The first time Denzel Valentine ever freestyled for anybody was in middle school.
He came home from class and sat with his older brother, Drew, who asked how his day went. The future Bulls shooting guard told his brother he had a few bars to get out.
Seconds later, he had a YouTube instrumental track pumping through their computer speakers and dropped a smooth flow for a kid in middle school.
“I was like OK, man,” Drew said. “I remember telling him he’s gotta put in the work if that was something he wanted to do on the side.”
Drew and Denzel grew up listening to Biggie, Tupac and Snoop Dogg and transitioned to Jay-Z, Nas and 50 Cent as they got older. Their dad, Carlton, had them listening to everything.
The second they jumped in his car, driving through Lansing, Michigan, the music was turned as loud as it could go. The only time it got lowered was when Carlton paused to ask them, “Do you know what that word means?”
Music was an outlet but also a tool, and Carlton never wasted a moment to inspire and educate his sons.
Those were bonding moments, but they were also moments that sparked a passion in Denzel beyond basketball.
“Music was a big part of our life growing up,” Denzel said. “In high school, we used to do beats and freestyle at the lunch table. Then in college, Eron Harris transferred in from West Virginia, and he was making music on his laptop. One day he said, ‘try it.’ ”
Valentine tried rapping on one of Harris’ beats and was hooked.
This summer, he has been in the gym and the studio. He doesn’t have a specific date in mind, but before the 2020-21 season, Valentine will drop his debut album titled ‘‘517 Made Me.’’
He said the album will give fans a look at his life from a more personal perspective.
The 517 in the album title is a nod to Lansing’s area code and the influence his hometown, family and childhood friends he’s still close to have had on him. Valentine recorded between two to three times a week this summer and finished the entire 11-track album from the studio in his apartment.
Whenever he finished a song, Valentine would send it to the group of friends from his childhood. They are the same guys whose names he drops on his single, ‘‘Get Ya Grind Up’’: Jalin [Thomas], Moses [Morgan], Gary [Harris], Sapp [Anthony Clemmons], Bryn [Forbes], Howie [Jordan Howenstine], Mike [Stepter], and, of course, his big brother.
“They all encourage me,” Valentine said. “When I put my album out, I know they definitely helped me pick all the songs on it.”
Valentine already has released a few songs this year, including ‘‘Introduction,’’ ‘‘Get Ya Grind Up’’ and ‘‘Denzel’s Intro.’’
Valentine and his family filmed the music video for ‘‘Get Ya Grind Up’’ back home in Lansing this summer. His mom, Kathy, was ready for her music video debut, but Drew had no idea they’d be filming.
It was a special moment, though, and a hometown production all the way down to the man who shot and edited the video, Javier Lara.
Living in Chicago, Valentine has been able to connect with a lot of local artists and producers. One of the most influential has been his close personal friend, Rockie Fresh.
The two first got connected when Valentine was drafted by the Bulls in 2016 and have been making music and playing basketball ever since.
The most significant piece of advice Valentine received from Fresh, who is featured on three tracks on ‘‘517 Made Me,’’ is to do it his way and embrace what sets him apart.
The wave of NBA stars exploring careers in music is nothing new, but right now, there are a few athletes who are proving they could be here to stay. Valentine said Damian Lillard is a player in the league whose rap career is one he respects.
“A lot of the legends have been able to do it, and some have done it successfully,” Fresh said. “Kobe and Shaq were able to put out records that sold pretty well. Allen Iverson got into it. Now with players putting studios in their own home and it being easier to find beats, these players have a lot more access to trying out music.”
Fresh said he supports the wave of NBA players jumping into the rap game, and when it comes to Valentine, he instantly noticed his freestyle skills.
What truly bonded the two were the similarities in their professional careers. Valentine has used music to escape the highs and lows of his career in the NBA the same way Fresh has used basketball to find solace from similar moments in his music career.
Valentine vouches for Fresh’s jump shot, and Fresh applauds Valentine’s words on a beat.
During the uncertainty that came with the 2020 offseason, Valentine said it was essential to hit the ground running in his first summer without rehab or major surgery.
Regardless of what the future holds for Valentine and his career in Chicago, the 26-year-old is thankful he started here. He said this city shaped who he is as a player and an artist.
“Music has definitely allowed me to express how I feel,” Valentine said. “As an artist, I want people to see a side of me that nobody really gets to see. As an athlete, I want everyone to see I’m a hardworking player who deserves to play in the NBA.”