“Hey, Jon B’s in the house!” says Kobe Bryant, laughing, when I step into New York’s Hit Factory.
“Money, you trying to snap?” I ask. “That’s why you’re wearing bell-bottoms.” It’s no surprise Kobe and I get along. We share passions—for hip-hop and basketball—and the same high school alma mater, Lower Merion, in Ardmore, Pa. Although I graduated twelve years before he did, I felt much pride when he made our school a household name in 1996, the year he jumped from his senior year in high school to the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers.
In ’98, Kobe represented again as the youngest player in history to play in an NBA All-Star game. And while the current league lockout threatens to shut down the Lakers’ dreams of a 1999 championship, Kobe’s not sweating it. The six-foot-seven-inch guard’s making moves as CEO and president of the one-year-old Kobe Family Entertainment. He’s also picking up the mike as part of rap group signed to Trackmasters/Columbia. After our interview, he played me some milky-thick instrumentals, then later he rocked complex rhymes during his interview on New York’s Hot 97 FM (WQHT). This cat Kobe is smart. And cool—mad cool.
Public Enemy—”Brothers Gonna Work It Out” (Def Jam, 1990)
B: Do you know this song?
K.B.: It’s Public Enemy. Everybody knows them. Back in the day, me and my cousin used to do the Flavor Flav dance! My grandma would be like, “Kobe, what are you doing? You got an itch down there?” I’d be like, Grandma, it’s the new dance.
B: I used to work at Def Jam—from ’89 to ’93—and Flav would come into the office and literally take it over. Nothing could be done, workwise, while he was there. One time, he got on top of my desk and was doing his dance. He was like that all the time. It wasn’t an act for the stage or videos. That’s just Flav.
De La Soul Featuring Pete Rock and InI––”Stay Away” (unreleased bootleg, 1998)
B: This record is beautiful. Do you like it?
K.B.: Hell yeah. It makes you want to listen and do nothing else. Not like some other songs—you hear them and want to punch the table. Even the lyrics have a melody. De La always bring it lyrically. You can always expect that they’ll rhyme honestly about what they see.
B: I can listen to their first album, which is ten years old, and still not know what the fuck they’re talking about. Regardless, their voices, delivery, flow, and intelligence make them one of my favorites of all time.
K.B.: When one of their songs comes on, you have to listen. But today, a lot of people don’t have the patience for that.
B: Do you have a different name for yourself as an MC?
K.B.: Kobe, plain and simple.
B: What’s the name of your group?
K.B..: Cheizaw. It stands for Canon Homo sapiens Eclectic Iconic Zaibatsu Abstract Words. Canon is the ruler of the spiritual body. Homo sapien is the [scientific] term for human beings. Eclectic means choosing the best of very diverse styles. Icon is a symbol. Zaibatsu is a Japanese word for powerful family. Abstract makes concentration very difficult. Words, meaning lyrics. That’s Cheizaw—that’s how we’re putting it down. Six members, all from Philly…Illadelph!
4 Hero—”Loveless” featuring Ursula Rucker (Talkin Loud/Mercury, 1998)
K.B.: I feel that joint to the most. I love the most. Who is that?
B: It’s a drum n’ bass group called 4 Hero, out of London. The poet, Ursula, is from Philly. She’s on the Roots’ first two albums, Do You Want More?!!!??! (DGC, 1995) and Illadelph Halflife (Geffen, 1996), and I hear she does a poem on their upcoming release too. She’s ill—on some emotional poetry shit.
K.B.: Yeah, man. I love poetry. Don’t you have a famous [poetry] spot out here [in New York]?
B: The Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe. My man Ricky and I do shows there twice a month. Common, Wyclef, Saul Williams from the movie Slam, and Roy Hargrove have all come down and jammed.
K.B.: I’ve never been to a spot like that before, but I love poetry. I love writing it.
B: Have you ever checked out Gil-Scott Heron? I highly recommend him.
Nancy Wilson—”Call Me” (Pickwick/Capitol, 1966)
K.B.: Sounds like the melody from that TV show, from back in the day. The one with two girls in it…two roommates…
B: Three’s Company?
K.B.: Nah, I think it was Laverne & Shirley…I don’t know this record at all. I don’t know what you want me to say.
B: Well, does it make you happy or sad? Does it make you want to take a sh*t?
K.B.: It makes me…[snaps his fingers and shimmies with his shoulders]. You know what I mean? Ha, ha!