There's no semblance of a barrier between professional athletes and rappers today, but that wasn't the case in 1994. Long before Ron Artest put out his own mixtape or Damian Lillard dominated #FourBarFridays, the NBA's biggest stars were only just beginning to tiptoe into the studio, with oft-disastrous but inevitably memorable results.
Hip-hop's Golden Age was coming to an end. Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre ruled the West Coast, Notorious B.I.G. was on the rise in New York, and Shaquille O'Neal had gone platinum with his debut record, 1993's Shaq Diesel, which, to be kind, has aged better than his acting career. And as basketball and hip-hop culture quickly converged, two music-industry newcomers decided to merge both at a mainstream level. B-Ball's Best Kept Secret was born.
The brainchild of James Andrews and Hutson Miller, the record had a simple but daunting premise: Pair aspiring-emcee NBA stars with actual hip-hop artists to record new rap songs. The pair convinced the L.A.-based Epic subsidiary Immortal Records to give them a $300,000 record budget; they offered the "b-ball" players as much as $25,000 to book a studio, hire their choice of collaborators, and complete a song.
The final product was awfully epic, or epically awful. In fact, before we go any further, let's just run through the track list.
1. Bamboo, "Hip Hop Basketball Genie"
2. Dana Barros, "Check It"
3. Malik Sealy, "Lost in the Sauce"
4. Shaquille O'Neal featuring Ill Al Skratch, "Mic Check 1-2"
5. Bobbito, "Earl the Goat"
6. Cedric Ceballos With Warren G., "Flow On"
7. Brian Shaw, "Anything Can Happen"
8. Chris Mills, "Sumptin' to Groove To"
9. Sway and Tech, "From the Bay to L.A."
10. Jason Kidd featuring Money B., "What the Kidd Didd"
11. J.R. Rider, "Funk in the Trunk"
12. Bobbito, "Phat Swoosh"
13. Dennis Scott, "All Night Party"
14. Gary Payton, "Livin' Legal and Large"
15. "D.J. S and S Represents"
16. Dana Barros and Cedric Ceballos featuring Diamond D, Grand Puba, A.G., and Sadat X, "Ya Don't Stop."
Yeah. Estimates vary, but B-Ball's Best Kept Secret sold a few hundred-thousand copies at best—a pittance by 1994 standards. Critics and initially sympathetic listeners ultimately dismissed the record, too, and often it's not hard to hear why when confronted with, for example, Seattle Supersonics point guard Gary Payton boasting about owning a beeper and a $50,000 car on "Livin' Legal and Large."
Or who can forget former Orlando Magic forward Dennis Scott's nocturnal anthem, "All Night Party?" Over a laid-back groove filled with vinyl pops, the current Atlanta Hawks radio analyst makes plenty of nods to Dom Perignon, single ladies, and ... parties.
And then there's Jason Kidd, then a bright-eyed 21-year-old Dallas Mavericks rookie who gamely brags about doling out assists like a "high school tutor" and hitting "the strip in a drop 500 Benzito" over a laid-back G-Funk beat on the Deadspin-beloved classic "What the Kidd Didd." No, not a Mercedes Benz convertible couple, but a Benzito, with—wait for it—a "phat two-seato." This track has not aged quite as well as Shaq Diesel; it remains a reliable source of embarrassment for Kidd even today.
Despite its shortcomings, some less-mortified contributors contend that this project was somewhat misunderstood. Shaq and Malik Sealy weren't exceptional rappers, but they held their own here. And for others, the record offered a rare moment of genuine artistic catharsis. Then a guard for the Miami Heat, current Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw remembers devouring hip-hop in his youth, from thrilling to "Rapper's Delight" on his transistor radio to idolizing Run D.M.C. and N.W.A. Reminiscing to me now, he recalls regularly freestyling during bus rides, team flights, and locker-room lulls, though he'd never had the patience to actually write down any of his lyrics.
But then came B-Ball's Best Kept Secret, which inadvertently helped him cope with a personal tragedy. In 1993, Shaw's parents and sister died in a single-car crash—his father had fallen asleep at the wheel driving from Brian's Oakland hometown to Las Vegas. Reeling from the loss, Shaw found himself watching Payton record his own song and weighing an offer to try it himself after a label exec noticed him freestyling. The eventual result was "Anything Can Happen."
In sharp contrast to all the Benzito talk surrounding it, Shaw here pays tribute to his family while candidly expressing his pain. "I remember when I heard the news / I flash / I can't cope / I'm losing my brain," he raps. He also used an extended billiards metaphor to describe his life's struggles: "Manipulate the white ball in order to win / Take care of your own and save the eight ball for the end."
"That was the first and only time I had ever written some lyrics down," Shaw says now. "I used to rap about what was on the billboard on the freeway while driving. I had a pool table in my game room, and I correlated that to the life lessons."
Another player-rapper who remembers the project more fondly is Dana Barros, then a Philadelphia 76ers point guard who'd long been obsessed with EMPD, Brand Nubians, and other underground East Coast rappers. In college, he regularly DJ'ed in his Boston College dorm room, cut tapes on his four-track, and hawked his music in the streets. When Barros heard about the project, he immediately jumped at the chance.
"Athletes want to be musicians, and musicians want to be athletes," he says now. "There's a crossover culture between the two. It was something I always wanted to do, but was afraid to put music out myself."
His transition to a professional studio was rough. In sharp contrast to his DIY tapes, Barros immediately heard the sonic flaws of his vocal delivery on "Check It," in part because he was recording with professional-grade microphones instead of his trusted four-track. He attempted countless takes, mostly due to his perfectionist tendencies. But, eventually, his lyrics emerged over French hip-hop producer Lucien M'Baidem's beat:
Mad dough's what I made when I played
Crossover? Hell no, Dana B's paid
I stay strapped, mad brothers wanna step to this
My 850 BMW's hard to miss
I'm 'bout to blast like a homicidal psychopath
The odyssey's a part of me, I can't resist
My mentality is loco, want some of this?
Somehow, "Check It" wound up as the whole record's lead single, garnering Barros limited B.E.T. airtime with, per above, a video that cut from an ominous, smoke-filled alley to showcases of his crossover-dribbling technique. He also got to cut the album's closing track, "Ya Don't Stop," with L.A. Lakers forward Cedric Ceballos, Brand Nubian rappers Grand Puba and Sadat X, and Grammy-winning producer Diamond D.
Like many hip-hop artists, Diamond D grew up playing basketball in the streets of Bronx; looking back now, he says he knew that pro rappers and pro athletes had a longstanding mutual respect for each other. Barros agrees that certainly helped in this instance: The "Ya Don't Stop" recording session mostly ran smoothly, especially when Ceballos wasn't saying "some old slick shit" about the others' rhymes, as Diamond D recalled in a Complex interview. Barros adds that at one point, Grand Puba and Sadat X pressed him for a list of basketball phrases; once satisfied, they disappeared into another room and, about 20 minutes later, came back with the song's full lyrics in hand. They rhymed "top of the key" with "shoot the three" and name-checked John Wooden and Muggsy Bogues, and that's just for starters.
From diggin' in the crates to fast breaks
Just pass the rock because I got what it takes
Layups to tracks, dunks to raps
I've got that ill stuff, no-look pass behind the back.
Hip-hop and hoopin', it's all the same
You gotta use your head, always stay in the game.
Mind-frame focus, you can't bombard me
Through the air like Michael, so why you trying to guard me?
Two decades later, B-Ball's Best Kept Secret is relatively worthless; I bought a new copy on Amazon for $3, including shipping, whereas a used copy can be yours for a single penny. The players involved may mostly laugh at it now, but they stop short of dismissing it as an outright novelty, even if Kidd did tell the New York Times that he'd never rap again given the results, especially after Mark Cuban blared the song over the P.A. during a pre-game warm-up at a Mavericks game in 2008.
Shaw, who keeps a copy of the album on his phone, admits that he'll occasionally play it to get a laugh out of Kidd or Payton when they cross paths. But he also insists that even at the time, nobody involved had any illusions about finding greater success. "Shaq was the only one that had a rap career in doing that," he says. "We weren't trying to replace anyone as a rapper. Some songs were fun; mine was serious, given what I had gone through with my family. Everybody's songs represented who they were."
Barros ultimately thinks the project was simply before its time. "If you had an album like that now with the internet, it would be crazy," he says. "It influenced people. A lot of athletes now have record labels or production companies." Plus, he still hears about his raps from kids playing in his local gym's AAU league.
As for Diamond D, he isn't quite sure if B-Ball's Best Kept Secret should be remembered for its importance, its absurdity, or a little bit of both. "But don't get it twisted," he tells me. "Because there are plenty of ballplayers who can spit."
Max Blau is a staff writer for Creative Loafing who lives in Atlanta. A former editor for Paste Magazine, he has contributed to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Grantland, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, and other publications. You can find him on Twitter at @MaxBlau.
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