Commentary

Sports' most hip-hop figures, 5-1

Originally Published: August 17, 2011
By Vincent Thomas | Special to Page 2

Page 2 Hip HopESPN.com IllustrationThe term hip-hop may be fairly new in the scheme of things, but the attitude has been around forever.

So we've reached the end. I'd be remiss if I didn't thank my crew (Chuck, Derrick, Tony, Gerald, Trav, Darryl, Red, Diggs and Dane) for acting as soundboards and keeping me from doing things like including Jose Canseco (true story). And a guilty shoutout to those that just missed the cut -- Rafer "Skip" Alston, Reggie Jackson, John McEnroe, Michael Johnson, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Randy Moss, Bernard Hopkins, Bo Jackson, Flo Jo and Satchel Paige.

With that said ...

Monday: Nos. 25-21

Tuesday: Nos. 20-16

Wednesday: Nos. 15-11

Thursday: Nos. 10-6

5. Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson was the first hip-hop figure of the 20th century. It's hard to even contemplate, in modern terms, just how radical he was back then. This was post-Reconstruction America when blacks were dirt poor and many still servile. Jack was none of that. Booker T. Washington -- Black America's "leader," at the time -- didn't quite dig Jack's individualism. People like Jack called themselves "New Negroes." From 1900-10, about 750 black men were lynched, many times for contact with or conduct toward white women. Jack's response? "I have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man. I am not a slave." Jack was the flyest of fly. Tailored suits, slick hats and a gold tooth. In the Ken Burns documentary "Unforgivable Blackness," historian Stanley Crouch said that when Jack smiled, he was saying, "I'm here and you're not." Jack was arrogant and fairly amoral. Unlike the athletes of the civil rights movement, Jack stunted hard while most blacks were destitute. His domination of boxing was viewed as a threat to civil order. He was called the Dark Menace and Black Smoke. Jim Jeffries was the great champ of his day. In one fight, before Jack was champ, he fought Jim's younger brother Jack Jeffries. Johnson knocked out the younger Jeffries, carried him to his corner, leaned over and said to Jim, "And I'll quit you, too." The balls on this guy. When Jack had vanquished all challengers, it was time to fight Jim Jeffries for the title. Jeffries refused, though, because he didn't think blacks were fit for the title. So, in steps the new champ, Tommy Burns. He didn't like fighting blacks either, because "all coons are yellow." So Jack followed him from city to city calling him a coward and demanding a fight. They eventually fought and Jack beat him down. Soon America started calling for Jeffries to come out of retirement and restore order. The "Fight Of The Century" took place on July 4, 1910, in Reno. Folks back then actually thought the very fabric and tenets of American life were at stake. Jack knocked Jeffries down twice. Jeffries' people called it quits in the 15th round. Jack Johnson was hip-hop to the core.

4. Shaquille O'Neal

Before Shaq, athletes rapping consisted of the Super Bowl Shuffle and Converse wearing Baby Boomers. When Shaq linked with the Fu-Schnickens in 1993 for "What's Up Doc (Can We Rock)?" it was like some sort of revelation. "Wait a second -- Shaq is kinda nice." In a short, spotty, largely entitled rap career, the Diesel made music with Biggie, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep, Redman, RZA, Method Man and a few other all-time greats ... like freaking Rakim. And Shaq never seemed like a dork athlete trying to be cool with the rappers. He was authentic. His early career reminded me of Biggie, because he loomed so large over everything. Shaq's full career is more like Jay-Z, seeing how the big man stayed relevant for so long (from Kobe and the Lakers to D-Wade and the Heat to Nash and the Suns to LeBron and the Cavs to Boston and the Big Three). The Diesel had more nicknames than all Wu-Tang members put together, and unlike most athletes -- but like most hip-hop artists -- he gave himself his own nicknames. Shaq was verbally combative with his opponents, too. He called Chris Bosh "RuPaul," Penny Hardaway "Fredo Corleone" -- he got that inclination toward a putdown from the way rappers tried to dismiss their opponents. But no moment in recent sports history was as hip-hop as Shaq's impromptu freestyle dissing of Kobe, after Kobe played, perhaps, his worst basketball of the season and failed to grab his fourth ring. Shaq, forever young, got on a nightclub stage and spit, what I deem, a fairly clever line: "Kobe, tell me how my a-- tastes." Hilarious, classic and, culturally iconic.

3. Muhammad Ali

When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and later refused to go fight in Vietnam, he became a counterculture figure who lived on the margins of society but was a hero to many. Sounds a lot like hip-hop in the '80s. Ali, however, has a distinct and lasting impact on hip-hop that has nothing to do with his stature as a sociopolitical figure. You could argue that every rapper indirectly learned how to boast from Ali. You could argue that every battle rhymer learned how to tear down an opponent from Ali. You could argue that rap actually got its cadence from Ali (along with Gil Scott Heron and James Brown). He was one of the world's first rappers.

2. Allen Iverson

If you ask most folks which athlete they associate with hip-hop, they'll likely say A.I. His rise to the most popular and polarizing athlete in America almost directly coincided with hip-hop's leap from urban trendsetter to the main influencer of American youth culture. He was acutely hip-hop -- moreso than someone like Shaq -- because a central theme of hip-hop culture has always been its disconnect with older people (for instance, there's no way someone over 40 can truly identify with Odd Future). What's with the cornrows? Why all the tattoos? Why is he so petulant? Why does he have such a distaste for authority, coaches and practice? (PRACTICE?) He's not that good -- he carries the ball and his shot selection sucks. The guy is a whiny ball hog. Didn't he beat up some white guys in a bowling alley when he was a teenager? He was in jail, right? He's what's wrong with America. We had our answers/rebuttals, though. He has cornrows and tattoos because he's cool, you squares. He's not petulant, he's passionate. You got us on the authority thing, but we all hate authority -- bite us. And PRACTICE? He seems to be doing fine, as is. His handle is the illest -- up there with Isaiah's and Kenny Anderson's. Yeah, he whines, but only because the refs pick on him. Yeah, he shoots a lot, but only because he has to. Profane and homophobic? His song "40 Barz" is tame, trust us. He was defending himself in a bowling alley against racist antagonists and then got hosed by a prejudiced judicial system. Did you see his commercial with Jadakiss? He's what's dope about America.

1. Mike Tyson

Like Iverson, Tyson will always most epitomize the hip-hop athlete's polarizing effect based on generational perspectives. He was brash, outspoken, misunderstood, violent and ignorant to mainstream America and older generations -- but still compelling. To us younger folk, he was The Man, untouchable. We didn't care if he was a convicted rapist, he was still idolized. Yeah, he was self-destructive and puzzling, but he was also a deep thinker and principled. It's that second layer that makes Tyson a smidge more hip-hop than Iverson, that "Tupac thug/social critic," "Biggie lunatic/teddy bear" complexity -- exhibited poignantly in James Toback's 2008 documentary -- that mirrored hip-hop more than any other athlete to walk the concrete. Yeah, he's making self-parodying cameos in comedies now, but Ice Cube is making family sitcoms, too. See what I'm saying?

Vincent Thomas is a SLAM magazine columnist and a frequent contributing columnist and commentator for ESPN. He can be reached at vincethomas79@gmail.com or @vincecathomas on Twitter.


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