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AEW tapped into a gold mine by leaning into hip-hop culture

Pro Wrestling

AEW tapped into a gold mine by leaning into hip-hop culture

The Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection of the 1980s may give way to a Rap ‘n’ Wrestling Connection in the 2020s.

I can’t stop thinking about the reaction that Daniel Garcia’s entrance got before his ROH Pure Championship win against Wheeler Yuta.

Hometown kid Garcia was about to wrestle in his umpteenth AEW main event, but before the bell could ring, Garcia was played to the ring by noted wrestling fan and Buffalo rap veteran Westside Gunn. Garcia is over with the live audience — the recent surge in “You’re a wrestler” chants have given the crowd something to latch onto whenever Garcia is present — but the crowd pop I’m interested in isn’t the one for Red Death.

It’s the sharp, excited gasps from a section of the crowd when the opening notes of “DR BIRDS” started playing.

Now, compared to something like CM Punk’s debut or the opening of Kenny Omega vs Bryan Danielson from AEW Grand Slam 2021, the crowd reaction here could be considered muted. But to me, it’s interesting seeing just how excited a chunk of the crowd got when this song started up. This unique crowd reaction (plus the utterance of the lines “Crack ain’t dry yet/it be ready in a second” live on TBS) really piqued my entrance, and now that I’ve listened to “DR BIRDS” (among other Griselda songs) like 70 times in the past four weeks, I feel like I should really investigate the relationship between rap and wrestling.

I mean, AEW introduced me to a lot of music through one entrance. Maybe the right song or the right artist can introduce rap fans to a lot of wrestling?

I first had this thought about AEW back in July when Swerve Strickland had his friend, rapper Kevin Gates, take out Tony Nese for him. As a wrestling fan, the segment was a little wooden, though Gates’s punch was kind of crazy. And, as a casual hip hop head, the segment was a little more interesting to me since I hadn’t heard the name “Kevin Gates” in years.

But when I went online the next day and saw a TMZ article and later a XXL Magazine article about Gates decking Nese, I started to think about how rarely I saw AEW’s name attached to celebrity news. It’s a problem WWE doesn’t really have; I don’t have to cast my mind back far at all to remember 2 Broke Girls and Thor star Kat Dennings’s public interest in this year’s SummerSlam (and the embarrassing display in the replies as AEW and WWE stans competed for the honor of TK and Papa H, respectively).

AEW tapped into a gold mine by leaning into hip-hop culture
Kevin Gates (center) with Swerve in Our Glory after their AEW Tag Team Championship celebration on July 20, 2022. Source: Twitter

Then, there’s Cardi B. Between her reaction to being mentioned by Angel Garza on Raw last year, her love for Trish Stratus, and most recently a mention of Jimmy Snuka in the song “Hot S**t” (a song I still hear every time I turn on the radio), she’s been a vocal supporter of pro wrestling, even if she admits she hasn’t watched regularly in years.

Migos’ song “Ric Flair Drip” hit #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2017. Lil Wayne was saying “I’m about to go Andre the Giant” in “BedRock” back in 2009. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson did a song with Tech N9ne last year that I could not escape. JPEGMAFIA albums are full of wrestling references (“Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot” starts with Edge’s “You think you know me”). My guy Kill Bill: The Rapper got a line about RVD into “Good Grief (How’s Your Little Rap Thing Going),” a song that I adore. “The King & Eye” by Czarface and MF DOOM has a whole line about Orange Cassidy and hands in pockets.

Hip hop loves wrestling, and I’m loving the fact that wrestling is starting to show love back to hip hop. Sure, Flo Rida was always there in WWE (getting his tail SCHOOLED by Bo Dallas), but for a good while there, I fully attached WWE to Kid Rock and Florida Georgia Line. The only rappers I saw other than R-Truth and Flo Rida every time they were in Florida (Hey, wait a minute…) was Machine Gun Kelly, and that guy’s a rock star now.

Now, credit to WWE: Bad Bunny has been the most streamed artist on Spotify the past two years, and he had a match at WrestleMania last year after performing his song “Booker T” at the Royal Rumble that January. Bad Bunny is an incredible get, and I also appreciate that they had/have Hit Row doing something back in NXT and now on SmackDown, while Carmelo Hayes and Trick Cameron (who do NOT belong in Hit Row) have their own brand representing Black culture. Also, I don’t know who in WWE freaking LOVES The Weeknd, but he’s been the singer for several WWE PPV themes over the years.

But hip-hop’s not really a part of WWE’s identity, or at least not consistently in the way that NXT has been in recent years with metal or WWE was in the ’80s with the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection — the very connection that helped spawn WrestleMania.

AEW’s been showing some consistency since at least Hook’s debut, as his entrance theme of Action Bronson’s “The Chairman’s Intent” was a very welcome surprise last December before Hook mangled Fuego Del Sol. Now, months later, they’ve been on a bit of a roll, especially during their three-week New York tour. Westside Gunn’s performance in Buffalo on September 7th, Action Bronson’s hype packages leading to his eventual match at Grand Slam on the 21st that month. This second Grand Slam event also saw Fabolous come to the ring with Swerve Strickland, Trina come in to back up Diamante (before betraying her in favor of Jade Cargill), and the Acclaimed coming out with DJ Whoo Kid.

I love this entrance, man. And the match itself wasn’t half-bad, either!

However, now that they’ve left NYC and are headed up to Toronto (and I doubt they’re bringing in Drake), how likely is it that we’re going to get any more of these types of cameos in coming weeks? I’m pleasantly surprised that we saw Kevin Gates again in a hype package for Swerve last Friday on Rampage, but is that going to be it for now?

The elephant in the room is the aforementioned Acclaimed, who do have a rap gimmick and are the current AEW Tag Team Champions. I love The Acclaimed (everybody loves The Acclaimed) and I especially love when Max Caster busts out some of his legitimate rap flows (like he did last night). But, having watched them for a while, I can see they also mostly represent one aspect of rap, that being battle rap. I won’t go as far as Swerve in Our Glory and call them a stereotype (I actually disagree with that sentiment, though it’s likely an in-character slight), but I will say that there’s a big difference between the way Swerve represents rap culture and the way The Acclaimed do.

But neither representation is wrong because there are indeed multiple facets of rap. The Acclaimed are battle rap. Swerve is a little bit more trappy. There’s room in wrestling for gangsta rap, mumble rap, jazz rap, country rap, and so on, and it’d be interesting to see them worked into a wrestling promotion the same way NXT has made room for Poppy, Code Orange, I Prevail, and BABYMETAL.

Am I saying Dynamite should just switch vibes and change its show opener to a Kendrick Lamar song? No (yes), but rap, hip-hop, and R&B could certainly be employed more throughout the year for AEW’s special shows or PPVs instead of popping up for three shows in September. Lean into the fact that a guy like Lee Moriarty is clearly inspired by MF DOOM and the Wu Tang Clan. Give Samoa Joe an entrance where Pharaohe Monch performs “Simon Says” instead of letting Joe come out to yet another rip-off of it (though his rip-offs do go hard). Give Eddie Kingston a DMX song while we’re out here giving Orange Cassidy and Jungle Boy licensed songs.

Also, take note of the names I mentioned. Not every wrestler who gets tagged with rap music has to be Black. Aside from the fact that they’re real-life friends, I thought Daniel Garcia entering to a Westside Gunn performance made total sense. If it were, say, Athena — whose presentation is very much that of her namesake war goddess, and whose love for D&D and Game of Thrones and such makes her prime for an orchestral entrance more than a Megan Thee Stallion performance — it just wouldn’t sit right.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is it’s really cool that my October Spotify playlist has a couple of Griselda songs now because of a Ring of Honor Pure Rules match on Dynamite. AEW previously introduced me to The Pixies, Jefferson Starfish, X, and Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, but my true love has always been hip-hop.

Whether it’s music I’d already heard of or music I’ve yet to discover, I’d love it if AEW could keep that energy — and if they were to do so, it’d be something unique to them that none of the other major wrestling brands are doing.

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