A killer crossover

Chris Paul and Kendrick Lamar are the face of the new music/sports paradigm

Originally Published: January 22, 2014
By Sam Alipour | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 3 Music issue. Subscribe today!

INSIDE A HOLLYWOOD STUDIO, Clippers guard Chris Paul is shirtless, baring his ravaged skin to Kendrick Lamar. The Compton-bred rapper? Uncharacteristically tongue-tied. "Looks like I got a bunch of hickeys, right?" Paul says, pointing to the circular discolorations on his newly separated shoulder. "I tore this and this, so they put these suction cups on me. And then they stabbed me, to pull out all the bad blood." "Blood?! That's crazy," Lamar says, grimacing as if some of it had been squirted directly into his eyes. "That's another reason I couldn't do what you do." Lamar does what he does just fine. In 2012 the 26-year-old released his major-label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a platinum album that cemented his status as one of rap's most compelling storytellers. Leading the applause for Lamar is his new pal Paul, who, in his third season in LA, has led the once-moribund Clippers to title contention and his locker room to harmony. In CP3's bag of tricks: making Lamar's smooth sound a permanent fixture in the team's iRotation. A week into the new year -- and less than a week removed from a shoulder-first tumble to the hardwood that should sideline the Clippers captain into February -- the two gathered for a sit-down to discuss the busy, and lucrative, nexus of sports and music.

Sam Alipour: You're both LA-based celebrities. Have you two ever crossed paths?
Chris Paul: Actually, it's crazy -- we first connected on Twitter.
Kendrick Lamar: [Laughs] Yup.
Paul: I tweeted that I was listening to his album on the way to a game. I was following him on Twitter. I don't know if he was following me.
Lamar: Yup. And then I sent him a DM.
Paul: And I told him, "Every flight, every bus ride, your album is our team's theme music."
Lamar: It's dope because I wasn't feeling like I was in the starlight. That was before Good Kid, probably during Section.80.(1) I'm a new artist, so I'm looking at him like he's famous, know what I'm sayin'? [Both laugh] I let him know that his trade to the Clippers was perfect timing because what's about to happen to LA is going to be great for the music scene. Then we chopped it up. He's a real good dude.

Kendrick, growing up in Compton, I'm guessing you claimed the Lakers?
Lamar: I gotta go, day one, with the Lakers, of course. I support the Clippers too, because they're LA, but I ain't about to jump on their bandwagon just because of my boy right here, know what I'm sayin'? [Laughs]
Paul: I respect fans that've been straight Lakers and don't come over. I respect that loyalty.
Lamar: But it's all love, because it's all LA.

Chris Paul, Kendrick LamarMattias Clamer for ESPNOne has electrified a franchise. The other is challenging an industry.
Still, within the LA hoops and music scenes, competition isn't a terrible thing. Kendrick, you get it -- you made some waves when you dropped that verse into Big Sean's track "Control," where you called out virtually every young MC in the game.(2) Is competition as important to you as it is to Chris' day job?
Lamar: It's very important. It only helps the craft. If you're making good music, I want to make good music too. I want to be right there at that level. If you always have this competitive nature, as far as upping our game, the people will always be happy. The music will live forever.
Paul: When I heard that verse, I immediately texted him and told him how crazy it was. [Laughs] But like he said, competition is what keeps you going. When I played against Steve Nash the first time, the night before, I couldn't sleep. He'd just won MVP, and I couldn't wait to compete against him. Now, it's funny, I'm nine years into the league, and there are so many great young point guards in our league. They're coming for me like I was going for Nash. It's competition -- it's why we do this.

Today we're seeing a symbiotic relationship between music and sports, with each side using the other to sell its product -- whether we're talking about Bieber walking Floyd to the ring, or how Beats by Dre wouldn't be Beats without LeBron. Have you guys thought about what the other side can do to help sell what you're selling?
Paul: That's something me and my brother, my business manager, have been working toward. We had a great opportunity recently to talk about brand-building with O.G. Juan.(3) We've also spoken to Scooter Braun,(4) who works with Justin Bieber. That stuff is big, and we're still trying to figure it out.
Lamar: Hip-hop and being a pro athlete go hand in hand. When they come together, it's a win, not just for your business brand but also for culture. I always use the word "culture," because that's first -- everything else falls behind it. When they see that this guy loves rap the way he does, and this guy loves basketball like he does, the business is gonna flow behind it.
Paul: That word "culture" is everything. For example, earlier today, you mentioned Beats by Dre -- do you remember when they first started being worn?

The 2008 Dream Team, right?
Paul: That's right -- our 2008 Olympic team. Everybody saw us walking around with those headphones on, and now everybody's got one.
Lamar: Uh-huh, that's the culture right there.
Paul: And it was brilliant. It shows you the cultural influence of basketball. But I don't care what anybody says, there's nothing like the cultural influence of hip-hop. For me, hip-hop culture is involved in everything -- it's in me, in who I am, in how I dress, how I talk. It's in my son and my wife.

It can reach an audience that basketball can't reach on its own?
Lamar: Yeah, it's a force.
Paul: That's exactly right -- and something me and Kendrick talk about. I play basketball and I love what I do, but when I went to Kendrick's show and saw him on that stage, I was envious. I'm envious of the audience he's able to touch.
Lamar: These kids out here, yo, they're hanging on every word you say -- everything. That's why you have to be cautious about what you say. We could be playin' around, and I'll say, "Slap your mama," and a kid goes home and slaps his mama. It makes you realize hip-hop's power.

[+] EnlargeChris Paul
AP Photo/Don RyanPaul is a six-time All-Star in his third season as Clippers point guard.
You both wield that power in a positive way. CP, you're a husband, father, union president. Kendrick, you've spoken out against everything from Molly to weed. How have you sidestepped the land mines in your fields?
Lamar: The negative influences, the drinking and smoking, you're around it every day. But that doesn't entice me. You do it, and you think it's cool because your boys are doing it, so you're a follower. I reached a point in my life where I wanted to be a leader. If this stuff don't entice me, why am I following you? Once I looked in the mirror and decided this is who I am, and I'm not scared of who I am, and I'm not scared that I can't be like you, and I'm good with just doing me, that's when I found myself, as a man.
Paul: Family was real important in putting me on my path. I'm so blessed to come from a home with a mother and a father. What I do for a living, a lot of people didn't have that. And like Kendrick's saying, I learned not to give in to peer pressure. You think those people are your friends, but I think they see it as a weakness. If you don't give in that first time, that second time, not only will they leave you alone, but they'll realize how strong you are. You know, I'm a little brother. I've always been small.(5) People have said I have a Napoleon complex. But I've always had to fight for everything that I have.
Lamar: That's what makes the relationship between sports and music so cool. At the end of the day, what's most important is that these two kids who kept on grinding super hard are coming together. And that shows the next little kid in the neighborhood, if Chris and Kendrick can do it, I can do it.
Paul: That's the other side of the business relationship: Genuine friendship has to be there too. I mean, my brother is my ace, my wife is my wife, but some of the things I go through, they can't understand. That's where this relationship with Kendrick initially comes from -- you see somebody just like you who overcame hard times and strives to be the greatest in their field.

Back in the day, the relationship between music and sports was one-sided: Musicians mostly stayed in their lane, while athletes got into the music biz, as MCs or heads of labels. You know the names: Shaq, Deion -- and suddenly dozens of ballers were recording music.
Lamar: And I'm still waiting for that Allen Iverson album.(6)
Rumor is, Commissioner Stern wasn't having it.
Lamar: No, he definitely wasn't.

Anyway, today you still get the occasional athlete-rapper hyphenate: Iman Shumpert, Stephen Jackson -- word is Durant is an aspiring MC. But the numbers appear to be dwindling. Why?
Paul: I don't know, but I'll give you my opinion on this: If Kendrick really felt like he could play my position, point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, I ain't gonna lie -- I'd have a problem with it. This is what I do for a living, and I put a lot of time and passion into it. I'm not gonna say I can do what Kendrick does and sell out Staples. You gotta stay in your lane.

Kendrick, when you hear that somebody like Stephen Jackson or Iman Shumpert is putting out a mixtape, what goes through your mind?
Lamar: I don't take it too serious if he don't take it too serious. [Laughs] No disrespect, but if he feels he's having fun rapping, I'm cool with it. But the minute he says, "N -- , I'm a rapper" -- excuse my language -- now you're competing, and you better be ready, because I breathe this s -- .

Kendrick, if you could take any job in sports, what would you do?
Lamar: I want to get into refereeing.
Paul: [Laughs] Oh, no you don't. I'm tellin' you, you do not want that job.
Lamar: Nah, man, 'cause the referees get to be on the court with those players for every game. I wanna be on the court too. I can't play ball, so I'll be a referee.

Well, the trend today is music titans taking roles in sports -- not as referees but guiding franchises and careers. Drake is a brand ambassador for the Raptors, Justin Timberlake is a minority owner of the Grizzlies. Then you have the management types: Master P led the way,(7) Fitty has his boxing promotion,(8) Jay Z jumped from owner to agent.(9) Why do music industry power brokers feel they're well positioned to succeed in sports?
Lamar: First of all, with the cast you named, this is the urban community. We've always been fascinated by and knowledgeable about sports. Now that you have people from this community in positions of power, like Jay Z and Drake, it's only right that they spread their knowledge and love of the game. It's passion, not just business. I mean, I've been to their houses -- they're watching each and every game!
Paul: And why is that any different than any wealthy person who always wanted to buy a team, so they go out and buy a team?

And some of these cats are succeeding. At first, we saw Jay Z as a novelty. Then he scores Robinson Cano a $200 million deal.(10)
Paul: Well, I have a real relationship with Jay. I know him very well; we talk all the time. I know how smart and how knowledgeable he is. He educates me on various things. This is bigger than him just being Jay Z, the music artist. His mind is brilliant.
Lamar: Yeah, man, it's crazy -- going back to branding, Jay Z has that down. In 2004, when we formed this label called TDE, we molded it after him. Look how he branded himself and Roc-A-Fella.(11) Look at Master P and No Limit. Look at Beats by Dre and how they use athletes. When you see them, you see the brand. But here's the thing some brands forget -- it all goes back to whether people like what you do first. 
A lot of people forget about that part.
Paul: What you're saying, that's huge. Like for me, with the building of my brand, this is my ninth year in the league and still, at the end of the day, what I do is I play basketball. And I play basketball to win a championship. That championship is everything to me. And that's what gets people to buy in to your brand -- being a winner.
Lamar: Look at Michael Jordan. Prime example. He wouldn't be Jordan without all those championships.
Paul: That's right. Whether you're an artist or an athlete, you have to be a winner first. That's the brand you want.


(1) Lamar's second album, which has sold 148,000 copies.
(2) "I'm usually homeboys with the same n -- s I'm rhymin' with / But this is hip-hop and them n -- s should know what time it is / And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale / Pusha T, Meek Millz, ASAP Rocky, Drake / Big Sean, Jay Electron', Tyler, Mac Miller / I got love for you all, but I'm tryna murder you n -- s / Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you n -- s / They don't wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you n -- s.
(3) "O.G." Juan Perez, former president of the now-defunct Roc-La-Familia label. 
(4) Braun, 32, who owns School Boy Records and Raymond-Braun Media Group, has a reported net worth of $40 million. His client list includes Justin Bieber, Asher Roth and Carly Rae Jepsen.
(5) Listed height: six feet. Actual height: 5'11".
(6) In early 2001, Iverson, under his hip-hop name, Jewelz, planned to release his debut album, Non Fiction, which reportedly contained offensive lyrics. Prior to the release, after meeting with NBA commissioner David Stern, Iverson agreed to alter some lyrics and changed the title to Misunderstood. By October 2001, the release was canceled.
(7) Percy Miller (aka Master P), who launched No Limit Records at age 20 and later No Limit Sports Management, is reportedly worth $350 million.
(8) Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent) initially sought to become a promoter with Floyd Mayweather's Money Team in 2012 before founding SMS Promotions. His reported net worth is $260 million.
(9) In 2013 Shawn Carter (aka Jay Z) launched Roc Nation Sports, whose clients are Robinson Cano, Victor Cruz, Skylar Diggins, Geno Smith and Kevin Durant. His net worth is a reported $500 million.
(10) Cano signed a 10-year, $240 million deal in December.
(11) Founded in 1996 by Jay Z, Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, Roc-A-Fella's roster has included Kanye West, Jadakiss and Jay Z.

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Sam Alipour is a Senior Writer at ESPN Magazine and contributor to ESPN and ESPN.com. Contact him at sam.alipour@gmail.com and on Twitter.

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