When Kool Keith and Ced Gee recorded what is generally agreed to be the greatest song in rap history, they were 22 and 25 years old. How Ultramagnetic MC's came to record that song—a marathon 10-minute tribute to every player and coach involved in the 1989 NBA All-Star game—is one of the great mysteries of both sports and music.
It's tempting to imagine David Stern listening to Ultramagnetic's spare, strange 1988 album Critical Beatdown and deciding that these weirdo Bronx rap futurists were just the ones to spit some bars about Terry Cummings and Lenny Wilkens and, uh, trainer Ray Melchiorre. But the most important thing to recognize about the song, beyond Kool Keith's "Kevin Duckworth/dominating the earth" couplet, is that it exists. It really exists.
While "NBA All-Star Rap" is an indispensable document of a time and a league that seem increasingly difficult to imagine in our own moment, it is also a living document. In 2006, it inspired three friends—Beau Alessi, Brian Richardson, and Doug Schrashun—to record their own version for that year's All-Stars. They were young, and while their verse isn't much to write home about, they were capable musicians; Alessi and Schrashun play in the bands Robot Princess and Miniboone, respectively.
Recording the song was the sort of inexplicable expressive act that young goofballs are moved to make, and while it is beautiful in the manner of all such things, what is most remarkable about it is that it was not the last one the three recorded together. When this year's anthem went up on Soundcloud on Saturday around noon, it marked the twelfth straight year that the three have recorded their own All-Star tribute.
This year's tribute was "a truly virtual collaboration," Schrashun says, with the three recording their verses remotely and Richardson pulling it together at his home in South Philadelphia. After more than a decade of doing the damn thing, the three have become serviceable-enough rappers and remain remarkably enthusiastic when it comes to rapping about Paul Millsap every year. They are also voracious magpies; there's as much style-hopping in the verses as there was in last year's notably diverse version—a brief excursion into Spanish in honor of Marc Gasol—and they bring it to a running time nearly half that of the Ultramagnetic original.
The fundamental question about the song is as much "why" as "how," but as with any act of creativity, it exists for its own sake—and in asort of offhandedly revolutionary way. In another, more specific sense, it is men in their thirties recording raps about Kemba Walker while the very foundations of our republic tremble. Schrashun admitted that the last bit complicated the recording this time around. "The biggest discussion we had when figuring out this year's song was how to avoid making every verse about... how we're all terrified that the world is cratering around us," he says. "We already used up the joke about 'the last All-Star Game' in 2012, so that was unfortunately out of the question."
And yet here we all are, still, and here this song is. The world is either waving or drowning; everything changes all the time. ("The experience of struggling to write an interesting verse about Kyrie Irving and then having the 'flat earth' bombshell come out the next day was agonizing," Alessi says.) In the face of all that, amid all this, the only thing there is to do is create. If that means rapping about Kyle Lowry, then it means rapping about Kyle Lowry. These three heroes knew that in 2006, and they know it now. We'd all do well to remember it.