Martell Webster isn’t afraid of life after basketball. A decade ago, the 6-foot-7 small forward was an All-American high-school athlete. He skipped college to go pro in 2005—the last year an 18-year-old could do that—and bounced around the NBA for the first 11 years of his adulthood.
A series of injuries have made Webster, now 29, a bruised-and-battered veteran. A hip surgery sidelined him earlier this season, and he was cut by the Washington Wizards in November. He knows his days in the NBA are numbered.
“People change up their career paths all the time,” Webster said. “Once you’re done with something, you move on to the next thing that excites you. That’s what life is about.”
Webster started building a life outside of basketball long before his role on the court began to diminish. He spent years developing and selling real estate, and an interest in photography has him contemplating art school. Right now, though, he’s pivoting his time and energy to rap music.
He performed four sets at the South by Southwest music festival this week, and a new single, Give It Up, came out earlier this month. His debut album, Emerald District, is due out this summer. The title alludes to Seattle, where Webster grew up, and Washington, D.C., where he’s lived since 2012. Artists from both cities are featured. One of them is Seattle-based producer Jake One, who’s made beats for 50 Cent, Common and Rick Ross.
“What I really get from him is that he’s doing it from the right place,” Jake One said of Webster. “What he’s rapping about is really important to him. You can make something for people to have fun to, or you can make something to make them think. He’s definitely trying to go for more of a thought-provoking kind of music.”
Countless songwriters have burned out trying to be too thoughtful—the “conscious rapper” chief among them. “It’s a harder road,” Jake One said. “But once you get it, it lasts longer.”
Hip-hop has been a longstanding passion for Webster. He toyed around with beats as a rookie on the Portland Trailblazers, and he built a studio in his Minnesota home when he played for the Timberwolves from 2010 to 2012. But he didn’t start writing lyrics until two years ago.
“There was a time during the season when I wasn’t happy with what was going on—my role, trying to stay 100 percent,” he said. “The times I felt down or whatever and just needed to vent, I would vent on the Notes app on my iPhone.”
In the summer of 2014, Webster flew home to Seattle to record music at London Bridge Studio. The studio is a landmark of the grunge movement, consecrated in the 1990s by the likes of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden.
Webster’s first single, Exposed, was released in January through London Bridge’s in-house record label, London Tone Music Group. On it, Webster raps with a polished force about his disgust with tabloid culture and the people who consume it. “You chose to be a witness / This shit is crazy / Everybody doin’ anything to get a few ratings / Poor Miley, poor Amanda, poor Lindsay / Only few of many.”
Charles Hopper, a producer-engineer on Exposed, met Webster during his rookie season. The two talked about the prospect of recording together for years, but Webster was always reluctant to take the plunge. Last summer, the timing was right. “It’s that 10-year difference,” Hopper said. “That 10 years of being on the road, having a lot of off time, writing and honing your craft.”
A handful of notable NBA players have ventured into recording studios over the years, including Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton. Because of this, Webster knows the public is skeptical about athletes trying their hand at music. It doesn’t faze him.
“If there’s somebody telling me that I can’t do it, well, whatever—I know I can,” he said. “I can get better at it just like anything.”
Hoops took Webster from one Washington to the other. Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports.
One fixture of the Seattle rap scene thinks he has chops. Gathigi Gishuru, known as Thig Nat in the hip-hop trio The Physics, raps alongside Webster in the “Give It Up” video.
“He can definitely rap,” Gishuru said. “He can rap better than a lot of people who all they do is rap.”
Gishuru knows what it’s like to have more than one job. He works full-time as a sponsored project officer at Seattle Children’s Hospital and explores music, fashion and photography in his off-hours.
“If you have the opportunity and the will and the determination to succeed at anything, you should go for it,” Gishuru said. “The key is respecting the craft and working hard at it before you come out. Martell’s been working on songs for a really long time, and he’s really tried to hone his craft before presenting projects to the world.”
Reached by phone at South by Southwest on Friday, Webster said he’s still hoping to get signed by another NBA team next season. He’s just not ready to hang up his jersey yet. When that time does come, though, he won’t be worried about what’s next.
“I have my hands in so many different things, because life is about building knowledge through all the different things you do,” he said. “I know what I can do. I know what I want to pursue.”