You expect any large gathering in New Orleans to be accompanied by the signature sounds of perhaps the most musically distinct city in the world.
As the New Orleans Pelicans basketball department works to build a championship-caliber roster, the Game Experience staff is striving to curate an atmosphere to match.
Unlike, for example, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Pelicans don’t employ a full-time in-game DJ at the Smoothie King Center…yet.
“We’ve always had live DJs during pre-game, but we’re going to expand that into the game action next season based on how well-received it was during this year’s playoffs,” said Jen Martindale, the VP of Brand Strategy for the Pelicans (and Saints).
The inconsistency was apparent, even from afar. One game I watched (thank you League Pass archive) was noticeably bereft of beats behind the action as if nobody was in the booth. Meanwhile, a different early-season affair featured a steady stream of New Orleans hip-hop over the gameplay—Big Tymers (“Big Ballin’”, “Still Fly”), Juvenile (“Set It Off”), and, of course, “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy”—an elite layup line jam.
There are a few constant track inclusions, though, as the team strives to Nawlins up the experience.
“We use local music to punctuate key moments in the game. We always play ‘Getcha Sum’ by HaSizzle just before tip-off,” said Martindale. “We play ‘Let’s Go Get Em’ by Rebirth Brass Band coming out of 3rd Quarter break, and ‘Wipe Me Down’ by Boosie is our post-game win song.”
Arguably, there exists no musical style more apt for basketball (in name and feel) than Bounce. The region’s foundational rap subgenre is influenced by call-and-response music—perfect for audience engagement. The famous Triggerman drum loop provides an ideally bumpy backdrop.
“Our biggest guideline is to make sure we play a healthy dose of local music,” Martindale said. “New Orleans is one of the most important music cities in the country. Our fans respond to the music you hear on every corner of our city – Bounce, hip hop, brass, even zydeco.”
Basketball has traditionally not had the same impact in NOLA as football. The Jazz left town in 1979. The Hornets rebranded in 2013. The Pelicans—regularly in the bottom-10 in attendance and rarely nationally televised—are oft-cited as a candidate for relocation.
But that tune is beginning to change. An exciting roster (and coach) is the first step. Flavoring home games with elements of the city’s celebrated culture is another.
“On any given night, we’ll have music throughout the arena,” said Martindale. “Our drumline will be outside performing while fans are queued up waiting to come inside. One DJ will be spinning in the main entrance atrium as fans walk in, and maybe another one will be spinning in the Sports Bar inside the arena, and then we have folks playing music during the actual game. During halftime this past season, we had marching bands, brass bands, hip hop artists, funk bands, jazz bands, Zydeco bands, and indie rock bands. But the key criteria are that they have to be local.”
Jess Cole, aka DJ Jess, is born-and-raised in New Orleans. She began spinning at Smoothie King in January.
“I was just doing the pre-games outside of the gift shops and stuff like that,” Jess told MMH. “Recently they moved me to one of the little bars upstairs.”
During the Pels’ thrilling first-round series vs. the Suns, Jess got her first chance to work the booth during a game—the 15-point Pelicans Game 4 victory. She called the experience “amazing.”
“It was such a vibe in there. The energy was high. Of course, I was nervous but once I got started it just felt natural. I was just in awe of everything that was going on around me most of the time. But it was good because the Pelicans, they were playing so well that night it got everybody else involved too. So it made my job easier.”
For her playlist, she relied on a combination of reliable bops and Southern rap hits.
“Definitely just made sure I had some hype songs and the songs that everybody knows—those popular songs that get the people going.”
She cited Drake’s “Nonstop” and Rihanna as go-to bangers.
Beyond the mainstream: “Some New Orleans bounce, definitely when I was doing the pre-game. I just tried to keep the music kind of true to New Orleans, to the New Orleans people, stuff that we knew, stuff that I knew. We love bounce music out here, everybody kind of does.”
Big Tymers. Master P’s “Make Them Say Ugh” apparently never fails. “Every time I played it, that gets the people going. That’s a New Orleans classic right there.” She had to drop Choppa’s “Choppa Style”, which became a Saints rallying cry and, per Jess, is “the New Orleans song right now.”
“I just made sure I played a lot of songs like that that are familiar to New Orleans, dear to New Orleans.”
During timeouts, she hit “Knuck If You Buck” and “This Is How We Do It”. “Blow the Whistle” was on her list for Game 6. She skewed away from the traditional arena rock that remains confoundingly prominent at major sporting events in 2022.
Jess said the Pelicans “let me pretty much play whatever. Whatever song is hot, what’s going to get the people up dancing and keep the energy going.”
Of course, the goal isn’t just to set the mood. It’s to help the Pels get a dub.
“Our job in Game Experience is to create the energy that helps our team win games,” Martindale said. “So, when we get our fans in the right headspace, we have home-court advantage. We know our players are motivated by the crowd’s energy. The Basketball Operations group will certainly let us know if they love something we’re doing, and just as importantly, they’ll share their own ideas with us.”
Jess was surprised by a few requests from the Pels players. CJ McCollum wanted “Through The Wire” — a great jam but not exactly a pump-up anthem. She didn’t expect 24-year-old Brandon Ingram to ask for DMX. Jose Alvarado, a fan favorite, wanted to hear J Balvin and Skrillex’s collab, “In da Getto.”
Besides her local roots, Jess’s backstory features one key detail that helped ready her for the responsibility of scoring a home playoff game.
“Hip-hop kind of runs it for the NBA. That’s kind of what you want to hear. Definitely something with a good beat. I used to play basketball, so when I’m on a court, that’s kind of what I want to hear to get me pumped up to go out and compete. Something that’s high in energy—the bass is high, the players love it, the fans love it, and we’re all just kind of pumping our fists like, ‘Yeah!’ Just all in unison.”
The Pelicans are building something down in NOLA — on the court, with the community, and at the arena. Now, it’s just about keeping that energy.