- Sam Alipour
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In 1993, a young Orlando Magic All-Star by the name of Shaquille O’Neal broke new ground when he dropped the first studio rap album by an active pro athlete. Driven by novelty, as well as Shaq’s star power and goofy personality, “Shaq Diesel” went Top 30 on the Billboard charts, eventually earning platinum certification.
And it changed everything.
Before long, a slew of jock MCs, inspired by Shaq’s success, swapped the rock for a mic, among them: Deion Sanders, Chris Webber, Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Troy Hudson and Tony Parker.
They, and darn near all of their one-and-done kind, stunk.
Even the most prolific of the sports world’s active MCs, Metta World Peace hasn’t quite cracked the code. According to one of Metta’s rhyme-spitting peers, the Lakers forward’s most recent offering, “Represented,” leaves plenty to be desired.
“Oh, he’s horrible. He is horrible,” says Iman Shumpert of the New York Knicks.
“’Represented’ is brutal. Just brutal. I feel him on, ‘I’m not letting anybody tell me anything, I’m just going to do my music.’ More power to him. But it’s not my type of music.”
While it’s unusual for an athlete-rapper to dis another, Shumpert might’ve earned the right to talk some trash: On Dec. 21, the Knicks’ second-year guard, through his website ImanShumpert.com, will drop his first mixtape, “Th3 #post90s."
And get this: Shump has skills.
Rapping under the pseudonym “2wo 1ne” -- a play off of his jersey number -- the 22-year-old Oak Park, Ill. native and Georgia Tech product began laying down tracks in the offseason while recovering from the torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee that have kept him sidelined all season.
What emerged from recording sessions in Atlanta, Chicago and New York are twenty-one tracks -- some good, some not so hot. But taken as a whole, “Th3 #post90s” might very well herald the arrival of the sports world’s first good rapper.
In a phone chat with Blitz, Shumpert talked about his music, his inspirations and why he’s different from the guys who came before him.
I’ve been covering athlete-rappers for years. You might be the best I’ve heard. The most potential, for sure.
Oh man, I really appreciate that. [Laughs.]
You’re laughing. Do you see that as a backhanded compliment, seeing as how most of your peers are garbage?
I do. I understand that. They’re pretty bad. I don’t like it when people compare us. If an athlete plays the guitar, they say, “That’s so cool, he can play the guitar.” But if a guy raps, they say, “Please don’t be another rapper,” only because the rappers are so bad. I promise I’m not anything like that. Just listen to the tape. And if you don’t like it, turn it off and turn on the TV, because I’ll be back on the court soon.
In your mind, has there ever been a talented athlete-rapper?
Not that I’ve heard. Most of them tried so hard to make a pop song rather than make music that they like. I’m not making music to get played in a club. I’m making the music that I need to get through certain situations. People gravitate towards that because it’s more real. We may be pro athletes, with all those perks, but we’re still people. And we’re going through the same things.
The title of your mixtape -- why the reference to the post-’90s?
A lot of people celebrate the ’80s. I was a ’90s guy. The best music, and basketball was at its high in the ’90s, with all of the best players, playing the best style of basketball in that era, and Michael Jordan winning six rings in the city I grew up in. I’m still living in the ’90s as far as how I’m approaching life, basketball and music.
How would you describe your sound?
A lot of storytelling. The way I rap isn’t about me boasting. Rarely will I do that. Most of the time, I go in-depth about a situation, something that happened to me. And I try to tell it in a different way. It’s like my bedroom: I want things clean -- I’m OCD in that way -- but at the same time I don’t want nothing hung up straight. I want it hung crooked. That’s how I have to see it in my mind.
You write your own lyrics. Have you always been a writer?
Definitely, I’ve always written. My mother was an artist. My brothers, they liked to draw, too. I could never draw, but I use words. I wrote a newspaper column in high school for two years. I wrote a blog in college and a journal with the Knicks when I got drafted. In the first grade, I wrote my mom a story about how I was going to play in the NBA. When I got drafted, she pulled it out of the archives and showed me. I’ve always written.
I’m told that you sometimes sneak into clubs and do impromptu spoken-word. Please tell me that’s true.
[Laughs.] I’ve been to a couple of poetry clubs, just catching the vibe, and they asked me to do a piece. I’ve only done it on two occasions in New York and a few occasions in Atlanta. I like to write, though. I like to have something ready. I don’t really like to freestyle.
How about we put you to the test: Can you freestyle about your day for me?
[Laughs.] Right now? Well, it would have to be about this kids’ clinic I just did. You want me to do that?Ω
Yeah, I really do. If you’re capable.
[Laughs.] Okay. Hold up …
Kids' clinic ended with a one-on-one/
Kids messing around, tryin’a have fun/
I pump-fake -- and the little kid jumps/
What’d I do? Drive by, go for a dunk/
Threw it down -- all the kids say I goin’ hard/
“Yo, how you gonna do that to a two-year-old?”/
I said, I don’t care --
[Laughs.] I don’t know man…
Naw, that was solid for a guy who claims to not freestyle.
We have an exercise we do, me and the guys I rap with -- we pick an object in the room and rap about it. But I gotta really be in the vibe.
Let’s talk about some of your tracks. First up, "Supaphly," featuring Chrisette Michele. Not your best. I know you said you don’t like to boast, but here you are rapping about threads, sneakers and tax brackets.
[Laughs.] Yeah, the whole thought behind the track was to switch it up. When I met with Chrisette, she said, “You’re always so deep with your music. I’d like to hear you go in a different direction.” This was my one shot to have fun and not have something to talk about. Hopefully it’s something that can get stuck in your head. That was our aim.
Next, “#Anarchy episode VII," featuring PhlyyB. This one’s solid. Why anarchy?
It’s as if rule doesn’t exist. You’re free to just act. In the video, we’re walking to the same destination. I’m having fun -- got a sneaker on my head, three watches on my wrists, being flashy, jersey on backwards. If you notice, as I’m walking in the video, nobody notices. Nobody’s looking at me. On the flip side, when I have my hat on straight and only one watch on my wrist, so society can accept me, people are like, “What?” That’s the flip. Phlyy’s thing, he’s quiet all the time, but when he’s in his element, he’s wild, shaking his dreads. It was cool to have us going back and forth, walking to meet up.
"Progress," featuring Ari Stylez and PhlyyB (video above), might be my favorite. Dope beat, good flow, lots of fun. Tell me about this one.
Me and my guys, Ari Stylez and Phlyy, where we come from, people don’t end up successful. They end up staying in Oak Park and bragging about what they used to do. The thing about “Progress,” it’s like the Biggie [Notorious B.I.G.] sample that we put in the hook. It’s to big-up us and our progress through life. That beat, it’s a “family at the barbeque” type of beat. It’s got that feel-good vibe to it. At the barbeque, the old folks would let you play it even though it’s rap music.
And then there’s “Th3 Connect.” Sounds like your take on “My Adidas,” by Run-DMC.
Yeah, it’s about connecting the times between old adidas and how it’s changed. When you hear it, you think, “Where’s the commercial at?” [Laughs.] Maybe one day you’ll hear it on an adidas commercial.
Speaking of, have you gotten any nibbles from brands or labels?
People are always giving me their cards, but I don’t really want to take it that big. If I ever put out an album, it’d be to work with a legendary producer. And it’d be to benefit a cause, like Hurricane Sandy. I don’t do music to make money.
Finally, your Knicks anthem, which doesn’t appear on your mixtape. The Knicks are balling, arguably the surprise of the season. How much of that is your anthem?
[Laughs.] The anthem was actually written and recorded back in training camp, and we played it on the Jumbotron when we played the Heat that first game. Now we’re rolling and they play it at every game, really. I didn’t know it was going to blow up like that. I thought it would be kept within our niche. But my teammates love it. But they only like their own part. Like, Tyson Chandler thinks the “gold medal” part is the best part. Everybody likes their part. But that’s the cool thing about the song -- everybody gets their shout-out.
When can we expect to see you on the floor with your boys?
We’re targeting January-February, but I’m not in any rush. My priority is to be healthy for the playoffs. And they obviously have things under control right now. [Laughs.]
Who are your musical inspirations?
I’m influenced by guys like Kanye and Kendrick Lamar, people with a clear vision of themselves and what they want to do. I know people are going to say this and that about athletes who rap, but I know in my mind what I want to do, and I’m confident that it’ll work out in the end. I like people who want to be great, like Jay-Z.
Kendrick Lamar, he’s my favorite right now. No matter what record he gets on, he’s speaking his mind and putting his spin on it. Like, if a collaborator has a song about a strip club, maybe Kendrick doesn’t rap about the strip club. Maybe he raps about a stripper that he knows outside the strip club. It’s still all Kendrick, know what I mean? He’s throwing curveballs. But that’s why his part in a song is always the best part. You wonder, what’s Kendrick going to rap about next? He’s original. That’s what the world is searching for -- something original. Those are the people that I’m moved by.
Do you pull your “NBA star” card at all and lean on any of these guys for advice?
I don’t like to lean on people. I try not to mess too much with artists unless they want to work with me. They put their heart and soul into it. I don’t have that time. I do put time into it -- I don’t put something out until it sounds great and has substance. But I play basketball. That’s my full-time job. And if they ever asked, “Hey, can I come to one of your practices?” I’d say no. When I’m playing basketball, I don’t want nobody messing up my flow. I wouldn’t do that to them. That’s why I’d never go out of my way to ask them to do a song with me, or seek advice. Live, I’ve sat in on Lil Wayne in the studio. When you see him so locked in, I’m not asking him no questions.
Do you curse in your mixtape?
Naw. There were times when I used to curse, but the people around me were saying, “You’re good. You’re really developed. You’re too far along in your life, seen too many things to have to use cursing. You can explain things so well without the curses.” They felt I was dumbing my music down. So I stay away from that. With a lot of athletes, cursing is repetitive and habitual. Instead I try to use new words. I don’t want to say the same thing twice. I don’t like to wear the same outfit twice.
I hear you: Cursing can be a crutch. But you said Kendrick Lamar is your favorite new rapper. Mine, too. He doesn’t need a crutch -- and he curses like crazy.
You’re right, sometimes it’s good for emphasis. If I’m telling a story that requires cursing, I might use it. But a lot of the things I rap about don’t need cursing. I really don’t need to curse.
Finally, let’s talk about your look, which says a lot about an artist. And by that I mean: your hair, dude. What’s up with your amazing hair?
[Laughs.] I was injured, and I was thinking, man, I’m a ’90s kid, and I ain’t never had a high-top fade before. And then I realized most of my favorite players had one, too. Jason Kidd, Charles Oakley, even Michael Jordan. I chose to go the Kenny Walker route: He went high with it, and real low with the fade, with designs and streaks. Whenever I make my comeback, I’m going to have fun with it, with some graphics.
People tell me all the time: “Be professional.” Maybe I will when I’m 25. But right now, that’s not me. I like to smile a lot. I like to goof around. I have a ton of energy. I want to have fun.