You know the saying - rappers wanna be ballplayers and ballplayers wanna be rappers. NBA veteran, Nick Van Exel of the World Champion San Antonio Spurs, is yet another basketball player with Hip-Hop aspirations. However, instead of getting on the mic, Nick has decided to stay in the cut and help develop his own record company, Kwik Entertainment. With his cousin, Smoot, as the label is also looking to dispel the stereotypes associated with ballplayers and Hip-Hop. In an exclusive interview with AllHipHop.com, Nick and Smoot are adamant that this is no gimmick. With a heavy reliance on content and conceptual material, Smoot is looking to prove his worth in this Hip-Hop game this summer with his debut album Change Gon Come. With guest appearances by Scarface, Chamillionaire, Bun B, Jadakiss and Swizz Beatz, Smoot will certainly garner the attention he feels he deserves. But can an NBA superstar really overcome the odds and build up a legitimate Hip-Hop label? Nick and Smoot are here to tell you why they feel they will be the first to do so.
AllHipHop.com: What is your first memory of Hip-Hop growing up?
Nick Van Exel: My first memory? Man! The thing I can really recall is when the movies started coming out, like Beat Street and Breakin'. I think that is what took it to another level, as far as nation wide is concerned. But I was always listening to Afrika Bambaataa coming up.
Smoot: I would say the same thing, when those two movies came out - that was my first big memory of Hip-Hop. I actually used to break dance, so that movie was big for me. But I used to look up to 2pac a lot - ever since his first album 2pacalypse Now.
AllHipHop.com: A lot of people have that one tape or album they listened to constantly growing up - did you have that one album?
Smoot: Definitely All Eyez On Me.
Nick Van Exel: My favorite rap album of all time is Snoop's Doggystyle.
AllHipHop.com: Nick, when did you know you wanted to start your own record label?
Nick Van Exel: I really don't know. I always thought about it, but my cousin Smoot really got involved in the game around '97 and '98. He started taking his craft more serious then, but at that time I was still a fan and I wasn't trying to get involved. But eventually Smoot came to me wanted to start a label and I was like, 'Man, I ain't really trying to do it.' But eventually I said, 'F**k it. If he wants to do it, then I'll back him.' So I started to get involved around '98 or '99. I then started taking it more serious around '01 and '02 because his skills started to get a lot better and he was evolving as a rapper. My first love is basketball, but I'm a big fan of Hip-Hop so it was only right.
AllHipHop.com: I know you want to touch base on the lawsuit you currently have going on with two individuals, Wilson Ebiye and Leonard Chukwemeke, you used to work with. Can you tell us about that situation?
Nick Van Exel: Basically, there was four of us in the beginning when Smoot came to me first with the idea of a label. The other two dudes, they really didn't have any money and they weren't rappers. I really wasn't too involved in the label at the time because I was busy playing basketball. So those two guys came at me with the idea of splitting the company four ways, so I was like, 'Cool.' But as the years went on, I saw we weren't making that much progress and every time something needed to be done or paid for it was always coming out of my pocket. So I was like, 'Hold on, if these dudes are the owners, then they have to come with something to the table as well.' Smoot was the MC, and I was bringing the money - so these dudes should have been coming with something. I gave them an opportunity to be apart of what we are doing but they didn't want to take a smaller percentage. And I didn't understand that because they weren't doing shit in the first place.
AllHipHop.com: How did you originally meet these two individuals?
Smoot: I actually met them. They came to me in L.A. when we were at Mack 10's album release party. They approached me about doing a concert called Hip-Hop Unity Fest. Out of that concert, we formed this documentary called Hip-Hop Story. After that, then one thing lead to another.
AllHipHop.com: And with the money you gave these guys for the label, they bought cars instead - correct?
Smoot: Yeah, they bought cars and other things.
AllHipHop.com: Nick, what do you see in your cousin Smoot as an artist that makes you believe in him?
Nick Van Exel: I like his style, delivery and he has a lot of love for the music. When you listen to a lot of his songs you realize its not just about the same things. He has a song called "I Choose Hip-Hop" where he talks about all the songs and artists he listened to growing up. A lot of people nowadays don't give a tribute to the artists of the past and I think its important for the new artists to do that. He also talks about a lot of meaningful issues and isn't just focusing on the money, cars and woman.
AllHipHop.com: Yeah, I noticed that with the song "Change Gon Come," that you were focusing on making conceptual material.
Smoot: That's right. But my first single off the album is going to be "Grain Gripper," which features Slim Thug, Chamillionaire and Killer Kyleon. Its a Houston based sound but its a club banger.
AllHipHop.com: I know you guys spoke on wanting to dispel the stereotype of another ball player with a label. So how do you guys plan on marketing yourself or proving to people that this is legit? Do you think the music will speak for itself or do you feel you have to go the extra mile on top of that?
Smoot: I think that the music and my presence is going to speak for itself. I won't need Nick to sit there and talk to me and make other people believe in me. The music will speak for itself and I will make people believe myself. We made the mistake in the beginning of putting Nick in the forefront because he is a ballplayer and a celebrity - and I wish we didn't do that and just did our thing - but we are going to try and keep Nick in the background and let the music speak for itself.
AllHipHop.com: Smoot, hailing from Wisconsin, not a lot of acts have broke from that state. Why do you feel the state or region has been overlooked?
Smoot: Wisconsin isn't known for Hip-Hop, its known for cheese. Its known for the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Bucks - ain't nobody really trippin' off Wisconsin. But there are a lot of people that love Hip-Hop in Wisconsin. I feel I can be what Nelly was for St. Louis - I can be that spokesperson for Wisconsin Hip-Hop. I'm willing to take that load on my back.
AllHipHop.com: As you know, Hip-Hop is very much a political game. Its becoming harder and harder for a new record labels to get their artists airplay and whatnot. So what challenges have you guys experienced so far?
Smoot: I feel my talent gets overlooked a lot of the time because they know Nick is involved, and they are too busy looking at his cash. So I just have to get out here and get people to listen to my music. And whoever I deal with in this industry, I try and sit down with them and really feel them out so I know I'm dealing with the right person. And right now, we are trying to get the right people in here. This game is really built on relationships. Its political, but its built on relationships.
AllHipHop.com: Do you think the key for you right now is to cement your home base and gain a strong following, which will then allow you to further branch out?
Smoot: Yeah, the key is definitely to gain a strong backing. I'm currently living in Houston, so I'm getting a lot of love here. I'm getting just as much love here, if not more than I am in Wisconsin. The key is to build that fan base, because those are the people that are going to help you take it to the next level.
AllHipHop.com: Nick, once you retire, do you plan on focusing on the label more?
Nick Van Exel: A little bit - I'm gonna let Smoot run it and do his own thing. I have a bunch of other stuff I'm focusing on as well, which I'm more hands on with.
AllHipHop.com: How many more years do you plan on playing? Do you have an estimate in mind?
Nick Van Exel: I plan on making this year my last. After that, I can go ahead and do other things.
AllHipHop.com: How would you assess the Spurs performance this season so far?
Nick Van Exel: I think with the way that these guys approach the season, that we have a long way to go. But if I had to rate the season right now, I would give the team a B. I think we are finally starting to gel and play better ball as of late. And as the season goes on, you want to start playing better ball. That is what we are doing now. We lost some games that we shouldn't have lost, but that happens during a long season. One of the most important things for us is to try and stay close with Detroit, because they are rolling right now. That home court advantage is very important to winning a championship in the NBA.
AllHipHop.com: Some critics feel that the Spurs are just coasting now and you will turn it up when the playoffs start. But is it realistic for an NBA team to just turn it on and off like that?
Nick Van Exel: Nah, that is very very unrealistic - especially, nowadays. Because there is too much parody. You can't play with a team like Detroit, Phoenix or Dallas and just turn it up when you want to. If you do that, you will be going home early. There is no such thing as playing to the level of your competition and then turning it up when you have to. In this league, you have to be ready every night and play championship type basketball every night. Because everybody wants to beat the Spurs and Pistons, so its a championship game for us every night. We just have to be ready.
AllHipHop.com: Has it been different for you coming off the bench this year with a limited amount of minutes?
Nick Van Exel: Yeah, its real different. [laughs] It was tough in the first month, but I'm starting to adjust a little bit more now. Usually, when I was coming off the bench in the past I was getting more minutes. But here, Tony Parker is playing All-Star basketball. I think we have a team which is deep enough, so guys like me and Robert Horry, we can rest throughout the season and be in full strength during the playoffs.
AllHipHop.com: Nick, you have been mentioned in a couple rap songs over the years, so which one has been the most memorable?
Nick Van Exel: The Jay-Z and Beyonce joint [Crazy In Love] was probably the hottest one. That was a number one hit and every time we were in the club they were playing that.
AllHipHop.com: Smoot, as the artist here, any parting shots?
Smoot: Be on the lookout for that Smoot album Change Gon Come - its gonna hurt 'em once it hits. Also be on the look out for that big NBA All-Star party on Friday, February 17. I'm gonna get down and do my thing and perform. So check me out at that, which is being hosted by Nick, Steve Francis, Sam Cassell, Catino Mobley, and Chauncy Billups.