"I'm going to pick you up. I want to have a talk."
Russell Howard hung up the phone, nervous, terrified—every emotion you’d feel if Kobe Bryant called urgently, wanting a word.
Things had been going haywire with Bryant’s debut rap album, and Howard, one of its main producers, felt the pressure. He’d heard the stories before, having graduated from Lower Merion High School just outside Philadelphia in 1996, the same class as the Los Angeles Lakers legend.
Bryant drove up to Howard’s house in a Mercedes. Before the star could even open his mouth, Howard overflowed.
"Look, I did all of these tracks," Howard said, wanting to show his musical partner he wasn't slacking off.
"Relax, relax," Bryant said. "We're just going to this Philly cheesesteak place."
Howard took a breath, but despite what Bryant said, he'd known this was a test.
"It was nothing about music, but it was a subliminal test of always being ready," Howard said. "'I want to see if you're ready. I want to see if you're working. I want to see if you're prepared.' There's been many other stories of where he'll do that with teammates. I always needed to stay prepared."
Bryant, now retired after 20 years with the Lakers and soon to have two of his jerseys hanging from the Staples Center rafters, has become defined by his preparation and intensity, but back then, his legend was just beginning.
Things had happened so quickly for everyone involved. In 1999, signed by Sony Records, Bryant called up Howard, his childhood friend, hoping to collaborate. Back at Lower Merion, noting their common interest in production, he'd suggested for years the two collaborate on music.
While Sony execs told Bryant they could bring in any of the top producers at the time, from Timbaland to Swizz Beatz to DJ Premier, he wanted to bring in the people he trusted from home. He listened to Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Jay Z, Tribe Called Quest and Biggie, and he hoped to create an album true to himself, inspired by his favorite artists.
Howard and Bryant were in constant communication about what direction they wanted to pursue. Bryant, so happy with his friend's work, approached Jay Z on the set of the "Heartbreaker" music video and recommended the legendary rapper to check out his friend. Not long after, Howard was working with Brooklyn's own on Vol. 3 Life and Times of S. Carter, producing the beats of "S. Carter" and "There's Been a Murder."
Rap, much like his other pursuits, was not something Bryant took lightly.
"When Kobe does things, he wants to do it perfectly," Howard said. "We took it very serious and tried to compete with Wu-Tang and whatever was out there."
Together, they landed on a sound reminiscent of his inspirations. The beats were hard and in your face. Kobe, Howard said, was lyrical and truthful, never talking about something he didn't live. After listening to demos, Sony execs asked Bryant to pursue a new direction.
"Will Smith's '[Gettin'] Jiggy Wit It' was around during this time," Howard said. "Then there was this push to change the tracks to bring in samples from the '70s, '80s and '90s to be more funk and soul and lighten up the mood. I looked [at] it as a challenge."
Howard, barely 22 and not wanting to quarrel with execs, agreed without a fight. They rebranded Bryant to a more pop-friendly sound, creating the song "K.O.B.E." featuring Tyra Banks. Bryant then hired David Lasman, another Lower Merion classmate and best friends with Howard, to write a treatment for his first music video, which was eventually directed by Hype Williams.
But the public never saw the video, and then the single flopped—big time. Bryant and Banks performed the song at All-Star Weekend in January 2000, with the Lakers forward donning a leopard print hat and leather suit. Sony executives scrambled, and eventually Kobe Bryant was dropped from the label. Bryant's record, Visions, never saw the light of day.
"I was living in this false world where I was hanging with this superstar basketball player and I was exposed to [the best]," Howard said. "I was still trying to make a living. I was still trying get a grasp and learn my way around L.A. If we're talking about change, I had to grow up. I had to change pretty fast."
Record labels began calling his parents hoping to get ahold of him. Lasman became a production assistant in 2006 and eventually worked his way up to becoming a co-executive producer. Along with Adam Malka, who's been best friends with Howard and Lasman since age 10 in Wynnewood, a suburb west of Philadelphia, they created Signature Tracks, a production company that composes and organizes music for television, commercials and film. None of that happens if Bryant doesn't give his friends a chance to make it in Los Angeles.
"It was the start of what we bring to the table," Lasman said. "The fact that one of our founders worked with Jay Z, it's something we bring up to this day. It's really important. Jay Z is at the top of the game."
"It's the selling point for a lot of what we did after."
Howard still speaks disappointingly about the failure of Bryant's musical venture. Together, they'd put so much time, energy and passion into the project, only to have their work scrapped before it hit record stores.
Trying to find remnants of Bryant's rap career is unusually difficult. There are a few grainy YouTube videos and a Brian McKnight feature, but not much else. Howard, however, said the files for Bryant's debut are out there, somewhere.
"Yeah, they're out there," Howard said. "Ray Donovan has them."