More than a dozen sturdy men stand center stage as a rowdy crowd looks on. On one side is a trio decked out in the Stars and Stripes while backed by, among others, a shirtless Thomas Jefferson and a black gentleman in a Lady Liberty costume celebrating July Fourth.
On the other side, twin brothers have a crew of racially ambiguous men in black hoodies standing behind them with menacing glares.
The rap battle commences.
Insulting bars are lobbed from both sides: mentions of living in a father’s shadow, an X-rated adult film and how the twins were essentially the bagmen for their more famous relative (the Warren G to their cousin’s Dr. Dre, if you will). The crowd eats up each rapper’s insults.
But only four minutes in, the emcee of the battle, lacking the impartiality this sort of competition sorely requires, ends the battle in a disqualification, in favor of the trio, after barely preventing an outbreak of fisticuffs.
This isn’t a clip from the Ultimate Rap League or an outtake from some Eminem movie. The face-off isn’t even in the home of battle rap, New York City; it takes place in a basketball arena in Phoenix in 2017. The battlers are actually professional wrestlers The New Day and The Usos, longtime employees of World Wrestling Entertainment.
And the emcee is hip-hop artist Wale.
This is wrestling, and hip-hop, in today’s world.
Nearly two years after the rap battle on SmackDown Live, Wale sits in the bowels of Sony Hall, a former Manhattan basement club and Broadway theater that was recently renovated into a concert venue. Despite it being the first week of April, the Washington, D.C., rapper is sporting an oversize long-sleeved black shirt, trademark thick winter hat, and a cold that he’s trying to recover from. “Slept with the fan on and s—,” he said.
He’s in the Big Apple to host WaleMania, the rapper’s live panel-cum-musical-concert extravaganza that is in its fifth year. The event, tacked on to the days leading up to WWE’s premier annual event, WrestleMania, is billed as the melding of hip-hop and wrestling after a long kinship. By the end of the night, there will be a live podcast featuring several WWE and independent personalities, a musical performance by Wale and a brief freestyle by former WWE wrestler Eric “Enzo Amore” Arndt.
What’s more insane than grown men and women decked out in tights jumping off of cages and dropping one another on their heads? A Grammy-nominated rapper who moonlights as a wrestling nerd.
In his downtime, Wale is watching wrestling shows from WWE or any number of independent promotions. He’s consuming late-1990s World Wrestling Federation programs (WWF changed its name to WWE in 2002) while reading the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, an insider trade publication (think Variety but for men in spandex). He recently followed the trajectory of Dwayne Johnson from nascent villain to megasuperstar character “The Rock.” (“I imagine it would be like watching an A-list actor go from workshops to an Oscar,” he said.)
He’s a real wrestling fan.
Your grandparents could probably name-check The Undertaker or Hulk Hogan. But do they know Tama Tonga or Kenny King or Aerial Monroe? Wale does. And all three appeared at WaleMania.
“Everybody knows about the big stuff, the ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, The Rock, ‘Macho Man,’ Bret Hart,” said Raheem Jarbo, a Philly rapper who goes by Mega Ran. Jarbo, a friend of Wale’s, released a wrestling concept album, Mat Mania: The Revenge, in 2017. “But when [Wale’s] able to dig deep … it kind of makes me perk up, and I’m like, ‘Oh, OK. This dude knows what he’s talking about.’ ”
Wale, it seems safe to say, is hip-hop’s biggest wrestling fan. He’s appeared on WWE television multiple times, including the aforementioned rap battle and as a guest commentator. His 2016 single “My PYT” was the official theme song of a major WWE pay-per-view, and he has likely made more wrestling references in his music than any other mainstream artist. From whole tracks (“Smackdown/Raw,” “Hacksaw Jim Duggan,” “Legit Boss”) to particular lyrics (“With that fact its back packin’ and murkin’ / Gettin’ that Bobby Heenan while you Mr. Perfect”), Wale has become wrestling’s most vocal ambassador, on par with Drake for the Toronto Raptors and Ice Cube for the Oakland Raiders.
“I’ve seen Wale at a ton of courtside games at the Wizards, the Cavs and a bunch of other games. He’s been at ringside for probably just as many WrestleManias or SummerSlams or Raws,” said Kazeem Famuyide, a former WWE writer who has been Wale’s close friend for nearly 10 years. “We always kind of joke around that there’s not really any Spike Lees in pro wrestling, and I kind of feel like Wale’s kind of that when it comes to WWE.”
The rapper, born Olubowale Akintimehin, got into wrestling for pragmatic reasons more than anything else: “We didn’t have no cable, so that was on Sundays.” He and his older brother, Alvin, would wake up weekend mornings to watch wrestling while their parents were out working, eventually ending up outside to re-enact what they just watched. As he got older, Wale would become more engrossed by the technical aspects of the profession, analyzing how storylines were crafted more so than the athletic feats. During his teens and early 20s, his interest in wrestling ebbed and flowed as legends from his childhood retired and WWE matured from raunchy to a PG rating. “When wrestling is good, it’s amazing. When it’s not good, you hoping nobody’s seeing you watch the s—.”
As he got back into the product more consistently, he began incorporating his passion into his music.
“When I did the Razor Ramon joint, I didn’t even think about the regular rap fans,” Wale said of a 2014 freestyle in homage to retired wrestler Scott Hall. “And if I did, it was in passing; it was like … it’s not even for them, they not going to understand it. And to some extent, I don’t even think the die-hard wrestling fans, the good ol’ boys wrestling fans, would understand what I was saying. It was just for whoever get it, get it.”
Wrestling’s popularity has exploded in recent years. Alongside WWE, sports entertainment’s cultural relevance has returned in America with the rise of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, All Elite Wrestling and Ring of Honor. National media outlets regularly cover wrestling, WWE was at the forefront of live sports streaming with the WWE Network, and WrestleMania nearly sells out a football stadium every April. Wrestling is no longer a guilty pleasure.
“I think it was, ‘I’m going to be a closet wrestling fan because I’m too cool for the room to say I like pro wrestling,’ ” said Emilio Sparks, a producer at Sirius XM Radio and host of the Wrassle Rap podcast. “And then something changed, and now everybody who’s anybody who watches wrestling — whether you’re a tastemaker, DJ, producer, influencer, rapper, rock star, EDM DJ, whoever — they’re into pro wrestling and they make it known.”
In recent years, there’s been what’s felt like a 1,000% increase in wrestling shout-outs in hip-hop. The Game, Iggy Azalea and Lil Wayne have all referred to grapplers. From 1999 to 2000, two compilation albums were released by WWE and now-defunct World Championship Wrestling, which featured Run-DMC, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, Fat Joe and the Ruff Ryders. Johnson, before becoming a Hollywood actor, appeared on separate tracks with Wyclef Jean and Method Man. There are no fewer than four rap singles named after the legendary Ric Flair, including Offset’s “Ric Flair Drip,” whose namesake appeared in the track’s music video.
There are “a lot of Ric Flair references,” Wale said. “A lot.”
WWE has, in turn, embraced hip-hop right back. While rock music was once the go-to choice for wrestler theme songs in the past, some of WWE’s top stars use rap as their entrance music, including John Cena and WWE executive Stephanie McMahon.
Wale is the unofficial leader of an unofficial cohort of hip-hop artists who have made wrestling its own microgenre. Much like “mumble rap” or “weed rap,” “wrestle rap” caters to its own niche audience. It features a collection of artists: Wale, Mega Ran, Harlem rapper Smoke DZA and Buffalo, New York, native Westside Gunn, among others. There’s a natural synergy between the two mediums.
“Basically, what we do as rappers is cut promos on beats,” Jarbo said, referring to monologues that wrestlers deliver to audiences. “It’s literally the same psychology: What can I say that’s slick, that’s fancy, that hasn’t been said before that will impress someone so much that they might want to put it on a T-shirt?”
The No. 1 goal in both wrestling and rap is “getting over,” wrestling parlance for when fans are heavily invested in your act. You either have to perform well or say something controversial enough to get noticed (looking your way, Mr. West).
“It’s a game. It’s all about marketing. It’s all about the finesse,” Wale said. “You not ‘over’ in this hip-hop s— and you can’t do cool events, you can’t sell out tours, you can’t stream well.”
No matter who co-signs it, though, wrestling is still considered by some a carnival sideshow intended for nerds who yell, “It’s still real to me, damn it!” But Wale encourages people to “like what you like. Be you.” For example, breakout rapper Megan Thee Stallion, known for such hits as “Big Ole Freak,” “Freak Nasty” and recent Wale collaboration “Poledancer,” is one of rap’s leading sex symbols and purveyors of trap music. She’s also an avid anime watcher.
“I respect that about her, because she could easily be like, ‘You know what? I just like whatever the last female rapper that got hot like,’ ” Wale said. “But she’s unapologetically herself, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
Regardless, he continued, wrestling is not unlike any of the reality-based television shows populating VH1 and Bravo: “It ain’t no different than Love & Hip Hop,” he said emphatically. “The only thing is we are in on it.”
“Mona Scott,” he says of the Love & Hip Hop executive producer, “she’s a hell of a booker.”
While he could spend hours talking about his wrestling-inspired music, Wale is visibly less enamored when it comes to talking about the non-Speedo aspects of his musical career.
A week after WaleMania, while seated at a table in Georgia Brown’s, a renowned soul food restaurant in Northwest Washington, D.C., he eschews eye contact and provides short and pointed answers when discussing his music.
Over a plate of “devil” shrimp and red rice, he guards the details of his forthcoming album like they’re the nuclear codes. When asked what subjects the new music will broach or even when the music is coming, he’s virtually mute, other than to say the album is coming “soon.”
“This is the era of not really having a big ol’ release date and all of that, a four-month buildup and all that,” he said. “We’re coming when we’re coming.”
One can assume a new album will at least touch on the two things Wale seems to struggle with the most at this stage in life: fatherhood and his place in hip-hop.
Being a better father to his 2-year-old daughter, Zyla Moon, keeps him up at night. It strains him that he doesn’t get to see her as much as he would want to.
“I ain’t got it all figured out like a lot of my peers,” he said. “I wish I did, but I don’t, so I’m trying to figure things out and try to make sure she’s straight, make sure that she got whatever she needs, even if that means I can’t see her as much as I want to.
“I wish I had a private jet that I could get on whenever I wanted to and go see her, come bring her to me. But it ain’t like that right now. Everybody’s path ain’t the same.”
When discussing professional wrestling or his time playing football in high school and at Robert Morris University, the 34-year-old perks up and trips over his words in excitement. But when it comes to music, he’s more coy. It doesn’t appear to come from a lack of desire to continue rapping but more so a frustration about how he’s perceived alongside peers like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. (In November, Wale tweeted that “hopefully” his next album will be his last.)
But make no mistake — by all accounts, Wale has “made it.” He’s had three No. 1 albums, received a Grammy nomination for 2011 single “Lotus Flower Bomb” and even had his own sneakers. But, like anyone, he wants “more” for himself when it comes to his career.
He’s asked what specifically he wants more of.
“I want …”
“It’s hard to explain. A lot of people are like, ‘Wale thinks he’s on this level, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,’ and it’s like if you take out how you feel about me or whatever and just let the music speak, what makes it different than this or that? That’s supermainstream or supersuccessful? And I’m not going to say I’m not successful, but at the same time, anybody in my shoes, that put the work in that I did and got the accolades that I have, would probably be like, ‘Yo, something ain’t right. That ain’t adding up.’
“At the end of the day, that’s a problem I got to try to fix, if I’m going to fix it, or just step down.”
After the success of underground single “Dig Dug” and mixtape 100 Miles & Running in the mid-2000s, Wale was one of hip-hop’s most sought-after young talents. He signed a major label deal with Interscope in 2008, and within a year his debut album, Attention Deficit, was released to mixed reviews. Regardless, Wale was positioning himself to be one of hip-hop’s next stars: He appeared alongside Kid Cudi and B.o.B on the cover of XXL magazine’s 2009 “Freshman Class” list of the top up-and-coming rappers.
But also on the rise around that time was Twitter, and Wale’s reputation quickly took a hit because of the burgeoning platform. Whether it was his combative attitude toward faceless online trolls or constant online feuds with his detractors, fellow rappers and even video models, Wale was labeled “soft,” “emotional” and “wack” by his critics. A Washington Post profile from that time dubbed him a “mercurial star” who couldn’t escape the lure of affirmation (and criticism) from social media.
Hating Wale became the thing to do.
“I don’t really understand when people do that,” said Smoke DZA, a close friend of Wale’s. “I know it’s like the cool thing to do, but it’s not really cool. That s— ain’t cool. This man is a father. This man is a brother. This man is a son. This man is an amazing lyricist, and if something were to happen, God forbid, these same people would be wearing his T-shirt and trying to martyr him.”
There has been improvement over the years. Wale has mostly kept his nose clean in recent years as far as Twitter beefs go, save for a brief run-in with conservative talking head “Tammy” Lahren.
“I think I’ve just learned to take certain things for what they are,” Wale said in Georgia Brown’s. “I can do 10 things positive and somebody’s still going to be mad, and it’ll never be enough for some people. You can give, give, give, give, give your whole time, and then people will work harder to perpetuate the hate than they will to defend or stand by your positivity.
“That’s probably the most depressing thing to come to grips with.”
There was a glimpse of positivity that day. After Wale arrived at Georgia Brown’s, a young woman came up to ask for a photo with the rapper. But the maitre d’ quickly shut the request down.
Out of anything else, wrestling provides an escape for the rapper. The ridiculous storylines and carny vibes aside, wrestling has saved his life. In multiple interviews spanning at least half a decade, Wale has said wrestling allows for much-needed breaks from the rigors of the music business and life.
He despises the proverbial “noise” of the entertainment business, and suplexes and moonsaults present a morale boost when he’s in the thick of it. “Gotta get a break. This s— will eat you alive if you don’t.”
Leading up to this year’s WaleMania, he was “superdepressed.” In a span of weeks, he lost two close friends, one being rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was murdered in South Central Los Angeles on March 31. WaleMania, and by association WrestleMania, provided that respite.
“I need to be around smiles. I need to uplift my spirits,” he said while sitting in Sony Hall. “Sometimes it’s just for my well-being.”
Through the years, he’s dealt with these bouts of depression, along with substance abuse, the loss of a child and his strained relationship with his mother. Wrestling has been his own personal “getaway” from it all.
“When I come here, it’s my own thing,” he said.
It appears to have worked. On that April night in New York, Wale’s surrounded by beautiful women and a horde of friends while British wrestler Tyler Bate sits on a stool. Backstage somewhere are WWE Hall of Famer Booker T and Kofi Kingston, who days later will become just the fourth black world champion in WWE history. As New York rapper Rowdy Rebel’s track “Computers” blasts from the speakers, Wale hops to the center of the stage.
With all eyes on him, the rapper hits the sturdiest Milly Rock that’s ever been rocked.
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