There are two things in this life that I love overthinking, and those things are music and basketball. So when fellow Richmonder and proprietor of breakout 2012 album Big Inner Matthew E. White posted the following question to Twitter, let’s just say that a few analytical gears started turning…
I didn’t know until I started doing some research, but his query first appeared in “Slam Harder,” a cut from Onyx’s 2002 album Bacdafucup Part II. And while the song and its video (posted above) attempt to provide an answer — a cry of “ONYX” rings out immediately after the question is asked at the beginning of each chorus — we clearly can’t accept such a biased judgement. We’re going to have to dig deeper.
You may be thinking that “Who slam harder, Onyx or Vince Carter?” is an unanswerable question. That a Queens-based hip hop group and a Florida-born NBA player are like apples and oranges — essentially incomparable entities operating in separate spheres with divergent raisons d’être. But that’s not entirely true. Both band and baller are entertainers, both achieved a remarkable level of success, and both impacted lives — including mine. We can do this; we just need to take it one step at a time, starting by choosing a single event that best represents how hard they slammed in their respective primes.
Clearly, in the case of Onyx, we’re going with “Slam” — the group’s breakthrough single, their biggest hit, the referent for the title lyric of “Slam Harder,” and the very reason we’ve having this conversion in the first place.
In Carter’s case, it’s not so easy. He’s been throwing down dunks in the NBA since 1998, and he threw it down as a Tar Heel before that. There are quite a few dunks to choose from. But fortunately for this discussion, dunkers have heydays, and 2000 was Vince’s. There are two moments from that year that stand out, and while it’s tempting to go with the time he jumped over a 7’2” Frenchman in the summer Olympics (I still can’t believe that actually happened), I’m inclined to go with his iconic performance in 2000’s Slam Dunk Contest.
Now that we have our contestants, we can get down to business. To determine who slams harder, I suggest we look at these booming blows from three perspectives:
- The Qualitative Impact. What was the in-the-moment reaction like?
- The Quantitative Impact. How can the event’s magnitude be measured?
- The Fallout. How can these sizable slams be felt today?
Without further ado…
The Qualitative Impact
Onyx: When sifting through the Internet for firsthand accounts of how people felt when “Slam” made impact, an interesting trend emerges. Words like “crazy” and “nuts” appear with surprising regularity. My favorite description of all contends that “the crossover anthem would usually drive the crowd into a bewildered frenzy… people would start pushing and jumping into each other, fights (fake and real) would break out, speakers would get knocked over and every so often the DJ would shut off the music in a futile attempt to keep order.” Crazy, right? Onyx floated in on the rising gangster rap tide, but they brought with them a more aggressive style that had a deep-seated effect on people’s sanity (or, at the very least, their tendency to hyperbolize about their sanity).
The group’s effect on me was slightly different. When “Slam” hit, I was doggedly mucking my way through the middle school coolness quagmire, eagerly participating in the type of conspicuous music consumption that goes along with reeeeeally wanting to fit in. Picture a skinny, red-haired kid bobbing his head to “Slam” on cassette while mowing his parents’ lawn with a yellow Sony Sports Walkman attached to his belt via that awful plastic claw with the “turnable” dial that didn’t do a damn thing. Who knows if I actually liked “Slam.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the first thing about what music I liked, or even how to like music back then. But listening to “Slam” definitely made me feel cool, and that’s no small deal in middle school.
Extra points go to the in-your-face-edness of the song’s structure. “Slam” leads off with the chorus, so an enthusiastic “SLAM” is the very first lyric you hear. Should not be overlooked.
Vince Carter: Much like “Slam” does, Carter started off strong in the dunk contest, leading with a reverse 360 windmill that seems to have caught onlookers and judges by surprise. Participants usually keep dunks that impressive in their back pockets, at least until the end of the first round, so Carter’s overture probably ranks among the top first dunks of all time.
That said, the most telling moment of impact from his performance came a bit later, when he executed his most innovative dunk of the night. Often called the “Honey Dip,” Carter’s first dunk of the finals involved soaring through the air, sticking the ball and his arm into the basket and hanging from the rim by his elbow for a few seconds. No one had done this before, and it took people a few seconds to realize what had just happened. Shaq made this face. Jason Kidd made this face. Michael Keaton made this face. Commentator Kenny Smith repeatedly asked for a time-out to take stock. It was less of an explosion than a slow, intense burn, like the extra-acidic toothpaste Richie Rich smuggled into prison to help his butler Cadbury escape.
The night Vinsanity brought the house down in Oakland, I was at a friend’s lakehouse in North Carolina. I wasn’t especially good friends with this person, and I had pretty extreme social anxiety in high school, so things were a little… tense. The fact that we were drinking screwdrivers helped, but the dunk contest helped even more. At the time, I was still several years away from applying my interest in college basketball to its older, flashier sibling, but even I could tell that a seismic event was unfolding.
People always go bananas at the Slam Dunk Contest, but “Slam” made people all over the country lose their minds in a way that seems genuinely rare to me. Also, making middle school me feel cool trumps making high school me feel slightly less awkward. And by the way, why on Earth was I drinking screwdrivers? Forget the fact that I was a 16 year old drinking vodka — my reflux-tastic stomach can barely handle a tiny juice glass of OJ. Just thinking about drinking a whole pint gives me heartburn. Gross.
The Quantitative Impact
Onyx: Here’s where we can dig into the numbers. “Slam” vaulted Onyx to the top spot on Billboard’s Rap Songs chart and to #4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The single was certified gold by the RIAA on June 7, 1993 and platinum just two months later, on August 10. Two months after that, Onyx’s debut album Bacdafucup was certified platinum as well, going on to sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million copies, depending on which website you’re looking at. (It’s unlikely that it went platinum a third time, since it’s conspicuously absent from Wikipedia’s list of best-selling hip hop albums, which seems to use triple-platinum status as the cutoff.)
Onyx appeared on the cover of June’s Source magazine… they were mentioned in Vibe alongside eventual legends like Dr. Dre… they performed on Yo! MTV Raps and In Living Color… they were everywhere you’d expect a rap group with a platinum hit to have been in 1993, including the ears of crossover audiences. In short, “Slam” was a quantitatively big-ass deal, and its presence was felt significantly throughout 1993.
Vince Carter: Things get a little tricky here, since the Slam Dunk Contest has changed its format a few times over the years. The format for 2000 was such that the two best scores from your first three dunks were added together, and that number would determine whether you made the finals. Carter’s first round dunks received cores of 50, 49 and 50 (50 being perfect), meaning that he was obviously moving on. His two dunks in the finals received scores of 50 and 48, earning him an easy victory.
Easy is probably not the right word though. Think about it this way. 5 judges had 5 opportunities each to award him a score between 1 and 10, and of those 250 available points, Carter let 3 slip through his fingers. Just incredible.
It’s hard to argue with a chart-topping record, but many, many albums have gone platinum in the history of recorded music. Jay-Z has 12 by himself. On the other hand, Vince Carter submitted what very well may be the most dominant Dunk Contest performance ever. The competition is nowhere near as serious or tightly regulated as the Olympics, but his overall success rate (north of 99%, if you consider all the points he could have earned) is still extremely unlikely. His first round score ranks as the highest among any round in which 3 scores were tabulated, and his pair of dunks in the finals scored almost as highly. With that in mind, it seems clear to me that Carter’s performance is the true quantitative outlier here.
Onyx: I was having trouble coming up with a way to properly evaluate how “Slam” has aged, so I solicited the opinion of my friend and trusted hip-hop sherpa J Clyde, and he did not disappoint. Here’s his response:
I’d say it’s aged marginally well.
- As a DJ, I can sure as shit tell you that it’s not on the first string of old school jams that you bust out at a party (probably not the second or third string either). Also, I can’t speak for every DJ, but I find that this song nowadays really only plays to a white audience. “Let the boys be boys” + the potential for hip hop slam dancing = FRATTY!!
- The novelty of Onyx wore off rather swiftly… at least for most people. I actually enjoyed some of their later stuff — the highly slept on 1998 album Shut ‘Em Down is a banger on the low. But I can understand how most people wouldn’t be able to stomach the screaming for very long — a la Freeway.
- The beat still bangs
- Everyone knows it, for better or worse, so a room full of drunk people is bound to enjoy it, if only for the first verse… any DJ playing an entire Onyx record anywhere is bound to get boo’d out of whatever building he’s spinning in, pronto.
- For an “intelligent” room full of “heads” there are some highly memorable verses/lines. The way Onyx says stuff oftentimes makes it fun to sing/follow along. Just take lines like “Now everybody wanna sound griiiiiiiiiimey”, “I’m a b-boy, standing in my b-boy stance / hurry up and give me the microphone before I bust in my pants”, “Onyx is heavyweight and STILL UNDISPUTED”, and of course the cherry on top “bu bu bu bu but wait, it gets worse!!”… ok, so Sticky Fingaz’ entire verse is a winner.
J Clyde’s hip-hop aging scale:
1 – Anything by Wu-Tang offshoot Killarmy
10 – “T.R.O.Y. (They Remenise Over You)” by Pete Rock & CL Smooth
On a scale of 1-10, I’d give “Slam” a 6.2
Vince Carter: For a contest that’s judged subjectively and can’t seem to decide on a scoring system, there is a remarkable degree of consensus when it comes to Dunk Contest superlatives. The honor for greatest contest of all time is typically given to Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins’ 1988 duel, a back-and-forth battle that tested the creativity and athleticism of two of the greatest dunkers of all time. But the greatest performance superlative is almost always given to Carter’s 2000 outburst. In fact, a significant faction considers Carter the greatest dunker of all time, and that night in Oakland is one of the most important parts of his legacy.
It’s also worth mentioning that his is a living legacy, and not just because he’s still throwing down nasty dunks in 2013. His work is still being imitated in dunk competitions more than a decade later. 2011’s champion, Blake Griffin, reprised the Honey Dip, bouncing the ball off the backboard beforehand to add a new twist to Carter’s creation, and it took announcer Marv Albert less than 2 seconds to conjure Carter’s name.
There’s not much of a contest on this one. Both legacies are debatable, but only one of those debates frequently includes terms like “greatest of all time.”
Vince Carter. By a 2-1 margin, I declare that Mr. Vincent Lamar Carter, Mr. Vinsanity, Mr. Half-Man, Half-Amazing, officially slams harder. He’s got the qualitative category covered, and his legacy is undeniable. Middle school me may not be pleased with the result, but the evidence seems to lean pretty strongly. Plus, when you think about it, there’s one piece of overwhelming evidence working in Carter’s favor I haven’t even mentioned yet — a fact in the form of a question that proves in just a few words what the last 2000 have attempted to illustrate…
Who named-checked who?
Perhaps Vince himself put it best while he was walking away from the basket after unleashing his third dunk of that fateful night — “It’s over.”
Thanks so much to J Clyde for his helping me reach this important verdict, and thanks to Matthew E. White for tweeting such a thought-provoking question. Even though “Slam” and the Slam Dunk Contest have been on different sides of this discussion, I can think of no better companion song for getting excited about this year’s competition, which is set to take place next Saturday, February 16 in Houston. Listen to the track below and click here to check out the list of 2013 contestants.