Is Tony Parker’s musical debut merely another NBA vanity project or America’s introduction to French hip-hop?
It’s 2 a.m. on Saturday morning at the Black Super Bowl, aka NBA All-Star Weekend, and the Renaissance Hotel in Houston is ready to erupt.
Texas Longhorns icon Vince Young, the rapper Fabolous, Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria, and San Antonio Spurs back-up point-guard Beno Udrih are all in the house, and a melange of revelers packs the dance floor. On the wings, a throng of San Antonio media awkwardly does the white man’s shuffle.
|(Photos by Mark Greenberg)|
They’re all here to see one of the best basketball players in the world make his public debut as a French-language hip-hop emcee. Tony Parker, the Spurs’ lightning-quick point guard, couldn’t have picked a better time to throw his musical coming-out party. As David Aldridge of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently pointed out, there are few men on the planet who’ve had a better 12 months than Parker. He quarterbacked the Spurs to their second title in three years, became the envy of millions of TV-viewing American men by dating Longoria, and earned his first selection to the NBA All-Star Game. With an album tentatively set to drop in July, Parker could emerge as hoop-loving America’s gateway drug into French rap, or merely be the latest in a long line of professional athletes with musical vanity projects on their resumes.
On stage at the Renaissance, surrounded by a trio of scantily clad dancers and the rest of the Game Time Family, emcee/hype-man B.U. takes the mic in hand and in a booming voice announces the arrival of “the number one point gizzle in the NBizzle, Mr. Break Your Ankles, The Crossover King, akizzle Tony Pizzle.”
Parker enthusiastically rushes the stage decked out in baggy jeans, a fly black leather jacket, dark shades, and black ball cap flipped to the back in prototypical hip-hop fashion. His staggered flow, equal part boasts and toasts, initially charges the crowd, but as Parker moves from the intro to the opening cut something odd occurs. It is perhaps at this moment that most in the audience realize they can’t understand a word Parker is rhyming.
San Antonio producer Polygrafic’s Scott Storch-ian beat, rich in strings and bass, nestles the crowd back in but it really isn’t until Fabolous joins Parker to perform their single “Top Of The Game” that things really get crunk again. After the performance, I flag down a French reporter to ask his thoughts on Parker’s French rapping. He replies, “Was that French?”
“When you’re trying to bridge something that’s not only brand-new but in a foreign language, a lot of Americans don’t understand,” says B.U., the American ambassador of Parker’s Game Time Family. “It was the response I expected. I think they were fascinated with seeing Tony on stage, and fascinated with the fact that he was rapping in French. They were pleasantly surprised that he had good sounding music, and for the most part it got a great response. I think it may take a lot more to bridge French rap into America, but I think it was a good introduction. Now people understand that Tony’s serious about what he’s trying to do in the music business.”
Truth be told, William Anthony Parker doesn’t really need you to buy his debut album, whether it drops in July or September, in the same way other rap stars do. He’s 24 years old, has already led his team to two NBA championships, more than All-Star one-guards Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Gilbert Arenas, and Chauncey Billups combined, and he made $1,545,441 last year, just from the Spurs. Parker has acknowledged from the beginning of this project that he’s making hip-hop for the people in France. But don’t get it twisted, he’s working as hard on his music as he is on his quicksilver game.
On a sunny day in San Antonio, a few weeks before the All-Star Game, Parker is deep into a rehearsal within the dark confines of Club Antro as his father, Tony Parker Sr., watches. The elder Parker was a hoops standout at Loyola before finding success overseas. He played basketball in Holland, Belgium, and France, and met Tony Jr.’s mother in Holland. “Tony was born in Belgium and I ended up staying in France,” Parker Sr. says.
The smoke is heavy and lasers are prominent as Mr. Break Your Ankles steps to the stage, draped in a red-and-white Michael Jordan jersey. Initially, he spews common phrases like “turn my mic up a little bit” and “say what?” before finding his groove. Parker usually holds the mic in his left hand as he spits, and his playful bark conjures up images of a French DMX who smiles when he flows.
After the run-through, Parker turns to his crew to seek confirmation, asking “Everybody like it? Sounds good?” In these moments, he reveals a vulnerability that rarely surfaces above his confident exterior. “It’s just that I’m losing my voice,” he continues. “I just want to go through the motion. Make sure when I say my stuff I stay, you know, on the beat. We have to play with each other a little bit more.”
| Tony Parker: “The number one point gizzle
in the NBizzle,”according to sidekick B.U.
Unless you speak French or are part of his immediate circle, it’s somewhat difficult to get more than three sentences out of Parker at a time. Some of it can be attributed to the language barrier, but there is also the insensitive Roberto Clemente-esque treatment that he, Manu Ginobili, and other international ballers inadvertently receive from some print reporters. You sense that Parker worries that his English won’t translate well to print, so he’s guarded about revealing too much of himself.
Asked who taught him to rhyme, he repeats the queston, lets it soak in for a while, then finally says: “Basically my boys. My boys, they was always rapping in the room or in the locker room. So basically I just went to them and said, ‘How do you write, how do you do music and stuff like that?’”
About two years ago, B.U. began answering those questions for Parker, and along with French homies Caliente and Starter, has been by his side ever since. “The good thing about Tony, and this is why I chose to be a part of this project, is that he knows exactly what he wants to say and what he wants to talk about,” B.U says.
“He has a song that he especially likes about his mother and father and how they supported him throughout his career. He has a song about hard work, how believing in your self and working hard equals success. He has a song for the media that addresses the hate and the doubt and the skepticism from the media. He has fun, club-oriented songs where he talks about enjoying the night life with his friends and family.”
Aware of his role as a public figure, Parker avoids profanity on the album, and steers clear of anything that could be construed as gangsta or hard-core. “He’s talking about his life, and he has an interesting life,” B.U. says. “He’s been a professional ball player since the age of 14, so he has a life that isn’t typical of your the ordinary person. He has a lot to talk about and he is very focused about what he is trying to say and I think people will be impressed with some of the topics and his passion for his music.”
Working as an emcee in France these days can be dangerous. Last October, the electrocution of two Muslim teenagers, which citizens blamed on police, sparked fierce riots in France. Within four months, seven emcees went from being the French equivalents of Chuck D, calling out their government for discrimination against the country’s North African immigrant population, to facing deportation and jail time. Despite more than 200 signatures from members of the French Parliament demanding the emcees be indicted for inciting the riots, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin dismissed the accusations, saying hip-hop was not responsible for the crisis. In France, when rappers rhyme against their government they face deportation, while in the United States they win Grammys and cut records with Jamie Foxx.
Much like the French Parliament, the NBA is currently distancing itself from hip-hop more than ever. David Stern, the league’s commissioner, instituted a dress code before this season which blatantly targeted players drawn to hip-hop fashion. This year’s league-sanctioned All-Star Weekend entertainment, consisting of Carrie Underwood, John Legend, and the Houston Symphony, stood in stark contrast to the organic urban-themed celebrations taking place in the clubs and hotels of Houston.
None of this is new. Jazz begat hip-hop and was treated the same way during its heyday. It’s somewhat fitting that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the greatest scorer in NBA history, is currently shooting a documentary acknowledging the bridge between jazz, hip-hop, and hoops.
“One of the professional teams that was considered to be the best team played out of Harlem,” Abdul-Jabbar recently told hoopsworld.com. “They played out of the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, which was a dance hall and a place where prominent jazz musicians played. The Renaissance team would play before the main attraction when they played their home games. They would play one half of the game, then they would have one minor band, then they would play the second half of the game and then they might have Duke Ellington until 3 a.m.”
For many in the San Antonio hip-hop community, the hope is that Tony Parker will steal the focus from Houston and finally put the Alamo City on the map. What’s intriguing about Parker, particularly given his youth, is that at a time when he’s juggling music and a relationship with a popular TV star, he is also playing the best basketball of his life. Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson, a beloved former Spur, is merely one of the experts convinced that Parker is the best point guard in San Antonio history.
“He’s doing something that nobody, not even the radio stations around here, have tried to do and that is create an outlet for local talent so that we can have a viable music market here in San Antonio,” B.U. says. “It takes somebody with star status because some people in San Antonio have a tendency not to want to support something that’s not, in their imagination, large or successful.”
B.U. adds: “Tony’s sole purpose is not to be a rapper or to be successful in the rap business. He’s sticking his credibility on the line to help out people he cares about and that’s the type of person he is. Even the street cats that I know from being in the underground scene for years respect that about him.” •
By M. Solis