Interview: John Buccigross is ESPN’s Biggest Hip-Hop Nerd

Buccigross SC

Words by Paul Meara (@PaulMeara)

The marrying of hip-hop and sports has a storied history. From St. Louis Rams running back Tre Mason and his dad (Maseo of De La Soul) to (formerly) 50 Cent and Floyd Mayweather, sports and hip-hop have been infused for the longest. Heck, look no further than ESPN’s recent screening of “The U Part II,” a 30 for 30 documentary representing the University of Miami’s second wave of success in football. During their reign of dominance it was Trick Daddy’s hometown mix of www.thug.com and Book of Thugs providing melodic fuel for the turn of the century ‘Canes.

Speaking of ESPN, there are fewer, albeit sporadic, instances of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network meshing with urban culture. Lately though, they’ve attempted to rectify that. Nicki Minaj appeared on Sportscenter as recently as last week to plug her forthcoming album and toss the pigskin around. There has however, always been a hip-hop mainstay at the network and it isn’t an emcee, producer or even a misplaced figurative rap correspondent. It’s Sportscenter anchor John Buccigross and his informed yet eerily nuanced on-air shoutouts referencing everyone from Mobb Deep to 9th Wonder.

The self-proclaimed Bucci Mane and his hip-hop allusions during highlights are nothing new. He says it’s something he’s done even previous to joining ESPN in the mid-90s. It all stems from his love of the culture–something that began long before his anchoring days. Nah Right recently asked Buccigross about the on air rap references, his love of hip-hop and how it all started. What Darryl McDaniels is to Run-DMC, John Buccigross is to Sportscenter. Literally.

Run DMC Bucci

You’re a big Run-DMC fan. I’m assuming that’s part of where your love for hip-hop began. How did you become a fan of the culture?

I was 13 when “Rapper’s Delight” dropped. It was hard to find rap to consume in the early 80s. I had cassette tapes with “Apache” by the Sugarhill Gang and certainly, “The Message,” “White Lines,” etcetera, etcetera. I love words and poetry and cleverness and that’s what I found in rap. Then my buddy, Goody, gave me a cassette spring of our junior year in 1983 with Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That.” I listened to it at least twenty to thirty times a day [and] memorized it. It was a bigger, fuller, produced sound. It was a seminal moment at an age when your world is small the universe endless. In 1984, “Rock Box” and “Hard Times” and the self-titled drop. It was the best time to be a music fan. Everything was humming.

You’ve made mention on air of the Juice Crew, 9th Wonder, Actual Proof and The Away Team from JAMLA Records so it’s obvious you know hip-hop and its history. Who are some of your favorite groups?

I have to say, when it comes to hip-hop, outside of Run-DMC, I don’t have a lot of artist loyalty. I have a lot of everything. I think all of music has fall prey to the “hit.” I mean having a hit has been important going back to the 1940s. Then the 1960s brought in the era of constructing awesome albums, especially as The Beatles matured.

The late 60s to the early 80s, in my opinion, is a great era of great albums. MTV and Power of Image may have been a precursor the iTunes era. Jay Z’s Blueprint 3 is an album I love from beginning to end. I love Ludacris’ voice, Andre 3000 is an all time great rapper in my mind, [LL Cool J] is about the same age as me so I grew up with him. I know every word of Heavy D’s Peaceful Journey album. I could go on and on!

How did you begin the hip-hop shoutouts and can you remember the first one you did?

I began the hip-hop shoutouts in Providence, Rhode Island, the last job I had before coming to ESPN in 1996. I was there from 1994 to 1996. Run-DMC was the first. And that was the era of Tupac, Nas, Raekwon…

Do the producers ever comment about the shoutouts you make on air?

No, they just shake their heads.

[Laughs] recently you shouted out A$AP Ferg and Bobby Shmurda–two of the biggest artists out of New York right now. Are you also a fan of newer acts and if so how do you keep up with the fresher breeds of the genre? 

Hood Pope! Viewers fire off requests on Twitter and that keeps [me] up to date. Also we have a producer at ESPN, Jeff Anderson, who is a HUGE hip-hop fan and keeps me up to date too. He’s my hip-hop producer. And satellite radio is the best format to hear new artists and songs in every genre of music.

When you’re prepping for highlights do you have a couple groups in mind before you rattle them off on air or is it all spontaneous?

A little bit of both. If I hear an old song that stirs memories or a new track that moves me I will write it down and use it that night. I’m an emotional person and when a song moves me I am consumed by it.

So what makes you choose whatever groups you fit into the highlights? Is it just what you’re listening to before you go on air that particular day?

Sometimes if it’s a southern team, like the Falcons, I might go with southern rap to make it indigenous. I must say sometimes they come with thought and sometimes they don’t.

You’re also a fan of other genres of music as well. You have a fondness for REM, The Cure, Paul Simon, etc. How did you get into music in general?

My parents always had music playing and like I said I’ve always had an emotional and visceral response to music. I’m a huge Nat King Cole fan. I know all of his big hits as my dad played him often. My parents did not have the pulse of modern music so I had to learn that for myself later. All I had was my parent’s music, some I liked some I didn’t, and Top 40 radio, which was very limited.

I think that’s why rap made such an impact on me. Top 40 was getting so soft and I wasn’t into the Molly Hatchet and Rush and “Camaro Rock” that my brother was listening to. Rap was the first thing that made me say “whoa.” I hit REM and U2 about 3-4 albums in and then went backward to catch up. I also got into country in the mid to late 80s, early 90s because Top 40 no longer had songwriting. Funny, I liked country then for some of the same reasons I liked rap: cleverness, turn of a phrase, humor, interesting phrasing. Today’s country is largely frat boy crap.

RZA Bucci

You spent a lot of your growing up years in Steubenville, Ohio. I’m an Ohio native and know the history of the state pretty well. Ironically there is some history in hip-hop that comes from Steubenville. RZA’s mother lived there during the late 80s/early 90s and thus so did he for a short period of time. He also spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh, where you’re originally from. It’s known that other members of the Clan also spent some time there. Did you know anything about that?

I was not aware of that, I’m sorry. I moved from Steubenville up to Youngstown in 1989. I always grew up in tough, economically challenged areas. Also, my sports heroes growing up were all on the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Steelers. Those were two teams heavily made up black players–All American on the Steelers and American and Hispanic players on the Pirates. I don’t know if that contributed to my ease and instinctual acceptance to rap and hip-hop and minorities in general. Perhaps the combination of sports and music infiltrated my brain at a young age to create no prejudice or judgment.

What do some of the other Sportscenter Anchors and personalities listen to and is there anything that may stand out and surprise us?

Scott Van Pelt is a big fan as well.

[Laughs] nice. You’re known for your Hockey knowledge but which do know more about: hockey or music?

Hmmmm, that’s a tough one. Hockey was just another sport growing up. NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, I consumed them all voraciously. I knew every player on every team in every sport. Lucky for me the line for hockey at ESPN was small and I was one of only a couple with a deep understanding of the culture and history. It’s been a valuable niche for me at ESPN. I’ve written a hockey column on ESPN.com since 2001. I think my best work has come from those columns.

Buccigross theater

You’re a member of the advisory board for an organization called “You Can Play,” which supports homosexual acceptance in sports and fighting homophobia. Hip-hop, like mainstream sports, is a little behind the times when it comes to accepting gay athletes (at least in basketball and football). How do you see each community (hip-hop and sports) adapting to the times and are we moving in a positive direction?

Society is moving fast in that direction so hip-hop has to come along or it will regress. If people Google my name and Brendan Burke’s name they will come across two articles: one where he announced his sexuality to the rough, tough hockey world, and the other where he tragically died two months later. That first column, my memorial column, and most importantly how his brother picked up Brendan’s baton, were the beginnings of the current movement. “You Can Play” was done so smartly and with high quality it attracted impactful athletes and helped the human rights cause to quickly gain traction.

Final words? Maybe something you’re working on outside of ESPN?

I’m always thinking. The best is yet to come.

Photos via BMI, ESPN, UpNorthTrips, Mateofischer.MLBlogs

Related: Video: Snoop Dogg on SportsCenter | Video: LL Cool J on SportsCenter & Mike And Mike

Previously: Next Up: Rome FortuneInterview: Prodigy & Boogz Boogetz’ Young Rollin’ Stoners Album showcases two Generations of Queens Hip-Hop | Interview: Theophilus London “Vibes” with Kanye West & Leon Ware for Sophomore LP | Made in Ohio: Stalley & Rashad on Ohio Culture and Music | Happy 75th Birthday Queensbridge: The 75 Greatest QB Rap Songs | Interview: Diamond D Recalls Fat Joe & Lord Finesse’s Early Days, Says He was Stunned when Big L Passed

Catch up on all NahRight interviews and features HERE.


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5 Responses to “Interview: John Buccigross is ESPN’s Biggest Hip-Hop Nerd”

  1. Rajon Trondo Says:

    Leaving a comment off the strength of a youngstown Ohio mention.

    Shouts to the lurkers

  2. King James Says:

    As soon as I saw Youngstown I thought of Tron right away lol

  3. King James Says:

    RIP to 007 aka The Kid Frankie reppin Pittsburgh

  4. King James Says:

    Landlord if you’re still alive what’s your opinion on the Purple Jesus situation in MN?

  5. Belize Says:

    BUrrrrrrrrrr

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