Understand this, Ron Artest didn’t have to do this. He’s taking a risk on a lot of levels—putting the album out on his own Tru Warier label (with WEA distribution), and adding lyrical fuel to the fires that always seem to blaze around him. He’s been called crazy and worse, directed towards therapy and medication. But no one knows Ron better than Ron, and it’s hard to question the decision-making of a kid who went from the nation’s biggest projects to the NBA All-Star game. “I’m just being myself,” he says. “I’m not beggin’ anybody to help me sell a million records.”
The more you talk to him, the more you understand this. The more you realize that everything fits, that everything he does makes sense on some level. On his level. In his world. It honestly doesn’t matter so much how good or bad the album, as much as it does that he got a chance to had a chance to record it at all. “Yeah you know, Ron got love from the streets, so he’s gonna do well enough to keep it going,” says former Pacer teammate Stephen Jackson. “I bought a copy just to support him. I’m happy for him, he doin’ what he want to do. Me and him actually did a song, but it didn’t make it on the album.” Could Jackson be picking up the mic full time too? “No, no, no, no, no,” Jackson says. “It’s like a hobby. Like jogging.”
Not to Ron. Though he’s a better NBA rapper then Kobe, he’s not as good as Shaq, even with album cameos from Juvenile, Diddy, Mike Jones and DJ Kay Slay. And he’s not nearly on the same level as those who’ve gone before him, doesn’t drop jewels like Nas or ’Mega, or absolute club-wrecking bangers like Mobb Deep. All in all, he might want to stick to his day job (which, he is great at). But at the same time he seems awfully committed to this rap thing. Which is just Ron being Ron.
Funny thing about Ron Artest, he grew up listening to Michael Jackson, guys like that. There wasn’t hip hop in the Artest house. He didn’t catch on to that world until he was out runnin’ the streets, ballin’. Only then did he realize what was out there on the block, on his block. He was 15 when Nas’ all-time classic debut, Illmatic, dropped. By then he already knew the name. “The first time I found out about Nas I was on 12th Street and I kept hearing his name,” he says. “And I’d never even seen Nas in the hood. He was always on his block, probably upstairs writing rhymes, but they was like, ‘This guy Nas, Nas, he’s big, he’s about to get a deal or whatever,’ ‘He’s signed,’ and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I didn’t think nothin’ of it, then you really hear about him, and they say he’s one of the best lyricists to ever live. That’s amazing, you know? I grew up right around the corner from this guy, in the same hood. That’s amazing.”
“My love is real / Some earn it, some are unworthy / Some, walk in the presence of men with thoughts to hurt me / And wonder why I throw shade and stay to myself / ’Cause I’m me, plus I’m not betraying myself / I’m free from the burden of extending my hand / To my man’s that don’t deserve it / I only trust fam”
— Cormega, “Love In, Love Out”
You can’t blame Ron Artest for feeling a little unloved. Ever since that day in Detroit he’s been NBA public enemy number one, and this summer, as he worked on recording and promoting and touring (opening for Young Jeezy and Fat Joe, among others), he mostly went at it alone. “I look up to, like, Nelly,” he says. “Because Nelly, I like how he made it. He didn’t have nobody pushing him besides his label, his label’s a powerhouse—Universal’s a powerhouse. And of course they did it the right way. But you know how 50 had Eminem, Eminem had Dre? I never recall Nelly having anybody like that on his side. And he still made it. And I look up to guys like that, because right now I don’t feel like I have anybody on my side.” He’s definitely sorted things out a lot in a year, though. At the start of last season, coming off his damn-near year long suspension, he announced he wanted to take some time off from basketball because he was exhausted. Exhausted! Predictably, that didn’t go over well. And Ron, who wants to be large on both sides, had to figure out how to get some balance.
“I wanna just try to pace myself, you know?” he says. “I’m sayin now, if I could be a coach, and at the same time have a label, I would love that. You know? It’s just like I’m tryin’ to do something different. I still wanna be in music when I finish my career, but when I finish my career I also wanna be a coach. Maybe I’m guessin’ that the music won’t ever let me be a head coach, because it’d be too much for a head coach, because you gotta put [in] so much time. But maybe just like a defensive coach. I’m always gonna hopefully do both, but you know I love basketball—basketball, that’s my number one.”
So this summer was mostly about balance. Finishing the record (“Busta Rhymes gave me some huge advice, he just told me to have patience and to make sure when your album come out, make sure you like it”), touring (they loved him in Detroit, by the way), and getting ready for the season. As we wrap this up in mid-October, he’s ready for everything, whatever comes. “It’s like I’m in a marathon,” he says. “I’m not in it for the sprint. I’m not in it for a quick dollar, you know? I’m in it for the long haul.”
Justice was swift. NBA commissioner David Stern issued a statement the very next day, calling the events “shocking, repulsive and inexcusable—a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA.” The day after that, the inevitable suspensions were handed down. Ben Wallace, who many saw as the instigator of the whole thing, was suspended for six games. Jermaine O’Neal was suspended for 25 games, Stephen Jackson for 30. And Ron Artest? His season was over.
It’s October 31st, 2006, nearly two years removed from the day that changed Ron Artest’s public perception. It’s the first day of a new NBA season, the first he’ll start as a member of the Sacramento Kings, as a lockdown defender in the shootout-happy West. It’s also the day his first album drops (a coincidence David Stern must be psyched on), an independent release called My World. And if you’re wondering why we’re bringing up the brawl right away when it happened back in ’04, it’s only because Ron did, too. On the first full track, “Haters,” second verse he rhymes, “How was I supposed to know he was gonna throw beer / Hit me in my face and I go run up the stairs / Touch the wrong person Steve Jack had my back / O’Neal and A.J. with the counterattack / Didn’t plan none of this but condemned for all / They did the same to Jesus so why I be treated different.” Ron Artest does not fuck around, though. He knows what people are interested in, and he serves it right up.
“That’s why I put it first on the album,” Artest says. “Just because, you know, it was so highly publicized, and people talked about me the wrong way, and now I get a chance to tell people how I feel. They can either love it or hate it, and anytime people want to go back and listen to that song, or anytime anyone wanna say something about me, they can go back and listen right to that song and that’ll sum everything up.”
The League is different now, even different than it was in 2004. Pre-game warm-ups are still conducted to hip hop blaring through in-arena PAs, but there’s a dress code now. No more baggy jeans and Timbs to the arena. Techs are handed out if you even look at a ref wrong. Even the ball has changed, from the venerable leather Spalding to a space-age composite rock that’s been near-universally panned by the players (but what David Stern wants, David Stern gets). Much has changed, but Ron Artest is still here. The changes didn’t come because of him—at least not directly—but his involvement in the brawl, and the nonstop coverage that immediately followed, sure sped up the process. The League has changed tremendously. Him? Not so much.
Ron was something of oddity in NBA circles even before the brawl. He once applied for a job at Circuit City in Chicago—while he was playing for the Bulls. He just figured the discount would be nice, although he’s not exactly the kind of dude who’d really need one. A defensive pitbull with a temper to match, he stacked technicals like Rodman, aggravating opponents and teammates alike. Despite his obvious talents, he was traded from Chicago (his favorite team growing up) to Indiana, where he joined All-Stars Jermaine O’Neal and Reggie Miller in the quest to win a championship. But it’s not Chicago or Indiana that defined him. Ron grew up in the Queensbridge Projects, the same housing Ps that produced Marley Marl, MC Shan, Roxanne Shante, Nas, Mobb Deep and Cormega. And while Ron might not have Nas’ lyricism or Mobb Deep’s beats, he’s got street cred to spare. After all, dude tried to fight Detroit. All of it.
“It’s the world that I live in, QB made me / A moms that loved me and a pops that raised me” — Mobb Deep (Havoc), “It’s Mine”
Queensbridge Housing Project, America’s largest public housing development, lies just over the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan. Take the subway there and you come out of the 21st Street-Queensbridge station right at their feet, a sprawl of weathered six-story buildings originally built in 1939. Fences ring the PJs, and the surrounding blocks provide the next layer of protection—bodegas, check cashing joints, the obligatory pizza/fried chicken/ice cream spot, taxi cab depots. Kids ride past on department-store bikes, guys in skullys lurk on corners.
Nestled within, at the heart of Queensbridge—a mere half-block from the subway stop—is a basketball court with painted asphalt and neatly netted rims. It’s an unseasonably chill late August afternoon, with rain on the horizon and grey skies above. There’s a run going anyway, as there always is, and if it weren’t for the uniforms—white and blue on one side, black and red on the other—you wouldn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary.
And truth is, there really isn’t. When the game ends, chaos ensues—kids of all ages start shooting, one rides a bike in circles on the court. Welcome to Ron Artest’s Triple Threat Tru Warier Classic—one of four annual tournaments Ron throws in QB. No signs proclaim this, no flyers promote it. But there’s Ron himself, casually dipped in his signature K1X (a small German company still seeking major US distribution) gear, denim shorts—and official NFL socks, of all things, walking around like he owns the place. Which may as well be the case. Later in the day, after the end of the tourney got rained out, he led a tour of the PJs for his team owners, the billionaire Maloof brothers.