From the merch and branded clothing players sport on and off the court to the music they listen to to get hyped before the big game, you can’t experience any sports game in 2020 without being immersed in hip-hop music, art and culture.
Set Free Richardson, popularly known as DJ Set Free, is helping to merge these worlds. Since the 1997 launch of his And1 Mixtape, a culture-shifting mash-up of raw and uncut streetball footage layered over hip-hop beat breaks, the DJ, marketing guru, art gallery owner and creative director has been behind big hip-hop-inspired projects for the sports industry.
The most recent example is his “Play For Change” campaign, in conjunction with the NBA Players Association, where Richardson reimagines the current NBA logo to more accurately depict what NBA stars are experiencing in today’s world.
The reimagined logo shows a basketball player with his right first in the air, inspired by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics and a silhouette of Michael Jordan with a basketball on his left hip. For Richardson, inspiration also came from an old neighborhood phrase: “When I was younger there was a saying that I remember, which was ‘hold the rock, stop the ball,’” he tells For(bes) The Culture. “That is what came to mind after players began opting out of the season. I translated that into image form.”
“We went through an interesting two months where the NBA was thinking about not having a season due to Covid-19, and after the murder of George Floyd, the players didnt want to play either,” says Richardson. “They needed a symbol that represented their voice and represented what they were actually saying and the music they were listening to at the time.”
His next project? Set Free exclusively tells For(bes) The Culture that he’s set to executive produce a new ESPN 30 For 30 documentary releasing in early 2021—the latest in his A-list portfolio of clients, which includes Lyft, Hennessy, Nike and RedBull.
Richardson’s ability to understand his clients makes the process flow smoothly. “By collaborating with Set Free on a number of projects, we as a union have been able to better tap into our players’ interests off the court,” says NBPA President Michele Roberts. “His understanding of both the basketball and art worlds have helped us innovate and fuse the two together to create events and content that really resonate with them.”
Richardson discovered his love of art at a young age. At 14, long before his career merging music, sports and visual arts, he had his first experience as a performer DJing in the 1980s South Bronx.
“I don’t think we as humans have an understanding of what art is.”
“I don’t think we as humans have an understanding of what art is.” says Richardson. “You know, when we’re growing up, our parents get us toys right from the start. But before you got your first toy, it was an object and a product that was conceptualized by an artist.” With that in mind, he grew up having a greater appreciation for his favorite toys like Mickey Mouse, the GI Joes and the Transformers.
While he was born in the South Bronx, “the mecca of hip-hop” as he thinks of it, Richardson was raised in Philadelphia. But he couldn’t stay away from the inspiration found in the Big Apple. “Every summer, I went back and forth to New York, I got a chance to see the hip-hop culture very early on being around the likes of Run DMCs and LL Cool Js. On the flipside, I was also coming back to Philadelphia to grow up around the Jazzy Jeffs, Fresh Princes and Schooly Ds. Being able to see hip-hop created from 95 South to 95 North was a great experience for me.”
After a brief stint on Tommy Boy Records in 1997, Richardson worked on product placement at the sports footwear and clothing company And1. During one lunch break at And1, he discovered some VHS tapes in the office kitchen and became the office DJ who would play the tapes while videos of basketball footage played across the screens.
“As the [music] was playing, somebody shot a jump shot and the snare from the drums hit at the same time as the Jumpshot went in,” says Richardson. “That’s when the lightbulb went off.”
Soon after, Richardson enlisted artists including Busta Rhymes, Mos Def and Questlove to provide soundtracks to basketball highlight footage. Richardson would reward them with the eyes and ears of basketball’s finest.
And1 loved the final products so much, it printed 50,000 copies for promotional use that they sent to basketball camps and clinics, record labels and basketball influencers. Richardson then partnered And1 with FootAction for a gift-with-purchase program: Anyone who bought anything in FootAction received an And1 mixtape free of charge. 200,000 mixtapes flew off the shelves in less than three weeks.
One year after Richardson created the And1 mixtape, during the 1999-2000 season, the NBA began hiring hip-hop DJs for in-game arena entertainment. The And1 mixtape style of editing also became the new standard for sports networks in the late 90s and early 2000s.
“What I created with the And1 Mixtape [was happening] at the same time hip-hop was growing.” says Richardson. “I think the mixtape unified the teams and the players in the league.”
Richardson’s full circle career journey has led him back to art. He launched the Bronx-based Compound art gallery in 2009, continuing what NBA player Iman Shumpert describes as “merging basketball with art, music and fashion and to deliver the messages we need the younger generation to be receptive to.”
“By staying honest to his core values as a man, the culture barriers stand no chance to the ‘Black Yoda’ sporting the salt and pepper beard,” adds Shupert.