In the days after I spoke to Kenny “The Jet” Smith about a range of topics, the former NBA player — and longtime analyst on TNT’s Inside the NBA — walked off the set of the show in solidarity with players boycotting games as a result of the death of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI. It was a powerful statement from one of the most respected and honest voices we have in sports punditry today. But having just spoken to him — albeit about less important topics given the state of the country — the Jet isn’t shy about voicing his opinion.
What was your first Hip-Hop memory?
I'm first generation Hip-Hop, I always say. Meaning, I'm the one that made Hip-Hop... I'm the group of fans that made Hip-Hop popular. I was the one before ... By the time I got to Archbishop Molloy, Hip-Hop was becoming on wax. So the first song I heard was King Tim III on Marley Marl’s AM radio show. You had to find it just to find the one or two Hip-Hop records that would come up at night. I was sitting up at 12, one o'clock in the morning just for that one Hip-Hop song to come.
You can't talk about New York City without talking about the parks and the pick-up basketball. Do you see a correlation in it’s popularity?
If it wasn't for street basketball, there would be no Hip-Hop. Everybody's moms and dads would be at the park. The whole family comes to the games. The park would be packed. I remember this vividly. Then the game would be over and everybody would just be mulling around the park because no one wanted to go home because it was a nice summer day. I was about 11 or 12,. We started in July, and about August, and all of a sudden, you start seeing DJs at the parks. Because they were like, "Well, if everybody's here, let's have a block party.” then there was a guy on a microphone. It wasn’t “rap,” but he was doing crowd chants like, "Everybody throw your hands in the air! Wave them like you just don't care!" And then, there was a phrase people started calling, "Yes, yes, y'all! Yes, yes!" That was the first time I heard rhythm to it.” They would go all night. But if it wasn't for street basketball and hoops in New York, there might not be an audience for it. That was the audience.
Were names like Herc, Flash, and Hollywood on your radar at that point?
Oh, without question. Because those were the guys DJing. They were coming to the park and DJing. Then we started doing it in Queens. We started doing it in Queens parks, and then, I know how to open up a light post and get electricity for the DJ equipment. They used to be like,, "Yo, after the game, everybody who's six feet or over, you got to go help and bring the crates of music in." And we used to bring the stuff in, because we were the biggest guys that was still around.
The common trope is that every hooper wants to be an MC, and every MC wants to be a hooper…
I got 16 bars right now for you. It's a kid from Queens with two NBA rings dropping tracks. I can do my thing. We all have 16 bars ready right now.
How did you get involved with “The Basement” on BET?
Slick Rick got caught in a snowstorm. They were like, "Can you host this show?" I was like, "Are you kidding me? This is my jam!" That was after I started on Inside the NBA. I was confident to host “The Basement.” I knew television." What made me confident, is that I had my lines, too. I had that black and white notebook where the pages don't rip out. We all had one. Everybody who grew up, as Biggie said, "You slinging crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot.” You just had it in your hands; you had a basketball, and in your books: the science book, the math book, you had a line book. There's not a kid that grew up in that era that didn't do that.
When I look at you and Chuck, and Shaq, and Ernie, you’re constructed almost like the perfect rap group. You have the knowledge, you have the experience, you have the humor. Is that part of the fun of working with those guys?
I'm a first generation storyteller, so I gravitate towards the Slick Ricks, the Biggies, and the people who tell stories. That’s what I try to do with Inside the NBA. I'm telling a story. I almost do it like I'm doing radio, more than I'm doing TV. I want you to feel the fabric of what's going on. I don't want you to just see the suit, I want you to touch the fabric.
So maybe we don't get The Jet without Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” or Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story.”
No, you don't get that. As a basketball analyst I said that's how I have to approach telling the story about the game. I can't just give you the stats. Oh, this happened. This guy had 32 points, and he needed to play better. Anyone could tell you that, but I'm going to tell you why he can play, why he plays better or bad, or why he played great. I'm going to give you why. When? When is he going to do that? When is he going to pull that out of the bag? What's said in the locker room? How's the locker room smell? What's the popcorn? How did the popcorn vendor affect the game? I want you to know all of the things like you were there, like you were walking through the walk.
Let's say you got to be the commissioner of Hip-Hop for a week, or a month, or a year. What changes would you like to make?
My first thing would be, if you're distributing Hip-Hop music, and you do not have people who have been in the genre, you're not allowed to distribute. It's like having an NBA team, and have nobody who had ever played basketball. How could you not have Doc Rivers? How can you not have all the assistant coaches and guys who played in the league? How could you not have them in the front office? So the pioneers — the guys who created the genre — hey have to be part of the distribution process.
Who's LeBron in classic Hip-Hop?
I say LeBron is very similar to what JAY-Z because he's always going to be the goat of this era.
What about Russ Westbrook?
He's Chuck D. He’s Public Enemy Number One because he's so aggressive. People either don't like that, or they do love it.
He’s LL because he’s knocking you out. He's walking in with a bravado. I just think of Krush Groove when LL walked in and he's got the hat on.
Tell me a little about what’s happening with The Jet Academy
We created our own live streaming service where you can be part of the community with stars as your coaches like Kimba Walker, Trae Young, Victor Oladipo, Breanna Stewart, and Brittney Griner. My Hip-Hop goes back into this again. Anyone can train a kid. They could do the same drills that I do. But no one could tell you when and why to do it. That's the storytelling I got from Hip-Hop.
* HEADER CREDIT: Kenny Smith and Fat Joe attend the Kenny Smith All Star Bash at Metropolitan Nightclub on February 17, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)