Earlier this month when I was on the Booyah 90s Sports podcast talking about a 1997 Seattle Seahawks game against the Kansas City Chiefs, I mentioned a rap record from that period licensed by the National Football League called NFL Jams—and specifically a song by former Seahawks safety Corey Harris, “Heads Get Split.” With so little going on in the contemporary pro football calendar we might as well take another listen to that track by the hard-hitting Seattle safety, and some other offerings off the 20-year-old novelty compilation.
NFL Jams, first released around Christmas 1996, was popular enough at the time to launch a sequel—NFL Jams 2 which came out two years later with more of an R&B bent, featuring artists like Faith Evans, Tamara Braxton, Johnny Gill, Brian McKnight, Isaac Hayes and Destiny’s Child. The original NFL Jams came considerably more hardcore, pairing NFL players with mainstream rappers like Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man and Ghostface Killah, as well as Phife from A Tribe Called Quest and members of the Pharcyde, but also more underground acts Havoc, Celly Cel, Channel Live and MC Flip.
However this first NFL Jams edition was part of a dual promotion, released at the same time as a much softer sister album NFL Country. NFL Country arguably had bigger names with contributions by Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and even Hershel Walker (because it was the mid-90s, player participation in these releases splits nearly perfectly along racial divides, with only Walker line-dancing across that particular aisle). But, perhaps because it was impossible to deny how bad these boys were at singing, the country album also took itself less seriously both musically and lyrically—which you might guess from this Walker-Doug Supernaw collaboration “Four Scores and Seven Beers Ago”, a song about lying to your wife on a payphone call during Monday Night Football:
As if to highlight its silliness, the payphone for some reason is located in the bar’s bathroom.
Any comedy on NFL Jams, meanwhile, more often comes from the rap stars’ bars, as if the music men were aware they were just goofing around but the athletes stayed determined to outdo their competition’s street credibility. Frequently it’s football language and metaphor spilling from the artists’ mouths, against claims of musical mastery and off-field violence by the football talent. So much so that it’s surprising looking back how gangsterish a lot of this material was allowed to be, under the NFL’s official sanction.
On Harris’s song “Heads Get Split” for example, the track’s title hook (“How many hits does it take to move the crowd?/One stick/Heads get split”) simultaneously suggests the awe of a skull-rocking blow in the secondary at once with the community-wide intimidation of a corner beating.
Of course this can also take the place of the regular rap metonym that violence or drugs (Harris’s verse begins with a tale of him selling “QP sacks” on a corner) represent the persuasive performance of music on an audience. But while the spare guitar cycling underneath the verses sort of sounds like some meditative mellowness of a RZA creation, the forceful combination of the drum track with these percussive chorus shouts (“Hits!” “Stick!” “Split!”) reminds me most of the ultraviolent sonic atmosphere crafted by Chyskillz for Onyx’s 1993 Bacdafucup. This is a song about cracking craniums, any way you hear it.
And that’s what is probably more shockingly anachronistic than casual reference to drugs or street roughness approved by the league. In the climate of class-action lawsuits against the NFL over concussions and league protocol putting a public face on player safety, this explicit celebration of the violence of actual football seems odd. But Corey Harris, who played for the Seahawks for two years in 1995 and ’96 in between appearances for the Houston Oilers, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions, was at the time of recording in a long tradition of Seattle enforcers that still runs from Kenny Easley to Kam Chancellor. “I make believers out of receivers/So leave it up to me/And if you think you ready/Then try to take me deep,” Harris raps on his side of the song, sandwiched between a series of football similes from Tuffy and a rather inspired bit by Hakim of Channel Live.
Harris is probably not the best rapper ever to play for the Seahawks, and his recording career was too short to learn if he ever settled down to more approachable topics like working fast food in high school. Yet if you remember Harris he was an extremely fun player. When Seattle replaced him they did so with another banging safety known for devastating hits, Bennie Blades. Harris’s play later earned a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens, but he was a guy who made his living with a style of abandon that’s forbidden now, a headhunting style earnestly reflected in this song but part of the league’s disturbing legacy and with its fans’ guilty permission—which makes “Heads Get Split” that much more of a throwback artifact.
Perhaps the star of the experiment, considering he appeared on two tracks on both NFL Jams on NFL Jams 2 and aside from Harris (then with Baltimore) was the only other player retained for the sequel, was Andre Rison. On the album, Rison got credited as representing the Jacksonville Jaguars with whom he had signed during the 1996 offseason. Cut from the Jags during camp that summer however, Rison was by late ’96 in the middle odyssey of his career that saw him on four rosters in less than 18 months from 1995-97, but he ended up winning a Super Bowl for the Packers at the end of that season before joining the Chiefs for three years.
Rison was possibly the linchpin of the whole effort thanks to his connections in the music industry. Rison’s featured song “Fast Life” (with Ghostface) starts with a piano sample that sounds like the beginning to Trailer Park Boys and then includes Rison’s version of his celebrity romance with Left Eye from TLC, Lisa Lopes, that doesn’t end well for the fictionalized “diamond piece” (“I warned her/Like Sonny warned Cher” “Sex wasn’t for lease/Rest in peace”). The song still gets a catchy hook by an unnamed vocalist, but then inexplicably rusts into repetitive revolutions for the last minute and a half.
Claiming the crown as the top rhymer on NFL Jams then is, in 1996, a future Seahawk—Ricky Watters—representing the Philadelphia Eagles for the moment. Watters combines with Method Mad for a memorable track called “It’s In the Game (Win Some, Lose Some)” produced by Wu-affiliated producer True Master and good enough to get rereleased 10 years later on a Wu-Tang Family compilation (with Watters credited then as “Rik’y Waters”).
Meth provides the requisite rapper’s flailings toward football fluency—“Every play is from the run’n’shoot/We open though, third and long/Quarterback back to pass/Cannon arm/I go deep, he drop bombs/That’s when I touchdown/Six points what now”—and a reference unique in all hip hop as far as I can tell, to Woody Woodpecker villain Buzz Buzzard. (With apologies to Natalie Weiner, Brett Favre comes up way more often.)
But then Ricky hops on board smoothly, in character as “Running Watters”, the perfect hybrid of East Coast wilding (Watters is from Harrisburg; on this song he claims New York) and singsong G-Funk he was already on the 1990s gridiron. Watters shouts out prison inmates, Nino Brown at the Carter Apartments, verb conjugation and “Increase the Peace” almost all at once, and just when you think he’s caught dipping in mid-run, Watters bounces outside with a sparkle of pace for the last segment of the verse.
It’s a track that captures altogether the blatant ugly commercialism of the NFL Jams licensing grab, because “It’s In the Game” was already the catchphrase for Electronic Arts’ sports franchises as much as it was the self-justifying code of the streets or sidelines that supported Harris splitting heads, but also the wild, anything-goes spirit to try something as dumb as a pro football rapping compilation. You win some you lose some. I wish they came out with one of these albums every year.
I wonder what the players would have say, to shape into verse in 2017. And I think about who might join them.