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At one point, Kevin Ross was at the forefront of this generation’s rehabilitation of R&B. The DC native’s nostalgic-abiding slow jam “Long Song Away” topped Billboard’s Adult R&B Songs chart in March 2017. That chart has also seen his peers like Ro James, Daniel Caesar, H.E.R., Sevyn Streeter, and Ella Mai find the same success. This year, he’s on a mission to bring new life to that movement of millennials sharing the R&B airwaves with the legends they grew up listening to— and to infiltrate the public music conscience during the process. With his new EP, Audacity Vol. 1, he plans on a few tracks crossing over into formats geared towards younger audiences.
In recent months, there has been a lot of conversation online about the definition of “real R&B” and who in the new generation of stars are crafting it properly. On February 24, the discussion came to an explosive fever pitch when hip-hop artist, Young M.A tweeted, “Music don’t feel the same because we barely have R&B, ... R&B brung that balance to music...now everything is leanin one way smh so it gets played out quick! We need R&B for the balance no kap [sic]!”
For the next few days, opinions were split. Some— even as notable as music mogul Diddy— agreed with Young M.A’s stance, going as far as saying, “you can’t fake R&B.” However, the opposing side of R&B fans felt insulted, wondering if mainstream entities should be blamed for not putting more spotlight on those artists.
The fact of the matter is there is still a lot of “real R&B” out there. A soulful kind of R&B that matches the lifestyle and attitude of the vocalists, songwriters, and producers who are still holding down the genre’s origins. A simple dial tuning to adult R&B stations on terrestrial radio or Sirius XM’s Heart & Soul will reveal this to be the case.
Weeks prior to Young M.A’s comment, Kevin Ross is celebrating the release of Audacity, Vol. 1, his fourth EP since launching with 2014’s Dialogue In The Grey. The singer arrives two hours late to his own R&B themed party. At 10:10 PM on a cool President’s Day Monday, one of Koreatown’s many bars, Spot Karaoke, is flipped upside down as his roaring posse of friends, fans, and industry associates belt (and butcher) R&B classics of the past and present.
In Spot Karaoke’s open front lounge, the MC who queued song requests and his bartender assistant are a bit puzzled when Kevin Ross grabs the mic and “warms up” with an acapella role call. Without lyrics displaying on a screen, or the usual off-key instrumentals of karaoke songs, the singer starts out with The Deele’s 1987 classic, “Two Occasions.” The room responds back to Kevin Ross’s performance by comfortably finishing the chorus after figuring out the song.
Other audience members follow lead, performing rousing renditions of Kirk Franklin and The Nu Nation’s 1997 gospel-R&B hit “Stomp,” Aaliyah’s 1996 electro-staple “One In A Million,” and Brandy’s 1994 freshman ballad “Brokenhearted.” For a quick 30 minutes, it seemed as though Ross and the other talented individuals who kicked off the gathering had almost forgotten the rules of karaoke. Until someone finally holds up one of Spot’s many karaoke books and requests, “Can y’all do it to the music?”
Wearing a blue, yellow, and black striped Guess shirt tucked inside black overalls that had one pant leg rolled up to highlight his black Timbs, Ross oozes '90s homage with his “fashionably late” outfit. It’s the perfect look and segue into the first actual karaoke song of the night, Bel Biv Devoe’s defining New Jack Swing cut, “Poison.”
During the run of selections ranging from Sunshine Anderson’s “Heard It All Before” to Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” the room would break out into choreographed dance breaks, including a House Party moment to “Poison,” swaying to Lloyd’s hook on Young Money’s “Bedrock,” and a boy band moment to *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.”
The attendees get into an uproar when they realize that The Maze and Frankie Beverly’s “Before I Let Go” is not in Spot’s karaoke book. The session reverts back into an acapella roll call, with a soul train line forming to do the electric slide. However, Lauryn Hill’s starring Sister Act 2 gospel ode “Joyful Joyful” is in the karaoke queue to close out the night.
The following afternoon, Kevin Ross appears more business casual when he’s visiting the VIBE office in Times Square. “Oh, you’re the guy that sang ‘Wild Thoughts’ last night!” he says as we get reacquainted. (Yes, I couldn’t refuse the opportunity of performing all of Rihanna, Bryson Tiller, and DJ Khaled’s parts during the festive night.)
Easing into a conversation about Audacity, I had to bring up an encounter with one of his fans — who eventually left before Ross’s arrival. “She DM’ed me, and she was like, ‘Hey, where you at?’ And I was like ‘Hey, they’re still trying to figure everything out,’” Ross explains. The singer has a strong connection to his fans: celebrating the birthday of one at his karaoke night and making it up to another by giving her free tickets to his Philly show.
As he’s blaring select cuts from Audacity to VIBE’s editorial staff, I notice that “Let It Out” and “Switching Sides” are the two favorites that his impatient fan described. She enjoyed the more sexual nature of the cuts because she had never heard Ross sing like that before. The trap percussions and lascivious vocals of both songs sharply contrast the singer’s self-described “peace and love” vibes on his 2017 debut album, The Awakening, or “This Is My Wish,” his breakout jingle from a 2014 Glade holiday commercial.
“What I did on Audacity was I had an ego,” Ross highlights. “But that’s kind of like my alter ego. That’s when you get the more sensual, sexual stuff.” He finishes off by saying, “I’m a grown man… And I think that shouldn’t be glazed over.”
The new territory the singer finds himself in as a solo artist is not much different from what he’s penned as a songwriter for a long list of others, including Toni Braxton and Tank. During his karaoke session, someone snuck in Trey Songz’s 2014 sex anthem, “Touchin, Lovin” for Ross to perform. “I wrote this one,” he gleefully says during the opening instrumental before matching the tone of Trey Songz. At the office, he acknowledges, “I think if people listened closely and they understood my journey as a writer, I have a history of overt writing anyways.”
The reason for naming his new EP, Audacity, is because Ross “had the balls to leave” his former label Motown Records. With a laugh, he further explains that he went independent with his own label, Art Society Music Group, and a distribution deal with EMPIRE.
“I’m a lot freer,” rejoices a confident Ross, “There are less cooks in the kitchen.” He continues: “When you take away a lot of people’s opinions and you really get down to the art and the creativity of it, [you] get to the soul and the honesty and the transparency.” The decision also came with the “autonomy” of owning his own masters from this point forward, working during the process to eventually own those of his previous songs.
Sitting alongside Kevin Ross through all of this— and even co-hosting the R&B karaoke night— is Canjelae, the Tammi Terrell to Ross’s Marvin Gaye. New sentence: Growing up in Bermuda, Canjelae used to read VIBE, and now she’s in awe of this cultural connection made possible by her friend and mentor. They started out as friends of ten years, meeting when both studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Now they’re hoping to take their newly cemented recording partnership into a new dimension.
“I write a majority of my own stuff,” boasts Canjelae, as Ross co-signs with a “yep!” in the background. However, she goes on to explain that she “stole his laptop” and fell in love with a song called “Necessary Evil,” which talks about a past doomed relationship where the woman realizes she “trained” her ex to be better for the next.
Both artists plan on releasing “Everybody Here Wants You,” an early 2000s quiet storm cover of Jeff Buckley’s song of the same name. Their feminine and masculine balanced falsettos are reminiscent of Usher’s “Can U Handle It.” When they play it at the office, a rare moment happens with VIBE’s editor in chief, Datwon Thomas, popping into the room to give his props, prompting the singers to run back their potential hit that’s slated for a late spring release.
Canjelae— who is inspired by Amel Larrieux of Groove Theory, as well as the star power of Beyoncé— will soon be releasing Cave Covers, which will include a spin on Missy Elliott’s “DripDemeanor.” Mapping out the project, Canjelae notes that she’ll also be covering Sade’s “By Your Side” and Brandy’s “Brokenhearted.”
While Kevin Ross is smoothly calculated in his demeanor, Canjelae is slightly timid but nonetheless assured in hers. At that moment, she’s breaking down how “pop has always been the music that Black people were listening to at the time that everyone else wants to love too.”
The duo’s intellectual takes on the industry at large are what could potentially make their upcoming collab lethal. “Right now, pop is sounding a lot like R&B, trap, reggae, and afrobeats,” points out Canjelae. “And I am loving it as an island girl who loves R&B and everything else.”
When asked how both feel to see non-Black artists such as Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber receive more mainstream success (at the time of the interview, Bieber notched two No. 1 songs from his Changes album on the R&B Songs chart), they take no issue. Canjelae starts by saying, “I don’t feel like I’m competing [against those artists] because everything that I make is my culture, so how could I be competing?”
She finishes off, almost as if she’s simultaneously giving the definition of what real R&B should stand for. “We’re coming to a time where people want to hear the music from the people that are living the life.”
In the background of his friend's words, Kevin Ross preaches a “facts!” and adds “I don’t think that we should barricade the genre [of R&B]. That just creates division.”
The recent loss of legends in jazz, soul and classical music have saddened the music industry and reminded us of their touching gifts to music. The passing of Manu Dibango, Krzysztof Penderecki, Ellis Marsalis Jr., Bucky Pizzarelli and Alan Merrill brought endless tributes from peers and fans with the recent loss of soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers doing the same.
With a mirage of hits, the iconic songwriter left his mark on music with the release of his debut album Just As I Am in 1971. "Ain't No Sunshine" put a spotlight on his songwriting while 1977's "Lovely Day" reminded the industry of his signature vocals. Withers released eight studio albums, one live album and garnered three Grammys for his powerful songs that gave hope and love to fans to this day.
Hip-hop and R&B have gained the most from Withers as his music went on to inspire records like "No Diggity" by BLACKStreet, "Roses" by Kanye West and other songs from UGK, Dr. Dre, Jill Scott and more.
Take a look at some of Withers' finest tunes covered, remixed and sampled below.
__8. “Lovely Day” | Menagerie (1977)
Sampled On: T.W.D.Y., “Player’s Holiday” | Derty Werk (1999) LunchMoneyLewis - “It's Gonna Be A Lovely Day” feat. Aminè | Pets 2 Soundtrack (2019) Swizz Beatz - “Take A Picture” |One Man Band (2007)
Standout: T.W.D.Y., “Player’s Holiday” | Derty Werk (1999)
Short for "The Whole Damn Yay," the group used Withers' sample while throwing a splash of The Bay's laid back flavor. With cameos from future legends like E-40 and Ray Luv, the single already embodied the best of R&B and hip-hop with guest verses from Too Short, Mac Mall and Otis & Shug. The mimosas and yacht are also a great touch.
Covered By: Jill Scott, The Original Jill Scott from the Vault Vol. 1 (2011) Alt-J, This Is All Yours (2014) Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2 (2013) Kirk Franklin, The Nu Nation Project (1998)
Standout: Kirk Franklin, The Nu Nation Project (1998)
Who was going to beat a chorus singing to the lordt? Franklin's take on the classic gives us stirring gospel and appreciation for Withers and God. There are plenty of covers that have lifted the same vocals as Withers, but the ones listed have put their unique spin on the track.7. “Ain't No Sunshine” | Just As I Am (1971)
Sampled On: DMX - “No Sunshine” | Exit Wounds Soundtrack (2001) Lil B - “Up And Down” | Based Jam (2012) 2Pac- "Soulja's Story" | 2Pacalypse Now (1991)
Standout: DMX - “No Sunshine” | Exit Wounds Soundtrack (2001)
"No Sunshine" served as the only single from DMX's film alongside Steven Seagal, which gave everyone the perfect backdrop to the movie and X's intricate storytelling. Both the original and flipped version points out the dark elements of our lives. Withers penned the song after watching the film 1962 movie Days of Wine and Roses, he pondered over the toxicity in his life. "Sometimes you miss things that weren't particularly good for you," he said in 2004 to SongFacts. "It's just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I'm not aware of."
Covered By: Soul For Real | Candy Rain (1994) Michael Jackson | Got to Be There (1972) The Boris Gardiner Happening | Is What's Happening (1973) The Temptations | Solid Rock (1972)
Standout: Michael Jackson | Got to Be There (1972)
At 14, the future King of Pop gave a riveting cover of Withers' hit for his debut album, Got To Be There. From his vocal control throughout the track to the instrumentation, his cover takes the song to another level of heartbreak.6. "Grandma's Hands” | Just As I Am (1971)
Sampled On: BLACKstreet - “No Diggity” feat. Dr. Dre and Queen Pen | Another Level (1996) Big K.R.I.T. - “I Gotta Stay” | K.R.I.T. Wuz Here (2010) Brother Ali - “Waheedah's Hands” | Champion (2004)
Standout: BLACKstreet - “No Diggity” feat. Dr. Dre and Queen Pen | Another Level (1996)
R&B heads are well aware of BLACKstreet's neverending ballads and the genius of Teddy Riley. But the pivot of their sound for their sophomore album Another Level was due to Withers and the William “Stylez” Stewart. Speaking to Fact Mag in 2017, the creator of New Jack Swing gave credit to Stylez for bringing him the sample of "Grandma's Hands."
“If he hadn’t played that sample for me, there would never be a ‘No Diggity’ And if he didn’t write it according to the melody I gave him so it would sound that way because I wanted it to sound funky,” he said. “I wanted it to be appealing to everyone, but mostly to women. I wanted every woman to feel like they were the ‘No Diggity’ girl and that song was about them and it came across. And now, still, today, that song plays and people are on that dancefloor.”
Covered By: Gil Scott-Heron, Reflections (1981) Merry Clayton, Merry Clayton (1971) Barbra Streisand, Butterfly (1974)
Standout: Gil Scott-Heron, Reflections (1981)
Gil Scott-Heron's version of the soul classic reminded us of his versatile talents. From spoken word to his vocal abilities, the Godfather of rap music always came through with his own sound and style. Reflections was one of four albums the late artist dropped in the 80s with critics looking to it as one of his finest projects. Other cuts from the album included "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" and "B Love."5. "Use Me" | Still Bill (1972)
Sampled On: Kendrick Lamar - “Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" | Good kid, Maad City (2012) J. Cole- "Dollar And A Dream II" | The Warm-Up (2009) Leela James - “So Good" | Fall For You (2014) UGK - "Use Me Up" | The Southern Way (1992)
Standout: Kendrick Lamar - “Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" | Good kid, Maad City (2012)
Lamar's take on "Use Me" blended right into the themes of his debut album, Good kid, Maad City allowing the artist to create another world on the project. To make things even better, Lamar also sampled Al Green's "I'm Glad You're Mine" for the track.
Covered By: Grace Jones, Indigo Nights, Live (2008) Mick Jagger feat. Lenny Kravitz, Wandering Spirit (2004) Issac Hayes, Dr. Dolittle Soundtrack (1998)
Standout: Mick Jagger feat. Lenny Kravitz, Wandering Spirit (2004)
On his third solo album, Jagger linked with Rick Rubin to test his creative energy, allowing him to work with Lenny Kravitz on their version of "Use Me." Colliding worlds was one thing but to hear Kravitz's vocals come in on the bridge, set the track apart from the rest.4. “Kissing My Love” | Still Bill (1972)
Sampled On: J. Cole - “The Cut Off" featuring kiLL Edward | KOD (2018) Dr. Dre - "Let Me Ride" featuring Snoop Dogg, RC and Jewell | The Chronic (1992) Masta Ace- "Movin On" | Take A Look Around (1990) Master P- "Bastard Child" | The Ghettos Tryin To Kill Me! | 1994
Standout: Dr. Dre - "Let Me Ride" featuring Snoop Dogg, RC and Jewell | The Chronic (1992)
"Kissing My Love" is one of most sampled from Withers catalog, thanks to its feverish drums. It's also why it fits into Dr. Dre's single and the G-funk era.3. Grover Washington's “Just The Two of Us” featuring Bill Withers | Winelight (1981)
Sampled/Covered On: Will Smith - “Just The Two of Us” | Big Willie Style (1997) Eminem- "Just The Two of Us" | Slim Shady EP (1997) Keri Hilson- "Pretty Girl Rock" | No Boys Allowed (2010)
Standout: Will Smith - “Just The Two of Us” | Big Willie Style (1997)
Touching and soulful, Smith's dedication to his eldest son Trey is just too cute for words.2. “Let It Be” | Just As I Am (1967)
The Original: The Beatles - “Let It Be” | Let It Be (1968)
"Let It Be" is a pretty special record. Aretha Franklin recorded a version a year before the release of The Beatles' version and Withers gave his take on the record in the 70s. Slightly faster, his upbeat take on "Let It Be" just hits different.1. “Rosie” | Menagerie Re-Issue (1977)
Sampled On: Kanye West - “Roses” | Late Registration (2005)
As the somber part of Late Registration, "Roses" brings us into Kanye's world where he contemplates the mortality of a loved one. It's a sentimental take on the sample and one of the artist's most underrated songs. It's also a hidden gem for Withers as it isn't featured on Menagerie's LP. It was added as a bonus track on
Enjoy the jams in playlist form below.
The epicenter of culture and entertainment, New York City is known as the land where stars are born and legends are made. The birthplace of hip-hop and the mecca of basketball, the grittiness of life within the five boroughs has cultivated an innumerable amount of creatives notorious for their tenacity in the booth, as well as talented athletes known for their exploits on the hardwood. Stringing rhymes together may not have been Stephon Marbury's claim to fame, but his story of surviving the projects of Coney Island and using his athletic talent to reach fame and fortune has made him a global hero. His journey is examined in the new documentary, A Kid From Coney Island.
Chronicling Stephon's journey from Coney Island's Surfside Gardens housing projects to Beijing, China, the film documents his family's lineage within the basketball world, his meteoric rise as a high school prodigy, the successful, yet tumultuous NBA career that followed, and how he rediscovered himself thousands of miles away from home. Directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, and executive produced by NBA superstar Kevin Durant, A Kid From Coney Island came to life when producers Jason Samuel and Nina Yang Bongiovio reached out to Coodie and Chike, who were working with Samuels on the HBO documentary Legacy of a King, to jump on board.
From there, Coodie and Chike met with Marbury, with both parties bonding over their spiritual backgrounds and focus on family, earning the trust that would result in a transparent glimpse into the inner workings of his life and the chain of events that led to his most controversial moments. With Hollywood veteran Forest Whitaker in the fold as a producer, the last domino to fall would be Kevin Durant, who, along with his business partner Rich Kleiman, expressed an interest in taking on the project under their Thirty Five Ventures media company. "Kev, him and Rich Kleiman, they came in as executive producers and [out of] his love for Stephon," Coodie explains. "And then when they saw the final product, they wanted to definitely support it and made sure that we got it out there for these kids to see. It was an important story to him."
In addition to Marbury's exploits on the court, A Kid From Coney Island also touches on his impact as one of the first NBA players to fully embrace and embody the look, attitude, and vibe of hip-hop culture, a period which Coodie Simmons recalls fondly. "It was definitely the golden age of hip-hop, 96, that era," he shares. "And it was the emergence of hip-hop and basketball. We seen it, it happened with Stephon and A.I. and Kobe Bryant and all of them guys who came in, 'cause you'd see Magic Johnson and 'em, they're suited up. Or even Mike, Mike had his tailor-made suits so that's all we'd pretty much seen, but when those guys came in, they had to change the dress code because of them guys."
One of the directors' goals for the project was to help humanize Stephon Marbury and illustrate the toll that mental health can take on a person's psyche, whether it be a world-class athlete or not. "For those that don't know Steph, I think that they will just get a great story of redemption," Coodie says. "Of not quitting and going somewhere to actually succeed. When we weren't welcome in one place,we went somewhere else and made it happen. And then I think, two, the whole depression and mental health, people don't really understand that in our community that's real big, but we ignore it or we shun it away, we don't get therapy like we need, so I think people will see Stephon's story as a redemption and really inspire 'em. His story will inspire so many when they see it and those who knew Steph and remember him from the NBA, I think they will see that he's a real person."
Featuring a cast that includes Ray Allen, Fat Joe, Chauncey Billups, Cam'ron, Stephen A. Smith, DJ Clark Kent, Bonz Malone, Set Free Richardson, and more, A Kid From Coney Island is a riveting watch for any sports or hip-hop fan and gives insight to the life and times of one of the most beloved athletes of the hip-hop generation. While the film’s theatre release was thwarted by the coronavirus, it’s now available to watch and own digitally.
VIBE hopped on the phone and spoke with Stephon Marbury about his journey across the globe, his role in solidifying the marriage between basketball and hip-hop, and what it means to be A Kid From Coney Island.
VIBE: How did the idea to document your journey from Coney Island to Asia and back come to life? Stephon Marbury: Well, it started with talking about my experiences and my journey and all of the stuff that was going on in my life. When we spoke about these different things, about four years ago, we were speaking about doing a biopic movie and then we said there was an opportunity to do a documentary. They said, “Well, why don't we start it off with a documentary first before we do a biopic movie, that would be pretty cool to tell the story and get people to understand what had taken place.” So then we went into speaking and talking about all of the different things that I've done and about us documenting what was going on in China. We did that for a whole season, a whole year, and then it pretty much came to life after putting all of the right people in place and making sure they could execute the flair.
Kevin Durant is one of the executive producers on the documentary. How would you describe your relationship? Kevin Durant, I've been watching him since he first came into college and he ventured off in Thirty Five Ventures, the media company. The opportunity came about where he wanted to be a part of it. After he watched it he asked me. … I have a lot of love for him, his game and what he tries to do off of the basketball court, trying to help people. And he's one of the best basketball players on the planet. So him coming on board was right in alignment with what we were doing and having his own media company.
What was it like working with Coodie and Chike on the film and how would you describe that dynamic? Those two, they're authentic, they're real. They understand capturing the moments that people need to capture from what we put on the screen, to want to be inspired and want to reach higher. To want to have that motor and that motivation to keep pushing forward throughout the ups and downs of going through life. People can watch, and hear it, people can listen. Those guys have their style and what they want the world to see, and I think working with those two guys, they had the vision. Along with partnering up with Jason Samuel. And having Forest Whitaker basically oversee and make sure it looks the way it needs to look and sounds the way it needs to sound for people to resonate with the story.
New York City is notorious for its crack epidemic and the violence that came as a byproduct of it, which coincided with your own coming of age. The documentary covers how that environment also sheltered you and provided a safe haven for you to hone your talents in. How would you say that relationship with the people in your community shaped you as a man and inspired your drive and will to win? I was blessed to grow up in the projects, where I was able to have my mom, my dad and brothers and sisters guide me in the way that I needed to be guided. So me, having that spiritual-based background, I've always been able to understand what it was that I was pushing for and what I was looking to see for myself. And I had the faith and I trusted a higher power to get me through those obstacles. Coming from Coney Island, you get the bitter and the sweet, as far as growing up in an impoverished area, in the ghetto. whatever you wanna call it. I come from that, and to make it better was the only resort.
One of the common themes that is touched on throughout the documentary is the bond you have with your family and your lineage within the basketball community. How important was it to highlight the role your family played in your journey? It's all about stories. I pretty much cultivated all of their thinking and doings on the court, and their ways and how they see the game should be played, I put that all together. When you see me on the court, as the person that's playing in the NBA, but all of their games are entwined into my game and they taught me all of what I know and I was able to take something from each and every one of them. But for me, having them and my family - my mom and my dad, bless my dad's soul, he's not here anymore - to have them be able to give me not only the tools, but to help me utilize the tools [was great].
You were also one of the first basketball players to truly embody and exude an aura comparable to a rap or neighborhood, from the part in your hair to the earrings, tats, jewelry and that whole rugged demeanor. At that time, was it important for you to display that look and attitude for the world to see? That '96 era, B.I.G., Pac, Nas, what they did during that time was a correlation to what we were doing in basketball, Iverson, myself, so that was our era. That's what we were listening to during these times. So because of that, that direct correlation had an impact on the culture and what we did and how we did things, so we grew up with that type of swag. We had that atmosphere around us at all times, which was a motivation and push to inspire us to do great things. To be different, to create abstract things on the court. To go on the court and do what you do, play how you play. You get to paint your vision and your idea of who you are as a basketball player on the court. They gave us that culture side on that music side for that part.
Your draft night moment is one of the most memorable in the history of the NBA and was a moment that was not only about you, but your whole family. What emotions did seeing that footage 25 years later bring to the surface? It was an amazing time and it was a very emotional, impactful moment, not only for myself and my family, but all of the people from Coney Island. Somebody made it from where we're from, doing something that we love to do, so all of the emotions they run high and stay high and it's always something that will continue to be impactful. And that will continue to be monumental because we did it together, it was a team effort, what we were able to accomplish.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the documentary is your relationship with Kevin Garnett and how your careers and journies would become synonymous with one another. How would you say that brotherhood impacted both of you during your coming of age? It always was love and will always be love. For me, I stay consistent in who I was and how I was as a basketball player and as a person. Sharing the court with Kev, he's doing something to help me and I'm doing something to help him and we made each other wise when we played [with each other] on the basketball court.
The documentary also highlights you being a host to other future pros like Chauncey Billups and others. How did these relationships form and manifest in kids coming from all over the country to visit you in Coney Island, Brooklyn? Basketball. I mean, Chauncey was at an All-American camp and when he was at All-American [camp], I was like, 'Why don't you just come to Coney Island and stay,' so when he's staying he was shocked, he was blown away. I'll never forget, it was one of the hottest days during that time in the summertime and we didn't have no air-conditioner and we were on the hunt trying to find a fan, but you couldn't find a fan. He was like, 'Man, I ain't ever experience being in the projects, all of these big buildings and just seeing how people live and all of that.” It was fun to give someone that experience and Chauncey and I are still friends as we speak. I've known him since high school and he's one of the people who I've stayed in touch with, talked with, and has just been an inspiration in our lives. Not just in basketball, but seeing all of what he's doing and how he's trying to help people. Building these bonds and building these relationships as basketball players is all because of the ball,and the ball gives the opportunity for people to connect.
New York City basketball was very competitive, with players like you, Felipe Lopez, God Shammgod and others in heated competition, and is now considered a golden era for the city. What were those battles against guards like Rafer Alston and Shammgod like and did you feel the weight of that competition for the top spot? Nah, I just did what I did and went on the court and played the way so that I'd get myself to be where I could be. I always felt like if you wanna be the best, you gotta play against the best, you gotta dominate against the best. You gotta just show and prove what you can do, and in New York, you know you're always gonna have that competition on the court, you gotta have that drive and that motor in New York in order to be the top. And those guys were some of the top players in the world so everybody was going for it to be one of the top, which was pushing us to fight and try to make it in the NBA."
With all of the similarities, the belief has always been that He Got Game was inspired by your own story of being a coveted basketball prospect out of Coney Island, which is covered in the documentary. Did you have a relationship with Spike prior to the film and did he ever reach out to you personally during that time? Yeah, he reached out to me. He wanted me to audition and I wouldn't audition to play me so that's how that pretty much went. And I understood what he was saying later, but I still didn't understand then because I was like, 'You want me to play me?' But it was about acting, it wasn't really about playing the part, which was understandable, but the movie was a well-written movie. It wasn't all true. Like some of it's true, a lot of it's not true, but it was a great basketball movie to tell a story about a player who came from a place [like Coney Island].
You and KG were one of the first athletes to go outside of the traditional system and sign a shoe deal with AND1, who were up and coming at the time. How did you get involved with the brand and what were some of the other opportunities you turned down in favor of working with AND1 that you can mention? During that time, we could've signed with anybody. Anybody would've signed us, but AND1, at the time, all they had was T-shirts of, like, Larry Johnson on 'em with Grandmama, so for me it was an opportunity to build something from the ground up. It was something that was different, it was something that was unique because it was different and they were willing to sell shoes at a reasonable price point.
Your transition to Minnesota and being away from your family was touched on in the film. How would you describe that distance between you and that core unit affected your tenure there? I mean, it was different. I went from New York, where it's a melting pot, to Atlanta, where it's predominantly black where I was at, and went to Minnesota, where it's primarily white. But for myself, around that time, at a young age, that was a culture shock to me, which was part of my decision in me wanting to go back home and play in the tri-state area. I wanted to be in a culturally diverse city, [like] where I was from. That was when I was young and then, as I grew older, I started to see what people were saying as far as, "Oh, you see the possibilities about you and Kevin Garnett playing together for so many years in Minnesota?' I was like, "Yeah, I can see that," but I would've had to spend seven years in Minnesota and it wasn't just about basketball with me, I had a life as well. It snowed all the time and it's always cold, there's 10,000 lakes. Weather watch season, warning watches. Like, "If you go outside today, you can die if you get caught outside." There's things like that, just from natural habitat, to put myself in that position where I would have to make a decision for life and death things, which that's every day, all of the time, but because of the weather? I couldn't receive that message at the time and stay in a place like that. It was never about basketball or playing with Kevin.
One of the highlights of the documentary is your performances in the EBC tournament at Rucker Park, which you were a long-time participant in. What are some of your favorite memories from those tournaments and how would you say your impact helped bridge the gap between streetball and the NBA? When you play against guys that could've or should've made it to the NBA, not only are those guys reminders of our lifestyle from the street guys that didn't get to make it, it's fun because they get an opportunity to see the difference in why you're playing in the NBA and why some may not make it. Because you got guys in the NBA that can't play in the Rucker, they don't know how to get on the court and play that style, but you put them in an NBA game and they can play. Not everyone can perform on that stage, playing in the Rucker. Now, with the way our basketball is right now, you gotta be able to do both.
What's the backstory to your relationship with Fat Joe, who also appears in the documentary? I mean, we just clicked since when I was playing with the Nets, and this goes back to '99, over twenty years. And our relationship has just been love, that's all. He's real funny, he's real, he's street, he's Joe (laughs), you know, so our relationship just grew and built from that. He was like, 'Yo, I'm putting together a team at the Rucker.' I was like, 'I'm down, what's up.' He was like, 'Steph, five, I need this chip, five.' I'm like, 'That's done, don't worry about that. We gonna get that.'
Were there any moments in the documentary that were raw to the point you were a bit hesitant to touch on or revisit? Nah. My life is my life, what happened is what happened, it's a part of it. One dude was like, 'Ah, you were crying on the internet.' I said, 'I see people cry every day when people die, I can't cry about my dad? I can't cry about me having a moment from my father eating Vaselines?' I was like, 'I'll eat Vaseline right now, in front of your face’ (laughs). People stick needles in their arm or their mom sniffs coke, and I was like, 'You're talking about me eating Vaseline?' It doesn't make sense. It's okay for you to speak about something that everybody talked about and that's all they talk about. And I was like, 'If that makes me crazy, I'm sorry for the people that are born with the things that make them crazy.
Aside from old video clips, you don't appear in the documentary until you begin recounting your transition to China. Whose decision was that and what, if any significance, do you think that added to conveying the gravity of that moment? It's storytelling. The story speaks for itself, it tells the whole tale until I started talking. The way they did it was perfect. When I come on, it's picking up from where everyone watched and when I say watched, I mean the time frame of what was going on in my life. But no one knows about China. So that's why I told the story about China.
Towards the end of the documentary, you visit a local barbershop in Coney Island and befriend a young child, which results in one of the more emotional scenes in the film. Can you take me through what was running through your mind at the moment and why the child's answer to your question about him being president garnered that response? Nobody ever told him that he can be anything, that he can be the president. He just thought that, 'Oh, only these people can be the president,' no, you can be the president, too. So for us to be able to teach these children and give these kids the idea of, 'You can do this and you can do that,' that's really what it's about. It's not really about anything else because we're gonna leave this space and go to another space when we pass on and they will be the ones that will be here to continue. And then what we want them to pass on to the next generation. Encouraging and giving them the idea that they can do whatever they wanna do on the earth if they aspire to do that."
China was a spiritual awakening for you, it seems. How would you say that experience helped you heal and grow in different areas? One of my mentors said to me, “Steph, it's like going on a retreat,” before I went, and that's exactly what it was. It was not only a spiritual journey and a spiritual awakening, to be able to have gone over there to do some of the things that I've done, it was all in accordance and it's all in the plan as far as what was bound to happen in your life, but you don't know there's something going on 7,000 miles away. Like, if somebody told you, “Oh, if you go over there, these things are gonna happen.” What's gonna happen? “Oh, you're gonna have two statues, a museum, you're gonna have three championships.” You're gonna be looking at them like, no way, not a kid from Coney Island is gonna receive all of these different things. “Yeah, this is what's gonna happen, you're gonna go to China and you're gonna do this, you're gonna do that and this is gonna happen, that's gonna happen and you're gonna be one of the people that makes China a basketball country.” That's not something that you think about or dream about. So going there was part of my story, it's part of my history, it was part of what was going to put me back into a space within myself where it was going to allow me to be focused in my life. So for me, seeing it play out how it played out, I'm blessed and thankful that I was able to see my obstacles, but at the same time, have the guts to continue to go forward. I felt like I wasn't gonna be able to.
What do you hope viewers take away from this documentary after watching it? Become more aware of the truth because when you can tell your own truth people can get a better understanding of the lies that were told. That's how I like to look at it because a lot of people had a lot to say about what happened and what went on with my life and my journey, but they weren't living in my journey, they were only reading about my journey. I think they see this, they'll have a better understanding because sometimes people just don't know and they go with what they think and then they talk about what they think or what they heard. And more importantly, I hope people can become inspired by it, to do what they feel they wanna do in their lives and go for it.