Before the turn of the millennium, something happened that would alter the basketball landscape for the entire decade to come. It would change the way fans think about the sport, the manner in which we consume it, and it would spawn whole cottage industries of hoops that few of us could have imagined or predicted. It was the arrival of the And1 Mixtape Volume 1.
Think back for a moment to the first time you saw it. Or just watch the YouTube video below (more on that later). Remember how it felt? It was a rare glimpse into a world many fans had never seen before. This was raw playground basketball in its purest form. Part snuff film, part documentary, part music video, it was also the long-overdue union of hip hop and basketball. It was our introduction to a boyish Rafer Alston aka “Skip to My Lou” and to the now-deceased Tyrone “Alimoe” Evans aka “The Black Widow.”
For 18 glorious minutes, it was a whirlwind tour of New York City playgrounds and the unforgettable characters who inhabited them, set to a blistering soundtrack featuring Common, the GZA, Mos Def, and other hip hop heavyweights.
It ushered in a cultural phenomenon that would persist throughout the better part of the coming decade and influence a whole new generation of basketball players, and it all started essentially as a viral marketing campaign on the part of the And1 shoe and apparel company. Building on the concept and popularity of early ’90s skateboard thrasher videos that featured grainy homemade footage set to rock and heavy metal music, And1 and took “the Skip tape,” as it was known then, edited it, added a hip hop soundtrack, made a limited run of 10,000 copies, and then made a deal with FootAction to distribute the tape as a gift-with-purchase item at stores around the country. DJ Set Free spoke about the inception of the tape in Complex’s fantastic oral history of the And1 Mixtape Tour:
“There was all this old playground footage of Rafer [Alston] at the Rucker. Back then I was DJing, and I would play the tapes and turn the sound down and start DJing. That’s when it clicked, and I was like, ‘It would be incredible if we could package it and it would be the first ever video mixtape.”
In the mid-to-late ‘90s, it was still considered something of a faux pas when Allen Iverson would do playground moves in the NBA, but by the early 2000s, it had become the norm thanks to an influx of other streetball provocateurs like Jason Williams, Steve Francis, et al. Today, Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, and Kyrie Irving all owe a tremendous debt to the streetball craze. Every time someone breaks out the Shamgod or throws an alley-oop off the backboard, it’s a callback to And1 in its heyday.
And that’s because at one point in time, believe it or not, And1 and the NBA were in real competition for the attention of basketball fans around the world. And1 had successfully marketed itself as featuring “the best ballers not in the NBA,” and as a testament to the genius of their marketing campaign, helped create the perception that NBA players had to earn their street cred (as if being in the NBA wasn’t credibility enough) by going to Rucker Park in Harlem and playing against streetball legends. And sure enough, scores of NBA stars did precisely that. Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, Vince Carter, and countless others all participated in either And1 or Rucker Park events at one point or another.
What’s more telling is how many NBA players chose not to participate in streetball events, as it was a very real possibility that some unknown hotshot might try to make a name for himself at their expense, which is exactly what happened when Jamaal Tinsley went against Larry Williams aka “Bone Collector.” Iverson also famously refused to guard Bone Collector during another Rucker Park game.
Like the skateboard mixtapes that preceded them, the basketball mixtape became something of an instructional video for fans and wannabe streetball players. For better or for worse, people at gyms and playgrounds around the world were mimicking the different moves they saw in the videos, whether it was throwing the ball through their defender’s legs and/or bouncing it off their opponent’s foreheads. How many fights were instigated because of this is anybody’s guess, and it was just this sort of “anything goes” ethos that was at the center of the inevitable backlash to come.
The complaints were common and, in many cases, perfectly warranted. They don’t play defense. They glamorize style over substance. They have no work ethic. They have a blatant disregard for certain rules of etiquette or decorum. They simply don’t have the talent to play at the next level. This last complaint was a particularly sore spot for just about everybody involved, except for Rafer Alston, the lone And1 star who actually made it to the NBA. However, it bears mentioning that many of the And1 stars did, in fact, play organized basketball at the Division 1 collegiate level and/or professionally or semi-professionally at home and abroad. Nonetheless, all this combined to create the perception that And1 players simply couldn’t hack it in organized basketball.
To fully understand the rise and fall of And1 basketball, it has to be viewed through a particular cultural lens. Streetball and hip hop will forever be intertwined since both essentially represent a counter-culture movement, but And1 also incidentally underscored the tragic truth about the quest for NBA stardom: For every guy who’s ever made it to the league, there are twenty other similar guys who, for whatever reason (and the reasons are many-faceted), never realized his potential. And1 inadvertently became symbolic of the struggle and the disappointment and the regret associated with missed opportunities and dwindling dreams of basketball immortality. But it also served as a reminder that there was opportunity outside the NBA for talented players with a particular skill-set and a certain flair for entertainment.
Nobody embodied the spirit of the streetball movement quite like Phillip Champion aka “Hot Sauce,” who was simultaneously the most popular figure of the And1 universe and the most divisive. Although Skip 2 My Lou is considered the pioneer or progenitor of modern streetball, it was Hot Sauce who brought the game to global popularity during the early aughts, and just as he was becoming the face of And1, he also became the lightning rod for criticism.
While Hot Sauce’s cult-like followers stubbornly believe that he has some of the sickest handles of anyone in the world, his detractors point out that many of his signature moves amount to palming or traveling violations that wouldn’t be permitted in any legitimate basketball game. Furthermore, whether his mesmerizing dribbling displays fit within the normal ebb and flow of the game or resulted in a made basket was almost always beside the point. He was also responsible for a legion of clones and imitators who provided a great deal of unintentional comedy but were the most insufferable people to play pickup basketball with.
“When we picked up Hot Sauce, we were trying to teach him basketball. And teach him how to play confined within the rules,” Waliyy “Main Event” Dixon told Complex. “I tell people, ‘Hot Sauce good, he’s cool.’ I tell them, ‘He’s one of the best illegal ball handlers I’ve seen in my lifetime.’ Instead of him learning, I think Sauce single-handedly messed up what streetball is. The culture of streetball. Sauce is more of a Globetrotter, could’ve had a great career with the Globetrotters or the Harlem Wizards or the Generals or whatever. They didn’t really understand what I was saying. I’m not hating on him, but this is what streetball is.”
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Even after the streetball craze had cooled, the legacy it left behind was a can’t-miss formula, and hip hop beats are an essential part of that formula. Two of entities who have become synonymous with basketball mixtapes are Anno Domini Beats and Flawless Tracks. Although Anno Domini Beats itself has grown into a collective of hip hop producers, the producer who gives the group its namesake “Anno Domini” aka Adrian Boeckeler, is a German DJ who started making beats on his laptop back in 2004 and has worked with artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan, Kool G Rap, and many others. Anno Domini and Flawless Tracks have both opened the doors for countless producers to make and sell beats specifically for the purposes of basketball mixtapes.
“Basketball is a game of rhythm, and for that, this sport and music are synonymous.” – a spokesperson for The Mars Reel said.
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In hindsight, a 2001 HoopsTV.com production called Ball Above All may have more accurately anticipated the direction mixtapes were headed in the future than And1 did. Ball Above All was a 40-minute mix that wasn’t limited to streetball. Rather, it featured highlights from high school prep players, college, summer leagues, as well as NBA players, but with a similar hip hop soundtrack permeating easily digestible 3-5 minute segments.
Squint hard enough at the grainy footage below and you can see a young Luke Ridnour abusing defenders in high school. It was also our first introduction to high-flying phenom James “Flight” White. For some of us, it was the first time we saw an NBA star matched up against lower-level talent: watching Steve Francis drop 63 points in a summer league game while barely breaking a sweat truly solidified the difference between NBA-level talent and the average ball player.
Hard as it is to imagine a world without YouTube, we all lived in that world up until 2005, when three former PayPal employees dreamed up the idea of a free video-sharing website featuring user-generated content. Instantly, collectively, and at a truly astonishing pace, basketball fans around the globe dusted off their old VHS tapes, broke out the user-friendly editing software that came standard on their iMacs, and started producing and uploading highlight mixes of their favorite players.
And we’re not just talking about superstar players and household names. The most obscure, marginalized, and otherwise forgotten player imaginable has their fifteen seconds of fame thanks to YouTube.
More than just a welcome distraction from our workaday malaise, YouTube has also become something of time capsule. For Gen-Xers and Millennials, our cultural memory only stretches back so far. We might hazily recall watching Magic and Bird go at it in the latter part of their primes, but that’s about as far back as we can remember. The 50s, 60s, and 70s were the dark ages of hoops, even for those who were around back then. It was a period when most games weren’t televised, and even many of the ones that were televised were often shown in tape delay.
An entire generation of hoops fans raised on Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron never had a chance to see Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, or Oscar Robertson in their primes, and as a result, kids today groan and roll their eyes when cranky old coots try to defend their honor and preserve their place in the pantheon of all-time greats. They scoff at the notion that old-timey players with their short shorts, their gangly frames, their unwieldy body hair, and their canvas tennis shoes could hold their own against the genetically-superior athletic specimens of today.
But thanks to YouTube, we can go straight to video evidence when we want to claim, for instance, that Bill Russell, at almost 7-feet-tall, had the speed, the handle, and the hops that made him a prototype to modern-day stars like Kevin Durant or that Celtics legend Bob Cousy aka “The Houdini of the Hardwood” was the original Hot Sauce.
In its infancy, YouTube users such as “Yinka Dare” (an obscure reference to the deceased Nigerian basketball player of the same name) and “Expired Pineapples” were some of the pioneers of the homemade YouTube basketball mix. Employing the same formula as the And1 Mixtapes, they produced highlight-reel mixes set to hip hop soundtracks for numerous NBA stars, past and present.
Eventually, websites like Hoopmixtape.com, Ballislife.com, and TheMarsReel.com came long and were the architects of modern business models designed solely for the purpose of filming, editing, producing, and distributing high-quality basketball mixtapes to the public for free via the internet. They follow and document basketball with a kind of religious fervor, crisscrossing the country filming high school prep games, summer leagues, the AAU circuit, and more. They are largely responsible for why fledgling stars enjoy so much national exposure from such a young age.
They are also partly to blame for the overexposure of many young athletes who, just a few years short ago, would not have enjoyed such an insane amount of national attention.
A young phenom like Aquille Carr aka “The Crime Stopper”, for example, is absurdly entertaining to watch because, despite his small stature (5-6 stretched to the gills), the Baltimore native dominated the competition at the high school level. But without YouTube and the aforementioned mixtape websites, he would have remained a relative obscurity outside of his hometown.
Today, it’s a common perception among hardcore hoops fanatics that the best dunkers in the world are, in fact, not in the NBA. Once again, this can all be traced back to And1. The mixtapes were our introduction to guys like Waliyy “The Main Event” Dixon, John “Helicopter” Humphrey, and Taurian “The Air Up There” Fontenette, the latter of whom is inarguably one of the best dunkers of all time despite having never played a single, solitary moment of NBA basketball. It was during those early And1 Mixtapes that we first saw The Main Event, previously unknown to the greater viewing public, pulling off impossible dunks, like murdering a half-court bounce-pass alley-oop, or jumping over a teammate during a game, or catching a ridiculous 360-reverse dunk off a mid-court lob.
It sparked a new era of creativity and innovation, and it inspired a whole new generation of dunkers who now routinely – almost effortlessly – execute the types of dunks previously only seen in video games. While the And1 juggernaut had figured out how to monetize and capitalize off the streetball craze, it didn’t take long for amateur dunkers around the world to figure out that they could leverage the Internet for their own personal branding. What it spawned was a whole new cottage industry of professional dunking.
Back in 2006, a website called Team Flight Brothers started making videos of amateur dunkers and posting them on YouTube. According to their YouTube page, they’ve had more than 78 million views since, and they’ve participated in more than 200 international events including half-time shows, charity events, corporate-sponsored promotions, and streetball exhibitions. They introduced the world to high fliers like T-Dub, Kenny Dobbs, James White, and countless others.
They’ve also spoiled and jaded us. Critics like to argue that the problem with the NBA Dunk Contest is that it doesn’t have enough star power. If only superstars like LeBron James et al would compete each year, it would regain some of its former glory. But the problem isn’t the lack of star power. The problem, aside from all the ridiculous gimmicks, is oversaturation. New dunk videos are uploaded to YouTube, Ballislife, The Mars Reel, Hoopmixtape, and countless other sites on a daily basis, each one more impressive than the last, and as a result rabid hoops fans have likely already seen every variation on even the most mindboggling dunks of the past few years.
So when the NBA Dunk Contest finally rolls around as it does once a year, it’s inevitably disappointing. A few years ago, when the internet dunking phenomenon was reaching its peak, the NBA took notice (or rather couldn’t ignore it any longer) and actually enlisted the help of high-flying TFB alums “Werm” and “Jus Fly” to give tips to DeMar Derozan and other participants in a shameless effort to make the 2011 NBA Dunk Contest watchable again. For the past several years now, the Sprite Slam Dunk Showdown has been touring the country each summer hosting local competitions and featuring some of the best dunkers in the world competing for cash prizes, and most of the time, it’s is far more entertaining than the NBA Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend.
The Internet is a powerful force against myths and legends, and YouTube is just another facet of the Orwellian dystopia that the 21st century has in store for us. Gone are the days when folks would tell tall tales about that time they saw someone make change off the top of the backboard or that one kid who was barely five-feet tall who could dunk like he was Vince Carter. Now, we just go straight to the video evidence to prove or debunk these outlandish claims.
Pee Wee Kirkland, a legend in the truest sense of the word, lives to spin yarns like the one about the time Joe Hammond scored 74 points (40-50 in one half) at the Rucker. Sadly, no video evidence of this exist, but when Kevin Durant dropped 66 points on the same hallowed court during the lockout a couple of years ago, the video had practically gone viral before the game was even over.
Unless you’re of certain financial means and thus a season ticket-holder of court-side seats, basketball is best viewed through the filter of television. Those of us relegated to 300-level seats know that the vertiginous birds-eye view from the nosebleed section is just about the worst possible vantage point from which to enjoy a basketball game.
Before NBA League Pass, before NBA.com, before highlights and recaps became omnipresent online, you had to either watch a televised game in its entirety or catch Sportscenter to get your daily basketball fix. Today, we can visit any number of websites at our own leisure to catch up on highlights from the night before.
The problem with recaps and mixtapes is that they are, by nature, disingenuous. The slog of a 48-minute game has been compressed to a more digestible 2-3 minute highlight recap. All the missed shots, all the turnovers, all the general lulls in the action, i.e. all the boring and unexciting parts, have been edited out.
“[Mix-making] is a form of artistic ability. To be able to recap the best moments of an event into 30 seconds, 45 seconds, one, two, or three minutes with multiple camera angles and music is a skill,” a spokesperson for The Mars Reel said. “What music choice are you using, what players are you going to place at a specific time frame in a video, what kind of clips are in the video, what player’s playing style fits what song? And most importantly what camera angles. It’s a feel.”
Without a doubt, highlight mixes make the experience seem much more exciting, and they make every player look like a superstar. It’s partially why they’re not terribly useful as a recruiting tool. When evaluating prospects, coaches want to see all the nuances and idiosyncrasies of a player’s game. They want to know if they’re prone to poor positioning on the defensive end, how they move without the ball, what their body language is like, whether they have a penchant for ill-advised shots, and whether they demonstrate good decision-making skills in a variety of circumstances that are categorically less exciting than dunks, blocks, buzzer beaters, crossovers, and jump shots. But, of course, mixes are designed primarily for entertainment purposes.
“Highlight videos definitely change how we consume hoops everyday,” The Mars Reel spokesperson said. “and companies like us among others stir up different emotions just like your favorite song would. It can be motivating, energizing, and exciting. Even if you’re just a basketball fan (not a player), it can be something really cool to watch.”
Mixtapes are all those things and more, but it’s somewhat disconcerting to think that, thanks to the Information Age, our attention spans have shriveled to the point that it’s, in many cases, preferable to catch a recap than it is to actually sit down and watch a basketball game.
What do you think?
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