When Steph Curry rainbowed in a 27-footer late in the fourth quarter of a recent game against the Blazers, Derrick Robinson—otherwise known as DJ D-SHARP—knew exactly what song to play to honor Curry’s 62-point night. In the middle of the prerecorded “Warriors’’ chants that filled the empty Chase Center, Robinson stood alone at his station and pressed play on an edit of A$AP Ferg’s “New Level,” which includes the line: “Steph Curry on a new level.”
Robinson has played that song during Curry outbursts before, and he’s got a whole rotation of uptempo tracks for when Curry nails a 3. But this season, he’s playing them to a largely vacant gym. There’s no audience, no sold-out crowd to hype up, and no immediate feedback for Robinson as he attempts to do the job that’s gotten him three championship rings.
“It’s a little weird, I can’t lie,” Robinson said over the phone recently.
If you would have tuned into the local League Pass feed during a Warriors preseason game against the Nuggets last month, you would have seen Robinson bouncing along to his own music during halftime as if he were playing to thousands. But despite Robinson’s on-camera disposition, he says the experience was eerie. “I started doing my set and I looked around and I was like, ‘Oh, there’s no one here.’ … I just kept going, though. I didn’t let it mess with my performance.”
There may currently be no crowds in 26 of the NBA’s 30 arenas, but the league has deemed Robinson’s position essential to the in-game experience. What’s more: He’s been told that despite the shifting circumstances, he should continue to do his job without adjustments or changes. The team wants to replicate the typical ambience, musical cues, and songs—even if, as coach Steve Kerr joked postgame, there are only about 42 people in the stands to give Curry a round of applause.
“I thought that I could change my approach because there’s no fans, but they encouraged me to keep the same energy as an asset,” Robinson said. “If Curry shoots a 3 and he makes it, you want to have that same pump-up music that he had before, so that way, that just creates a momentum that these guys are used to.”
Across the league, arena DJs are coping with this unique setup in different ways. Some, who have the added responsibility of piping in crowd noise and chants, are learning how not to rely on fan cues. Others are trying alternative approaches to the way they mix music, or changing the genres they play in order to cater to the players first. And all of them are figuring out that the role they occupy in the game experience is even more important than they previously thought.
Austin Pawelka had just celebrated a preseason Bol Bol dunk with an exclamatory “Whoooo,” and was surprised to hear his cheer reverberate through the Nuggets’ Ball Arena. Pawelka, or Paws the Music, as he’s known in Denver, suddenly felt seen in a way he hadn’t before—and it hit him that he was one of the only people in the stands. If he spoke loud enough, his voice could carry all the way down to the players.
“I was like, ‘I should probably keep that down,’” Pawelka said. “I mean, there’s just things that will probably take some time getting used to.”
Bucks DJ Shawna Nicols felt a similar sensation early in the regular season when she noticed that, though she was playing to only a handful of staffers and players, Bango, the team mascot, was bobbing his head along to the music.
“DJing is such a call-and-response environment,” Nicols said. Nicols describes herself as a shy person for whom DJing brings out her alter ego. It’s now impossible for her to hide in the crowd, and it’s forced her to be more confident. “Now, there’s no people jumping around and dancing and singing along and acting silly and goofy with me. It’s just me. So it’s really trying to draw that inner performer and entertainer out. It’s fun, it’s a different challenge.”
Pawelka and Nicols were two of the handful of DJs that were invited to the NBA’s Orlando bubble last year, and though that experience was unique in its own way—from having to perform at two games a day, to playing for teams that had different preferred music cues, to chatting up referees about power ballads by the pool—the current environment brings a new challenge. While the bubble was a more intimate setting, empty NBA arenas are cavernous, and playing to them requires adjustments and a commitment to the gig that will take some time to get used to.
“There wasn’t as much overhead, like reverb,” Pawelka said of the bubble environment. “And when there’s no fans in the building, the bass from the speakers, you could feel it like in your chest. When there’s fans, it kind of brings that down. So I would just say getting used to the acoustics of an empty building, that’s probably like one of the things that’s going to take me a while.”
“The energy is definitely different without the fans, so you have to kind of create your own energy,” Jeremy Roueche, the Lakers’ DJ, says. “But I’m sure all the DJs in the NBA have done events where there’ve been five people up to thousands of people, so the rule of thumb is, if you’re not enjoying yourself, that’s going to come across.”
While Robinson’s been asked to keep things consistent for the Warriors, other DJs say they have the ability to do things slightly different, if only out of necessity. Roueche, who has a championship ring headed his way after last season, says he’s opting for songs and remixes with heavier drums and more fillers to help fill the void. For the Lakers’ players’ introductions, he’s been using a remix of “Can’t Stop” by DaBaby, and generally playing more hip-hop and less EDM tracks. Robinson says his pregame set has featured even more hip-hop than usual. And Pawelka says that without fans, he’s had to scrap the decades-old crowd hits and instead stay more up to date with top charts and trends. Nicols, meanwhile, has been promoting her playlists in an effort to include the fans watching on TV.
This is what we like to see.— Breaking & Entering (@BreakinNEnterin) January 5, 2021
A few weeks ago, @djshawna put the word out that she was looking for Milwaukee music. We shared our radio edits from Breaking And Entering Radio, and it helped create her Milwaukee Mondays playlist for the @Bucks at Fiserv Forum! #FearTheDeer pic.twitter.com/9397HsgAcC
“We’re trying to ... have some sort of touch points with people at home,” Nicols said. “I want to make sure our Bucks fans feel connected to [Fiserv Forum] and hear things that you hear when you come to a game. And so for us that’s really important.”
Finding familiarity amid the changes has been crucial for those involved in game production so far this season. Like players and coaches, all arena staff—including DJs—are tested for COVID-19 on game days, and sometimes Robinson has to wait 45 minutes for his results before even getting in the arena after taking his test (he isn’t sure what the DJ contingency plan would be if he tests positive). On top of that, there’s no more in-game promotions or performances to account for, so DJs need more music at the ready. Both preparation and adjusting on the fly have been key so far.
“I’m doing at least three or four more sets than I did before, so yeah, I would say maybe 25 to 30 more songs per game,” Robinson said. “I’ll still be mixing this stuff, but I probably won’t be doing quick hits like I was before because it’s not really warranted. There’s no one there.”
Roueche says he’s been getting to the arena earlier than usual and has created a folder inside his library titled “Players Season,” where he’s housing all the music he uses during this unique year. “There’s a constant telling myself to be in the moment now, where before with the fans, if I had to look away for something or was looking at the video board for the score or typing on my computer to get the next song, the vibe in the arena told me what was about to happen,” Roueche said. “Now, I don’t necessarily know because there’s no difference in sound. So I think I’m still figuring that out.”
In late July, the Bucks were playing in early scrimmages in the Orlando bubble when Giannis Antetokounmpo’s older brother, Francis, released a new song—his first single, called “Shekosi.” All three of the Antetokounmpo brothers posted about it on Instagram, so Nicols followed Francis and got him to send her the song to add to her playlist. When the Bucks came out on the floor 20 minutes before the tip-off of their next scrimmage, Nicols mixed in the song and watched for the reaction.
“Giannis and Thanasis were singing along to every word,” she said. “They were dancing along to it, and it was cool to be a part of that moment.”
Social media monitoring and chart following have always been part of the job for team DJs, but now those elements have become even more important. Without fans, DJs are playing for normalcy—but above all, they’re playing for the players.
While that’s always been the case to some extent, the current scenario has highlighted that aspect of their jobs and brought about some necessary changes. Now, DJs have to pay attention not just to the game, but also to the way players react to what they play during warm-ups or timeouts—what songs they want, and even at what volume (typically a lot higher than usual).
“Sometimes you’ll see out of the corner, one of them’s dancing a little bit or singing along to the song,” Roueche says. “If I get a reaction from any of the players, I’ll make a note on that track on my computer to make sure it stays in rotation, and then just try not to play the same stuff over and over again.”
In this scenario, with no more catering to the fans during timeouts, DJs are playing a lot more music. So all requests will be heard, even if not all are granted. DJs said DaBaby and Lil Baby are among the artists that players request most. Pawelka knows that Will Barton likes Future, so he keeps a healthy amount of his songs in the rotation. Sometimes he’ll play an oldie or a Miley Cyrus song for the other Nuggets staffers in the building, while Reouche says he expects the few assembled media members at Staples Center to begin requesting songs of their own when the players are not on the court. Even without fans, DJs are still trying to find touch points of connection and forms of feedback, especially since some feel like they’re on an island.
“You hear from an executive like, ‘You deserve this, you earned this, you’re a big part of what we do,’” says Robinson, who added that the Warriors told him more League Pass exclusive sets might be in his future. “I’ve had Steve Kerr tell me that, I’ve had players tell me that … but I will say that this situation has really shown me that what we do is important. We’re there to provide the atmosphere, and we’re there to make sure that the players enjoy their time.”
All of the DJs I spoke to said that, given the nature of this season, they expect more and more requests to come from players. Pawelka says he has a good relationship with most Nuggets players and some will reach out via DMs to solicit specific songs, and some make their preferences known to him through a team official. Nicols has had the same experience with Bucks players and is looking forward to learning what new additions like Jrue Holiday want to hear. The shift has also given DJs a slight change of pace, something that may be a good thing during such a peculiar season.
“It does feel a little strange at times because you know you’re not doing what you typically do as a DJ, which is making a crowd get engaged and involved,” Pawelka said. “But I think that my favorite part about this is putting my ego aside and being like, ‘Maybe I’m not playing to 20,000 people at Ball Arena now, but I’m playing to 30 of the best athletes in the world.’”