The Soundtrack of DeMar DeRozan’s Life

Yes, he's straight outta Compton. But there's more to know about the Toronto Raptors superstar guard. His playlist can tell you

By Jonathan Abrams

Photography by Ryan Enn Hughes

January 25, 2017

DeMar DeRozan strolls back inside the Air Canada Centre just hours after stubbornly willing his Toronto Raptors to a comeback home win over the surging Boston Celtics. Coach Dwane Casey termed the previous night's game a "bloodbath" after Toronto stirred and rallied from a 16-point deficit to stiff-arm what would have been its first three-game losing streak in more than a year.

The game reflected what is quickly becoming a DeRozan trademark: a series of smooth, perfected mid-range jumpers giving rise to an eye-popping stat line, this time a season-high 41 points.

Today, the team is off from practice. DeRozan is dressed in a bomber jacket, black hoodie and black pants. He bypasses the court for the Sher Club, an ultra-exclusive hangout inside the arena conceived by Drake. The 4,000-square-foot club is decked in extravagance, featuring blood-droplet chandeliers above and plush, red-velvet couches below. Music bellows from inside, spreading a subtle hum through the area, including the champagne room, which features tufted white leather couches and mirrored walls lined with Dom Perignon. This afternoon, the club is reserved for DeRozan, the proud Compton, California, native bumping his head to a Jay Z track. He’s here to talk about one of his first loves.

"No matter if I'm having a good day, a bad day, whatever type of mood I'm in, I could always be in my own space and find that type of music to get me through the day or put me in the mood I want to be in," he says. "I credit music to everything by far, because it's the one thing I dissect. I listen to give me a mood, give me a feeling that I need. It's always been that way. It was always my outlet of making me feel OK from hearing somebody else going through something I can relate to or somebody going through something worse and you realize, well, my day ain't that bad."

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He is enough of a fan of both Kobe Bryant and music to say that "Kobe was Jay Z when he came out [with his rap album K.O.B.E.]," while adding, "That's just me being biased."

Music and Compton sync together like, well, DeRozan and an elbow jumper. "I always gravitated to every artist that made it from Compton," he says. "When I was young, it was DJ Quik, the MC Eihts, to now it's the YGs, the Kendricks. Everybody who came from the city, I automatically could relate to everything they was talking about. They may say a certain street and I knew exactly what they talking about or a certain place or a certain park. It always hit harder than if I was listening to somebody from the Bronx or something."

B/R Mag recently invited DeRozan to curate a playlist of the songs that tell his life story, from California to Canada and all the lessons along the way. Here's what he had to say:

“Dear Mama”

Tupac Shakur

Diane DeRozan had prayed for a child for years. She developed fibroids on her uterus—benign tumors that are common among women, but especially black women—and having a baby seemed a near-impossibility until she gave birth to DeMar through an emergency C-section in 1989. The family nicknamed DeMar, "the Blessed One."

"Man, that's the most self-explanatory song you could think of, especially me being my mother's only son," DeRozan says of Tupac's classic ode to moms everywhere. "She couldn't have kids. She had me when she was 35. It was late and it was one of them ones to where my mama almost lost her life having me. I always looked at my mom at the highest of standards.

"When I heard that song, I'm talking about from when I was a kid, I understood why you love your mom so much, what a mother means to a son. That song was a reflection of how I looked at my mom from all the things we went through, to how hard she worked for me to have a pair of shoes or for me to have a shirt on my back. That song hits homes with it."

“He Got Game”

Public Enemy

Listen to the lyrics of this Public Enemy anthem—It might feel good/It might sound a little somethin'/But damn the game if it don't mean nothin'—and picture a young DeRozan with his back to the basket, working on his turnaround jumper.

"First of all, it's from one of my favorite movies, He Got Game," DeRozan says. "It's one of them encouragement songs. I always applied it as a hoop song. You got game, he got game. As I got older, he's talking about the world. It's bigger than just a game, and I think that song really stuck with me because you start to realize it was a movement. It was everything in the whole world. Even when I was young, I used to play it and it used to give me that encouragement, that kind of confidence that I needed to go out there, to want to play basketball."

“Born and Raised in Compton”

DJ Quik

Diane worked at a factory that assembled thermostats. Frank DeRozan, DeMar's father, was a videographer. The pair often alternated watching over DeMar as he shot hoops at Wilson Park, just off Compton Boulevard in the heart of the city. DeMar was named in honor of Diane's younger brother, Lemar, who was killed at the age of 20 after a drive-by shooting. The parents remained steadfast in shielding DeMar from gangs and violence. DeMar credits the city for making him who he is today.

“I credit music to everything by far, because it's the one thing I dissect. I listen to give me a mood, give me a feeling that I need.”

— DeMAR DeROZAN

"That was the anthem for me," DeRozan says of the ballad in which DJ Quik professes a love-hate relationship with the city that fostered him. "Compton made me, created me, built me, gave me the passion of the man I am today. To really sit there and say I was born—not moved, not lived there when I was 11 until I was 15—I was born and raised there until the day I went to the NBA. To have that representation and be somebody to come out of that city, no matter if that song is 20-plus years old now, it makes me feel proud. It always made me feel proud to be from a city like Compton.

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"To have that song be a big song when I was a kid to even now? It's a cool thing. Gives me bragging rights. It always did when I heard it, because you don't hear everybody’s city on a song or have an anthem like that."

“Ronald Reagan Era”

Kendrick Lamar

For years, two programs dominated the high school basketball landscape in Compton. Dominguez produced players like Tayshaun Prince and Tyson Chandler, and Centennial promoted Arron Afflalo. DeRozan skipped over the schools that had proved themselves adept in positioning future NBA players. He wanted to put Compton High School on the map. The school captured consecutive Moore League championships with DeRozan leading the team and becoming a McDonald's All-American. DeRozan returns to the school for workouts each offseason. 

"It's crazy out there when you look at things back home and everything, from Bloods, Crips, everything, but they always messed with me and respected me when I was in high school," DeRozan says of how the Lamar song depicting the rapper's good relationship with local gangs applies to his life. "It don't matter what color you were. Everybody used to come watch me play. It was never an issue. To this day when I go home, to see that and still have that type of respect, it always keep me humble and never let me forget where I come from."

“Straight Outta Compton”

N.W.A.

Colleges across the country heavily recruited DeRozan—from Arizona to North Carolina and all the blue-chip programs in between. DeRozan joined his longtime friend, Percy Romeo Miller Jr., previously known as Lil' Romeo, the son of rapper Master P, when the pair announced they would attend USC, just about 10 miles from Compton. "Why not choose a program in your backyard?" DeRozan asked at the signing.

"Compton made me, created me, built me, gave me the passion of the man I am today."

— DeMAR DeROZAN

"I was coming straight from Compton High, going to college, not having a clue on nothing, how college went," DeRozan says of N.W.A.'s ferociously proud love song to the much-maligned south Los Angeles County city. "That was a whole new life adjustment for me. Even though I wasn't leaving home, but more so just stepping in that college atmosphere. When you realize coming from Compton, you know so many people that college is not even an option [for them], so for me to come straight out of Compton and go on to college, that always stuck with me, because I still was that same Compton kid all through college. It took me to get out of college to really let me mature more, because I was still a 17-, 18-year-old with the same Compton mindset."

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"You just straight out of Compton," he says. "You don't take no BS. You riding for you and yours, your city, everything you stand for, and that's how I always looked at the song. This is my city. I'm going to stand up for my city. Even before I even thought going to the NBA was a dream, it was like, if I'm from Compton and you say you're from somewhere else, your city ain't better than my city. My city is tougher than your city. That's what that song had always did for me when I heard it. It always made me want to wear all black, wear Raider hats and walk down the street with you and all your friends like they did in the video."

“Feel It In The Air”

Beanie Sigel (feat. Melissa)

"Something going on, I feel funny
Can't tell me nothin' different, my nose twitchin'
Intuition setting in like Steve vision
I still close my eyes, I still see visions"

DeRozan opted for the NBA after a lone season at USC. "It was difficult," he told reporters at the time. "I was looking at both ends. I would have loved to go another year and play for [then-USC coach] Tim Floyd again. But at the end of the day, I had to do what was best for me and my family." Diane DeRozan had been diagnosed with lupus. DeMar wanted to financially assist her in fighting the disease.

"It's just one of those five songs where everything he's saying there, being young, hearing it and letting it resonate over time and really understanding what he was saying," DeRozan says of Beanie Sigel's song in which he ponders his life. "With a hundred thousand [dollars], he can have health insurance and take care of all his family that he needs to take care of."

“Tears of Joy”

Rick Ross (feat. CeeLo)

The Raptors selected DeRozan with the ninth pick of the 2009 draft. He was just a rookie, but he envisioned taking the Raptors deep into the playoffs—further than the runs made by Vince Carter, who had been a close second behind Kobe Bryant for DeRozan's favorite player growing up.

“I think it's dope when I hear people say I'm the last of a dying breed.”

— DeMAR DeROZAN

"When I heard that song, especially [the Rick] Ross and Jay Z version, it's speaking of success," DeRozan says. "You become so happy in the moment, you don't believe what's going on. Sometimes it hits you when you do certain things or you see certain things. You're watching a commercial or see your picture on something, see somebody asking for an autograph, sometimes that just hits you. It gives you tears of joy, because just a year or two before that, you were in an environment where you may not see somebody you sitting in the classroom with the next day. To make it that far, at that young of an age, definitely was tears of joy. When I hear that song, it always takes me back to when I made it, finally made it out."

“Hood Politics”

Kendrick Lamar

Since DeRozan arrived, the Raptors have climbed slowly and steadily to become one of the Eastern Conference's elite teams. DeRozan still considers them to be slightly out of sight, out of mind for most people. Other, more popular teams earn marquee billing to play on Christmas. With fewer wins than the Raptors. And less playoff success. And no one who can touch DeRozan's jumper.

"I understand the hood politics of coming up in a gang environment," DeRozan says. "It carries over to the corporate side as well. What he raps about in that song, he puts the hood aspect in terms of the political side of it, too, to where they're one and the same.

"He said something in the song, 'Red state, blue state, what hood you governing?' It's a metaphor. You talking about gangs, but at the same time it's the truth. Is you a Democrat or Republican? It's the same thing when you come into the league. It's like you got to pick sides. You may be more favored because of this politics. For me, I always looked at it like we're the team in Canada. We probably never got as much love as certain other teams, no matter how successful we was. That was always the hood politics involved with that."

“Wish I Had It”

Kevin Gates

"In the beginning of the song, he says it's a grind," DeRozan says of the refrain from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, rapper Kevin Gates. "It's a hustle. It's persistence. That's what it always was for me, was the grind, the hustle, the persistence of putting that into my craft. It was something I always wish I had. He raps about what he wish he had, and it was all about staying on track of what you believe in. That's hustling and that's grinding and that's putting in the work every single day."

The NBA is now a game where big men sometimes do not venture inside the three-point line. That is where DeRozan puts in his work, having steadily molded his game as Kobe Bryant's heir. As others dial it up from behind the three-point line, trying too hard to be Steph Curry, DeRozan is becoming more efficient in shooting darts from inside the arc.

"I know a lot of guys was trying to transition to the three-point game, but for me, I think it's dope when I hear people say I'm the last of a dying breed, or, 'The mid-range game is not dead. He's keeping it alive. Mid-range king and blah blah blah,'" DeRozan says. "All this. It keeps hope alive and lets people who may be a fan of mine look at it and realize I ain't got to shoot 10 threes. I could perfect this and be just as great.

"At the end of the day, I know I could shoot threes, but my mindset has always been, you got to stop me from doing this to make me do that."

“Can't Knock the Hustle”

Jay Z (feat. Mary J. Blige)

DeRozan lists Jay Z as one of his favorite artists and this as his favorite Shawn Carter song. "It's one of them vibe songs, where he's just not rapping—he's making a statement," DeRozan says. "He's trying to show you what it's like to come from any type of area where it's tough. You got to do what you got to do to make it out. You can't knock the hustle if somebody wants to be better and get out of the situation they in and see something else."

DeRozan arrived at free agency last summer and quickly agreed to a new deal with the Raptors without fielding meetings from other teams. His hometown Los Angeles Lakers would have eagerly met with him, and a younger DeRozan probably would have come ready to sign a deal.

"I could have the opportunity to go down as one of the greatest and [have] my jersey retired. Give this whole city, this whole country...arguably the greatest Raptor team of all time."

— DeMAR DeROZAN

"When I got drafted, I'd never been away from home," DeRozan says. "I didn't have a passport until I came to Toronto. I was always such a homebody, wanted to be close to my family. To ask me then, that young, I would’ve for sure said, 'Yeah, I'd probably go home.'"

But now he is on the verge of building something and would never leave a project halfway constructed. "It means everything," DeRozan says of establishing a legacy in Toronto. "After I finish I could have the opportunity to go down as one of the greatest and [have] my jersey retired. Give this whole city, this whole country, a whole opportunity of looking back on a Raptors team, arguably the greatest Raptor team of all time. So many things. Something my kids could grow up and look back on that. It's just bigger than just now for me. That's how I was looking at it.

"For me to watch Kobe do what he did 20 years with one organization, watch Tim Duncan, guys like that really inspire me to do something that's big. That you could look back 20 years from now and you really scratch your head, like, 'Wow, I did all that?' Things like that can never be taken away."

“5AM In Toronto”

Drake

The list would not be complete without a tip to the team's global ambassador. Of "5AM in Toronto," DeRozan says, "It was one of them songs where it's like, 'Yeah, you can't mess with me because I know I'm the best and I'm going to prove it, because I'm doing it consistently.'"

DeRozan applies the song to the Eastern Conference's current hierarchy, where the Cavaliers are viewed in a bracket by themselves. Toronto reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season, losing to Cleveland in six games. The series offered the Raptors a fleeting taste of success. DeRozan wants his team to play with a sense of urgency to start this year's playoffs.

"We always was the underdogs," DeRozan says. "We never cry about it. We never whine about it. Just give us the opportunity to be in front of them. We going to leave that stamp or whatever we need to leave. I think that's something that keeps us going and keeps motivating us to accept the challenge, because that's what we're fighting for: to get back in front of them, and we'll see what happens from there."

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.


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