PITTSBURGH — Some Friday afternoons, after practice ends and the media clears out, a handful of players migrate toward Le’Veon Bell’s end of the locker room. There’s an unwritten rule that music generally isn’t allowed in this space, but some Fridays exceptions are made. Someone brings out a boom box, puts on a beat, and they all form a circle.
The Steelers’ cypher is in session.
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Some days it’s less of a rap battle and more of a performance; they watch as Bell raps over the beat for five minutes straight. Other days, they take turns going around, spitting lines back and forth. Then there are days when a challenger or two emerges, trying to start a fake beef. “I’m the rapper,” Bell explains, with a grin. “They say they’re going to take my title.”
Bell raps and records his own songs and has gained enough traction that he’s earned the right to call himself arapper. He may be the best rapper in the NFL. He released his first mixtape last year, and it caught Snoop Dogg’s attention. Snoop recorded a song with him, became his mentor and began introducing him to people in the music industry, as Bell worked on his follow-up album. A few weeks ago, record labels started calling Bell’s agent, asking to meet with him. These were industry big wigs calling, too, star-makers, Bell says, the kind of people “who work with big-time people like Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande.”
“In my head,” Bell says, sitting at his locker, “I was like, oh, I’ll never sign with a label. That’s what I was saying months ago. But then when they’re actually calling you, it’s different. It’s like: Oh, man, can I actually do this? Do I really want to do this? Obviously it’s something I have to put on the back burner, because I can’t go meet with them right now.”
Bell is somewhat busy. He gained 1,884 yards from scrimmage this season, made his second Pro Bowl in four years and established himself as one of the best backs in football. He got the entire league talking about his unique running style, the way he pauses at the line before picking his hole and taking off. Now in the playoffs, he’ll continue to carry the load for the Steelers. In the blowout win over the Dolphins last week, he ran for 167 yards, a new franchise record for a playoff game. If Bell keeps this up, the Steelers have a real shot to beat the Chiefs and (likely) the Patriots and make their fourth Super Bowl in 12 years.
* * *
Bell first started rapping when he was in grade school, growing up in the Columbus area. He’d be listening to 50 Cent all day; the 2003 album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was the first album Bell ever bought. Then Bell and his friends would get bored in class, at lunch, or on the bus ride to football games—and they’d pass the time by making a beat, hitting their hands and pencils against a hard surface, and freestyle rapping over it. “It just naturally came to me,” Bell says. “I was good at it, freestylin’. Making words and coming up with topics off my head.”
He recorded his first song on his phone, with a friend, when he was about 13. They titled it: “Eat a Booger.” As Bell recently told Billboard’s “Ballin’ Out” podcast: “We’d freestyle like: ‘I went to school, had to take a test, so I pulled out a booger and slapped it on my desk.’ … I don’t even know where it came from. We just thought of it, being clowns in class.”
As Bell went on to high school and then Michigan State, his football career blossomed. But he spent his free time in studios, recording more songs. Staying true to his roots, he rarely wrote anything down. He just stepped to the mic and rapped whatever came to mind.
Bell found those sessions to be cathartic, a good way to relieve the stress of being a football star. If he spent too much time around the game, he felt, he’d start overthinking it. I can’t fumble this football, I can’t drop this catch. I can’t miss this block. Getting away from the field and into the studio and letting the words flow allowed him to just … escape, for a little while.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Bell says, “I love football more than anything. But sometimes, it’s good not even thinking about it.”
Back then he never released his songs. He kept them on his phone and only played them for family and friends. Rap was just a hobby. Then the Steelers drafted Bell in the second round, in 2013, and he found he had the means to pursue his hobby further.
Soon after the draft, Bell connected with Mac Miller, a Pittsburgh rapper and diehard Steelers fan, and got his first glimpse into the rap world. Bell visited Miller’s local studio, saw the way he worked on his music, and met up with him over the offseason in Los Angeles. They shared a bond: video games. “Anytime he’s in the city, we always kick it,” Bell says. “We’re the same age. We like the same things. We like Madden, [NFL] Blitz. We ended up vibing, making music and hanging out.” He came to consider Miller a close friend.
By Bell’s second year in the league, he had moved into a new home and installed a makeshift recording studio of his own. Around this time, he also met Rico Music, a Columbus rapper who would become a good friend and also serve as his in-house audio engineer.
During Bell’s third year, he suffered his first major injury, tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in November, thus ending his season two months early. By December he had holed himself up in his studio. At the urging of his friends, he decided to use the time making his first mixtape. He worked in there for about three months, making songs with Rico, deciding how Le’Veon Bell the rapper would introduce himself to the world.
Bell had to come up with a rap name, and he settled on something easy: Juice. It was the nickname his Mike Tomlin had given him. One day at practice, after Bell had made a particularly impressive run, the Steelers coach told Bell he ran like O.J. Simpson, and he had decided, in that case, that Bell should assume O.J. Simpson’s nickname, too. “I thought it was kind of cool,” Bell says. “The fact that coach compared me to O.J., the way he ran the ball.”
Bell also had to name the mixtape, and he decided on The Interview. “It was like all these questions people have about me, I’m going to try to answer them,” he says. The cover art would be a picture of him standing at his locker, shirtless, surrounded by reporters.
Bell rapped mostly about money, fame, women, disrespect, and motivation—general themes that many young rappers explore—but there was nothing overly inflammatory about his lyrics. He didn’t curse or use the n-word. Many of his lyrics drew on his experiences as an athlete, like this verse on a song called “First Flight” where he raps about the combine.
It felt — fishy, as I was in my stance Looking up at all the coaches, thinking is this my chance To prove all the doubters wrong just to have me some fans Do I see the finish line that the 40 yard ran These are the questions that I ask myself And not to be worried about the fame, the women, or the wealth Well, as I look back and I look at the crowd All those doubters that was lookin’, they can look at me now
Bell released The Interview on SoundCloud on March 1, 2016, for anyone to listen to, for free. For once he wasn’t the one in control, the one with the ball in his hands. All he could do then was sit back, wait and see how people responded.
Will anyone like this? he thought.
* * *
About two months later a TMZ reporter caught up with Snoop Dogg, another diehard Steelers fan, and asked him about Bell. At the time, Snoop and Bell had never met. The reporter told Snoop that Bell wanted to collaborate with him; TMZ had asked Bell about Snoop about a month earlier and was apparently trying to play matchmaker.
“He’s been dying to get in the studio with you,” the reporter said. “He’s dropping a lot of tracks.”
“I’ll make it happen,” Snoop said. “Let me make sure his leg is back right first.”
“Do you have to check his talent first? Or is it just like…”
Snoop had apparently listened to The Interview. (To date, the mixtape has been played more than 786,000 times; Bell’s SoundCloud page has 16,500 followers.)
As soon as Bell saw the video, he reached out to Snoop on Twitter and Instagram. Bell had already started working on his first full album, and he wanted Snoop to appear on a track. They exchanged numbers, and one day out of the blue Snoop called on FaceTime, his preferred mode of communication. They spoke for a while. Then Bell sent Snoop a track with his verses already on it, Snoop sent it back with a hook, and voila, they had a song.
(Some Steelers fans have suggested that it may not be smart for Bell to be associating himself with Snoop Dogg, considering the league has already suspended Bell twice for drugs. The first time, in 2014, he was arrested for DUI and marijuana possession—he was sentenced to 15 months probation and served a two-game NFL suspension—and the second time, in 2015, he missed a drug test, for which the league suspended him three games at the start of this season. But Bell seems entirely unconcerned about the connection.)
A month after TMZ first met with Snoop Dogg, they tracked him down again.
“How does [the song] sound?” the reporter asked.
“Dope as f—” Snoop said.
“Where do you rate him as a rapper?”
“He’s good,” Snoop said. “I wouldn’t have did it if he wasn’t no good.”
With that, Bell had all the validation he needed.
* * *
Over the summer, after Bell finished the Snoop Dogg collaboration, he moved into another house in the Pittsburgh area, a place with more space. He turned a room in the basement into a recording studio, decking it out with state-of-the-art sound equipment, everything he’d need to make his album, everything a professional musician might have in his home. Except that his studio had a Terrible Towel on the mic stand.
Making the album was the next step in Bell’s career as an artist, and, like any artist, he wanted to improve on his mixtape. This time he taught himself how to make his own beats using a computer program called Fruity Loops, and he constantly tinkered on it. He called his creations Night Rider music. “We make the type of beats that, say you’re in your car, it’s a late night, you’re feeling good, and you just need that theme music,” Rico says. “The only thing missing is the theme music. That’s when our music comes on. That Night Rider music.”
Rico technically lives in Columbus, but he visits Bell so often that it feels as if he’d moved in. Bell and Rico spent a lot of time in the studio this summer, making the album; some nights they didn’t sleep. During the season Bell would get Mondays and some Tuesdays off, and he’d spend those days in the studio, too. He’d go as long as nine hours a day and make three new songs. “We’re like your mood music artists, if you will,” Rico says. “We’re the type of artists that go into the studio with no sense of what we’re about to do. We rap about our experiences that day, or something that may have occurred that week. Just relatable songs. Things people can feel, and really party to. Over all, it’s like feel-good music, you know?”
In time, Bell started picking up traits of an artistic type. After making a song, he says, he puts it aside, wait a few days, and then massages it until it sounds just right. Sometimes, sitting in the locker room, listening to his teammates banter, he suddenly becomes inspired to write a lyric. At times he’s played his songs for his teammates and asked for feedback.
Eventually Bell decided he wanted to expand his range, so he started listening to more pop music, more country, more eclectic genres. One of his favorite rappers now is Drake, and it has a lot to do with his versatility. “With Drake,” Bell says, “you know how he makes songs with a pop style? Like ‘One Dance’ and stuff like that? Those are different. Those are, like, different songs. A lot of people can’t make a song like that. I’m sure he listens to a lot of different music. I feel like the only way you can do that is to listen to other people and learn what they’re doing good and what kind of beats they’re on, so you don’t have to necessarily limit yourself to a certain style of beat. You can get on any style of beat and make a song to it.”
If Bell ever needs a one-on-one tutorial, he just asks Snoop. They speak about once a week. Snoop usually calls saying, “Good game, Nephew.” That’s what he calls Bell: Nephew. They talk about the Steelers game or a play Bell made, and sometimes they discuss music, too. Bell sends Snoop a song, and Snoop gives him constructive criticism. “If I’m making a song,” Bell says, “I can have a hook or a verse, and [Snoop will] tell me, ‘Oh, you don’t have enough energy on this hook.’ Or maybe: ‘You have too much energy on this verse.’ Whatever it may be. He’s going to critique my songs kind of like how I critique my [game] film. It may not be a big thing. It may not be something major that a lot of people will notice. It may not even affect the song that much. But it’s that little, minor detail that will make the song that much better.”
* * *
One criticism Bell has of himself is that he censored himself too much on The Interview, and that he didn’t just let the words flow freely. He caught himself worrying about all the people who’d be listening: the Rooney family who own the Steelers, the companies that endorse him, his family. “At the time,” Bell says, “I was thinking, I don’t want to say too much to offend people. Because, I’m thinking, I’m an NFL guy, an NFL star, stuff like that.
“I was thinking about it too much.”
Now that Bell is associated with Snoop Dogg, more people likely will be paying attention when his album drops. Steelers fans, music fans, music executives. They’ll want to see if Bell is legitimate, or if he’s another athlete who thinks he can rap. So on the album, Bell says, he’s not been holding back. He steps to the mic and lets his alter ego Juice take over. He raps about his two drug-related suspensions, the media’s criticism of him, and all the fans who think his rapping distracts from football. He’s calling the album the ThePost Interview, because he raps about the type of things he says in private, after the interviews end.
The public first heard the new, grittier Juice in November, when he released a seven-track EP featuring songs that didn’t make the cut for the album. On “Turn Da Club Up” he even makes a reference to his nickname and O.J. Simpson’s sordid past:
And I know I am the truth I know I only speak the truth Cuz I be spazzin’ in the booth And people mad I’m in the booth But that’s not gon’ stop the Juice These people want to watch the Juice Just cuz they know what Juice gon’ do My label’s Juice is on the loose That’s because you know I kill Don’t act like you don’t know the drill That’s why you better keep me chill Because I’m the Juice, you know I kill
“Now my music’s so different,” Bell says. “I’m like, OK, if you take my music offensive… I only rap how I feel at the time. I rap genuinely off my emotion and how I feel at that time.”
The rest of the locker room is empty. He’s been talking about his music for 20 minutes, and he’s lost track of time. He’s in danger of being late for his next meeting. He takes off.
He says he plans to drop The Post Interview in February, after the season.