By streaming numbers, RTB MB certainly appears to be a rising rapper worth checking for. Several of his videos with Florida MC DB have racked up tens of thousands of views, and the clip for “Steph McGrady” has clocked in at well over 200,000. It’s been watched even more than another collaborative project of MB’s: a compilation of the vicious dunks he’s thrown down off feeds from LaMelo Ball.
RTB MB is the musical alias of Charlotte Hornets wing Miles Bridges, a 23-year-old gravity-defying leaper who is part of one of the NBA’s most fun teams. When he’s not obliterating rims, Bridges is a fairly prolific rapper, dropping his Up the Score mixtape in December 2020 and earning the attention (and playful ire) of some of his basketball peers, like 2020 no. 1 pick Anthony Edwards.
“We just played [the Timberwolves] and as soon as I came in the game he said, ‘Oh, I gotta guard this rapper,’” Bridges says.
He’s far from the first rapping pro basketball player, but Bridges is emblematic of the present double-helix relationship between the NBA and hip-hop that has spurred athletes like Damian Lillard, Marvin Bagley III, Lonzo Ball, and Andre Drummond to make music (with varying results).
Basketball players have been rapping for decades, most notably figures like Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, and Kobe Bryant in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Epic Records even tried to get in on the trend with B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret, a compilation project featuring tracks from Shaq as well as Gary Payton, Dennis Scott, and Brian Shaw. (The Cedric Ceballos–Warren G collab “Flow On” is surprisingly smooth.)
But hip-hop has never been bigger than it is today, and the league’s cultural cachet is quite visibly tied to music—from LeBron James A&Ring a 2 Chainz album to the high-profile, at-times-controversial friendship between James Harden and Lil Baby. Those relationships are not only more plentiful, but also more visible thanks to the advent of social media.
“I feel like a lot of ballplayers, before, probably wanted to rap, but they weren’t willing to put themselves out there. But today, almost anybody is a rapper nowadays,” says Wayne “Wayno” Clark, a music industry veteran and VP of A&R at Asylum Records. “I’m surprised the Gorilla Glue girl isn’t a rapper. Everybody raps.”
As the sheer number of rappers (and part-time rappers) has risen, so too have regional sounds proliferated and earned fans nationwide. Basketball players who made music used to aim for a sound that was down the middle and radio viable, leading to records like Kobe’s “K.O.B.E.” and Shaq’s “(I Know I Got) Skillz” that are competently made but lacking in flavor.
Today’s rapping athletes might not be the most preternaturally gifted, but they are rarely duplicative of one another or concerned only with watered-down commercial trends. Lillard employs the sparse, bouncy sound of Bay Area street rap on his best songs (“Check,” “Run It Up”). Iman Shumpert, who is from Illinois but starred at Georgia Tech, recently put out a solid Gangsta Grillz mixtape in which he unleashes his baritone flow over Southern trap beats, including Lil Baby’s “Sum 2 Prove,” Future’s “Life Is Good,” and Polo G’s “Go Stupid.” Drummond’s music clearly has a sugary bent, but occasionally it veers into gloriously odd territory, like the ’80s dance-style “Goin’ Down.” Bagley’s music is more traditionally in line with what NBA players have made—it’s inspirational and generally appropriate for a younger audience, but he can do a credible impression of early Dreamville.
Miles Bridges offers a take on the singular sound of Flint, with booming bass, tight snares, and tumbling flows that prize witty punch lines above all else (including, occasionally, staying on beat). He’s been making music for years, but says that it was only when he got into the sound of nearby Detroit—a slightly less ribald sonic cousin of Flint—that he really began to hone a distinct style of his own.
“When I was 16, I was tryna make music like Drake,” Bridges says with a laugh. “My flows changed tremendously. I started listening to Detroit music when I was 13 or 14. Doughboyz Cashout, Team Eastside, all those guys.”
Bridges’s bars aren’t as zany and surreal as those of fellow Flint rappers Bfb da Packman and YN Jay—the latter of whom he showed chemistry with on 2020’s “1st Quarter.” He occasionally falls back on filler lines about jewelry, women, and fast cars, but he’s really practiced in the specific flows of this subgenre, as shown on the silky “Run It Up” and “JLo.” Not quite as fluid as he is running a fast break with LaMelo, but impressive nonetheless.
“The whole thing about rap is making somebody think with your bars,” he says. “I really just started doing that. It can be hard to do. You’ve gotta actually think when you’re making your music. But that’s the beauty in rap—some people are talented enough to actually spit bars, and then other people make music that you just vibe with. I’m trying to be in between.”
Bridges says he really discovered himself as an artist on “10 of Me,” the lead song from his Flint to Lakeland mixtape with close friend and former Hornets teammate Dwayne Bacon. “[That] was the first time when my flow changed to what I’ve been using lately.”
The pair were prolific in their time together, releasing three projects and shooting several videos before Bacon departed for the Orlando Magic. Bridges met Bacon back in 2014, and they bonded quickly over their musical ambitions.
“I knew Bac’ since my junior year. Ever since I met him, Corey Sanders, and those guys, they were all rapping. That’s around the time that I was just messing around with the music,” Bridges recalls. “When I got drafted here, I was like, ‘Shit, I’m tryna get on a song.’ After our first song, we started making music all the time. He would just come to my house.”
Bridges says he records mostly during the summer, and has a studio set up in his home, where he gets down ideas. Most players seem to understandably follow this model of making music an offseason priority, although Damian Lillard got pretty creative during his time in the 2020 NBA bubble, recording music with teammates Gary Trent Jr. and Nassir Little from their hotel.
Rapping NBA players, particularly Lillard, have garnered more respect in recent years. Lil Wayne has specifically shouted out the Trail Blazers guard, praising his work ethic and how his skills have developed. “He don’t talk about nothing fake. That’s what’s awesome,” he told The Undefeated in 2019. Wayne—a well-known NBA superfan who has dropped numerous sports references in his tracks—perhaps summed up the relationship between players and musicians best in 2014, when he told ESPN “Athletes wanna be rappers, rappers wanna be athletes.” To that point, basketball is more than just entertainment for a number of rappers. For artists like J. Cole, who came close to walking on at St. John’s, and Master P, who appeared in an exhibition game for the Toronto Raptors, it’s always been linked to their public personas. They’ve played in celebrity all-star games and long had proximity to the league and its stars.
Wayno, who grew up around athletes like Kemba Walker in Harlem, cites one of hip-hop’s most hallowed bars as proof of the intertwined nature of the two jobs. “Biggie said it a long time ago, ‘You sling crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.’ The options for a lot of kids growing up were to play ball or rap,” Wayno says. “Those were the only ways we knew we could be successful coming from the hood in New York.”
As Wayno explains, many of the young Black men in both professions come from underserved communities where long-shot goals are often glamorized and disproportionately emphasized. Only a select number of people reach the highest level of each industry, but bonds between ascendant figures are often established well before anyone has reached the national spotlight.
Bridges, a top-20 high school recruit who starred at Michigan State, says that he became close with Detroit’s Sada Baby and Flint’s best-known rappers while he was in college, and that they’ve been supportive of him as he’s made his own foray into the rap world.
“YN Jay, [Louie Ray], and all these guys, they knew me before. I feel like I’m familiar with all those guys,” Bridges says. “I’ve seen them in the city before. Flint is so small that you know everybody. I’m happy for those guys.”
A recent video series from Revolt drove home just how connected young basketball stars are with rappers today, and how those relationships are no longer solely determined by geographic proximity, but status. In The Crew League, artists competed in a pickup basketball tournament to win $100,000, and many of them took advantage of the lax recruiting rules to bring in big-time athletes to illustrate their clout. Perhaps most tellingly, 17-year-old Australian MC the Kid Laroi had Amari Bailey (no. 4 player in the class of 2022), Tre White (no. 76 in the class of ’22), and Shy Odom (no. 190 in ’22) on his roster. It’s like if the cool table at your high school had millions of combined Instagram followers.
Though it’s entirely possible that these guys have met young artists organically, growing up in L.A., the connection to someone like Laroi is telling of what their nascent stardom brings. Odom and Bailey play at the high-profile Sierra Canyon in Los Angeles alongside Bronny James, while White is at L.A.’s Ribet Academy. They’re building names for themselves in the hub of celebrity, and forging relationships with rappers before they’ve even made a dollar off of basketball.
Them playing in a pickup game with Kid Laroi is proof that the rising stars of the pop rap world are keeping close tabs on the next generation of potential NBA players, and forging relationships early. They’re young kids who like hip-hop and can parlay their notoriety into profile-raising opportunities with major artists. It would hardly be surprising to hear one of them try their hand at music in the future. And maybe in three years, Bailey and Laroi will be the next Harden and Lil Baby—or the next Jim Jones and Kevin Garnett.
While these sorts of relationships have existed for decades, they weren’t always emphasized by the league itself. In the mid-2000s, many in the media seemed hell-bent on demonizing the connection between rap and the NBA, drawing on harmful racial stereotypes and not affording rap the same creative license given to other art forms. At the start of the 2005-06 season, then-commissioner David Stern put into place what he dubbed a “liberal and easygoing” dress code, according to Rolling Stone, that forbade “chains, pendants, or medallions” along with things like hats and do-rags. Fans and players deduced that these rules were aimed largely at how some Black players were dressing at the time, and players like Paul Pierce, Jason Richardson, and Iverson all voiced issues with it.
“It’s an honor for me to be considered the guy who made hip-hop style OK in the NBA because at one time having a hip-hop image was a bad thing,” Allen Iverson told ESPN in 2005. “Guys with cornrows, baggy jeans, and tattoos were always known as suspects.”
Hip-hop specifically became a contentious point in 2000, when controversy arose over the lyrics to a song Iverson recorded as Jewelz. The track, “40 Bars,” featured references to guns, as well as homophobic slurs, and eventually Iverson agreed to change the lyrics after meeting with Stern and civil rights advocates. His planned debut album, Non-Fiction, was never released, and the former MVP has since called it “embarrassing” and questioned the impact it would have had on younger fans. “I thought it was an art form just like you see Bruce Willis killing people in movies,” he said in 2015. “Well, he don’t do that in real life.”
There’s no place for homophobic language anywhere, and Iverson’s awareness of his impact on young people is commendable, but it also highlights the way rap and hip-hop culture always have been policed. The onus was placed on the young men and how they behave off the court, which holds them to a standard faced by very few people in the world, and less on parents or guardians monitoring the content their children take in.
“What you’re really doing [with a dress code] is denying a person their experience and their existence by telling them ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that,’” says Bay Area rapper Rexx Life Raj. “They’re just expressing themselves and where they came from and the culture of where they come from.”
Harlem’s Jim Jones is proof of the evolution of how major sports leagues view hip-hop. When he hit it big with the 2006 track “We Fly High,” he says the NBA had little interest in working with him, despite the song’s fadeaway dance being perfect for sports celebrations (it was even picked up by players on the New York Giants). Now, Jones, Cam’Ron, and Juelz Santana have partnered with Kith and Nike for a Knicks-centric clothing capsule, and even helped unveil one of the team’s official jerseys.
“I think it’s just time and the way the culture became so powerful, it was inevitable for the NBA to use hip-hop music,” Jones says. “It’s the tempo of basketball.”
Rapping athletes are not unique to the NBA, but it certainly is the most favorable ecosystem of any major American sport for players to build the kind of personal brand that supports a successful side hustle. Raj, who played football at Boise State before embarking on his music career, stresses that between the shared importance of shoe culture, the greater opportunities for individual recognition, and the more progressive culture around the sport, basketball is just a more natural conduit for success in the entertainment world.
“It’s just a smaller amount of people [in the league], and you can see their faces all the time. That goes a long way, because it allows you to have more swag and be seen more. It’s a whole different culture in basketball that’s closer to hip-hop culture,” Raj says. “Football is a lot more traditional and conservative. I think basketball is a more Black sport in general. When it’s more Black, you’ll have more culture and more sauce and more resilience.”
Jones says that he’s a little wary when he hears an athlete is making music, though he makes sure to shout out Lillard, Shumpert, and Gerald Green, whose music career is a bit more under wraps. Raj explains that he’s empathetic for what athletes go through when they try to prove to the world that they have other passions.
“There’s a stigma that comes with going from being an athlete to being a rapper. I didn’t know too many people who were able to fully shake that,” he says. “I feel like I spent two or three years trying to shake that stigma when it comes to rebranding and making people believe I was serious about it. I know the effort that truly goes into it.”
Part of what separates the new crop of rapping NBA players from the old is that many in the younger generation use even more of the language and themes that regular rappers do in their songs. Fortunately, Bridges says that the league has not raised any objections to the content of his songs, and he stresses that he wants to talk not just like his favorite artists, but in a way that people who grew up in similar circumstances can feel represented by.
“My mindset is this: If I’m gonna rap, I might as well rap how I regularly rap. I know what comes with all this stuff, but if I’m gonna rap, I’ma have fun with it and make music that people can relate to and music that I can relate to, too,” Bridges says. “I’m not scared of getting in trouble, I haven’t gotten any warnings or anything.”
It’ll take a long time and a lot of high-quality releases before some people are fully ready to trust rapping basketball players, but they aren’t going away anytime soon. If anything, expect more Bridges types—young artists drawing on the nascent sound of their hometowns—coming into the league already with a network of local and national rap stars ready to champion them.
Bridges plans to continue working on music in the offseason and says he hopes to develop other artists in his RTB crew. After all, someone has to hold things down while he’s busy flying above the rim.
“The people in my circle, they want to rap and get out there,” he says. “They know I can’t rap all year around.”
Grant Rindner is a culture writer who has contributed to GQ, Rolling Stone, i-D, and other outlets.