On the day I reach Martell Webster at home in Portland, the NBA draft is a few hours away. You'd think that would make a good icebreaker when speaking to a former Blazers lottery pick.
"I don't care about that, anyway," says the 28-year-old veteran swingman, currently a member of the Washington Wizards. "Not as much as I used to."
That's understandable. Webster has enough to preoccupy his mind without worrying about the rookies he might or might not play against next year. Like launching his record label, EYRST, and finishing his debut mixtape. Webster is hardly the first baller to nurture a nascent rap career, but he is one of the few for whom it is more than a vanity project or an offseason distraction. It might be his next step. After multiple back surgeries, Webster has considered retirement when his current contract expires. If music hasn't eclipsed basketball for him, they're at least neck and neck.
But Webster, who grew up outside Seattle, says he's always had one foot on the court and the other in more creative pursuits. Some of his fondest childhood memories involve sneaking into his uncle's band's jam sessions and watching his cousins kick rhymes in the park. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this ridiculous. Is this what real life is?'" he says. "I thought I was supposed to be playing ball-tag and hide-and-seek and shit, but this is what itâs about.â
In his teens, basketball took over. A five-star recruit coming out of high school, Webster skipped college and went straight to the NBA, getting drafted sixth overall by Portland in 2005. But as his career progressed, taking him to Minnesota and then Washington, D.C., rap took on increasing importance. And as injuries have forced him to face his basketball mortality, it became a point of solace.
"Going through my ups and downs," he says, "I found in that time, instead of thinking of things I couldn't control, why don't I just express myself on the notepad?â
That writing informs A.R.T.T., Webster's mixtape still in the making. But don't expect a lot of talk about pick-and-rolls and no-trade clauses: The title is an acronym for "Anybody Relates To This." In February, Webster, under the alias Sui Generis, released a video for "Disposition," a track he calls "a tribute to my Seattle roots." Shot in the coastal woods of Washington and featuring an airy beat from local producer Neill Von Tally—his partner in EYRST—it's a much more artful effort than one might expect, with Webster showing off a confident, energetic flow. It bodes well for the full project, as well for his label, which just signed Willamette Week Best New Band finalist Myke Bogan. Webster is aware of the public's suspicion of athletes double-dipping in other media, but he isn't worried. Because, while the saying goes that basketball never stops, Webster knows better than most that it doesn't go on forever.
"When you think about it, basketball is a glitch in the big scheme of our life. It does not last that long," he says. "I have 50, 60 years of living after I'm done playing. I don't buy in too much into what people think about my music, especially the NBA aspect. That's not my life. That's what I do. It's part of it. But it doesnât embody my life.â
SEE IT: Martell Webster plays the EYRST Label Launch at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with Myke Bogan, Blossom, Ripley Snell and Neill Von Tally, on Thursday, July 16. 9 pm. $9 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.