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Monday, August 15, 2022

Kurtis Blow (above) was one of the first commercially successful rappers thanks to hits like "The Breaks," "Christmas Rappin'," and of course, "Basketball."

An analysis of Kurtis Blow’s 'Basketball'

As we hurtle towards a NCAA basketball season like none before it, analysts and beat writers are sharpening their basketball senses by watching old film, reading up on new players, checking stats and box scores from last year and finalizing their season previews. Everyone watches and reads to get ready for the season, but who truly listens to prepare?

Me. I do. Joe Rickles, Sports Editor and men’s basketball beat writer for The Daily Cardinal. Confused? Let me explain.

Music and basketball are forever intertwined; specifically, hip-hop and basketball. Rappers haven’t been shy to name-drop their favorite athletes or teams, whether it’s Kanye West mentioning LeBron James or the Beastie Boys referencing Anthony Mason (RIP). There’s even the song that tells the story of how former Backstreet Boy Aaron Carter beat 15-time NBA All-Star Shaquille O’Neal in a game of one-on-one, which to this day is nothing short of traumatizing. 

Basketball and hip-hop grew together in the 1980s; as the foundations of hip-hop were laid out by Bronx natives like Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc, the NBA was truly breaking into the mainstream with Magic Johnson & Larry Bird. The NBA wasn’t unpopular beforehand, but, for reference, it wasn’t until 1986 that the NBA Finals were shown live rather than on tape-delay.

The year was 1984, the air was crisp (probably, I wasn't there), spirits were high (again, probably) and the NBA was looking good with the Magic/Bird rivalry in full swing. Bird was the Most Valuable Player, Michael Jordan was the Rookie of the Year and the Knicks, even with a rookie Patrick Ewing, went 24-58 — some things never change. 

And then, one fateful day in the Bronx, hip-hop godfather Kurtis Blow decided to absolutely bless the world with, in my opinion, the greatest song of all-time in the aptly-titled, “Basketball.”

Blow was an expert in selling his music before most hip-hop artists were. Most historians will tell you that Blow was one of the first commercially-successful rappers and one of the first to sign to a record label. He was one of the first true originators of hip-hop to take the genre from parties in the Bronx to the recording studio — emphasis on “true” because the Sugar Hill Gang are frauds. 

I mention this because, well, you can tell the superiority in every note while listening to Blow’s music. He incorporates old-school hip-hop style with parts of pop music that, by design or not, make his music a lot more marketable. Songs like “The Breaks” and “Christmas Rappin" use classic tropes and repetition, and it’s no coincidence that those are two of his most popular songs.

But alas, no matter how much I pine to describe the arts, I’ve been cursed to be a sportswriter. So let’s dive into “Basketball.” I’ll try to stop myself from going line-by-line since I don’t want my EICs and Copy Chiefs to hate me more than they already will for my overly-long analysis.

The masterpiece begins with a beautiful chorus of women explaining exactly what they are doing (playing basketball) and what “we” love (that basketball). Who is this unnamed “they?” Hoopers? Rappers? Just everyone in general? We might never know. That’s the contiguous beauty and mystery of Kurtis Blow. 

I gotta shift back to Music Writer Joe for a second. The instrumental here is untouchable. The chorus shifts from acapella to a simple boom-clap beat, followed by the hi-hats and a snare drum so wet it would make Cardi B jealous. Blow slaps you in the face again with some staccato electric guitar chords higher than Joe Rogan and brings it all together with some kind of synth-bass that you probably couldn’t find after 1993. It is impossible not to bob your head to the song.

So you listen to the intro, and you’re probably like, wow, this is a really good song. And then you hear from your speakers, which should be absolutely pounding by this point, “now rapping ‘Basketball,’ number one: Kurtis Blow,” and it gets TEN TIMES BETTER.

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“Basketball is my favorite sport/I like the way they dribble up and down the court” is the most perfect introduction to any song in human history. You already knew the song was gonna be about basketball, but now you know why it exists: because Kurtis loves basketball! Who doesn’t? Deep down, even @carol194803420 on Twitter who swore off the NBA because it got “too political” loves basketball. There goes Mr. Blow with an ultra-relatable statement right off the bat. 

But, says the philosopher in you, why do we love basketball? Why is it our favorite sport? Well, Mr. Blow’s got you covered there too. For him, at least, the way they dribble up and down the court? Impeccable. Beautiful. Artistic. I could go on, but this is on pace to be five thousand words, so let's keep it moving. 

The whole first verse is just so wholesome. It’s nothing but Kurtis Blow telling us everything he loves about basketball. He “likes slam dunks,” sure, but the best play? In his eyes, it’s the alley-oop, no question. But don’t confuse Blow for some of these kids nowadays who only care about flashiness and athleticism; he’s got respect for the fundamentals, too. “I like the pick n’ roll, I like the give n’ go / ‘cause it’s basketball with Mr. Kurtis Blow,” he says. This kind of respect for fundamentals might get the 61 year-old Blow a contract with Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks. Lord knows they need a point guard.

By now, you’re probably thinking, “wow, this is a great song, but we’re already a minute and a half in so it’s going to be over soon.” Well, buddy, do I have news for you. We’ve got FIVE MORE MINUTES of musical mastery filled with Mr. Blow’s greatest memories of basketball players in the 60s, 70s and 80s. 

Mr. Blow reminisces on the days when he would “go to dinner and then take the girl / to see Tiny [Archibald] play against Earl the Pearl [Monroe].” Maybe I’m just jealous because when basketball games were a thing, I’d usually go to dinner at some Irish pub on 33rd Street with my dad and then see Mindaugas Kuzminskas play against Dennis Schroeder at MSG, where I’d learn new curse words from my greasy-haired older cousin. So seeing two hall-of-famers duke it out, especially when the Knicks were good, sounds like a dream. Kurtis Blow, you lucky son of a gun.

After a verse where Blow lists off players' names and their skills the same way white grandparents describe baseball games in the 1950s — y’know, back when you could get into Shea for three nickels — we get the ad-libs. They make the song. Honestly, they are the song. That wacky synth-bass thing only gets wackier when you get a clean “huh-huh-ho, huh-huh” followed by “to the hoop, y’all.” At one point Blow seems to forget there’s a song going on, his own song, just to cross up some fool that tried to check him. The man just goes “alright, here we go, d-up, in yo face … swishhhhhhh” like it’s nothing. I hope the poor sucker who tried Mr. Blow took off his Converses and got a desk job after a humiliation like that.

Blow’s third verse is a magnum opus within a masterpiece within a tour de force. He shames his lame, casual listeners for not picking up basketball before, asking if they were “in the joint” for some of basketball’s most historic moments. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game and back-to-back titles for Bill Russell’s Celtics, when they notably “didn’t give nobody no kind of slack,” came first. Some arena organ sounds come in out of nowhere and he asks about when Dr. J shook the whole damn team WITH MOVES THAT CAME RIGHT OUT OF A DREAM, OR WHEN WILLIS REED STOOD SO TALL PLAYING D WITH DESIRE THAT’S BASKETBALL! 

[No quotes there because that was me rapping along. It’s impossible not to.]

The song’s final verse closes with some more flawless ad-libs and some more wholesomeness about how much Mr. Blow enjoys playing one-on-one with his friends and watching hoops with the fellas. Honestly, there’s nothing else you need in this world.

At this point, the song has peaked and is coming down. The song shifts into a skit of sorts. A group of guys talking about their favorite basketball players and teams. Someone who brings up the Knicks gets (understandably) brushed over very quickly. The usual. 

I like this part because they basically just recite the song as a conversation with the homies. Like, the same song. Same players mentioned, same teams. But now it’s just a thirty-second conversation between Kurtis and the gang. And just like that, the song tapers off into silence, because they hadn't yet figured out hard cuts and could only fade-out.

I think this ending part really gets the point across that Mr. Blow is an incredible showman; sure, he could have told you everything he wanted to in one quick conversation, but instead he made it a five-minute banger. For you. For me. For us. For the world. Thank you, Kurtis Blow. 

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