Michael Jordan and rap go hand-in hand. This notion was made abundantly clear in The Last Dance, the ESPN docuseries that aired in April to huge acclaim and viewership. The series sets Jordan’s rise to hip-hop’s golden era, pairing his high-flying highlights with classic songs by LL Cool J, Eric B & Rakim, Outkast and more. Each of these audio-visual time capsules only reinforced the sense of overwhelming nostalgia underpinning the series.
But while The Last Dance is backwards-looking, a funny thing has happened in the months since its release: it’s had a disproportionate impact on the hip-hop of the present. If you listened to rap radio today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ‘96 Bulls were still at their athletic peak. Jordan, his teammates and his foes have been referenced over and over: by Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, YG, Future, Freddie Gibbs, and many other artists. The current no. 1, 3 and 9 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 all allude to the show in some way.
So while The Last Dance glorified a past era of hip-hop, it’s unwittingly informing a new one. And as the show arrives to a much bigger audience on Netflix this week, its impact will likely continue to proliferate. Here are the ways the series has made its way into lyric form, and the reasons why hip-hop artists have embraced it so fully.
Michael Jordan has long been the subject of rap lyricism, serving as a symbol of unparalleled greatness. While the man himself wasn’t much of a hip-hop fan, many rappers have claimed his story as native to their culture: a swaggering, self-made underdog who overcomes every obstacle to prove himself as a legend. “Basketball and hip-hop are synonymous as far as their competitive nature of everybody wanting to be the best,” the hip-hop artist Nick Grant tells TIME. “We’ve never seen someone so dedicated to his team and his craft as Michael—and everybody follows that blueprint.”
Since The Last Dance, references to Jordan are seemingly everywhere. On Gucci Mane’s “Step Out,” Future announces his arrival on the track by rapping, “I jump in a party, b-tch, you know I’m flyer than Michael Jordan.” On “Where They Go,” the Chicago-based Lil Durk invokes Jordan’s name as a claim to the throne of his city: “Chiraq, I’m Jordan, so I wonder who Pippen?” On “Timeless,” Tee Grizzley draws motivation from Jordan’s indomitable work ethic: “Michael Jordan used to shoot a thousand shots a day.” JayDaYoungan, a huge Jordan fan, named his latest album, Baby23, after Jordan’s number.
Of course, Jordan wasn’t just influential as a basketball player: his Air Jordan sneakers have been a pillar of streetwear for decades. Nicki Minaj references this aspect of his legacy in her remix to Doja Cat’s “Say So,” rapping, “I’m little, where’s my stiletto?/ Tell Mike Jordan send me my Retros.” In the week before The Last Dance finale in May, the record hit number one on the Billboard 100.
Around this time, Nick Grant was working on a new EP, God Bless The Child. Grant got so immersed in the show that he was even watching one of the episodes while making the song “L.O.V.E.” He says Jordan’s ethos fueled his mentality during the creative process. “I was carrying that with me: that competitive spirit, of wanting people to undeniably say, ‘This guy is the one,’” Grant says.
The supporting cast
While Jordan’s story is front and center of The Last Dance, the series also takes time to explore the mythos of his colorful supporting cast among the Bulls, which includes Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr. Each of these players dealt with his own triumphs and crises; in their overflowing personas, interpersonal rivalries, and alternating moments of hubris and sacrifice, their stories resemble the twisting narrative of a fabled rap posse like the Wu-Tang Clan or N.W.A. “Having all those personalities in the same place at the same time: We couldn’t repeat that if we tried,” Grant says. “I felt like different parts of my personality connected with different players.”
Other rappers clearly felt the same. On his new album The Goat, Polo G dedicates a whole song to Scottie Pippen and his number, “33.” Bieber declares that he’s “slidin’, going wild like Rodman” on his remix to Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin’”; another remix to the song with DaBaby, Tory Lanez and Lil Wayne includes shoutouts to John Stockton, John Paxson and Magic Johnson—all of whom were interviewed in The Last Dance.
Grant, for his part, slipped in a reference to Toni Kukoč, the Croatian sixth man, on “FEDS.” A week later, Kukoč was name-dropped by Steve God Cooks on the ominous song “Bubba Chuck”; that rapper referenced the be-goggled Bulls rebounder Horace Grant in a separate verse released on the same day.
Other rappers have drawn inspiration not just from the docuseries’ characters but its dramatic narrative beats that lit up social media. In May, a clip of Jordan laughing at Gary Payton after the Sonics star claimed he slowed Jordan down in the 1996 Finals was endlessly memed; the Buffalo rapper Benny the Butcher quickly re-memoralized the moment by rapping, “Bought some new Glocks, so I’m good, pounds stocky as Suge/ Smoking Gary Payton just like the ’96 Bulls.” After Bulls general manager Jerry Krause emerged as the show’s narrative villain—especially due to his treatment of Scottie Pippen—YG took Pippen’s side in the beef, repeatedly snarling, “Scottie Pippen / Pay me b-tch, or I’m dipping” on “Swag.”
Wale took a more literal approach on “MAAJO,” using four bars to narrate events that took place during the 1998 Finals between the Bulls and Utah Jazz:
And on his album Alfredo, Freddie Gibbs goes perhaps the furthest of anyone, folding the show’s plot points into his own hardscrabble history and in the process elevating Jordan and Pippen’s journey into something of a mafioso epic. “Michael Jordan, 1985, b-tch, I travel with a cocaine circus,” he raps on the first song, before playing up the drama of the pair’s separation and reconciliation:
The perfect storm
The influence of The Last Dance on hip-hop can be attributed to a perfect storm of factors. Many of the aforementioned rappers grew up during Jordan’s era of dominance, making them more susceptible to The Last Dance’s nostalgic sway. Given the richness of the series’ soundtrack, any rapper who drew from it creatively would be in essence laying claim to the same lineage.
The pandemic has also created a strange virtual monoculture, in which huge populations across the world are being forced to stay inside and end up consuming the same cultural content. While rappers’ lives might generally be more exciting than the average person’s, they’ve been bored in the house, too, and have gleefully joined in on the nation’s collective obsessions, from Tiger King to Verzuz to Cheer. The cultural dominance of The Last Dance—the finale of which was tweeted about 1.5 million times—surely made it to top of mind for many artists who have recently entered the studio.
And the modern workflow of hip-hop also made this feedback loop possible. While music during Jordan’s era was usually released on a lengthy delay due to label processes, the current streaming era, with artists more empowered to make their own decisions, means that they can create a song and release it on Spotify the next day. This immediacy of release has enabled rappers to respond to cultural moments while also being part of them.
But of course, the ubiquity of Jordan goes back to the man himself—and his lasting legacy as a symbol of Black excellence across sports, fashion and pop culture. “I think for as long as I rap—if I can say something clever about him and that team,” Grant says, “I’m gonna do it.”
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