Mike Tyson, NWA, Raiders and Allen Iverson: Celebrating 50 years of hip hop and its special bond with sport

As hip hop celebrates its 50th anniversary on August 11, Sky Sports’ Cam Hogwood explores how it has become intertwined with the world of sport. From Mike Tyson ring walks, to NWA’s relationship with the Raiders, to Allen Iverson’s pioneering influence in the NBA.


Jay Z spoke of Tyson, Jordan and Game 6. Drake went from six to 23 like LeBron. Nas slammed beats like the Iron Sheik. Kendrick Lamar ran the game like Walter Payton. 50 Cent was like Ali in his prime. And Snoop Dog saw Venus and Serena, in the Wimbledon Arena.

On August 11, 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the west Bronx, New York City, an 18-year-old Clive Campbell, known as DJ Kool Herc, played to his largest crowd yet while emceeing at a back-to-school party thrown by him and his younger sister. He operated simultaneously across two turntables, mastering a revolutionary technique he would call the “The Merry-Go-Round” whereby he played two copies of the same record in order to move quickly between the percussive ‘breakbeats’ and extend the instrumental sections in which he had noticed more people took to the dancefloor. The ‘breakbeats’ would often be occupied by break dancers – hence today’s ‘b-boys’.

It has dressed up and amplified the pageantry of major events, it has fuelled fashion and cultural trends, it has served as a leading voice and educator of African American oppression and as a global platform for social activism.

Skee-Lo wished he was a baller, and a little bit taller, while Ice Cube messed around and got a triple-double. Lords of the Underground “hurdled over rappers like Jackie Joyner-Kersee”, Akon wore gold chains around his neck “like Michael Phelps”, Kanye West saw Lionel Messi playing in his backyard.

In his song ‘Blood Sport’ alone Kendrick Lamar references Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant, Earl Boykins, Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues, Sam Cassell, Nick Van Exel, Shawn Kemp, Robert Parish, John Salley, the Boston Celtics, Larry Bird and Vince Carter of the NBA, followed by Walter Payton, Peyton Manning, Ray Buchanan, Morton Anderson, William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry, Barry Sanders, John Madden, Deion Sanders, Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia, Warren Sapp, Warrick Dunn and Michael Irvin of the NFL, as well as Ken Griffey, Mike Piazza and Nolan Ryan of baseball. He proclaims himself the “Jeff Gordon of recording” in reference to the four-time NASCAR Series champion, and states that “I am Tony Hawk if I was skateboarding”.

The same bond would come to fruition on the British rap scene, where Stormzy, who has incorporated elements of hip hop into his work despite his primary genre of grime being distinctively different – embodied that relationship in September 2022 by featuring Jose Mourinho, Usain Bolt, Dina Asher-Smith and Ian Wright in the music video for his song ‘Mel Made Me Do It’. Long before then Dizzee Rascal had featured alongside James Corden in England’s unofficial World Cup song ‘Shout’, while Tinie Tempah’s track ‘Written in the Stars’ was used as the official theme for Wrestlemania XXVII as well as the New York Giants’ entrance at Super Bowl XLVI.

Hip hop could romanticise sport with its own unique form of analysis, championing the escapism of bowing to the best’s ability to do things with a ball or a bat the average listener could only dream of. It could remove the arrogance of a pedestal and instead celebrate the existence of unassailable talent. And sport could offer its services back as one of world’s most fiercely-supported industries, Netflix’s Paralympics documentary ‘Rising Phoenix’ underlining as much with a soundtrack produced solely by disabled hip hop artists from the movement ‘Krip-Hop’.

Little did Herc know what a catalyst event one party in the Bronx would prove to be.

Hip Hop became ingrained within sport forever, covering all bases in the process.

‘Straight Outta Compton’
The NFL’s Raiders would emerge as an unofficial symbol for West Coast hip hop in the late 80s and 90s following the team’s relocation from Oakland to Los Angeles under owner Al Davis. It was there where the group NWA – made up of Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella – sought to front the realities of gang violence and police brutality in Los Angeles at the time, famously wearing the team’s Silver and Black apparel as they bridged the gap between the franchise and the community it had joined.

From the team’s pirate logo, the mean-streak connotations of its iconic colour scheme and its gritty identity, to the hardship experienced within Compton at the time, to NWA’s mission to challenge the system – there became a natural synergy and belonging. Merchandise sales rocketed and such was the unerring spotlight on football that the eyes of the world were finally being opened to the problems prevalent in South Central Los Angeles.

“To me, they were always known as the bad boys of the NFL,” Ice Cube once said. “It was some kind of crazy synergy.”

Certain members of the Raiders later questioned the negative publicity surrounding NWA and its link back to the team. The group aimed to tear down the cloak and expose the systemic issues their neighbourhoods faced along with the prejudiced hierarchies both inflicting and neglecting them. It came with conflict, it came with, occasionally ugly, fallout. But even today the Raiders and NWA remain proudly synonymous with one another.

Three decades later, Dr Dre spearheaded history when he, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and Anderson .Paak united to stage the first ever all-hip hop Super Bowl half-time show as the Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals in SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles in February 2022. It averaged 103.4 million viewers, higher than the Super Bowl game, and later became the first Super Bowl half-time show ever to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Special (Live).

American leadership had feared hip hop, its messages, its influence, its reach. And to an extent, certain groups and individuals consumed by ideologies of the past still do today. Here they watched on as Kendrick Lamar performed his song ‘Alright’ in which he references policy brutality; a song that had also previously been chanted during Black Lives Matter protests around the country. Here they watched on as Eminem closed out his set by taking a knee in solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had endured fierce and narrow-minded opposition after kneeling during pre-game renditions of the national anthem in peaceful protest against police brutality and racial discrimination in 2015. The NFL declined to support him at the time, and would later apologise for doing so; here was one of the greatest artists of his generation recognising Kaepernick’s cause and his own sacrifice before the world during the league’s showpiece extravaganza.

Behind the scenes, Jay Z has been pulling the strings as a producer for the Super Bowl half-time show since 2019, immediate vindication coming via the celebration of Latin culture through Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s bedazzling performance in 2020. His hand in football also extends beyond creation and into the business side, with the New York rapper’s Roc Nation talent agency representing the likes of New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball.

‘Can’t be touched’
Boxing’s ring walk and its embrace of the theatrics had meanwhile emerged as something of an outlet for the role of hip hop in competition, pairing the toils of combat sport with the rap to which many fighters would train and live by.

Hip hop was present for one of boxing’s most iconic scenes in 1999 as Mike Tyson returned from his ban for biting Evander Holyfield, the former undisputed world heavyweight champion strolling into his comeback fight against Francois Brotha to ‘Intro’ from DMX’s ‘It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot’ album amid a chilling atmosphere at MGM Grand.

Tyson had also been close friends with the late great Tupac Shakur. In March 1996 he walked out for his fight against Frank Bruno to the rapper’s ‘Road to Glory’ and in September 1996 entered his clash with Bruce Seldon to Tupac’s ‘Let’s Get It On’, hours after which Shakur was fatally shot before passing away six days later.

Fast forward to 2007 and a sombrero-donning Floyd Mayweather made his famous ring-walk against Oscar De La Hoya accompanied by a rapping 50 Cent in Las Vegas, where the unbeaten champion would win by split decision to clinch the WBC light middleweight belt. As it goes, he and 50 Cent would later fall out.

DMX had a knack for great ring-walk tracks, Jadakiss’ ‘The Champ Is Here’ spoke for itself as a fight anthem upon being released in 2004, and Roy Jones Jr’s ‘Can’t Be Touched’ presented itself as something of the quintessential crossover between boxing and rap. In June, Claressa Shields marked her Michigan homecoming fight against Maricela Cornejo by walking to the ring with Detroit rapper Kash Doll. And in July, Terence Bud Crawford preceded his victory over Errol Spence Jr to become undisputed champion by walking out with Eminem to the sound of ‘Lose Yourself’, boxing royalty in its own right.

Hip hop could parade the spectacle and the spirit of sport unlike anything else, Wu-Tang Clan once using their song ‘M.G.M’ to fantasise a sought-after but never fulfilled rematch between Julio Chavez and Pernell Whittaker.

Some will still argue hip hop began with the great Muhammad Ali, whose lyrical eloquence with lines such as “Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee. You can’t hit what your eyes don’t see” combined with his trademark peacocking shuffle in evoking the kind of rap and dance battles DJ Herc’s back-to-school party would be credited with igniting. He was also an era-defining voice whose expression of his views on race, politics and religion would later be mirrored in hip hop music and its depiction of discrimination.

“I’m 6ft one and I’m tons of fun and I dress to a T. You see I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali and I dress so viciously,” said SugarHill Gang in their song Rapper’s Delight.

You will stumble across more than one Ali reference throughout the history of music.

The AI impact
Where hip hop may have elevated and enhanced sport in many instances, Allen Iverson in many ways personified a permeating stage for hip hop in the NBA. Iverson, AI as he would be known, was a vehicle-driving strand of hip hop to some.

The 11-time All-Star and one-time league MVP became a face for the black inner-city communities devoid of opportunity and facing poverty in deprived neighbourhoods. He was an inspiring beacon of empathy and representation for the social issues that had become a prominent theme in hip hop music.

Iverson channelled hip hop’s willingness to push boundaries and celebrate its communities of origin with his on-court crossover flair and distinctive clothing. He ruffled the feathers of suited-and-booted rule makers and norm-huggers with his baggy clothes and chains, daring to showcase his identity enough to scare them into a uniform rule change in 2005. When he appeared with cornrows in his hair, black children across America rushed to copy him; when he began wearing a sleeve on one arm due to bursitis in his right elbow, children across America rushed to copy him. Iverson even released his own rap album, famously to the disapproval of then-NBA Commissioner David Stern.

He was often painted as a thug by critics, with as much underlining the messages of hip hop with regards to the powers that be and their out-of-touch relationship with the communities and livelihoods in question.

“I like ballin, I cut back like Mike Jordan,
“This is for y’all while I’m spittin literatures
“Lyrics’ll ball like Allen Iverson dribble the ball,” said Rakim in his song ‘How I Get Down’.

There may be no sports league quite as closely connected to hip hop than the NBA, Drake once alluding to the notion that the superstars of rap wanted to be the superstars of basketball and vice-versa.

“Basketball is hip-hop. Hip-hop is basketball,” artist Quavo told Sports Illustrated in 2019. “It’s no way hip-hop would be around without basketball.”

In 2016 seven-time All-Star guard Damian Lillard released his debut rap album featuring Lil Wayne and Jamie Foxx, and has since worked on three more in which he also collaborated with Snoop Dogg and Jeremih. Elsewhere Lil Wayne has a song entitled ‘Kobe Bryant’ in honour of the late five-time NBA champion, while J Cole compares Michael Jordan to Jesus in his track ‘I Got It’. And on the subject of Cole, his own talents on the court notably earned him contracts to play for Patriots Basketball Club in the Basketball Africa League in 2021 followed by the Scarborough Shooting Stars in the Canadian Elite Basketball League in 2022. Cole can ball.

On this side of the pond, British rapper AJ Tracey channelled his own love for basketball through his album Flu Game, which references the 1997 game between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz in which Michael Jordan steered his team to victory despite having food poisoning.

Usher is meanwhile part-owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, former Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams is a minority owner of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith are minority shareholders in the Philadelphia 76ers, and Ice Cube is the founder of an entire league in his Big3 competition.

Hip hop, along with cousins of hip hop, reigns as the dominant sound in today’s boxing gyms, reigns as the dominant sound in NFL practice sessions and so too during NBA and WNBA games. And 50 years on, the b-boys and b-girls that would fill DJ Kool Herc’s ‘breaks’ are about to be represented when break-dancing debuts at the 2024 Olympics Games in France.

Fifty years on, one is not one without the other.


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