From 4-3-3 to 808s: When Football and Rap Music Collide

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportOctober 17, 2019

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - NOVEMBER 16:  Memphis Depay of the Netherlands celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Nations League Group A match between Netherlands and France at the Stadion Feijenoord on November 16, 2018 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Music has been a part of Memphis Depay's life for almost as long as he can remember.

From the African music he heard on early church visits with his Ghanaian father, Dennis, to Christmas singalongs with his nieces and nephews, it has been an ever-present companion. His maternal grandfather, Kees, was a pianist, and several members of his family played musical instruments. If there is rhythm in his feet when he takes to the football pitch, it does not only come from kicking a ball.

"I come from a very musical family," Memphis told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "Being in that environment meant it was natural that I fell in love with music."

Born in 1994, Memphis was drawn towards urban music from the United States, and in particular artists like Tupac, 50 Cent and Akon. Singing along to his favourite tracks, he found that he had a natural talent for rapping. It was a gift he honed in impromptu family talent shows and on car journeys to football training at Sparta Rotterdam, his first professional club, with his mother, Cora, from their home in the small town of Moordrecht on the outskirts of Rotterdam.

"When my mum brought me to a game in the car, the whole way I'd be rapping every song—you can ask my mum," he said. "I learn songs pretty fast because of that. It'd be a performance for the whole trip until we got to training or the game. And then the same all the way back."

Gangster rap appealed to Memphis as a musical genre but also as a lifestyle. By his own admission, he had a "rough" upbringing. His parents divorced when he was four, and when he was nine, his mother moved them in with her abusive new boyfriend. The relationship did not last, but it was an extremely difficult time for the young Memphis. As he revealed in his autobiography, Heart of a Lion, which came out earlier in 2019, he began experimenting with alcohol, hanging around with drug dealers and selling cannabis.

It was a time of his life, he says now, that he spent in "survival mode." In rappers like Tupac and 50 Cent, whose posters adorned the walls of his bedroom, he saw role models who had emerged from unforgiving, crime-scarred backgrounds to achieve fame and fortune on their own terms.

"They were really inspiring," Memphis said. "When you look at Tupac and 50 Cent, they were men, they were real, they were authentic. I felt like by listening to that music, I was prepared for anything. I was always outside on the streets. My environment wasn't great, but the music really touched me."

Memphis recorded his first track with a friend when he was around 14, and for all the success and riches that he has accumulated over the years since through his football achievements with PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, Lyon and the Netherlands, rap remains the medium in which he feels most comfortable expressing himself.

The rap videos that he has released over the past two years—recorded in a blend of rapid-fire Dutch and English—may have been perceived as oddities within the football community, but for Memphis, they represent an entirely natural expression of his personality. And like any professional footballer, he has plenty of downtime in which to indulge his interests.

The video for "5 Milli", a provocative freestyle rap released after his Instagram account reached 5 million followers, showed the 25-year-old forward smoking a cigar in front of the Eiffel Tower while dressed in a gaudy red and gold jacket. Although it prompted some bemused reactions from football fans on social media, the responses he received were overwhelmingly positive.

"I think the majority of the people really liked it," Memphis said. "Some people found it flashy. Most of the people who don't really feel it aren't my age. But everybody has their opinion, and that's cool with me. If you saw the comments, some of the established rap artists in the game reacted underneath the video. Some of the biggest footballers reacted with flames [emojis]. I think that's the new generation."

Whether or not you are a fan of Memphis' musical escapades, the numbers tell their own story. The five tracks he has shared via his official YouTube channel have amassed close to 19 million views between them, and the likes vastly outnumber the dislikes.

He is not the only footballer to have taken to the mic in recent years. Kevin-Prince Boateng, Clint Dempsey, Colombia striker Jackson Martinez, former Real Madrid forward Jese and Aston Villa centre-back Kortney Hause are among the top-level players to have released rap tracks, while Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku have both rapped on camera.

The relationship between football and popular music is a long and chequered one and inevitably evokes memories of naff official tournament songs or 1970s footballers with bad perms. But image-conscious contemporary players tend to take their art seriously, and their musical output is consequently a great deal slicker.

As a footballer, Jurgen Locadia is no stranger to playing in front of thousands of spectators, but when it came to performing his first public DJ set at an event in Milan this summer, he found his stomach full of butterflies.

"It was an outdoor party, and I was DJing for an hour—it was scary," Locadia told Bleacher Report. "There were 2,000 people there. In the stadium, they're focused on 22 players, but as a DJ, they're all looking at you, so it was very different for me."

Locadia, who is on loan at Hoffenheim from Brighton & Hove Albion, started getting into music seriously while convalescing from injury at former club PSV in late 2016 and early 2017. Some of the friends who would come around to his house to keep him company were music producers, and before long he was teaching himself the tricks of their trade, avidly watching YouTube tutorials and getting to grips with digital audio workstations on his laptop.

The former Netherlands youth international has since released several tracks as a producer—the most recent of which, catchy dance track "5AM", came out in July—and spent time in Los Angeles over the summer, working on four new songs that have yet to be released.

For the 25-year-old striker, who endured a disappointing 18 months at Brighton, music provides a place of respite from the cruel whims of professional football.

"When I was injured, I was at home and feeling depressed," he said. "Music got me through the pain and the feeling of being depressed. If you have a bad day at training or you've lost a match, you can use music as an outlet. You put your heart into it and just forget the bad moments."

Memphis' ultimate aim is to set up his own record label, and he cites Nipsey Hussle, the late founder of All Money In, as an inspiration. Should he one day succeed in fulfilling that ambition, he will also be following in the footsteps of Netherlands strike partner Ryan Babel, who runs his own Los Angeles-based label, Underrated Music Group.

Seven years Depay's senior, Babel was a trend-setter for modern footballer-rappers, recording his first tracks when he was a 17-year-old on the fringes of the Ajax first team and making a guest appearance on a playful song called "Eeyeeyo", which became a Dutch summer hit in 2008.

As a young player, Babel occasionally faced accusations that his musical side projects were a distraction, most notably during his underwhelming three-and-a-half-year spell at Liverpool. He feels that football has become more accepting of players' extra-curricular interests, and that development that pleases him.

"When I was doing that at the age of 18, 19, 20, even though it wasn't as much as these guys are doing now, I was still getting heat for it," Babel told Bleacher Report.

"People said I was not focused on the football side. In my opinion, that's ridiculous. You have footballers who are doing a lot of things besides football nowadays. Some players want to do music. Some players are working in fashion, all different stuff.

"It's funny that when I did it, people were not really ready for it. I'm happy for the guys now that they are able to do what they love."

Quincy Promes, another member of Ronald Koeman's Netherlands squad, has also released his own rap songs, notably joining Memphis on 2017 freestyle track "LA Vibes". So what is it about Dutch footballers and rap music?

"Holland is a small country," Locadia explains. "I think a lot of players grew up with friends who were on the rap scene. It's easy to be in the studio with them and vibe with them, then try it yourself."

It is one thing for a high-profile footballer to start dabbling in music, but things are not quite so straightforward when you cannot count on your sporting reputation to open any doors for you.

As a teenager, Medy Elito represented England at the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup in South Korea, playing alongside players such as Danny Welbeck, Danny Rose and Victor Moses and going up against Toni Kroos in a quarter-final defeat to Germany. The attacking midfielder's playing career did not follow the same trajectory as some of his peers, and he now turns out for English non-league side Barnet, but his musical career means his life does not want for sparkle.

As grime MC Don-EE, Elito has performed at London's Wireless Festival and in front of 12,500 people at Wembley Arena. His track "You Alright Yh?" was also unexpectedly sampled in a March 2017 Instagram post by Beyonce—a career-changing event that he discovered when one of his WhatsApp group chats started "going off" while he was celebrating his birthday on a night out in London's West End.

"When I went on her Instagram page and saw it, I couldn't believe it," Elito told Bleacher Report. "Out of a million songs in the world, for her to get hold of that one—it was out of this world."

Worried about how his managers and team-mates might react to his alter ego, Elito decided that he would perform in a Guy Fawkes mask, but while the mask remains a fixture, his concerns do not.

"It was just to separate the football side and the music side," said the 29-year-old, who is releasing a new EP in November. "At first, I didn't know if my managers would be all right with it or not. But now they're cool with it. And my team-mates ask when they can come to one of my shows."

Football and music have not always been natural bedfellows, but in 2019 they increasingly seem to exist in perfect harmony.


Download the B/R Football Ranks podcast. New episodes every Wednesday. Subscribe here.