This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 2 Music Issue. Subscribe today!
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is steering down a muddy path on his property in Cleveland, North Carolina, chatting with J. Cole, the platinum-selling hip-hop artist, who's riding shotgun. On the surface it seems an odd pair: a 40-year-old white NASCAR driver and a nearly 30 black rapper. Since the release of Cole's latest album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, in December, though, they've been curiously linked. At the end of the album's last track, Cole perplexingly shouts out to Junior, whom, until this moment, he'd never before met: "Dale Earnhardt Jr. ... That shit you said to me changed my life." Obviously, we had to get them together.
J. COLE: It all started when I missed the deadline for the physical CD album credits, so I decided to put them on a song and basically shout out everybody who had something to do with the album. I'd been working on the album for a year, and I was in such an ecstatic mood -- I felt like I won. So while I'm shouting out everybody, I was like, "I may as well pretend a shoutout, somebody I have no idea who they are, just as a joke."
There was an interview Dale Jr. did that asked him what he plays before races, and he said "J. Cole 'Power Trip,'" which freaked me out! What is Dale Earnhardt Jr. doing playing my shit? How did he even find out about it? You don't think somebody on that level would ever hear your stuff. From there, I never forgot. I was always like, "Yo, I ride with Dale Earnhardt Jr." So when I was picking a name, I chose his. And it worked out crazy. Everywhere I go now -- the airport, the store -- people say, "Yo, Cole, I love that album, bro, it's a classic!" And Dale Earnhardt Jr., it's the first thing they bring up! It's already a thing in hip-hop, already an inside joke that's going to live forever.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: "Power Trip" was coming up on my Pandora station a lot. I found out Cole was from North Carolina, and when you like a guy's music and you find out he's from where you're from, you tend to start to follow him. I heard he had a new album, and it started popping up on my Twitter timeline that there was this shoutout. I was like, "Oh shit, what's happening here?" So I went and listened to it, and it was funny as hell! So I tweeted to him, "Man, that shit's funny!" And he retweeted it and thought it was cool.
You pull for a guy because of the local connection. Normally, on the rare chance that a celebrity comes to my property, I get real nervous. But I wasn't nervous with him, because I knew this looks just like his backyard. It's a connection, a North Carolina connection, and he reps North Carolina in his music, and he's proud of where he's from and bringing recognition to Fayetteville. I'm proud of North Carolina too.
COLE: We're proud of you too, man. You're a legend. My brothers are going to flip. It's crazy that that shoutout would lead to this.
EARNHARDT: I was thinking the same thing. It was a joke, and people thought we'd never meet.
COLE: People who don't get the joke ask me about it. They're like, "Yo, what'd he tell you?" You didn't hear the song? I've never met him. He didn't tell me anything. When you tweeted that, it was a real big moment in hip-hop. People were like, "Ohhhhh!" It was a very big thing.
We're two human beings with respect for one another and for everybody. So somebody from the world I come from might not ever think Dale Earnhardt Jr. is listening to rap music or is as cool as he is or as down-to-earth as he is. There might be a certain stereotype toward a NASCAR driver in the world I'm from. Just like in the world he's from there might be ignorance as to what a rapper is and who a rapper is. That's not reality. It's two human beings that have super-duper respect for everybody.
EARNHARDT: To cross into the mainstream and mix these two fields together, it's a hell of an opportunity for my fans to be introduced to him and vice versa. There are a lot of fans of mine that are also rap music fans, and that's different from the stereotype. It's fun when you put these two worlds together because people don't expect it.
COLE: Our worlds have a lot more in common than people want to think. Stereotypes prevent the worlds from colliding and connecting more. The powers that be like it like that. They like it that the cultures don't mix, because if they ever were to mix, they would realize they're in the same boat and have a lot more in common than they have differences. It's these guys that are actually holding us down -- both of us.
I was thinking about NASCAR on my way here today. Coming from Fayetteville, it's big NASCAR country. NASCAR represents working-class people. It gives them something to tune in to every week and dream about. It's not a bougie sport by any means. It's not a rich sport by any means.
EARNHARDT: It's blue-collar.
COLE: It's very blue-collar. [Rap] culture has a lot in common with this culture and doesn't know it. And this culture doesn't know it either. It could change the world if they were to ever merge and really become friends.
EARNHARDT: This will change people's minds about things. It reminds people that no matter where you're from or how you dress or look, your interests and likes are more in common with other people than one can imagine. It always makes me laugh when my interests surprise someone, and it's as fun to enlighten someone as to be enlightened yourself. Be an open-minded individual or you could miss out on some really cool shit.
COLE: I do believe that with these two worlds -- NASCAR and hip-hop -- there's something to be said here. Everything that's happening in the news recently, you've got Mike Brown, you've got Eric Garner, all these terrible events happening that I feel like the media twists and flips, and there's all these biases on television that warp the message that's getting to the NASCAR crowd or this crowd. If there was more of an in-depth, honest look at who these people are -- who Mike Brown really was, the fact that this guy had a family that really loved him ... and yeah, he had problems. Everybody has problems. That's one thing that unites us: We have good kids and bad kids. Everybody got bad kids -- black and white, rich and poor. Everybody got good kids. I feel like people that look like me and dress like me are often painted as being that bad kid, when in actuality if you got to know us, you would know we're just like your children.
Stay on top of what J. Cole does next when ESPN The Party heads to Scottsdale, Ariz., on January 30.