(L-R) Jeriel Johnson, Alexys Feaster, Elsa M, 9th Wonder, Stephanie Scarpulla, Pusha T and Von Vargas at The Recording Academy Washington D.C. Chapter's Intersection of Music & Sports event at the Kennedy Center on March 02, 2020.
Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Intersection Of Sports & Music With Pusha T, 9th Wonder & NBA, MLB & NHL Reps
Sports and music have been kindred creative spirits for a long time. But we live in a world today where, "basketball players think they can rap, and rappers want to be ballplayers," as GRAMMY-nominated producer and Washington, DC chapter board member 9th Wonder and GRAMMY-nominated rapper Pusha T agree. No doubt, something about the creative and performance elements of both disciplines seems intrinsically connected.
To explore this synergy between the two industries, the Recording Academy Washington, DC Chapter hosted an in-depth conversation on the "Intersection of Sports & Music" at the Kennedy Center's new programming pavilion, The REACH, on March 2, 2020. Panelists for the evening included Pusha T, 9th Wonder, Stephanie Scarpulla, Director for Music and Media Clearances for both the MLB Network and NHL Network and the NBA's Senior Director of Player Development Alexys Feaster as well as broadcaster Elsa M, who served as moderator.
Jeriel Johnson, Executive Director of the Washington D.C. Chapter, opened the proceedings by invoking the legacy of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who tragically died on the same day as this year's 62nd GRAMMY Awards. Johnson acknowledged how their tragic passing impacted all in attendance and made the panel "timely and relevant."
He also noted Alicia Keys honored Bryant by playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" during the NBA star's memorial service. Bryant himself had learned the piece to impress his wife, Vanessa.
In this spirit, Feaster discussed Kobe's deep ties to music as a catharsis from his significant on-court achievements. "The way athletes connect to music is authentic and often healing," Feaster said. "More than anything, athletes understand just how much discipline and support is required to master one's craft," which, to her, breeds the mutual respect between the two great industries.
Recently, as a part of his brand partnership with Adidas, Pusha T extended that connectivity and respect to another level. Pusha saw a golden opportunity to make a special moment when he was called on to aid the sneaker titan with the launch of Portland Trail Blazers star player Damian Lillard's "Dame 6" edition shoe during the 2020 All-Star Weekend. Inspired by his love for the game, Pusha went to work doing what he does best.
"Allen Iverson is my favorite athlete of all time," he started, citing a commercial AI did with rapper Jadakiss in 2001 where Production tandem The Trackmasters created a beat with basketball-style feel, which inspired Pusha for the "Dame 6" commercial with Lillard. "Pharrell made the beat for my ad, though," he added.
The ad, which was aired during the Recording Academy event, created a triumphant viral music-meets-sports moment for Adidas during All-Star Weekend.
This kind of sports-meets-music collision is happening more than ever. The MLB Network, for instance, often licenses up to 300 unique pieces of musical content per day, according to the MLB's Stephanie Scarpulla.
For her part, sync-licensing specialist Scarpulla related to just how many special moments in sports require musical soundtracking. She outlined the intensity of her music-moment-making schedule balancing both the MLB and NHL Networks, starting with the opening day of Major League Baseball's season, which roughly coincides with the close of the National Hockey League's year. From there, MLB's All-Star Game falls a scant ten weeks or so later. Plus, the NHL's offseason is when the network will roll out an entirely new slate of documentary programming.
Scarpulla, who has been in her job for 12 years after seven years working as a music licensing executive in the music industry, says she, "Listens to anything and everything, from everywhere" to inspire the choices for the networks, which air almost 20,000 hours a year. Initially, her choices leaned in the direction of "bro rock," which she felt matched went well with baseball and hockey. Now, the genre search has expanded to include hip-hop and up-and-surging Korean pop music, too.
Both 9th Wonder and Feaster spoke to the unique and enduring relationship that the National Basketball Association has with hip-hop music and culture. Of all the relationships between sports and music highlighted, basketball and rap seem to be the most consistently intertwined, and the sports world has started to recognize its athletes' musical interests and abilities.
Featster's favorite recent anecdote related to this crossover is how rising Sacramento Kings star Marvin Bagley III - who is also a gifted emcee - has access to a full recording studio in the Golden 1 Center, the team's home arena. This is one of the many ways both industries are seeing growth together in each other's home courts.
"My job is to help artists and musicians become their best versions of themselves," Feaster added.
In fact, Bagley's passion for hip-hop was likely inspired by Feaster's fellow panelist, 9th Wonder. The Jamla Records head and veteran hip-hop producer is also a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, where Bagley attended school (and 9th Wonder's classes) for two years until 2018.
In his opening remarks, Wonder tied the sustaining connection between hip-hop and music to the genre's mid-1970s roots, and how hip-hop started in the Bronx at the same time that the legendary Rucker street basketball tournament started in Harlem. From there, he noted that Nike's 1984 creation of the Air Jordan sneaker (and rappers cosigning both Jordan and his signature footwear) allowed for hip-hop to infiltrate the NBA ever since.
"The genre has taken over the culture," 9th Wonder says, admitting that even as the league grows more international in its appeal, it's still hip-hop that reigns supreme as an influence.
With hip-hop now five decades old, Wonder is impressed at the depth and scope of influence players find in not just modern rap, but of the appeal of the classics, too.
"When [Bagley's Sacramento Kings teammate] Jabari Parker attended Duke, we bonded over how much he loved A Tribe Called Quest, who were popular when I was his age." He continues. "And when I had Zion Williamson in my classes, we often spoke of how much he loved and was inspired by Jay-Z."
Through her work with the NBA and with Athletes For Obama, Feaster said she frequently discusses with players how difficult it is to feel like they "have the world's issues on their shoulders," an issue that uses both sports and music as its outlet.
By creating the best paths to sustain the development of mentally enriched and uniquely creative people, no matter which outlet they choose, we build a future where music and sports inspire people to be their best selves, and, ultimately, the culture and industry behind both worlds will also flourish.