Basketball has been married to hip hop since the music and culture’s inception in the early 1970s.
There’s no greater feeling for basketball players than when they make silky smooth ball-handling moves that embarrass defenders, hitting a tough jumpshot or dunking while their favorite rap song blares through a boombox or arena P.A. speakers as people witness and scream in awe.
After missing the playoffs for 10 years, the shift in the Phoenix Suns Arena’s identity has included a new sound focusing on hip hop driving the team and fan energy to the NBA Finals.
The pulsating rhythms of thunderous 808 bass lines with punchy snare drums, towering record samples, sauntering keyboard grooves and scintillating rapid trap hi-hats in the Suns in-game soundtrack has accompanied the team’s meteoric rise toward the top of the NBA.
“We gotta be No. 1,” Suns starting forward Mikal Bridges said of the hip hop energy this season. “A lot of other music from different genres I don’t know why they be on at other arenas that don’t get you in a hyped-up mood. I think we’re the top one, for sure.”
The Suns Arena’s first-year resident DJs Automatic and Q-Ward have brought in a new sound that represents Phoenix.
The city isn’t known as a major hip hop market like the music’s origin in New York City, Los Angeles, or Atlanta. Enduring 1990s hip hop classics from Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast and Souls Of Mischief, along with current rap hits in the Suns DJs playlist curated by the players has brought new energy to the arena this season.
The Suns players, fronted by Devin Booker, Cameron Payne and Mikal Bridges, gave their input for a change in the arena’s DJ playlist for the the first time in the organization’s history. Automatic said that Booker requested JAY-Z, Drake, Gunna, Young Thug and NBA Youngboy. Bridges wanted Migos and Drake as well.
“I love the music both DJs have been great this year. Really like that they got the players’ input during the games,” Phoenix resident and Suns fan Daniel Herrera said. “Probably my favorite songs include ‘My Life’ by J. Cole during warm ups and ‘Made You Look’ by Nas during the game.”
How Suns Arena brought hip hop to Phoenix
The Suns games didn’t have much hip hop music played during the games prior to this season. Other NBA arenas’ live entertainment such as the Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena hip hop-focused organist Sir Foster and Houston Rockets Music Director and DJ T-Gray, serve their urban demographics and do it well.
Over the past several seasons, the Suns and Phoenix Mercury games’ live entertainment was hosted by Weezy. He performed a halftime dance routine to a mash-up of Top 40 pop and a few current hip hop hits with a troupe called The Hip Hop Squad.
The Suns T-shirt cannon segments helmed by Weezy, the Suns Gorilla mascot between quarters and in-game timeouts, baby-racing and Suns team of acrobatic dunkers of trampolines produced the most exuberance from the fans.
“I just noticed the lack of hip hop representation at the games and the core demographic of the Suns fan base loves hip hop. They’ve been listening to hip hop their entire life,” DJ Automatic said. “The former President Barack Obama listens to hip hop, everybody listens to hip hop. To not have hip hop incorporated as the center of the musical attention for the (Suns Arena) doesn’t make sense to me.”
Born in Minnesota and raised in New Mexico’s capital city Santa Fe, DJ Automatic began DJing in sixth grade 25 years ago. He’s traveled the world performing during the past 10 years.
DJ Automatic’s day job is spinning and co-hosting in the mornings on Phoenix’s hip hop station KKFR Power 98.3 and 96.1 FM’s Dana Cortez Show, Monday through Friday from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. with his wife Cortez and co-host Anthony Almanzar.
Automatic and the Dallas-bred Cortez have been married since 2009. They’ve been morning radio co-hosts since they first met as on-air colleagues in Albuquerque’s KKSS 97.3 FM in 2006. After multiple stints in Houston’s KPTY 104.9 FM and San Antonio’s KBBT 98.5 FM, where they began having their show syndicated in 2018, they moved from San Antonio to Phoenix with their 14-year-old daughter Ava in December 2019 to fulfill KKFR’s morning radio show spot.
Automatic had familiarity with Arizona from playing three years on Pima Community College’s baseball team in Tucson, and knew being in Phoenix would expand their show’s brand. Automatic and Cortez, the first Mexican female to have a nationally syndicated morning radio show, has the show air in 17 markets throughout the West Coast and Southwest regions.
Automatic’s foray into the Suns Arena live entertainment began when DJ Automatic attended games on behalf of the radio station prior to Arizona’s shut down from the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
He met some Suns employees and they accepted his pitch to perform a three-minute halftime performance with his morning show colleagues. During that performance, Automatic played some mid-1990s Latin music including the late Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and La Chona’s “Los Tucanes de Tijuana,” catering to the Suns’ Hispanic fan base.
That brief halftime performance left a stellar impression to the Suns Live Entertainment department, which reached out to Automatic entering this NBA season in December.
“‘Hey, do you want to be the Suns DJ?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, of course!’ I came to find out, there were 20 other people they had asked,” Automatic said while laughing. “I told my mom I thought they had just given it to me. I’m glad I didn’t go on Twitter, Instagram or anything with that.”
The Suns resident DJ application process initially entailed turning in a demo of song and scratch mixes, then an interview with the Suns Live Entertainment directors Shawn Martinez and Summer Meyer. Automatic performed at a Suns preseason game as a tryout. They hired him and Detroit native DJ Q-Ward, who used to spin at several of the Suns players’ parties.
Martinez, who grew up in northern Arizona’s Navajo reservation and played basketball at Window Rock High School, has been DJing for 30 years under the name DJ Tribal Touch. He spent 12 years DJing at Denver Nuggets games and the last eight doing the same for the Detroit Pistons before moving back to to his home state in November for his current role.
Martinez wanted to keep some of the previous year’s Suns live entertainment, but bring a new sound to the Suns and capitalize on other changes, incluuding a new look with their “The Valley” black uniforms, a renovated arena, new practice facility and buzz created by the addition of Chris Paul.
“Me coming in new, realizing what was happening with the new sound system and everything was heading in a different direction, I heard that it needed a change to play off and compliment, bringing in a fresh sound to carry on what’s happening on the floor in the game,” Martinez said.
Getting to know how fans, music mix
Martinez trained Automatic and Q-Ward about what to play in key moments of the game such as dunks and fast breaks. Martinez also gave them some autonomy letting Automatic and Q-Ward indulge in their “hip hop head” background ro to build playlists. by uploading instrumental earworms of 1990s underground rap, 2000s mainstream rap classics, today’s popular southern hip hop-orientedtrap and Latin music in the Suns Live Entertainment DJ-designed 360-song playlists.
They use those mixes balancing the tunes for the Suns player-curated pregame warm-ups, the home team’s dribble-ups for half-court sets, “hot timeouts” when the Suns are leading their opponent, and at the intermission to drive the crowd’s energy.
Spinning in an arena is different from playing records on the radio serving the 18-to-34 age demographic or in a nightclub. It’s about what has mass appeal.
The 2020-21 season opened with only limited capacity at games in the nearly 20,000-seat arena, which made it easier for the new DJs to grow on the job. The players were the main audience for the music at first.
“Just music I listen to and the (Suns teammates) like, good all-around music to get the guys hyped,” Bridges said, in describing what’s played. “We hear the songs when we warm up. It gets us dancing, gets us in more of a good mood. Sometimes in games I don’t hear it because I’m so locked in.”
As the Suns Arena began allowing more fans the music playlists stretched further as well.
“When we first started the season, I only played what the players wanted to hear because it was just the players who mattered at that point,” Automatic said. “I was playing a lot more new stuff, like a lot of Lil Baby, Gunna, Young Thug, Drake, which all stuff that I like as well. I wasn’t playing a lot of ’90s stuff.
“When the fans started coming back in and you see who is there, the average guy buying a ticket is probably going to be between 30 and 50 years old. I started thinking that if I can bring a little certain amount of nostalgia in the dribble-up beats and all the stuff that I think is dope into the game, it will make it that much better of an experience.”
Automatic and Q-Ward alternated their Suns games’ DJ duties during the regular season until Automatic became the Suns sole DJ during the playoffs.
Whenever the Suns get a comfortable lead near the end of a game, Automatic typically plays the triumphant beat from ‘Victory’ by The Notorious B.I.G., Diddy and Busta Rhymes.
“The way I’m thinking when I’m playing the games, especially on the dribble-ups is what would I want to hear if I was playing basketball right now?” Automatic said. “What’s gonna give me that feeling? I’m always trying to play in the favor to help the guys get in the mindset of we’re gonna score, we’re gonna win, take this whole thing.”
Support local journalism. Start your online subscription today.