On the projector screen behind me, Peyton Manning’s mouth twists in puzzled defeat. To my right, DJ Justin Thomas begins to scream. Around us, a roomful of our fellow citizens follows suit, wildly embracing each other, weeping, throwing their hands in the air. My finger rests on the button as the final seconds tick away. Then I press “play” and, for the first time in the history of New Orleans, “We are the Champions” issues forth with complete justification.
The Saints’ Super Bowl victory in 2010 didn’t erase every problem, division, or mystery accumulated over the city’s 300-year existence. Instead, like a beautiful baby born into a dysfunctional family, the championship was something we could all agree on and celebrate. Four years after Katrina, we held up the Lombardi Trophy, a gleaming middle finger to the loudmouths who doubted our persistence on this postage stamp of star-crossed swampland. For one night, we were right. We stayed and fought and won. On February 7, 2010, Freddie Mercury was talking about us.
I held down the DJ booth at Handsome Willy’s Patio Bar for every home game of that championship run. A squat, proud island in a sea of tailgate-friendly parking lots, the bar sits at the edge of the Superdome’s shadows, a perfect outpost for fans in need of cold drinks, alligator sausages, and clean toilets. My job was to make sure those fans stayed, danced and came back post-game for more of the same.
As a DJ, your instruments include not just the cross-fader and platters, but also the audience. You push them and shape their movements, speed their heartbeats and encourage their coupling. The relationship is a two-way street: audience response directs your choices and, in many cases, your cash flow.
Superimpose the anticipation, tension, and release of the 2009 season atop this already complicated exchange? That’s a once-in-a-lifetime gig.
The climactic, Queen-accompanied moment was the culmination of five months spent at the intersection of football and music. As the birthplace of improvisation hurtled towards unlikely triumph, new sounds bubbled up from the streets and reached the bar on South Robertson. Week after week, they came to the booth, New Orleanians bearing requests, mixtapes, and thumb drives full of original songs expressing a hope unfettered by the past’s paper bags. The collective output stands as a testament to the ingenuity of a city that expresses itself through music.
By now, everyone knows about the rise of the Ying Yang Twins’ “Halftime (Stand Up & Get Crunk)” as the team’s theme song. I recall a middle-aged woman approaching me before the second game.
“Do you have that crunk song?”
It took me a few minutes to recover, a couple more to locate the song in iTunes, and from then on I played “Halftime (Stand Up & Get Crunk)” approximately every 15 minutes for almost five months. Pre-game, post-game, through the victory parade and into Mardi Gras, that song dropped the full spectrum of asses, conquered the Dome, and eventually crept into my sleep. Adopted despite its Atlanta roots, “Halftime” also served as the bedrock for one of the season’s first locally produced anthems.
In “Black & Gold (Who Dat!!)”, K. Gates substituted the Ying Yang Twins’ pleas for cold syrup with a battle cry featuring second lines and Jeremy Shockey. The result sparked a movement.
“I re-mixed it, mastered it, and pushed it through comps and muscle out to the streets,” K. Gates recalls. “Black & Gold” came out in Week 5 and promptly overtook the original as the go-to track for the fanbase. K. Gates parlayed the momentum into a front seat for history at Super Bowl XLIV. “Me and my manager Laura Zatezalo took a private G5 from Mobile to Miami. We went to the game on the players’ families’ bus, rolled in there 12 deep.”
My copy of the song came from my friend Henry Holmes, who did what thousands of fans did: burned Saints-related CDs for house parties. “Every week, my neighbor, Reginald Horne, and I and my granddaughter, we’d get together and play different songs, and if she passed it, we knew we got something. She’s nine years old.”
The mixes didn’t just stay in his home in Waggaman, either. A nightlife veteran whose brother spun records in the DJ Slick Leo era, Holmes spread the discs around. “We put them into different clubs. The first time they played it was at Bertha’s [at Orleans and Villere]. I said, ‘Play this,’ and it tore the place down. They wouldn’t let me out of the place!”
Faced with ravenous demand for anything Saints-related, a city full of musicians, hustlers, and diehards went to work. Though the team’s success spurred the frenzy, the combination of local hip-hop and gridiron history wasn’t wholly unprecedented.
“Everybody’s following in my footsteps, trying to go the Saints route, but that might be a little harder for other people,” says Baby Boy da Prince.
When the Saints returned from their Katrina exile in 2006, their heart-stopping opener against the Falcons was followed by the now classic “This Is the Way We Live”, a remake of the Marrero MC’s hit “This is the Way I Live.” With its laid-back beat and Baby Boy’s joyful drawl, the track name-checked Tom Benson and exuded a welcome optimism about the Saints’ chances. It was the perfect fight song for a Who Dat Nation in search of confidence amid a landscape of abandoned refrigerators.
In 2009, I’d play the updated version and watch as warm nostalgia spread through the room, the same relieved head-nodding that felt so good in those earlier, desperate days. As Baby Boy can attest, everybody loves that song.
“Blaine Kern is a real good friend of mine,” he says. “He had something at Mardi Gras World after the Super Bowl, and I met Drew Brees. He said his kids liked the song, wanted an autograph and everything. Drew Brees is a really down to earth dude.”
Based on the success of “The Way We Live” and “Black & Gold (Who Dat!),” a hit Saints song became the new brass ring, a chance for artists to right-place-right-time their way to fame. Handsome Willy’s was as close as many would get to the PA at the Dome, so I gave everyone a shot.
One Sunday evening, a man in a white sweat suit and platinum chains cut across a packed post-game dance floor and handed me “Saints Anthem” from 504 Connect. It became a crowd favorite, but I still can’t locate the group aside from a few YouTube videos and a comatose MySpace page.
If you’re out there, 504 Connect, we appreciated that fire.
Not every track stayed in my rotation. Variations on “Who Dat” choruses were expected but never accompanied by a winning hook. I distinctly recall one (now lost) song that ended with a shouted warning: if the Saints were to win the Super Bowl, the National Guard would come back to the city. “New Orleans will be changed for EVER!” The ensuing sound of explosions gave some pause to our title prayers. A Miami-centric remake of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” joined that disaster fantasy in the ashcan of history.
The experience of TEAM MF’N is a case study of the viral phenomenon, as well as the impact the season had on some artists. Producers Hannibal, Darrell Flowers, and Johnny Brasco had initial discussions with Red Bull about a Reggie Bush-related track, but on-field stumbles made the brand wary. “It didn’t help that the Saints lost the last three games of the season,” says Flowers. Undeterred but now unsponsored, the group decided to produce an evergreen anthem that didn’t depend on a single player or season. As the playoffs began, they released “Heart of the City”, and the track took off like a Colston deep route.
“Johnny Brasco called me one night,” Hannibal recalls. “He had some friends who had a radio show on 94.1 FM in Baton Rouge. We were talking until 2:30 in the morning; we’d just finished the song. We sent them that song, must’ve been 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and they played it. In an hour or two we had voicemails and messages like, ‘How can I get it?’ At 7 a.m. we uploaded the video, ended up going to sleep. Woke up at 4 p.m. We had a message from YouTube that so many people had watched the video that their counter couldn’t keep track of it. When it froze, it was getting 5 to 10,000 hits a day.”
“That was the best moment in my life,” says MF’N’s Big Shott, who’d relocated to Texas after the storm but returned for the championship game. “We performed at Lucy’s. I would say about 1,200 people out there. We performed it before the game, during halftime, and right when we won. Every single time, the crowd went crazy. I felt like a superstar. Like, ‘This is where I’m from; this is my home.’ Indescribable.”
The group plans to put out another Saints-related track this year and they won’t be alone. Rumors swirl that K. Gates will put out a new “Black & Gold,” perhaps with a certain Andrews brother. “Tell Trombone to holla,” he says.
The Saints of Jimmy Graham, Mark Ingram, and Darren Sproles may yet demand a batch of retrofitted classics or fresh cut anthems. I continue to occupy that booth every Sunday and will welcome the bounty. A great thing about winning the Super Bowl is its permanence, the flash of memory when we really won that thing dawns on you all over again. The songs of 2009 remain as time capsules from a period when football was not merely football, but a weekly gamble with our collective resolve. As a city, New Orleans responded to that risk by playing music. Like Baby Boy said, this is the way we live.