Catch him if you can. Miami-based DJ Irie doesn't miss a beat during All-Star Weekend -- literally.
The NBA's first DJ, who was hired by the Miami Heat for the 1999-2000 season, may have been the busiest man you've never heard of during All-Star Weekend. He just wrapped up his 10th straight All-Star appearance as the league's headline turntablist in Houston.
Not only did Irie spin at Jam Session every day for a couple of hours, he also worked the celebrity game and then the Club NBA party with reggaeton artist Daddy Yankee on Friday; the East-West All-Star teams' practice; TNT's official All-Star party at the House of Blues on Saturday; and then the Sprint Pregame Concert on Sunday. In addition, he made an appearance, along with rapper Flo Rida, at the Hennessy V.S All-Star Takeover event on Thursday night.
The All-Star schedule for Irie, who became Miami's No. 1 radio DJ in the late 1990s before the Heat wanted him to revolutionize their in-game entertainment, actually started off much crazier. During his first experience in Atlanta in 2003, he was the only NBA DJ on-site and worked Jam Session for about 12 hours a day -- after which, he still went on to spin night parties every evening. Even though he enjoyed being at All-Star Weekend and making some new connections, he called the experience "horrible."
But since then, more NBA team DJs have gotten involved with All-Star Weekend, which has allowed Irie to commit to parties he's in demand for, hosted by A-list entertainers and the ballers themselves. He's become the go-to DJ for current Heat players such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and former ones, such as Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning. Irie calls the Heat "a family," and he even has both of the Heat's championships rings from 2006 and 2012.
Speaking with ESPN Playbook on Saturday in his hotel room at the Embassy Suites in downtown Houston, Irie reflected on his All-Star commitments, his game-changing start with the Heat 14 years ago, consulting with LeBron on tunes, what's next in the world of in-game music and much more.
First of all, what does it mean to you being the so-called "official NBA DJ"?
I don't call myself the official NBA DJ, but I am very proud of my position of kind of opening up this lane, and I'm very proud that the NBA reaches out to have me as part of their major events. I work a lot with the NBA, especially when it comes to All-Star. This is my 11th consecutive All-Star. I think when it comes to the NBA, though, they actually recognize and appreciate my contribution to in-game entertainment. When I started in the 1999-2000 season [with the Heat], there hadn't been an official DJ for any team. No team had gone into that realm before -- not just the NBA, but the NFL, Major League Baseball.
I remember when we finished the first season [with the Heat], they had this meeting called "Best Practices." It's where all the marketing departments come together in one place and they kind of present the best things that they do in their home arena. I remember that year they took tape of my performances and was, "Hey, this is our best practice." And it caused such a stir because no one had ever done it before, and everybody wanted to do it. It's caught on big-time. It's actually like commonplace now for so many teams. Some teams have two or three DJs, or guest DJs.
When you started with the Heat, did that spark your All-Star involvement? How did that happen?
The All-Star stuff started about at the same time. Felisa Israel, she's no longer with the league now, but at the time, she handled its entertainment. She was in Miami at a game -- at the time, I was still the only DJ in the league -- and she saw me do my thing, and she literally came up to me and she's like, "You're going to be at All-Star this year." Just like that. And the next day she called the [Heat's] game operations director and she's like, "Tell Irie to keep these dates open." It was in Atlanta, and it was horrible. All-Star was great, but I never imagined this: Jam Session hours were from like 9 a.m., 10 a.m. to like 10 o'clock at night.
Nowadays, there are shifts, so I'll come in and I'll do two hours here, do an hour there. In Atlanta, the schedule was Wednesday, DJ Irie, Thursday, DJ Ire, Friday, DJ Irie, 9 a.m. to 10 o'clock at night. There was no lunch break, there was no nothing. I did every day, every shift for five days. It was horrible. I wrote an email to Felicia. I was like, "Thank you so much for the opportunity, I really appreciate it, but it might be a good idea to maybe have another DJ or two." I had also already booked clubs, too, so I was really working from like 9 a.m. to 4 o'clock in the morning. But every year got better.
Give me a top All-Star party memory.
Man, let's see, there are so many. Probably in LA [in 2011], I did the Players' Association party, and that was pretty cool. I guess some groupies had snuck in the back. There was a particular player who was actually a starter [in the All-Star Game] -- not from Miami, though. I was just walking around and these three girls came around and just straight up jumped him like, "You're coming with us right now." I don't know if they were trying to kidnap him or what. Security had to like grab them. It was crazy. That was pretty wild to see security react so quick, especially for some girls. They put them in a headlock. It was crazy, crazy. Another time, I DJed for Jamie Foxx's [All-Star] performance in Houston in '06. That was pretty cool.
Take me back to when you first started with the Heat. Miami obviously has South Beach and the entertainment vibe. Were those some of the factors behind you coming on as the Heat DJ?
They were. Miami was very cutting-edge. I think it was a combination of a couple things. When the organization moved from the Miami Arena to the American Airlines Arena, it was obviously a big deal for the city, a big deal for the team. The folks in the marketing community were like, "You know what? We're in this brand-new, state-of-the-art facility and we need to do things in terms of our presentation and our entertainment to bring it up a notch to kind of match the intensity of this new facility. We want people to come in to the American Airlines Arena and get a completely different experience than what they had at the Miami Arena." So that's where the whole thought process started of what can we add, what can we do that hasn't been done. That's when the idea of having an official DJ came on board.
I actually told them thanks, but no thanks. This was in the summer of ’99. I didn't think it was the right fit for me at the time because I was busy doing 99 Jamz -- I had the No. 1 mix show on [South Florida] radio -- I was doing five, six nights a week at clubs with hip-hop. So when I went to the meeting and I was talking to them, and I got to understand who their season-ticket holders were -- I was about to go down a whole different lane with different music -- I'm like, "That's not what I'm doing right now." Thank god they're a persistent bunch over there. They called me back and I ended up talking to them again. That's when I asked them, "What are the other teams doing?" That's when I realized that no one had ever done this before. So I was like, "If I do this, I'll be the first ever?" I was like, "Damn, these people want to give me the keys to the Ferrari." At the end of the season, they did fan evaluations and overwhelmingly were like, "Oh my gosh, we love the DJ."
Was there ever any negative feedback from coaches? I've always wondered if certain coaches don't like how in-game music has made their play-calling more difficult to deliver because of the extra loudness.
I'll tell you this, and it never got to me, but I heard it straight from the horse's mouth years later, and this is probably one of the most humbling moments of my career. I remember I was out of town somewhere and I got a phone call. To make a long story short, it was coach [Pat] Riley, and this is when he was being inducted into the Hall of Fame [in 2008], and he asked me to do his Hall of Fame party. First of all, I'm the biggest Pat Riley fan. The man's a genius. Pat Riley is the man. I love him to death. And we had built a rapport -- I did his daughter's birthday and have done stuff at their house for them.
We're actually in Springfield and doing the party. Coach comes over to me and he's like, "DJ, come here, I want to tell you something." And I'm like, "OK, coach." And he says to me, "You know what? When you first got here, I didn't get it. This guy is loud. He's doing all this crazy stuff. But I'm really happy to tell you now that I get it. And not only do I get it, but I see what you do night in and night out, and I see how the fans react to what you do, and it's probably one of the most amazing things." This is Pat Riley talking. I was like, "Wow, that's powerful."
That definitely says a lot. I even heard the Heat fitted you with their two championship rings.
This is my 12th season with the Heat, and I feel like it's not just a workplace, but it's a family. I feel like I have a really, really special place in this family. The things that they do, they really make you feel included, they make you feel appreciated. I have other [DJ] friends that work with teams that won championships and they don't have a ring. My buddy who DJs for the Mavericks just got one from 2011.
How has your personal business branched out since being with the Heat?
The Heat has been a tremendous medium for me to expand my brand and relationships. Obviously the preeminent opportunity has been relationships with the players. Obviously they see me day in and day out at the game. I'm conversing with their family. The next thing you know it's, "Hey, it's so and so's birthday" or "Hey, we're going to get married" or "We're having an event for our foundation." I'm always there to help them out. It's really humbling for me because these guys can have access to anybody. I don't consider myself to be the biggest or best DJ in the world. But they're like, "We want you." I did Chris Bosh's wedding. Udonis [Haslem] is getting married soon and I'm doing that. It really goes back to that family, and this is through generations of players. I mean, I do all of Shaq's stuff. I still do anything that Alonzo's [Mourning] having.
It's also really elevated my corporate visibility. For instance, it was like my second year that I started with the Heat, and Microsoft was having like their global sales meeting in Miami, and they took over the entire arena. The event producers were there and they came to a game just to kind of see how the arena works when it's at full capacity, and they're taking notes. They're like, "Wait a minute, we need your DJ." The next thing you know, I'm in a dressing room with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer going over how we're going to do the intro [for their meeting]. I'm like, "This is kind of crazy."
You're up close to LeBron almost every day. How incredible is it what he's doing on the court right now?
I mean, he's out of control. You know what's funny? Obviously people sit back and see "The Decision," and they obviously don't know him. But the dude is one of the coolest guys you'll ever meet. I do this event in Miami called "Irie Weekend," and when we lost to the Mavericks [in 2011], obviously our spirits are broken. We lost at home. I remember LeBron broke out and went to Ohio to go be with his friends and family and all that. I was talking to Eddie Jackson -- he's actually the guy that kind of like raised LeBron when his dad wasn't around. He's a really cool dude.
This was Friday night of my weekend. I do a big party at LIV. I had Flo Rida performing and Eddie hits me and he's like, "Yo, you doing anything tonight?" I'm like, "Yeah." He's like, "Bron was asking me. He's still in Ohio." This is about six o'clock at night. He's like, "I doubt he'll be able to make it. He's still in Ohio right now." Next thing you know, it's about two o'clock in the morning and I'm just about to bring up Flo and guess who taps me on my shoulder in the DJ booth? Bron. And he's like, "Yo, I got the plane to come back tonight. I had to come support you." I was like, "Are you kidding me?" That just really made my night. That was really, really cool.
LeBron will be like, "Yo, play some 2 Chainz." He loves 2 Chainz, he loves T.I., obviously Jay-Z. Honestly, LeBron will actually school me on stuff because there are songs he'll ask for and I'll be like, "Where did you get this from? That's dope." I think he just like scours the net. I don't know what he does, but he's up on stuff like first. There are a lot of times where he'll find a song before I even know about it.
Has a player ever come to you and said, "I feel more motivated playing when I hear your music?" For example, they find themselves pushing the ball faster or getting after it more on D.
They won't explain it to that extent. Probably the player and song that best correlates with that statement is Alonzo Mourning and James Brown's "Payback." Here's what would happen, and this happened when Alonzo was still playing, of course: Any time we would lose to a team at home and that team would come back, Alonzo would walk up to the booth and he's like, "Yo, you know what to do, right?" I'm like, "Yep." As soon as he comes out of the tunnel for shootaround, he wants to hear James Brown's "Payback." It's in his head. He's like, "It's payback time. We can't let these guys beat us twice." Nine out of 10, they would win.
Have you ever been told you can't play something?
I'll be honest with you, out of the 12 seasons that I've been there, there's only one song that we were ever asked not to play that I could remember. And that was Soulja Boy "Crank That (Soulja Boy)." Obviously when you hear the song, there are no curse words or whatever, but the league said "Superman that ... " had a bad meaning behind it.
Being that you were on the forefront of in-game music, how do you think it will evolve?
You know what? I've been thinking about that. It really has evolved so much. Right now, I have songs that are customized for the Heat, from LMFAO to Pitbull to Rick Ross -- all the usual Miami suspects. I think there will be more of that, but it's funny how just music has evolved in general. When I first got there, I was playing like a lot of rock. There was a lot of rock songs that were kind of like anthem-y still, and it was great. Now, I don't think I play any. There's just really nothing out there that really fits the atmosphere. Also, the players aren't listening to them. Now, it's so much different.
I think we'll see more artists doing a lot more things for their team. I mean, [Lil] Wayne's done stuff for Kobe [Bryant] and the Lakers, and for the Packers and all that. Not only that, too, a lot of the players want to be artists as well. It will be cool if they do it with artists, so it would be like Wayne and Rick Ross doing something with a player. Actually, it hasn't been released yet, but I know Carlos Boozer did some stuff with Twista in Chicago.