Generally speaking, when it comes to in-game music in the NBA — not the stuff played during timeouts or at halftime, but the little song snippets you hear when game action is actually taking place — there are three types of arenas. There’s the predominantly old-school, organ-based variety, the kind of low-production-value, audience-participation-heavy music you get in stadiums like Madison Square Garden and Staples Center. There’s the hip-hop and pop-rooted, crowd-pleasing variety, the kind of hit-a-minute Top 40 soundtrack you get in stadiums like Quicken Loans Arena and the Barclays Center. And then there’s FedExForum, home of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Of the 29 (30 if you wanna count Staples twice) NBA arenas, MSG probably has the best pre-game and break-in-action music. When it comes to TV broadcast-only music for bumpers and the like, the Sacramento Kings’ local affiliate probably has the best selections, believe it or not. But when it comes to in-game song selection, there is no equal for FedExForum. While the sheer volume of it can be occasionally exhausting — only Barclays definitely beats it in terms of songs per minute — the stadium is unmatched for the breadth, diversity and high quality of the songs being played during any given point in game action.

I first noticed this watching Grizzlies games a year or two ago, Memphis long being a league pass favorite of mine. Some stadiums have one or two weird musical cues that will perk my ears up during the course of a game — that “EVERYBODY / Clap your hands” bit they play in OKC, the weird “Breaks”/”Rappers Delight” mashup they used to play in New Jersey, I think the Pepsi Center is still the only place I’ve heard serious in-game dubstep — but nearly every time I watched a Grizzlies home game, there was a new song selection that caught my attention. Woah, are they playing “Yonkers” by Tyler the Creator? Is that the horn riff to Outkast’s ‘”Spottieottiedopalicious?” DJ Shadow’s “Organ Donor?” The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind??”

The list went on, and before long, listening to the games was almost as much fun as watching them. The cues don’t always work, like when they played the intro to Metallica’s “One” the other night (amusing as it was, I couldn’t imagine a way the selection could be considered musically or thematically appropriate) but compared to the other 28/29 NBA arenas, most of whom seem to crib from the same master list of 50 or so jams and musical tropes acceptable for in-game action, such outside-the-box thinking was still impressive.

I figured the surge in awesome left-field music selections at FedEx couldn’t just be by accident, so I tracked down Jason Potter, the Grizzlies’ Director of Promotions and Event Presentation. Unsurprisingly, he sounded like he’d been waiting for someone to come and ask him about all the awesome music the stadium’s been playing. “I think the in-play music started a lot in the NBA as kind of a differentiated thing, but it got homogenized, and I think a lot of the fans tuned it out,” Potter says. “We challenged the guys to have some fun with it.”

“The guys” at FedExForum are Nathan Black, the Forum’s official in-house DJ, and Justin Baker, the Click Effects Operator. Black, who has been with the Grizzlies since they came to Memphis in 2001, handles the music for the timeouts and halftime and pre-and-post-game, basically any time except for when the ball is in play. He’s the guy who has made songs like Tag Team’s “Whoomp! There It Is” and The Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” FedEx fixtures, and who cemented DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win” (with a special Grizzlies-specific verse from Memphis rapper Freesol) as the Grizzlies’ signature victory song.

But when it comes to the game’s ear-catching in-game music, the responsibility falls to Baker, a 34-year-old ex-raver who’s DJed in various capacities since the late ’90s. Baker handles the Click Effects, named for the software which operates the in-game music, choosing dozens of short, usually instrumental tracks to play during team halfcourt possessions throughout each Grizzlies game. “Once the ball comes in bounds, on either end of the court, I have music cued up,” explains Baker. “As soon as play stops and the Grizz Girls or the MC come running out, I take a break and Nate takes back over.”

It was Baker’s arrival with the Grizzlies two years ago, after the 2011 lockout, that triggered their new radical approach to live action, in-game music. “When I came on the job the soundbank was full of music — and I give our team credit for having always played a lot of songs in-game as opposed to organ riffs all the time — but it was a combo of cliché classic rock songs and rap beats,” remembers Baker. “Once they showed me how to bring in and edit music myself it became a mission to get every awesome music cue I could find in our database.”

Baker’s expanded song bank started to make an impression on Grizzlies fans, which Potter picked up on over social media. “One night it really dawned on me. On Twitter about two seasons ago, someone was like ‘Oh, that was a Wu-tang beat!,’” recalls Potter. “And I was like ‘Woah, people are noticing.” So that kind of opened the flood gates.” From there, just about anything went — “everything from the Pixies to A Tribe Called Quest,” says Potter — and diversity took over. (The miscellany of an average night’s Grizzlies soundtrack obviously stems from the music operators’ diverse musical taste. Black cites Skrillex, Allison Krauss and Gucci Mane all among his favorites, while Baker looks forward to new releases from Odd Future and the Avalanches.)

Beacuse Baker isn’t responsible for playing entire songs, usually just short, instrumental intros, he has the freedom to mess around with his song choices. “It’s fun the way you can incorporate songs when you’re just using the beats,” relates Potter. “Like, you can play ‘Whoop That Trick,’ from ‘Hustle and Flow.’ We probably couldn’t play that during a timeout.” Black elaborates: “We edit a lot of the songs to be conducive with the crowd. Say if a song has a good build but it takes too long for what we need, we will edit it so that it hits right where we need it to for the games.”

Speaking of “Whoop That Trick,” which Memphis Flyer writer Chris Herrington calls “sort of a Memphis shibboleth” thanks to its connection to the Memphis-set “Hustle” and to Memphis rapper Al Kapone, it’s a priority for the entire Grizzlies music team to keep things local. The guys cite local rappers like Kapone, Three 6 Mafia, and Teflon Don as FedEx musts, as well as older stuff like legendary Stax house band Booker T. and the M.G.’s. ”If you foul out in Memphis, you won’t hear ‘Hit the Road Jack,’” testifies Baker. “Instead you get Yo Gotti’s ‘Shawty You Disqualified!’ All straight up Memphisness.” Baker also has player-specific cues: Future’s “Go Harder” for Tony Allen, a drum-and-bass remix of the “Superman” theme for Rudy Gay, and for Zach Randolph, a shoutout to his nickname inspiration with a hip-hop remix of D-Bo’s theme from “Friday.”

Now, the fans have gotten really into it. Potter says he’s “getting emails from people requesting stuff. ‘Oh, the Crystal Castles album! This xx song would be perfect!’” Not only that, but Potter also says that people have been sending him stats based on how the team has been performing based on what song has been playing — “Like, when you play the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack, you’re shooting that percentage.” He later quips, “I’ll have to ask Hollinger what kind of stats he wants,” no doubt the final frontier in advanced stat analysis for the Grizzlies’ new VP of Basketball Operations.

It’s enough to make you question why more basketball arenas don’t try to switch things up a little with their in-game music. “I respect the classic old school approach in the more storied franchises around the league. I can appreciate the heritage and that appeal,” says Baker. “But for the younger teams finding their way, why wouldn’t you take a more dynamic approach? Our team is still building its fan base, and if I can be a part of what makes us appealing, then that’s rad.”

Word. Here’s hoping teams still stuck on Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and Kanye West’s “Power” take notice.

Comments (28)

  1. I haven’t attended a Grizz game, but I do appreciate the diversity of their soundtrack, however in general I prefer hearing the ball bouncing, the scuffing of sneakers on the court, and the yells of both the players and the fans.

  2. I thought I was one of the few to notice how good their in-game music is.

  3. As a dubsteppa I have to agree it shouldn’t be used as in-game music, way too slow to get people hyped, Drum and Bass could totally work though

  4. i also enjoy the old school-no music-listen to the ball bounce and the sneakers, but I always look forward to watching the grizz and hearing “You dropped a bomb on me.”

  5. i actually noticed this on television the last time the rockets were in memphis. i’m a huge hip hop head and i heard liquid swords (gza), gravel pit (wu-tang), and 5th chamber (gza) and couldn’t believe it

  6. I just took notice to this Monday listening to the Clippers game on the radio. There was a break in the game and in the background I could hear some Deltron 3030. I paused in disbelief for a little while. Glad this guy is getting some appreciation.

    • Yes! I was in the arena and noticed that too. Almost dropped my beverage.

    • memory loss was playing at the game today vs the thunder. it was awesome and I want to shake the hand of the guy who chooses the music

  7. I first misread “Grizzlies-specific” as “Grizzlies-rific,” which is an adjective this site should definitely use to describe things that are both terrific and Grizzlies-related.

  8. finally an article of yours again! great read, thanks!
    not much article posting going on these days on TBJ, aside from TK and the occasional shea serrano… which is a pity! I love all the different writers here. (and I’m constantly craving new material, alas, trey’s articles are, albeit entertaining, usually a very quick read. which means I have to get back to work again sooner)

  9. Too bad in game music sucks, this is like an article praising Lebron’s hairline for not receding in the last week.

    ITSSSS MURDAAAAA

  10. interesting but too loud

  11. What is the song thats played when they come out for warm ups pre game?

  12. The music plays a huge role in getting the crowd into the game, and it even seems to affect the energy of the team. A couple of games recently there has been mostly quiet, New-Agey music, and everyone around me complains. Keep the Grindhouse rocking!

  13. I love the soundtrack to the Grizzlies game. Alot of the songs are from the Ghosts Nine Inch Nails album which was released with no copyright in the sense they didnt care if you used the music, just do not make money off it. I was quite surprised I could could on my hands how many NIN songs I hear at the fed ex forum and more than the “Closer” song.

  14. I find music during play to be a major distraction. I go to games for the game. Music should be heard in a music venue, not a sports arena. However, the absolute worst music is the damn organ that seemingly attempts to add drama to the action. If the Grizz had that music I would no longer buy season tickets. When I watch games played in other arenas where there is organ music, I turn down the sound. I’d rather forgo the commentary than to listen to the awful organ.

    • You must be the most boring person ever.

      You don’t get what music does to the crowd and the players? Create an atmosphere?

      You wan’t it to be as dull as a chess game?

  15. Cool story Andrew… Noticed the same thing with their in-game music… Great work man

  16. Jason, I hope you’re reading this. Please get a Special Ed beat ready for the Brooklyn game. Thank you.

  17. Really great story, props! I would love to see more articles.

  18. I travel to every NBA arena at least once each season for work and the Grindhouse, by far, has the best in-game music. Tweeted about it last time and a lot of folks didn’t believe me. If the team I cover is done and the Grizzlies are still playing, I might make a trip to a playoff game in Memphis. Helps that I love the BBQ, the FedEx Forum is on Beale Street and I have a good friend there. Coincidence: I’m in the Porter airport in Toronto right now. Farewell, Canada!

  19. Great, great story. More of this, thanks! :-)

  20. I have only been to one game this season, but in the past I have enjoyed hearing clips of KISS, Melvins, Beck. More old school Memphis music would be nice. And for the love of Gawd, could you PLEASE quit playing Rock n Roll Part 1. It is written by convicted pedophile, Gary Glitter.

  21. From the few Nets games I’ve watched, Brooklyn has some pretty good in-game music too. I wish Chicago would step it up & throw out Jock Jams 1 & 2 that have been getting HEAVY play since MJ roamed the court. I used to think there were only so many times you can play “Whoomp There It Is” in the 2000s but the United Center has proven me wrong.

  22. Oh, man, I’ve been saying this all year! I’ve asked the Grizzlies account via Twitter for their playlist several times and never got a response. Glad people know what’s up.

  23. hey guys – thanks SO MUCH for taking notice of what we do…..we never really set out to do anything unusual – we just want it to rock. So so glad folks take interest in the tunes we play! Hit me up on Facebook if you have a sec…i usually post up any new songs going into rotation that night and you can definitely ask a song title…i don’t really keep our playlists simply cuz we blow through tracks on the fly so fast!

  24. My one complaint with the Grizzlies in-game music is the use of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” usually in the 4th quarter of close games. While the music and beat of the song definitely sets the right tone for these games and gets the crowd pumped, the lyrics of the song seem wrong, considering that one of the Grizzlies’ biggest division rivals is the Oklahoma City THUNDER.. Whether this is a song the Thunder use at their games or not, i have no idea. But if they don’t, they should. It might as well be their theme song.

  25. The music is great as Memphis is known for
    B-ball and music but let’s dig deeper old school rock such as Bigstar, old Sun Studio rockabilly

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