East Oakland native Damian Lillard is one of the best NBA players. The league declared it last year for its 75th anniversary season, naming the six-time All-Star as one of the 75 best players of all-time alongside the likes of LeBron James and the late Kobe Bryant (who once declared “[Lillard is] not afraid of anything. He’s got the whole package”).
But becoming one of the NBA’s best players isn’t the only rarefied milestone Lillard has achieved. He’s also become the NBA’s best rapper in league history. Bringing the same dedication he has to basketball to rapping as Dame D.O.L.L.A., Lillard is “at the top of the food chain” of NBA rappers, according to Brookfield Duece — Lillard’s cousin who’s helped the star athlete become the rapper he’s aspired to be.
“One of the things we’ve taught ourselves in the family is that there are so many of us and so much going on, that the only way we can accomplish anything is being laser focused and getting it done,” Duece said. “If the goal is to go to the studio, the goal is not Damian Lillard the basketball player — it’s Dame D.O.L.L.A, the rapper.”
Duece and Lillard have a deep family connection; they grew up together and have early roots in choir. Duece even drove Lillard’s U-Haul from Oakland to Portland when he was drafted, resulting in Duece spending some years living in Rip City and collaborating with Pacific Northwest artists like Aminé, while his cousin, the then-unknown Weber State graduate, made his transition as a professional hooper.
Now, Duece is a member of Grand Nationxl, a collective of talented artists whose goal is to empower themselves and others through creative expression. In addition to making music with others, he has put out three solo albums — My Name is Duece (2020), America’s Orphans (2019), and Hoop Dreams (2015) — under Lillard’s independent label, Front Page Music (that Duece serves as the A&R of). Duece also plays a role in helping structure Lillard’s projects by providing insights for the NBA shooter’s moves in the music industry.
Duece believing Lillard is the best NBA rapper isn’t because of a family bias. From Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe in the ‘90s to Allen Iverson in the ‘00s — and even Cedric Ceballos, Sebastian Telfair, Lou Williams, Lonzo Ball, Iman Shumpert, Mile Bridges and others — Duece thinks what sets Lillard apart as the NBA’s apex wordsmith is his relentless work ethic and authenticity.
“He’s very courageous,” Duece said. “Out of those other artists [in the NBA], I think he does the best job of explaining his lifestyle without being dishonest. He’s very transparent and truthful, and he’s the best at doing that.”
Although Shaq is the only rapper mentioned to have achieved platinum status (and is indisputably considered to be iconic for NBA rappers, something that Dame himself has acknowledged) his lyrics weren’t necessarily known for offering poetic insight into the man behind the diesel logo on his chest. In “The Way It’s Goin’ Down” video, Shaq rides beneath palm trees and LA sunshine in a flashy Mercedes with Oscar de la Hoya as his passenger. Compare that to Lillard’s “Dre Grant” video, in which the Brookfield Village product is in a gas station parking lot with his entire neighborhood.
The “Dre Grant” video (which Duece co-directed) celebrates the spirit and authenticity of where the cousins grew up together. It’s not about showing how much money Lillard has now, but rather how rooted he has remained. There’s a certain realness and communal quality to it that doesn’t translate when watching other videos of NBA superstars on a Hollywood video set, or rapping inside an empty parking lot.
Not to discredit other NBA-ers for their achievements and passions in music (Duece openly gives his props, especially to innovators like Shaq and A.I. for paving the path) but there is something different when listening to Lillard: a self-awareness and sense of contemplative reflection about life, community, growth, and struggle that doesn’t organically come across with most NBA-crossover hits. Plus, he’s consistent.
With four studio albums to date — more than any other player in NBA history — he’s proven he’s not just a fad or a trend, but a dedicated recording artist.
“I’m the kind of man to lead his people to the promised land / by any means the hoop rock and not contraband,” he delivers smoothly on “We The Ones,” a standout from his most recent project, Different On Levels The Lord Allowed. The 2021 album features an all-star line up of notable collaborators, including Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, Raphael Saadiq, Mozzy, Blxst, and JANE HANDCOCK. Yet, it’s the gravity of Lillard’s truth that ensures the project isn’t taken over by its high-profile cameos. It’s not a perfect project but Lillard isn’t projecting perfection — he’s narrating his life.
“I was born from rejection,” he declares on “Him Duncan,” a track that outlines the heights he has reached in his career despite being constantly overlooked. The song pays homage to his people as he raps about investing in himself and his team, and “never pass[ing] judgment” on others. There’s bravado, but it’s fitting for a hooper who emerged from a mid-major school without any reputation for producing NBA talents. It’s precisely this unlikely — and perhaps dismissed — path into success that fuels Lillard (and Duece) to represent where they come from, while creating opportunities to empower others now that they have the ability to do so.
Look no further than #4BarFriday, an Instagram rap page with over 60,000 followers that Lillard started, that showcases emerging artists in a weekly competition for anyone willing to flex their lyrical abilities and gain exposure.
“4BarFriday allows those voices trying to do things as artists who didn’t get a spotlight to actually be seen and heard,” Duece said. “The community does networking and platforms to help these artists. And we want to continue to do that.”
The mission aligns with Front Page Music’s values, which is derived directly from the two cousins. For Lillard, that means continuing to make music in his spare time and building a record label that will sign and feature other deserving talents, all while balling out for the Portland Trailblazers. For Duece, that means furthering his work as an A&R, developing grassroots pathways for artists in his community, and sharing his story and vision as a creative mind in order to foster a collaborative space for others to thrive in, all while putting out his own brand of authentic rap.
What Lillard and Duece have been consistently doing together as creative partners, family members, and musical teammates is worth paying close attention to. They are, after all, already working on their next albums, and don’t plan on retiring from the rap game anytime soon.
“This next project we’re stepping more into him being in charge, looking out for his family, his community. It’s more of a concept album,” Duece said. “You can continue your learning of the story. You’ll be able to see the growth in storytelling. That’s the direction.”
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Alan Chazaro is the author of This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), Piñata Theory (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and Notes from the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge (Ghost City Press, 2021). He has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, Oaklandside, SFGATE, 48Hills, and other publications, and is on Twitter and IG being a useless pocho millennial @alan_chazaro.
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