Musical Mamba: Kobe Bryant, Off the Court and In the Studio

Submitted by notoriousclassics on Tue, 01/26/2021 - 18:09
Kobe Bryant on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' in 2000

The late basketball legend Kobe Bryant is remembered for some impressive stats: five championship titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, an 18-time NBA All-Star, and the fourth highest-scoring career in the league, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and LeBron James. Bryant was a man of many passions, and early in his career, music was one of them. Had things turned out differently, he might've followed former teammate Shaquille O'Neal into the annals of history as ballers who also made the pop charts.

Kobe's love of the hip-hop game started early. While enrolled at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia - where he'd become the nation's top-ranked high school player - Bryant and his friends formed the rap posse CHEIZAW, named for the Chi Sah gang in the karate film The Kid with the Golden Arm. The young player earned a reputation for battle rapping in Philly. “Kobe liked to catch you off guard," local rapper Al Price of the group Black Ops later told Grantland. "He liked the competitive part of it. He liked to dig into the beat and flow and mess with rhythms and tone and pitches. You could tell, he wasn’t dope by accident.”

The group signed a deal with Sony Music, but it was clear to label brass there that Kobe was destined to be a star. Gradually, he started offering guest verses for other musicians including a guest spot for Brian McKnight and an uncredited verse on a Shaq track. His most famous appearance: a remix to "Say My Name," a 1999 smash hit for Destiny's Child.

But Bryant found himself clashing with the production style Sony thought would put him on the charts for proposed debut album Visions: he drew inspiration from lyrically complex artists like Canibus, while label heads wanted to hear more like their recent hits from Will Smith. Things came to an awkward head in 2000, when "K.O.B.E.," Visions' lead single, debuted at NBA All-Star Weekend to a frosty reaction. The album was never released, nor was an accompanying music video from director Hype Williams (where, incidentally, Bryant would meet his future wife Vanessa).

From then on, the Mamba mentality mostly stuck to the court. But fans still have great memories of Kobe the rapper - a dedicated individual who gave his everything when it counted most, just like his b-ball game.