Let’s take a trip back to the late-winter of 1999. I had moved to New York City just before New Year’s and started an internship at 3-2-1 Records, an independent hip-hop label, in late January. At the time, it seemed all anyone was talking about in independent hip-hop (at least in New York) was Rawkus Records, but 3-2-1 had a solid roster of established talent and up-and-comers that we thought could make some noise. Blackalicious was on the label, as were Bigg Jus from Company Flow, the Micranots (from Minneapolis and featuring current Rhymesayers mainstay I Self Devine), Chicago’s sorely underrated Rubberoom, and a production duo from Long Island called Skeme Team.
At that time, there was also, of course, a rapper by the name of Eminem getting ready to take the airwaves by storm (we still had airwaves back then) coming from what I viewed as the opposite side of the spectrum from what 3-2-1 Records represented: the mainstream. Sure, The Slim Shady LP came out on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint, but it was part of Interscope, which was part of UMG, which was huge. I’d seen the video for “My Name Is” on MTV (which still actually played the occasional video back then) and thought it clever and often hilarious, but I didn’t take it seriously. Here was another white guy rapping, seemingly with more cred than Vanilla Ice, but the tone of the song made me think he was more Weird Al than Kool Keith. (By the way, in the words of G.O.B. Bluth, “I’m white.”) It seemed like a novelty to me compared to the artists I was most into at the time: Mos Def, Outkast, The Roots, etc.
But then this funny thing happened. In the second week of February, I got tasked with driving one of the vans for a short Atlantic seaboard tour by Skeme Team and a bunch of rappers: Pumpkinhead, Thirstin Howl III, and a few others, possibly Non Phixion and the Arsonists. We were going to head up through Rhode Island, stop for an in-store in Providence before proceeding to a radio appearance in Boston and a show at the Western Front, then down to Philadelphia the next day for Bahamadia’s radio show and another in-store, then back to New York. I was 22 and completely out of my depth, and the whole thing is smeared into a blur of snowy driving, frequent stops for malt liquor and cigarettes, and losing my ATM card in a machine in Philly. What I remember most clearly (other than the guy we found passed out in his car at a green light near the 103.9 FM studios at three in the morning) is the music they listened to in the van. It consisted more or less of only two things: their own beats and an advance cassette copy of The Slim Shady LP, which wouldn’t be released for another week. The whole tour they kept goofing on the “Hi! My name is” hook of the lead single. “Chikka chikka twin babies,” they’d joke. “Chikka chikka gin gravy.”
You could call it my first experience of “game recognize game.” I wrote off Eminem on first listen because he was a.) funny and b.) white, although not necessarily in that order. Ever since rap became part of the pop culture lingua franca in the early ‘90s, I’d watched commercials and movies and various sadsack acts appropriate rap and fail. But here were guys firmly planted in their own musical world—so firmly planted in Brooklyn, in fact, that they dismissed my attempt to play Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night by saying, “They’re from the Bronx”—taking notice of this skinny blond kid from Michigan.
Which brings me to your 2012-13 Minnesota Timberwolves. As Ben Polk already expertly pointed out, this year’s squad is going to be a much pastier proposition than in years past, but it’s not at all clear what this is going to mean. “The facts on the ground cut against the grain of our inherited assumptions, perhaps beyond the point of recognition,” Ben wrote. The team encompasses playstyles from flashy to crafty to bruising to smooth, plus presents so many new options that it’s difficult to tell exactly what kind of team is going to emerge as the season progresses. If they’re successful (especially if they’re successful), plenty of stories will focus on the team’s complexion, just as plenty of stories about Eminem focused on his. But what I found out on that tour in the van was that whatever the public thought of Marshall Mathers, he’d already earned the respect of his peers. They were already past it, already focused on him as a fellow artist, in some ways a model and in some ways competition. The biggest story about Eminem ended up being how little of a story race was. When it comes down to what happens on the court, maybe the same will be true of the Timberwolves.