Basketball and hip-hop have had a tight-knit relationship since the inception of the genre. Because the Bearcats boasted such a ferocious brand of basketball during hip-hop’s golden era in the ’90s, there are traces of UC throughout rap music, starting in the mid-’90s and stretching for the next decade or so.
Occasionally I’ll stumble across a song with a Nick Van Exel reference. I finally decided enough is enough and set out to catalogue (some) instances of Bearcats popping up in rap music. The number of Nick The Quick name drops blew me away. I eventually had to cut it off.
The MVPs of this exercise are: Hi-Tek, who elicited two references to the Bearcats in general, not even a specific player. (Major props.) Jay Z, who worked Van Exel into a massive single and K-Mart into a mixtape track. Paul Wall, who somehow worked a K-Mart reference into each of his first two albums.
Dr. Dre rocking a C Paw in an episode of “Yo! MTV Raps.”
This list doesn’t include all of the references I found. I ignored some that were either too random, to0 lame, or too… vulgar.
[Note: The following music contains explicit lyrics. Heads up.]
Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek) — “Name of the Game”
Guess what? You could be coppin’ that
Nkiru Books for fifteen dollars flat
Cats who spit knowledge on tracks
And get bumped out the back of Impalas and Cadillacs
All my live Cincinnati Bearcats holla back
Released in October 2001, Train of Thought was a collaboration album between Cincinnati native Hi-Tek and Talib Kweli, a legendary hip-hop artist with roots in the Queen City. The album dropped two weeks before #1 draft pick Kenyon Martin’s NBA debut and a month before the #18 Bearcats started the 2000–01 season in Clifton.
[rapped by Talib Kweli — appears at :51]
Hi-Tek — “Money Don’t Make U Rich” (ft. Xzibit & Strong Arm Steady)
And I ain’t whistlin’, Dixie; this is Hi-Teknology wit me
You couldn’t find a finer designer to tailor fit me
To be, yeah ya n-gga Tone, Cincinnati’s own
Hometown favorite like the Bearcats run the zone
On the six-year anniversary of Train of Thought, Hi-Tek returned in with Hi-Teknology²: The Chip, the sequel to his solo debut. The project received strong reviews across the board, and the opening verse on the tenth track shouted out the Bearcats.
[rapped by Phil Da Agony — appears at :55]
Jay Z — “The Game Iz Mine”
50/50, you know how I handle mine
A nickel for you, give me my dime
Tell Paul Fireman, I got ’em on fire man
He ain’t been this hot since A.I. was signed
Now a n-gga talkin’ to Kenyon Martin
Shawn Marion, sh-t I might be startin’
As far as I can tell, “The Game Iz Mine” (sometimes referred to as “Lookin’ At My S Dots” because of its origins as a radio commercial for Jay Z’s tennis shoe) was a 2004 mixtape track. A high quality version of the song surfaced in April, but only the old version contains the second verse — and the Kenyon Martin line. Jay Z’s goofy shoes were made by Reebok, hence the corny reference to owner Paul Fireman, who sold the company to Adidas two years after this song was written.
[rapped by Jay Z — appears at :34]
Raekwon — “You Might Die” (ft. Doo Wop)
And now he Crip walking, I ain’t just talking
I do this thing often, ask Kenyon Martin
Last week, I gave his team a bone
And told him, ‘Take this with you to Boston’
(The kid’s awesome)
Wu Tang’s Raekwon released the first volume of The Vatican Mixtape in February 2007, right in the middle of Kenyon Martin’s lost season. That year in Denver, K-Mart played just two games before undergoing his second microfracture knee surgery in 18 months. He missed the remainder of the 2006–07 season for the Nuggets.
I need to say that I think Raekwon is stretching the truth in this tale. In the 2006–07 season, the Nuggets did play back-to-back games in Boston and Raekwon’s hometown of NYC. However, the Boston game was before the New York game, meaning if Rae caught up with Kenyon in New York, he had just come from Boston, not the other way around.
Sorry to blow the lid off of this one.
[rapped by Raekwon — appears at 1:28]
Paul Wall — “Know What I’m Talkin’ About”
If I see it, I want it
If I buy it, I flaunt it
A Kenyon Martin high school jersey
worth at least five hundred
Ignoring the fact that this guy named his debut album Chick Magnet, Paul Wall earns cool points for his admiration of Kenyon Martin. Retro jerseys were all the rage in the early 2000s, and this ’04 track brags about a K-Mart Bryan Adams High School jersey.
[rapped by Paul Wall — appears at :39]
Lil Wayne — “Momma Taught Me”
You don’t need me, you might catch cancer
Come back from treatment looking like Van Exel
Lil Wayne is a sports reference master, even appearing on ESPN occasionally to argue with people like Skip Bayless. In December 2005, he was working on the early stages of his era of dominance, and released the first installation of his critically-acclaimed Dedication series.
That year, Nick Van Exel was on the last leg of his career, playing just 15 minutes per game in his farewell with the San Antonio Spurs. In a way only Lil Wayne can, he rhymes “cancer” with “Van Exel” before comparing the bald Bearcat to a patient in chemotherapy.
Hey, at least it wasn’t the unprintable line Nicki Minaj dropped about Lance Stephenson in 2014 or the line about an early ’90s player’s criminal past that I didn’t have the heart to include here.
[rapped by Lil Wayne — appears at 1:53]
Beyonce — “Crazy In Love” (ft. Jay Z)
O.G. big homie, the one and only
Stick bony, but the pockets is fat like Tony —
Soprano. The ROC handle like Van Exel
I shake phonies, man, you can’t get next to —
Ask your average Bearcat fan to come up with a song containing a reference to a UC player, and this is probably the one you’ll get. Beyonce’s very first single in 2003 featured a guest verse from then-boyfriend Jay Z, and he threw the lob to the former Bearcat.
In was Jay’s first of two references to Bearcats in as many years. The single sold 2.3 million copies in the US alone, a much better look for Van Exel than the aforementioned Lil Wayne lyric.
[rapped by Jay Z — appears at 2:05]
The Pharcyde — “The Hustle”
Gettin’ twisted out of shape like a pretzel
Comin’ with more crossover appeal than Van Exel
In November 1995, The Pharcyde released Labcabincalifornia, their second album. The influential alternative hip-hop group was based in Los Angeles, where Van Exel was playing for the Lakers at the time.
[rapped by Randy Mac — appears at 2:25]
Public Enemy — “LSD”
Make it plain, the sound remains insane
Come the same, no holes closin’ up the lane
Don’t ask no questions on that simple level
Can the Magic get Shaq back, Knicks get Van Exel?
Even if you don’t know who Public Enemy is, you know who Flavor Flav is. In July 1999, the group was already on their seventh studio album, There’s a Poison Goin’ On. On the album’s third track, hip-hop godfather Chuck D mentions Van Exel in the same line as Shaq, which is pretty cool.
[rapped by Chuck D — appears at 2:13]
Kirko Bangz — “What It Do” (ft. Wale)
But it’s some of them that give us hope
Sniper Jones and Ty Law, if I can name a few
Sam Young and James White, my n-gga, what it do
So I’m the only one to do it without throwing ‘oops
Like I said with Lil Wayne, Wale is one of the best when it comes to sports references, probably because he got a football scholarship to FCS Robert Morris. 2013’s “What It Do” sees him recognizing stars from his hometown of Washington D.C. Sniper Jones (Kevin Durant), Ty Lawson, Sam Young, and former Bearcat James White are all from the DC area.
[rapped by Wale — appears at 2:03]
Kurtis Blow — “Basketball”
I used to go to dinner, then take the girl
To see Tiny play against Earl The Pearl
And Wilt, Big O, and Jerry West
Play basketball at it’s very best
Years before Lil Bow Wow remixed it for the blockbuster classic Like Mike, this track by hip-hop forefather Kurtis Blow gave a shoutout to the pioneers of a different game — basketball. Along with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West was Bearcat Oscar Robertson.
[rapped by Kurtis Blow — appears at :56 — thanks to Twitter]
Think I missed a good one? As always, tell me I’m an idiot and then let me know.