Basketball Beef Spills Over into Rap World

The NBA finals are a rematch of one of the great basketball rivalries: the Celtics vs. the Lakers. But for Youth Radio's Brandon McFarland, the great rivalry of this season isn't in the finals, it's the dust-up between DeShawn Stevenson and LeBron James — and their rap proxies, Soulja Boy and Jay-Z.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Celtics-Lakers match-up maybe historic but this season Youth Radio's Brandon McFarland has had his eye on a very different basketball rivalry.

Mr. BRANDON McFARLAND (Youth Radio): It was a highly forgettable player who sparked the first sport's rap bet.

(Soundbite of NBA telecast)

Mr. MARV ALBERT (Announcer): Stevenson for three, and finally he hits a shot...

Mr. McFARLAND: After this game in March, the Washington Wizards' DeShawn Stevenson dared to say that Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James is overrated. Now, on the surface, this just seems like barbershop talk, but consider the source. Stevenson's season average is about 11 points per game. LeBron James routinely clocks about 30. So naturally he couldn't leave Stevenson's challenge unanswered. James compared himself to Jay-Z, who's sometimes called the best rapper alive. Then he compared Stevenson to one-hit wonder Soulja Boy.

(Soundbite of song, "Crank Dat")

SOULJA BOY (Artist): (Singer) Soulja Boy off in this hoe. Watch me lean and watch me rock. Superman dat hoe then watch me crank dat Robocop.

MR. McFARLAND: Next thing you know, there's Soulja Boy sitting courtside at playoff Game Three, between the Cavs and the Wizards. His song "Crank Dat" blared to the stadium at half time.

(Soundbite of song, "Crank Dat")

Mr. McFARLAND: The very next day, Jay-Z himself came with the slam dunk.

(Soundbite of song)

JAY-Z (Rapper): (Singing) ...LeBron, it's so big we ain't gonna respond. When you're talking to a don, please have respect like you're talking to your mom.

Mr. McFARLAND: Jay-Z made a disc track in defense of his homey LeBron and debuted it at a D.C. night club.

(Soundbite of song)

JAY-Z: (Singing) I gotta keep it real, it's going take seven movies by Will. Seven movies at 20 mil, then you still (unintelligible) don't compare me to nobody. I'd rather not be mentioned. I'm offended unless you talking (unintelligible) James Dean or John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix.

Mr. McFARLAND: Now, you may think this sounds like one bad crossover move. Jay-Z the rapper is too established to be involving himself in petty baller beat. But Jay-Z the businessman knows that controversy sells, be it albums or stadium seats. And as part owner of the New Jersey Nets, it's a smart business move to use your rap credentials to defend the best player in the league.

(Soundbite of song)

JAY-Z: (Singing) I don't even know your name, too big for you to rap LeBron James.

Mr. McFARLAND: So what does LeBron James get out of all this rabble rousing? Well, Jay-Z, also known as Jigga, enhances his superstardom, just like guesting on "SNL" or his Eddie Murphy-esque shoe commercials. Patrick Johnson hosts a sports music radio show called (unintelligible). He says LeBron James is part of the new school of hoopers who've come up in the post-Michael Jordan era, when you're not just a player, you're a brand.

Mr. PATRICK JOHNSON (Radio Host): Really, he's seeing himself as being a huge multi-media mogul. And I think that is probably one of the reasons why he hangs out with folks like Jigga, you know, that he has understood from a very early age that sports is simply entertainment and it's part of this huge entertainment industry.

Mr. McFARLAND: And a sports rap battle like this one is much better entertainment than when ballers and rappers try to do each other's jobs, like Master P's terrible performance playing for the Hornets, or Shaquille O'Neal's entire rap career.

Fans of both basketball and hip-hop were lighting up the music blogs over this one, and you can't buy that kind of buzz. Perhaps this whole affair is best summed up by Jay-Z himself.

(Soundbite of song)

JAY-Z: (Singing) I'm not businessman, I'm business, man.

Mr. McFARLAND: I'm not a businessman; I'm a business, man.

For NPR News, I'm Brandon McFarland.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Brandon McFarland's story was produced by Youth Radio.

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