It’s common knowledge that basketball players love to rap. It’s also common knowledge 95.9 percent suck (who are not Master P and Metta World Peace). The reason is that most players are just boring, athletically inclined people who lack the necessary charisma to sell their story through music. So, what we usually get are long stretches of monotone bars leaving Lil B and completely loyal Raptors fan Drake to pick up the slack when soundtracking NBA 2K loading screens.
Nevertheless, during the 2011 NBA lockout when the organization canceled all preseason and regular games due to failed salary negotiations, then Miami Heat player Lebron James and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant used their free time to record inside Cleveland, OH’s Spider Studios. According to Canton, OH producer/engineer Franky Stewart a.k.a. Franky Wahoo, who has worked with MGK, only Durant was supposed to show up. “But then Lebron James ended up showing up and then Kevin Durant had instrumentals that he’d already written on,” he says. “At this point, I was just kinda there like ‘oh shit.’” Essentially, he’d witness the basketball equivalent of Watch The Throne.
According to Wahoo, he heard nothing after the two left the studio. But after coming across an XXL magazine story last year about the rumoured recording session, Wahoo decided to release a 30-second snippet of the track “It Ain’t Easy” during the NBA Finals and offered to release the entire track if it got over a million retweets.
From there, it gets kind of messy. “It Ain’t Easy” went viral and, according to Stewart, TMZ offered a large sum for the demo, which he would decline. This decision was due in large part because James’s agent Rich Paul got in contact with Wahoo and suggested the song could be used in a commercial or “background music” for NBA 2K19. But after months of back and forth, nothing regarding the track materialized. Wahoo’s concerns would only heighten this year as local DJs started playing the song in their sets. For Wahoo, the threat of the full-length song being leaked felt inevitable, even worse doing so without properly crediting him. As a result, he leaked the entire “It Ain’t Easy” track quietly on Soundcloud.
“We were like ‘well we sit on it we do nothing, they leak it I don’t get production credit,’” Wahoo says. “In the industry, you have to protect yourself first so I’m like ‘what if I just put it on Soundcloud?’ The worst thing that could happen is that [James’ agent] Paul would take it down.”
The content of “It Ain’t Easy,” to the credit of Durant and James, isn’t too bad. The song doesn’t focus on the common talks of NBA excess and success. Instead, it’s a somber cut featuring looped guitar licks—courtesy of Wahoo and his brother/partner Stu Billionaire—as the two players rap about the foils of being rich and the impact of losing and living without family. Strangely enough, the production featured on this version isn’t on the original says Wahoo. Through email, Wahoo says that he remade the beat from scratch for Paul during early discussions since no one could locate who Durant got the beat from. Only more odd is that the original beat was allegedly made by Durant himself.
Still, when asked about the long push and pull behind the songs release and James’s involvement in it, Stewart believes James’s team likely didn’t want to showcase his very decent, but amateurish first attempt as a rapper to the world. “This is the first time LeBron’s been human, [and] he’s not good at this. And [they may have felt] it would have made him seem less of a superstar in the public eye.” Though it’s hard to imagine it would have any negative effect on the star player since James literally built an entire school. So in effect, all arguments about him being inferior to Michael Jordan because he wasn’t in Space Jam are now, unfortunately, rendered moot. Listen to the newest addition to NBA rap canon can be heard here.
How did you get involved with this project in 2011 with Lebron and Kevin Durant?
I would make beats for MGK and he would go to this studio called Swagger Studios a lot and work with this guy named Ben Schigel. So, that’s the studio LeBron James and Kevin Durant came up to cause it was during the lockout. Originally it was only going to be Kevin Durant that was going to record, cause he did music and stuff, but then LeBron James ended up showing up. So we turned on the Pro Tools setup, and Schigel recorded a couple of songs over 4 or 5 Watch the Throne beats —“N**** In Paris”, “Lift Off,” and “HAM”—and two [original] songs. The one LeBron song [“It Ain’t It”] was the one that I was a part of. Then they left, didn’t hear anything of it. It was kind of cool, just this dude came in, there was no paperwork signed. Just recorded, hung out all night and left.
What was your impression of them in the studio?
When I was there I would say, Kevin Durant raps and we already knew that. I knew he did music. But the LeBron thing, I think it was one of those things where you take the one friend that’s pretty popular and you gas them like “dude you should rap cause you’re pretty famous.” So I just looked at it like that. It made him pretty normal, to be honest. It’s weird to see someone like LeBron, that big, really not know what he’s doing. You see this god of basketball and I’m sitting here like “wow I’m showing this dude how to do something.” Like, imagine teaching Michael Jordan something that has nothing to do with basketball? They’re relying on you like “this is cool, right?” It was weird.
My involvement got really impactful in that, at first I was just there at the studio and I’m just showing them shit while they’re tracking cause Ben was just a nervous wreck. As an engineer, it’s always good to have a second-hand cause when big celebrities are in the studio it kinda gets intense. You don’t wanna fuck up, you don’t want the computer to crash cause with technology anything like that could happen.
So, after all this why did you decide to release a snippet of the song several years later?
My one buddy texted me this story XXL put out called “LeBron James and Kevin Durant Have a Secret Song Together” and I was like “what the fuck? which one are they talking about?” They had to be talking about one of the original songs that weren’t over the WTT beats cause those songs were kind of unfinished. So, I posted a snippet of it, then [said if we] got a million retweets I’d release it, knowing that we probably can’t leak it cause no one wants to deal with that. But I thought I’d have some fun so I did it and after we leaked it, people like TMZ reached out offering $250,000. Out of curiosity, I called them like “hey dude I got that LeBron James song” but they’re like “who owns the beat?” I’m like “I don’t know” and they said “do you think you could remake the beat and then we can talk to [James’ agent] Rich Paul and I was like “yeah, I can clean it up.” So we’re going back and forth with and I’ve made a different beat that they have a license to use.
So the beat they’re rapping over on this track is not the beat that’s in the original song?
No, because the main discrepancy is that they don’t know where Kevin Durant got the beat from and they’re like “the one thing that could fuck this up is a producer wanting to sue over royalties.” But with that being said our buddy, he was going back and forth with [TMZ] and the final conclusion was that they had to have full rights. They had to know every party that was involved. So I made the beat but they wanted the actual version with the cuss words. At the point, I just put out the tweet they called and were like “we want that song but we want the dirty version” and I’m like fuck I just told people with Paul that I was remaking cause they might do something with it. TMZ was like you have ten minutes call us back, trying to strongarm us but at the end of the day, I’m like man he’s cussing a lot and this was before LeBron was really in the public eye and before his new show on HBO. So I was like “no, I’m not doing that.”
So you made an entirely original beat or did you use some stems of the original?
It’s entirely new. Pretty much I just muted the beat, created a whole different soundtrack and changed the beat of the song.
No one owns this song?
There’s no paperwork done so there was no legal action behind but creatively it is LeBron and Durant’s lyrics, creatively but creatively it is my instrumental.
Alright, so you remade, tweeted out the track and then what happened?
There was nothing I could do, a lot of celebrities retweeted it, comedians retweeted it, Ellen retweeted it. So I was like, I can’t feel bad now. It kept going viral and Paul finally called back saying “yeah don’t leak it we kinda wanna do something with” it because there’s a 2K game coming out [with LeBron on it] and there are different things we could implement this in without actually putting the track out. So they may have put it in a 2K commercial as background music but they didn’t want the song to be downloadable or streamable.
So for two years, they went back and forth with me. They’d come up with an angle like “oh we’re gonna try to do it on this blase skit” and weeks of email with them and I’m like “what the hell man.” Then I'd see Cleveland DJs playing it at clubs. So I talk with my manager and he’s like “there’s no paperwork on this that they bought this off you or anything.” The big thing was like one of the friends [of LeBron] that’s a DJ here, we were scared that they were gonna publish [the remake] without crediting me, which could easily happen.
Why all the runaround with the track?
Yeah, I think on their end it was more of a safe route. Like, if they show just enough you can’t take in the whole thing. I think that’s another thing, this is the first time Lebron’s been human, he’s not good at this. That made him seem less of a superstar in the public eye if you hear Lebron James rapping subpar that would kind of take away from him a little bit to someone.
There are a lot of great basketball players who are horrible rappers.
It’s weird. Everyone that raps tries to play basketball and everyone that plays basketball tries to rap.
So are there plans to release the entire mixtape?
No, just because that’s the only one that’s a complete song.
Do you think James and Durant will find it awkward to hear this song now that LeBron hates the Golden State Warriors and they are rivals?
I wouldn’t consider it awkward. Outside of basketball, these dudes are friends. You could tell at the studio it’s their passion but at the end of the day, they’re still friends. I don’t feel it would be awkward, there would be more of a “hey we did that, we’re friends.” It’d be no different if you and your buddy made a song and you guys were potentially in competition with each other.
As a Cleveland native, how do you feel about Lebron now that he’s moved on to the Lakers? Oh, I love it. At the end of the day for him being from Akron which is 15 minutes away, as a fan I’m upset but as a person that—you take yourself outside of basketball and here’s a dude from Akron, Ohio, you know. He did what he had to in Cleveland then moved on to Los Angeles. This feels good outside of basketball. As a Lebron fan, I love it as a Cavs fan, no.
Who do you think is the best NBA rapper of all time?
Oh, Shaq of course.