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Monday, May 20, 2024

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Arts + CultureSportsTrack by track, the Bay runs the court on...

Track by track, the Bay runs the court on ‘NBA2K’ series

E-40, Too $hort, Zion I, Snow Tha Product... The 2K franchise has fused hip-hop and gaming for decades. Here's the playlist

With each new season, the NBA2K video game series carves out an ever-deeper niche in basketball culture—and that’s thanks in large part to its soundtrack.  

When SEGA published the original NBA2K in the fall of 1999, video games were still in retro, MIDI file music mode compared to the fully curated soundtracks of today. However, in a short amount of time, 2K came to signal a new arena for realistic, fluid gameplay through two avenues: first a superstar player, then a fusion of hip-hop and gaming culture.

2K was a flagship entry for Sega’s next generation console Dreamcast, the follow-up to the Sega Genesis, which had put the company on the map earlier in the ’90s. Since sports gaming powerhouse EA Sports opted out from creating games for the Dreamcast, the basketball alternative promised to link critical acclaim, commercial success, and fan credibility to a new paradigm.

Developer Visual Concepts and publisher Sega achieved just that by packaging their next-gen digital NBA experience with the most important cover athlete in video game history; young star Allen Iverson. 2K accurately bet on a player who’d become a Hall of Fame baller, and cashed in on Iverson’s heavyweight cultural currency to sustain a yearly franchise for decades hence. 

Much has been written about Iverson’s perfect storm, created by fusing hip-hop culture with razor-sharp on-the-court play that buoyed the NBA’s popularity in a moment after sport-defining mega-star Michael Jordan had hung up his legendary sneakers. Iverson’s influence on basketball itself and its sporting exchange with hip-hop has aged like Napa Valley’s finest wines. 2K elevated “The Answer”—the nickname Iverson earned as the fans’ chosen one in a post-Jordan NBA—to the realm of John Madden in his eponymous NFL video games, and Mike Tyson circa licensing his image for the Nintendo classic Punchout. It’s important to note, though, that Tyson’s involvement with Punchout was a one-and-done. On his game covers, Coach Madden was a recognizable pitchman face, looking more like everyone’s dad than the athletes and fans of the day.

Iverson was truly the first real-time athlete for a video game franchise, the millennium man. As the unapologetic hip hop athlete, he lent 2K and the NBA more credibility than either could have foreseen, even as the NBA resisted its deep-seated link with the hip-hop zeitgeist. When NBA2K first reached shelves, “AI” wasn’t synonymous with artificial intelligence. It meant Allen Iverson, the rapper-approved Philadelphia 76er that crossed up the undisputed king “MJ.” 

In that one moment, AI claimed recognition no board room or marketing budget could buy, via turning Jordan into his highlight reel. 2K kept up with Iverson too, with Sega becoming a pioneer in offering online gameplay. Sometimes a choice is prescient, exciting in the moment, and holds up so well over time. Looking back a quarter-century later, it’s fascinating how many consequential ripple effects the game series produced. Iverson and NBA2K was such a slam-dunk match that Iverson appeared on the cover five times in a row. That’s half a decade. Unheard of—especially since the franchise did not bear his name. The odds it ever happens again are slim to none. 

Being the NBA2K cover athlete today is a prestigious honor, thanks to Iverson. He even influenced the franchise’s only cover athlete wearing a Bay Area jersey on a cover to date, the Golden State Warriors’ four-time champ Steph Curry on 2K16—and, the only Bay-Area-born athlete, Damian Lillard, to appear on the cover of 2K21 (as a Portland Trailblazer.)  

Hip-hop was always about gaming, even if gaming didn’t have enough consciously planned avenues to hip-hop. Iverson signaled what was ahead, and served as a connective tissue for basketball, gaming, and hip-hop cultures. When game technology allowed for hip-hop’s true integration into the 2K franchise by making a quality in-game background possible (ironically once Iverson’s cover star run ended), a phenomena was born in the 2K soundtrack. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the latest NBA2K installment gameplay, its soundtrack (once available as CD, and now a popular streaming playlist) is a consistent cultural touchstone, and even receives updates throughout the year. 

In the NBA off-season, 82 regular-season games, playoffs, and the finals, music plays a crucial role. Hip-hop is the league’s primary genre, no matter how much officials originally resisted its allure. NBA athletes are so recognizable, they helped popularize modern headphones when TV production cutaway shots showed ballers walking into arenas across the country and preparing for the game ahead by tuning into whatever was blaring through their noise-cancelers.

The Bay Area has been there since the beginning of these intersections between basketball, hip hop, and gaming. When 2K started featuring hip-hop tracks in 2K5, the Bay was holding it down on the playlist. When San Francisco’s Dan the Automator became the first name producer on the 2K soundtrack for 2K7, he showed love to his hometown. Celebrity producers on future titles such Jay-Z, Lebron James, Pharrell Williams, DJ Premier, and Michael B. Jordan followed suit with their selections. Bay Area hip-hop deserves to have many of its jerseys hung up in the rafters.

Below, we’ve gathered those musical tributes. Unfortunately, video game history is subject to rapid disappearance. Without physical media access, it’s impossible to say if this is the complete list of Bay Area music artists on the NBA2K soundtracks. 48 Hills can say this is the most comprehensive list out there, with the Bay Area going on 20 years of bumping on 2K’s soundtrack.  

TOO $HORT, “BLOW THE WHISTLE”

The undefeated intersection of Bay Area anthem and sports arena comes courtesy of Short Dogg himself. Oakland may be hemorrhaging sports teams, but East Oakland will forever be represented anywhere there’s a game going, via Too $hort’s iconic slap. 

(Featured in 2K13. That edition’s cover athletes: Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin)

SOULS OF MISCHIEF, “93 ‘TIL INFINITY”

East Oakland back at it again. The classic that self-declares itself as everlasting has lived up to the hype in the three decades since the hip-hop group rapped in the mountains, on the beach, on the street, and in the pool hall in their legendary music video. If there was a time capsule with Bay Area rap, this could be the first song included—so it’s fitting that it has been enshrined in NBA2K history. 

(Featured in 2K18. That edition’s cover athlete: Kyrie Irving)

DEL THE FUNKY HOMOSAPIEN, “DON’T FORGET THE BASS”

“Del won’t do you wrong” is always right on a track. The Oakland-based emcee holds the distinction of being the first Bay Area solo representative featured in the 2K series, a feat that took place as soon as Sega started licensing music, with this cut from his third studio album, 1997’s Future Development. Del the Funky Homosapien’s rhymes are a video game soundtrack favorite, and he has appeared in multiple Tony Hawk skate games, Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX, and Knockout Kings boxing. Del was also part of a superhero-like emcee lineup for a song called “Rise Up” with Black Thought, Murs, and Fashawn, on the Street Fighter V soundtrack. His verse on the smash hit “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz was also in 2K14, making Del a multiple-time NBA2K all-star. 

(Featured in 2K5. That edition’s cover athlete: Ben Wallace; Also on 2K14. That edition’s cover athlete: Lebron James)

HIEROGLYPHICS FEAT. GOAPELE, “SOWETO”

Oakland’s Goapele delivers soulful R&B on this track’s hook, counterbalancing amped-up verses from the Hiero crew—including Del—announcing they are globetrotters from the Bay Area, breaking ground on the NBA2K soundtrack, a pivotal music collection. 

(Featured in 2K5. That edition’s cover athlete: Ben Wallace)

RUBY IBARRA FEAT. ROCKY RIVERA, KLASSY, AND FAITH MANTILLA, “US”

Brown woman power stands front-and-center when East Bay powerhouse Ibarra juxtaposes traditional Filipino dress with rap squats in front of Bay Area lowriders in this track’s music video. Rocky Rivera strikes next, with liberation rhymes in the name of land back for colonized Filipinos. Klassy nails the unapologetic mood in the Ibarra-directed video when she raps, “Goddess of guerrilla warfare in every lifetime/We don’t take no shit except an oppressor’s lifeline.” Damn! BARS. This track proves the NBA2K soundtrack is true to hip-hop’s spirit in that it embraces revolutionary music. Faith Mantilla closes the track with a spoken reminder that it is a privilege to be a Filipino woman descending from centuries-long resistance.

(Featured in 2K23. That edition’s cover athlete: Devin Booker)

DAME D.O.L.L.A., “WASATCH FRONT” AND “SHOT CLOCK”

Damian Lillard hails from East Oakland and beyond being one of the most-can’t-miss guards in NBA history, he steps in the Bay Area’s rich emcee tradition with a legit ease. Two secret tracks on the 2K18 soundtrack, “Wasatch Front” and “Shot Clock,” demonstrate that while Lillard needs the ball when the game is winding down, Dame D.O.L.L.A. takes his time working through verses, with steady flow that shouldn’t be slept on. Since Lillard is known to outdo himself, he holds the unique distinction of being on the cover and playlist of 2K21 with “Did to It” and “Kobe.” Plus, he had a feature on Dribble2much’s “HandleLife Story”—a trailblazing feat, indeed. 

(Featured in 2K18. That edition’s cover athlete: Kyrie Irving. Also, 2K21. That edition’s cover athlete: all Dame everything)

G-EAZY AND BEBE REXHA, “ME, MYSELF & !” 

When it comes to sheer mass, Oakland’s G-Eazy ran up the score with one of the biggest tracks with Bay roots to hit 2K. The song’s official music video on Youtube has 600-plus million views and counting. This is the song a baller listens to when dialing in to be the clutch player, willing and reliable to take the game-winning buzzer beater.

(Featured in 2K17. That edition’s cover athlete: Paul George)

LARRY JUNE AND THE ALCHEMIST, “BREAKFAST IN MONACO”  

From the Fillmore to Monaco, San Francisco’s Larry June leveled up when he crossed paths with top-tier producer The Alchemist. “We’ve been putting in work so long/Had to sacrifice a whole lot now there’s way better days/Can’t up now you gotta hold on” speaks to the ballers everywhere picking up the video game controllers. June’s self-assured flow luxuriates in the Alchemist beat. 

(Featured in 2K24. That edition’s cover athlete: Kobe Bryant)

ZION I, “RIDE”

It’ll always be #JusticeforZumbi. It’s nice to remember the emcee’s revered work for underground favorites Zion I with a track so good NBA2K brought it back a decade later. The hook “I’m with my homies here” plays great anywhere in the Bay Area, on the basketball court—or during a long 2K session. The song also makes a splash lining up with legendary splash brother of the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry’s 2K16 cover appearance. 

(Featured in 2K6, 2K16. 2K6‘s cover athlete: Shaq. 2K16‘s cover athletes: Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden)

P-LO, E-40, AND LARUSSELL, “AGAIN” 

The Bay Area’s still hitting on all cylinders to this day, and as this track says, “tomorrow Imma do this shit again.” P-Lo (from Pinole) and LaRussell (of Vallejo) are clearly at home making slaps and the E-40 (Vallejo again) assist just runs up the stats on the Bay Area rap scene being a multi-generational powerhouse.

(Featured in 2K24. That edition’s cover athlete: Kobe Bryant)

SNOW THA PRODUCT, “QUE OSO” 

The NBA and video games’ consistent Latinx fanbase increase gets a treat with Snow Tha Product’s Spanish language raps here. Watch Snow, who has helped put San Jose on the rap map, in the family carne asada—there’s even a piñata—breaking down religious dogma by passing a blunt to a priest. Tequila, holy water, jealousy—Snow’s lyrical density drives straight down the lane for two-and-a-half minutes.

(Featured in 2K23. This edition’s cover athlete: Devin Booker)

STUNNAMAN02 AND QUAKEBEATZ, “BIG STEPPIN'”

Point blank: the physicality of this track and its music video spells out Stunnaman02’s status as an unmovable player in Bay Area rap’s present and future. The San Francisco emcee says everything with his chest here, and given the weight he’s pushing around in the gym from the visuals, the result is a strong voice.

(Featured in 2K23. That edition’s cover athlete: Devin Booker)

K. FLAY, “BLOOD IN THE CUT” 

Back in 2010, K. Flay took a photo in the Mission District that served as the cover for the self-released, self-titled debut EP. K. Flay’s time in the Bay Area served her well. By the time she appeared on the NBA2K soundtrack, she was a polished big label star with “Blood in the Cut,” working overtime in Netflix’s “Peaky Blinders,” movies, and commercials. Not bad for someone who played private birthday parties at El Rio on the way up. 

(Featured in 2K17. That edition’s cover athlete: Paul George)

ZION I, “FADE AWAY”

The Bay Area’s best double entendre, this is peak Zion I on the chorus that could be talking about basketball or smoking weed, during a good street ball or gaming session, both. Again, #JusticeForZumbi and the acknowledgement that Zion I has a significant imprint on NBA2K music history, with four soundtrack appearances throughout the years. 

(Featured in 2K7. That edition’s cover athlete: Shaq)

KAMAIYAH, “THRU THE WEEK” 

With a club feel, the Oakland-based rapper-singer declares, “going undefeated, I’m a heavyweight stepper.” This is a nod to keeping one’s head down and being about that money as a means of self-improvement, relatable for ballers on and off the court everywhere.

(Featured in 2K24. That edition’s cover athlete: Kobe Bryant)

NEF THE PHAROAH, “BIG TYMIN'”

Nef the Pharaoh is so in his bag on this track that he declares fuck a hoop dream, and still ended up on the premier basketball video game soundtrack. Enough said about this true Bay Area hit, which also shouts out New Orleans rap. 

(Featured in 2K19. That edition’s cover athlete: Giannis Antetokounmpo)

E-40 AND SAN QUINN, “BALLER BLOCKIN'”

Leave it to Vallejo’s E-40 to bring hyphy to NBA2K during its peak as he riffs on different NBA squads before dishing to San Francisco mainstay San Quinn to help run up the score.

(Featured in 2K7. That edition’s cover athlete: Shaq)

P-LO, “SAMESQUAD”

P-Lo’s come out of the Bay Area onto NBA2K soundtracks, with big wins from the jump. The hyphy movement’s kids are all grown up and keeping the Bay thumping on the map with reverential and original style all at once.  

(Featured in 2K23. That edition’s cover athlete: Devin Booker)

TORO Y MOI, “MIRAGE”

The Bay Area’s musical versatility is ever-present on Toro y Moi’s contribution to NBA2K. The hypnotic performer takes up space, crafting a funky invitation to dance with this opening track from his fifth studio album, “Boo Boo.”

(Featured in 2K19. That edition’s cover athlete: Giannis Antetokounmpo)

HIEROGLYPHICS, “DON’T HATE THE PLAYER”

When Dan the Automator became the first big name producer of the NBA2K soundtrack, he was quick to tap frequent collaborator Del the Funky Homosapien and the Hiero crew to rap over a beat featuring a brass section. Like so much Bay Area sound, this track has proven to be ahead of its time, with basketball brand synergy before terms like “brand synergy” were even in the lexicon.  

(Featured in 2K7. That edition’s cover athlete: Shaq)

REXX LIFE RAJ FEAT. KEMBE X, “FLIGHTMAN”

Take a dash of “It’s Always Sunny”’s comedy song “Nightman” and aim for the perfect, serious song to overlay dunk contest highlights—that’s what Rexx Life Raj achieves here. 

(Featured in 2K19. That edition’s cover athlete: Giannis Antetokounmpo)

CAL-A WITH P-LO, REXX LIFE RAJ, AND NEF THE PHAROAH, “WE ON IT”

This song is a fast break—every rapper passes the baton and rolls with the snappy beat. The team works well, demonstrating the Bay Area has mainstream sound whenever it wants to ball that way. 

(Featured in 2K19. That edition’s cover athlete: Giannis Antetokounmpo)

HIEROGLYPHICS, “WHAT I WON’T SAY”  

Earlier NBA2K soundtracks were geared to “real” hip-hop heads due to limited space, and the 2K6 soundtrack featuring Jean Grae, Little Brother, and of course the Hiero Crew proves it. The music was also censored, placing DJ scratches over this Hiero chorus that expresses urgency about wanting to go home to smoke weed. We’ve come a long way, and this serves as a reminder people were definitely smoking weed while playing NBA2K6

(Featured in 2K6. That edition’s cover athlete: Shaq)

ZION I FEAT. REBELUTION, “MANY STYLEZ” 

The best feeling while playing NBA2K is experiencing the flow NBA talent exudes on the real hardwood courts. That stylistic wave riding translates to NBA2K soundtracks too—they can venture away from hip hop, and don’t even need to seek artists from another genre to facilitate the shift, such as when Zion I teamed up with reggae-rockers Rebelution. Did we mention #JusticeForZumbi? 

(Featured in 2K12. That edition’s cover athletes: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan)

LARRY JUNE, “PRIVATE VALET”

Larry June was a back-to-back all-star with appearances on this year’s and the last’s NBA2K soundtracks. The San Francisco rap star submits a song that offers solace for when the NBA2K AI defeats a gamer, ‘cause yeah, the game can be so cold. 

(Featured in 2K23. That edition’s cover athlete: Devin Booker)

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