The important thing to bear in mind when assessing anything that happened in 1989 is that, from the perspective of 2018, the thing being assessed happened in a different world. That world still had people in it, which meant it had about equal amounts of vicious awful dumbassery and goofball beauty, but the world in which those people did all their dumbass/beautiful human things was simpler and slower than ours, and its cynicisms were different, or at least differently expressed. The NBA All-Star Game wasn’t really any different in 1989 than it will be in 2018, in the basic sense that the game was kind of a blearily good-natured and half-hungover dunk-off between the best basketball players in the world. That’s about where the similarity ends.
In place of the ultra-produced, machine-tooled brand engagement delivery system that is both the current context and aesthetic for the All-Star Game, everything around the 1989 iteration of the game seemed to have been put together at random by someone in the NBA’s head office. His name is, say, Dennis, and he has been tasked with this job because he knows where all the folding chairs are and because he did it last year. He called the rental place.
He can explain if you need him to, but Dennis also commissioned a nine-minute rap tribute to that year’s All-Star team. He had the experimental Bronx rap weirdos Ultramagnetic MCs to do it—the people behind 1988's icy and strange Critical Beatdown, an acclaimed album that not all that many people bought. Them. I like to imagine Dennis explaining who Kool Keith and Ced Gee are to a younger David Stern. Maybe he plays Stern a song or two. Then Dennis tells him that if he liked Keith’s rhymes on “Ease Back,” he is going to love the lyrics he wrote about rectangular Portland Trail Blazers big man Kevin Duckworth.
Dennis probably doesn’t exist, but the song is very real. In 1989, the Ultramagnetic MCs really did record a nine-minute NBA All-Star tribute rap. It was aired on TV. This information is important to have before jumping into the story of three friends who have recorded their own versions of it, for each year’s NBA All-Star Team for the last 13 years.
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When Doug Schrashun, Brian Richardson, and Beau Alessi first came up with the idea of retooling Ultramagnetic’s concept for the 2006 NBA All-Star Game, their lives were very different. “The original all star jam was just one of the many stupid things the three of us were doing back then,” Schrashun told me. “We were in a band, we were going to do a triple album of covers, we were writing and recording a weekly radio drama.” It is only in the fullness of time and the consideration of how much change—intentional, growing-up life changes and the kinds that owe more to drift and circumstance—has come since then that the actual distance and duration of 13 years comes into view.
Only six of the 24 players from that 2006 All-Star Game are still playing in the league; the three people who rapped about them haven’t lived in the same city for a decade, and even the weekend recording sessions in Brooklyn of years past haven’t happened for some time. There are kids involved, and the sort of adult responsibilities that naturally tend to overtake people over the course of 13 years. But also, every year, someone makes a beat—Schrashun and Alessi each made one this year, and this year’s model is split down the middle between the two just as the Ultramagnetic original was—and the three decide who will be rapping about whom, write and perform their verses, and they put the song together virtually. “Interesting that this is the one thing we’re still doing at this point,” Schrashun says.
During the time that the three core people behind the project—a stable of past collaborators have come and gone—have been doing this, they’ve refined their approach significantly. Ideas came and went; the “stalker verse,” written from the perspective of, say, an obsessed Joe Johnson fan, fell by the wayside some time ago. The songs bloated up towards 15 minutes in length and then shrunk back down to this year’s lean 4:36. The three are all accomplished musicians—Alessi and Schrashun now play together in the band New Restaurants, and Richardson teaches music in Philadelphia’s public school system—and have made decent enough hobbyist rappers of themselves. They try on styles and try out goofball new ideas; in 2015, Alessi noted with some pride that, until his Dwyane Wade verse that year, they had not used one “your mother” joke.
There are many challenges inherent in doing a strange and obsessive thing like this song, logistical and creative and existential, but the three delight in creating new ones anyway. It’s been going on long enough that a planned apocalyptic theme for the 2017 model was scotched when the three realized that it was too close to the Last All-Star Game throughline of the 2012 edition. “We set out with a goal to attempt to narrate a game from start to finish,” Schrashun said of this year’s opus. “Turns out that’s hard. We got so confused about who was even playing. I think we left out Kemba Walker.”
They definitely left out Kemba Walker.
“It’s still fun for sure,” Schrashun says. “But it’s like anything, it’s not necessarily fun trying to find the time to do it. We procrastinate as much as possible.” Life has a way of narrowing on you over time; the things that you have to do squeeze and squeeze on the less essential things that are filed under want to do. Some are forced out of frame, eventually. The really good ideas—they often look like bad ideas, or at least very silly ideas—tend to survive that process. There is no real reason why these three dudes, or anyone else, should record a rap song about the NBA All-Star Team. There was no real reason for the NBA to have asked Ultramagnetic to have done so all those years ago. After 13 years, it’s also clear that there’s also no real reason to stop.