrows, a shooter sleeve and baggy pre-game attire that would go on to be the genesis for much of the style of today’s NBA players.
Vibe called Iverson “Hip-Hop’s Gift To The NBA” for a reason: his unapologetic bravado spoke to a group of people that professional sports had never really engaged with before. It’s not a coincidence players like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul and more still revere what Iverson came to represent. Paul said of Iverson back in 2016, “I’ve always said Allen Iverson had the biggest effect on the culture of the NBA out of any player.”
Jaden Burton is the Ryerson Rams’ official DJ for games played at the MAC. To Burton, players like Iverson, Kobe Bryant and James did more than just connect basketball and hip hop; they helped to redefine Black culture.
“A lot of people took inspiration from them, whether it be the cornrows, the tattoos or anything,” Burton said. “You’d see ballers kind of like flexing their homes and flexing their cars and stuff like that, and that kind of just ties into that whole hip hop bravado.”
It’s no secret that as the popularity of hip hop and basketball have grown, it’s influenced the growth of Black culture in the mainstream North American zeitgeist. Powerful athletes like Iverson and James, and artists like Drake and Kendrick Lamar, to name a few, have been integral to the growth of power and influence for both.
But while Campbell grew up playing basketball and is entrenched in hip hop’s culture and history, he is wary of the potential damage the connection of hip hop, basketball and Black culture can have.
“It also helps redefine the power structure so that those white audiences that are consuming the images of Black people, once they continue to see the same image and that repetition is there, it makes people feel comfortable that their power is not being threatened or their culture is not being diluted,” Campbell said.
“It does a lot of damage because it actually doesn’t encourage people to think outside of that connection or think about, ‘what are the social relations that make that possible?’”
This repetition and consistency in media is problematic because it can enforce hard definitions of what is or isn’t considered Black. Due to this, as Campbell says, “You can never see the Black classical piano player who exists, but they’re not selling products for corporations and they’re not covered on the nightly news.”
According to him, the way around this is avoiding what’s easy or normal and looking deeper into marginalized cultures for greater depth and understanding. “It’s just easy. It’s consumable, but it does a lot of damage because it actually doesn’t encourage people to think outside of that connection or think about, ‘what are the social relations that make that possible?’” Campbell said.
Campbell continued that it’s important to look at these things through a critical lens. Stereotyping can be dangerous and often leaves marginalized groups trapped in a system of oppression.
However, according to Campbell, the rise in popularity of basketball and hip hop can be beneficial in terms of bringing communities together. In a column he wrote for The Globe and Mail in 2019 during the Raptors championship run, Campbell talked about the benefits the Raptors’ success was having for Toronto’s self-identity.
“The Toronto we see today on the world stage at the NBA Finals is a city that has absorbed the bold self-confidence embedded in hip-hop culture,” Campbell wrote. “So while the Fab Five were derided as showboating, undisciplined streetballers in 1992, their legacy—a hip hop informed self-confidence—continues to infuse hip hop and basketball culture in ways that help cities such as Toronto find itself.”
While Campbell won’t commit to saying if he thinks the connection is good or bad overall, it does concern him, and he wants to see more “critical, analytical thought” when discussing the relationship. Burton sees the relationship between the two a bit differently. To him, it highlights some of the best parts of Black culture.
“Black culture is popular culture right now. As Black culture really expands itself and creates different lanes for people to kind of put themselves into it, it grows and becomes even bigger than just us,” Burton said. “Black people expand [Black culture] to make everyone feel welcome and want to be a part of it, and I feel like that’s one of the best things about Black culture. We’re open with people appreciating our culture and wanting to be a part of it.”
There’s no doubt that basketball and hip hop have grown over the last few decades as a result of each other’s collective influences. Back in 1984, basketball’s impact was nowhere near what it is today and the same can be said for hip hop, at the time a very new genre. Almost 40 years later, the two are important pillars of North American culture.
The soundtrack of the game
When Burton enters the MAC, it becomes his job to satisfy the players and the crowd at the game.
To do this, DJ For The People, as Burton is known musically, constructs a playlist of songs from the players and his own music, considering the vibe he wants to fill the gym with. Of course, it can’t just be niche songs since getting the crowd involved is part of the balancing act. However, with basketball, unlike the volleyball games that he also DJs, he grew up in and around the culture, and gets to play the music he’s listening to. Growing up around the game and going to courts, the culture of hip hop was “just ingrained in the way people played basketball around us,” he said.
“[Hip hop] ignites a little bit of a fire inside”
So when Kokko descends down the steps for a game day instead of his lone shooting sessions, Burton’s playlist provides a familiarity. Of course, even before leaving the Rams’ locker room, Kokko uses music as part of a pregame ritual. A good pregame playlist allows you to “lock-in or just get you in a different type of focus,” he said. To accomplish focus, he likes to listen to songs that “just triggers something…you listen to the lyrics and it might take you back to the time period…it’s kind of nostalgic.”
Kokko’s one of those athletes that like to keep it consistent when he steps onto the floor for a big game. One of the last things he listened to in 2020 before heading on the court was Fat Trel’s “No Lames.” Like many major athletes, Kokko’s final songs right before he steps onto the court are intended to inspire him, with the hope that they “ignite a little bit of a fire inside.”
Regardless of if it’s before a game, practice or individual workout, Kokko’s music is there for him. Though different on the surface, the combination of hip hop and basketball provides Kokko and so many others a poetic relationship that has stood the test of multiple generations of hoopers and emcees.
Whether it’s at Scotiabank Arena on a Raptors game day, an outdoor court in the city or even the MAC on a grey February day, you’re likely to hear hip-hop as its soundtrack.