Waxing lyrical

Somehow football and rap have rarely hit it off, in spite of some peciliar parallels in the fashion stakes. Al Needham works hard to find what references there are to the game

First, a word of reassurance: just because footballers seem to be getting into hip-hop a good 15 years after everyone else did does not compromise in any way the well loved cliche about footballers having bland and rubbishy musical taste. Ever since hip-hop overtook country and rock to become the most lucrative genre of music in America, it has been successfully defanged of its subversive elements, until what Chuck D of Public Enemy called “the Black CNN” is now some bloke prattling on about what he bought the other day, who he’d like to shoot and generally how ace he is. Again. For 50 Cent, Eminem and Jay-Z, read “George Benson, Shakatak and Steak and Chips”.

Despite the plethora of similarities between rap­pers and sports stars (young, gifted men with too much time and money on their hands and a penchant for shopping, bragging and shagging), hip-hop and foot­ball have never hit it off, for the obvious reason that most rappers are American and they couldn’t give a toss about “sahkah”. This may have something to do with the dawn of hip-hop corresponding with the dying embers of the NASL, by which time football was deemed decidedly “wick-wick-wack”.

Sporting references abound in hip-hop lyrics, but they always value aggression over artistry. When rap­pers “kicked it”, they did so like Bruce Lee and not Sammy Lee. When they “blasted” someone, either lyrically or with firearms, it was never like a Stuart Pearce free-kick. And when “sucker-duck punk toy MCs” got “played”, it was always like Nintendo, and never Striker or Subbuteo.

Even during the golden era of hip-hop, deemed to be between 1986 and 1989, football continued to untrouble the notepads of rappers. This is a shame, as the standard uniform of the time was inadvertently lifted right out of the changing rooms. Run DMC are acknowledged for shearing rap of its ridiculous stage costumes and injecting street reality back into hip-hop, and how did they do this? By dressing up as members of a 1974 World Cup squad in classic Adidas tracksuits. Even the most omnipotent headgear of the era – the Kangol cap – first came to global prominence upon the head of Helmut Schön. Unfortunately, they didn’t take the next step and wear football shirts, mainly because it was the 1980s and no one with an ounce of taste wore football shirts and to this day no rapper has expressed an ounce of allegiance to Umbro.

By the time gangsta rap arrived, sportswear was still in vogue, but Oakland Raiders caps were the thing to sport in Compton. Marketing departments all over the League looked on in envy as drug gangs in Boston wore NFL merchandise to avoid shooting their own mates. Unsurprisingly, football hooliganism has never reared its ugly head in rap lyrics – after all, running at op­ponents in Lacoste jumpers at railway stations rather pales in comparison to shooting people.

When British rappers came into being, it was nat­ural that they would express their love for football. Except they didn’t, as most of them were too busy trying to be American and get deals over there and didn’t want to scare any record labels. However, the vast majority were so awful that Big Daddy Kane was forced to conclude in an interview that “British rap is second division”. This remains one of the most foot­ballcentric statements ever uttered by a rapper.

Don’t get me wrong – there have been football-related lyrics in hip-hop. You just have to spend hours on the internet or racking your brain to dig them out. Naturally 90 per cent of them refer to Pelé. “If rap was soccer, I’d be Pelé,” said KMD in 1990 (to the accompaniment of Bert from Sesame Street humming, if you must know). “Make you do a pas de bourée, kick your balls like Pelé,” said Pras in Ghetto Superstar, displaying a shameful ignorance of the general conduct of our hero. Someone called Maestro managed to rhyme Maradona with marijuana, Ja Rule “slings at soccer fields the yay” (ie sells cocaine on the school field). As for Premier League players, The Brotherhood claimed: “Me say Ooh! Ahh! Like Eric Cantona! I’m on ball, I’m on point, with my joint I anoint.” And that’s it.

Until recently, that is, when Jay-Z sent Professor Ellis Cashmore and other social commentators into  a frenzy when he claimed: “I kick game just like  David Beckham.” Was this a sign that football was beginning to permeate the urban American con­sciousness? Had Beckham mutated into a genuine global brand? Neither, actually – Jay-Z was probably just looking for something to rhyme with “Evisu covers my rectum”.

From WSC 204 February 2004. What was happening this month