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.