Iman Shumpert Finds Release in Music

Get an inside look at the Kings guard’s hip-hop aspirations, and how his passion and experience separate him from past athlete-rappers.
by Alex Kramers

Iman Shumpert has heard it all before; all the misconceptions, all the stereotypes, all the unfair criticism about his rap career.

He’s too distracted. He cares about music more than basketball. He should be in the gym instead of the studio.

In the past, rather than address his detractors, Shumpert pressed pause on his hip-hop aspirations, and shelved all but a handful of the hundreds of songs he’s penned since sixth grade.

Although he released snippets of various projects on his social media platforms, along with three official mixtapes on his SoundCloud and YouTube channels since 2012, he resisted investing heavy marketing dollars or enlisting agencies who could help him successfully cross over into the music industry.

But now, in his eighth NBA season, with the validation of a championship ring on his finger and a thumbs-up from the only critic whose opinion matters – “as long as my daughter likes me, I’m good,” he insists – Shumpert is ready for the public to hear everything he has to say.

“I’ve been doing music for the longest time,” said the Kings guard, turning down the volume on a portable speaker that reverberates booming bass and autotuned vocals through the locker room.

“I’ve been doing poetry slams. I actually did a couple of shows this summer. I’m going to do a tour. I’m going to take it seriously this time around. I used to be an angry person. People would try to help and I’d be like, ‘No, I don’t need that. I don’t want to do that.’ Now, I want people to hear it though. I think it’ll be dope.”

Shumpert isn’t oblivious to the long line of athlete-rappers whose albums have flopped on the charts and turned their hip-hop forays into ongoing punchlines, but he objects to being grouped in the same category.

He’s an exception, he’s convinced, because he’s never pretended to be someone he’s not in his music, and has a more intimate understanding of production and engineering from three years of classes at Georgia Tech.

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Dear Sac, YEAR 8..."ohhhhh you're gonna love me..." #ktse

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“I always enjoyed writing,” he said. “I always thought history was weird, because it was other people’s experience. I was like, ‘We don’t ever bank on our own experiences. It’s kind of weird for me.’ I was all about putting the pieces of a puzzle together with words. I was good at that.

“When I went to (college) ... I ended up doing an independent study for engineering music. My final project was turning in an album.”

Shumpert earned a positive review that day – an ‘A’ grade from his professor – and has since received praise for his lyricism from rhyme-spitting legends including Busta Rhymes and Pete Rock.

The video for the 28-year-old's biggest hit to date, “Promised” – a 2016 collaboration with his wife, R&B singer Teyana Taylor – has over one million views on YouTube with 12,000 likes and counting. Last year, Shumpert stopped by the Hot 97 radio station studio and impressed longtime host Funkmaster Flex with a five-minute freestyle.

That type of consistently positive feedback is part of the reason why the emerging MC doesn’t lack confidence in his ability to break through in a crowded, and continually growing hip-hop field. He has already collaborated on songs with several mainstream artists, he reveals, but those projects are unlikely to ever see the light of day.

“I’m not going to name names because they won’t put out the songs because my verse was better,” he said. “Sooner or later, everybody will know.”

His first mixtape, the 21-song “Th3 #Post90s," became an instant hit among his teammates and fans, and his “Knicks Anthem” echoed through the P.A. system at every game in Madison Square Garden during the 2012-13 season.

The Oak Park, Ill. native, rapping under the pseudonym “2wo 1ne,” recorded the tracks in studios in New York and his hometown, in between rehab stints during the 2012 offseason. A torn ACL in his left knee kept him bed-ridden for six weeks and sidelined from the court for another eight months, and music, which had always been his release, served as an extension of his therapy.

“That first project was all fun, just because the guys on my team encouraged me to put it out while I was hurt,” he said. “Then, they started to realize my relationship with music was more than I would admit.”

His follow-up releases – 2016’s “Shumpman: The MD” and “Substance Abuse,” which debuted last April – have been more personal projects. Shumpert – who cites Ludacris, Lupe Fiasco, Jay-Z and Eminem among his biggest influences – has focused on story-telling and providing thought-provoking material, finding inspiration in everything ranging from his relationships to the political climate and cultural landscape in the country.

Or sometimes, just a casual conversation with his teammates.

“I write all the time; whenever it comes to me,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll just be talking to my teammates and they’ll be there when I’m rewriting. We’ll be laughing and joking around, and they’ll be like, ‘You made a song out of that?’”

The creative process never stops, and with a personal recording studio in his home, Shumpert, accompanied by only his tight-knit circle of trust, can finish recording a song in a matter of hours.

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“People associate rap with staying in a studio for 30 hours, with an entourage of 80 people,” he said. “That’s literally how people see it! But the studio that I have at my crib, when you walk in, it’s right there, but it’s open. So, when I record, I like to have people sit in a circle. I go off energy.”

Those recording sessions will soon culminate in his next, currently untitled, project. In the meantime, he’s not ruling out sharing a microphone with two of his Sacramento teammates, Ben McLemore – whose recently-released mixtape has been a locker-room staple – and Marvin Bagley, who expects to launch his own rap album in the coming weeks.

But only under one condition. If a Kings anthem is pumped through the speakers inside Golden 1 Center, it will mean that No. 9 and his young peers have achieved a major milestone.

“We have to get in the Playoffs first,” Shumpert said with a wide grin. “If we’re in the playoffs, we all might have to do something.”

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