Close your eyes, and it almost sounds like music—the pop of plastic ball against wooden paddle, the occasional grunt or exclamation of celebration or defeat. While it’s frequently relegated to basements, rec rooms, and tech startup common areas, if you’re in any way involved with hip hop, you probably have a different vision of the game. Ping-Pong is a fixture of label offices, recording studios, and the offices of major music publications, and rappers beef about their paddle skills on Twitter, keeping a running tally of who has beaten whom, how many times, and issuing calls for rematches. A$AP Rocky, Cam’Ron, and Pusha T are all rabid players, brought together by the self-proclaimed #PingPongPresident of hip hop himself, VIBE Magazine Editor-in-Chief Datwon Thomas.
Thomas has been a fixture in hip hop for years—he started as an intern at VIBE in 1996, and quickly rose through the hip hop world as a young journalist-to-watch, writing for XXL and serving as its music editor. He has worked closely with some of hip hop’s heaviest hitters, including Russell Simmons and Sean Combs. Needless to say, the man has some stories. After bouncing around pretty much every rap publication, Thomas returned to VIBE as Editor-in-Chief. However, as he recently recounted to The Standard, it was long before he took his seat at the helm of VIBE that Thomas heard the call of the little plastic ball.
“I think what’s happening is that now artists—especially in hip hop—are taken so seriously. Like, ‘Oh, we hardcore, we killers and gangsters and all this stuff,’ and then Ping-Pong is kinda laid back, and yet you’ve also gotta be aggressive at times."
Thomas grew up an army brat, and when he was young, his father relocated the family from Brooklyn to Japan. A city kid through and through, Thomas was accustomed to playing outside on the streets of Brooklyn. But on the base in Japan, the place to play was the youth center. “I would teach [the other kids on base], New York street games like skelly and freeze tag, and the kids there were like “Yo, let’s go to the youth center.” That was where 11-year-old Thomas got his first introduction to Ping-Pong.
While you wouldn’t know it from his easy-going demeanor, Thomas is fiercely competitive. “Every day the first summer I was there, I was in the youth center trying to learn, and getting beat. I got tired of getting beat and so I started getting better, picking up little tips and spins and stuff, and I got addicted to it.” Thomas moved from Japan to other bases, and besides Ping-Pong, there was one other constant in his life. “My biggest love was hip hop,” he says, and it was hip hop that finally brought Thomas back to New York City for good. During his ascent through the hip hop world, he caught flashes of base life out of the corners of his eye: the white lines, the green net, the little plastic ball, the dimpled paddles. “I started to notice Ping-Pong tables in the studios, and in people’s houses. I would be like, ‘oh, you nice?’ and I would challenge everyone.” Thomas became hip hop’s unofficial Ping-Pong kingpin. He says that to this day there’s only one person who can consistently beat him.
So what’s up with rappers and Ping-Pong? Thomas has a theory. At this point in our interview he gets a little more serious—the big smile and active hand gestures briefly receding. With a pensive look he explains, “I think what’s happening is that now artists—especially in hip hop—are taken so seriously. Like, ‘Oh we hardcore, we killers and gangsters and all this stuff,’ and then Ping-Pong is kinda laid back, and yet you’ve also gotta be aggressive at times. It’s kinda like how hip hop is.” The artists who play the game, he goes on to say, also exhibit these qualities in their music. “If you look at Cam’Ron, he puts out the hardest-of-the-hard street record, but then he can also make a funny joint, like ‘Hey Ma.’”
Thomas exhibits these qualities himself, and recognizes that. On the one hand, he’s one of the most successful men in rap journalism, while on the other, he’s a devoted husband and father of three daughters. His upbringing was a balance of these factors: “grew up in the street, and then went away to pristine areas, and then back to the street,” he says, and perhaps it was this balance that not only led him to where he is in his career, but also to love of Ping-Pong. There is that one problem of Sean C though. When I ask Thomas what he’s going to do about that, he laughs, and then with a tone of mock-toughness, proclaims, “I don’t know, it’s to the point where I gotta like, break his knees or something, Nancy Kerrigan-style.”Ping-Pong, ain’t nothing to fuck with.