In 2012, when soon-to-be-doomed Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson tried to guess why home attendance was down, he found one unlikely culprit: rap music. The Hawks needed to draw white males ages 33 to 55, as he wrote in an infamous email to General Manager Danny Ferry. And while Levenson, a nearly retirement-age white male, never personally felt uncomfortable at Philips Arena, goodness no, he nonetheless theorized that "the black crowd scared away the whites."
Then two years later, Levenson realized he was wrong, or was shamed by an outraged public into saying so—whatever. He sold the team. And since then, a strong rap-music connection has become one of the best things to come out of the incident.
Two weeks ago, the Hawks announced that local rap hero and Instagram Dad superstar 2 Chainz would perform three times during a March 27 home game against the Miami Heat—so, pregame, halftime, and postgame shows at the Friday-night affair. This is in part, professed Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, to draw "an increasingly diverse, millennial fan base that values great entertainment both on and off the court." I laughed out loud when I read that statement. Maybe that's because I don't follow sports; more likely, it was because here, again, was someone of a previous generation, trying to get marketing to a younger (and nonwhite) demographic down to a science. But I had to admit that someone got it right this time, because this past weekend, I went to my first-ever Atlanta Hawks game, just because 2 Chainz would be there, too.
At his best, 2 Chainz makes me giggle. When the native of nearby College Park released his 2012 Def Jam debut, Based on a T.R.U. Story, he was already 35—an age where most rappers claim to have seen it all. The older he gets, though, the sillier he gets: Amid titanic rap-radio-ready beats, where most artists would try to sound threatening, he unleashes dirty jokes that sound like dad jokes. ("Known to act like a donkey on the camel toe / Then take the camel toe and turn it into a casserole.") He seems as amused with his own one-liners as he is with his two daughters, Heaven and Harmony, whether they're singing along to Meghan Trainor, wearing Frozen gear, or dunking in diapers. The first time I saw him live, he had a pulpit onstage and yelled all his lyrics, to the point where his songs seemed like deranged, hilarious sermons.
During a press conference before the Hawks-Heat game, someone asked the rapper if he thinks it's "wise" for the NBA to continue featuring hip-hop artists. Naturally he responded with a joke, implying that he knew 2,000 players, to be exact, who want to rap. ("I can show you the text messages, too. They all want verses from me.") But then he stressed the importance of showing how hip-hop inspires these players and vice versa. He didn't mention Levenson's past comments, but the rest of his response was dead serious: "Y'all will see how some of the fans are actually [fans] of the music and the team."
On the court, he would prove this to be true (okay: TRU). He only performed two songs apiece during the pregame and halftime sets, though he danced over a glittering red projection with, natch, two gold chains featuring his emblem—an arena-worthy production. And as he ran through hits like "Birthday," "I'm Diff'rent" and "No Lie," the rapper nimbly avoided words and phrases that wouldn't fly on prime-time TV, though the crowd knew to fill in the rest: a call-and-response more bizarre and definitely more fun than the usual sports chants.
"So when I die, bury me next to ..."
During the eight-song postgame concert, a little blond boy—seemingly older than the toddler Harmony, but younger than grade-schooler Heaven—stomped off-beat courtside to "Feds Watching" and the "Back That Azz Up"-interpolating "Used To." Featured rapper Cap 1 brought him out onto the court, but even when the boy came face to face with 2 Chainz himself, he kept on dancing.
That kid was great, but 2 Chainz was clearly the night's champion. That's even when you consider any of the victorious Hawks themselves.
To be fair, the game itself wasn't exciting. There was no tension: The Hawks took an early lead and maintained it throughout. Even if the Heat had closed the gap, though, I bet the musical guest star still would have gotten the loudest cheers of the night. He even played H-O-R-S-E against Dominique Wilkins, the team's best-ever player—and won. (How? Toward the end, he played defense by holding a wad of cash in front of Wilkins' face.)
Also, again, I wouldn't have bothered seeing the Hawks secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference if he hadn't been part of the deal. Even when he wasn't the focus, I was in awe as I took in the whole scene, with a soundtrack of arena fixture Sir Foster's cheery organ renditions of hip-hop hits like fellow hometown hero Future's "Move That Dope," Kanye West's "Flashing Lights," and Luniz's "I Got 5 On It." Rap was fueling the Hawks, even when a rapper wasn't physically on the court. And when he was, with the Philips Arena crowd cheering him on, 2 Chainz rapped with a stupid grin on his face and put equally stupid grins on a goodly percentage of that mythic "increasingly diverse, millennial fan base," whether they'd shown up specifically to see him or not.
Christina Lee lives in Atlanta and has written for Wondering Sound, RollingStone.com, Billboard, and SPIN. Follow her on Twitter.
Photos by Michael Saba.
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