Jarrod’s Blog: The Danger of Instrumentals

Jarrod’s Blog:  The Danger of Instrumentals

Reports are coming out of Chicago that the Cubs DJ played an instrumental version of a potentially volatile song that relates to recent transgressions by one of its players and it brings to light not only what Aroldis Chapman did away from the field, but also something that’s been popular among sports DJs for many

Reports are coming out of Chicago that the Cubs DJ played an instrumental version of a potentially volatile song that relates to recent transgressions by one of its players and it brings to light not only what Aroldis Chapman did away from the field, but also something that’s been popular among sports DJs for many years, the use of instrumentals.

Watch an NBA game, you’ll hear instrumental versions of some of the most popular rap, hip hop and R&B songs.  Most know the songs and that there are lyrics to those songs, but the instrumental affords you the opportunity to play the song without playing the lyrics.  I did just this at the NCAA Division-III basketball championship last year when a school asked to have a song played for their pump video that contained questionable lyrics all the way through the song.  It’s not just the use of the “seven dirty words you can never say on television (NSFW)“, it is the content of the lyrics too.

Popular songs over the last few years have lyrics that talk about drugs & drug use, murder, rape and more.  Those lyrics aren’t always removed from radio edits of songs which is why we, as sports DJs know we must listen to every song that goes into our system.  There have been instances of a DJ relieved of his/her duties when playing a song requested by a player.  Unfortunately, the explicit version of the song was played.

Just over four year’s ago Daytona Cubs Derek Dye was thrown out of a Florida State League game for playing the instrumental version of “Three Blind Mice”.  Minor League Baseball does have a do not play list and this is on it, so the music person did cross the line.  However, the sound program being used did supply that organ sound, so it was a case of an intern getting a little too cute with the music.

Personally, I have a 48-hour buffer with music when it comes from the high schools and youth organizations.  No way am I going to play something that isn’t proper and lose a job I love.  Toeing the line on occasion with what I knew, yes; identifying that line can be difficult to define because each situation is different.  This is part of the reason why instrumentals became so popular.

Many a less-experienced sports DJ has asked the question, “How do I play what the players want without having to edit the entire song?”  The answer has been to find the instrumental version and use that.  Most of the time, you’re going to be fine playing the instrumental because the song’s title isn’t over the line, though with all rules there are going to be exceptions.

In the case above, Chapman was suspended earlier this season for 30 games for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy while a member of the New York Yankees because of what he did while with the Cincinnati Reds.  The article linked above also includes links to further talk about what happened, but says Chapman reportedly choked his girlfriend and fired a gun in his garage.  With professional athletes in other sports mistreating their spouse, this is a hot topic these days and rightly so.  There is no need to choke your spouse unless it is in self-defense and that would be an extremely extreme situation.

Some have reported the instrumental version of the song was played.  People knowing the song, also associate the title immediately.  My dad wouldn’t have gotten the reference, but The Prodigy is popular among one of the Cubs target demographics of young professionals, that it’s going to go viral quickly.  Even though the song is instrumental, the meaning still comes through.  This is where the Cubs DJ made the fatal mistake if the instrumental version was indeed played.  This does not mean we should avoid instrumental tracks, it means we’ve been given a wake-up call to pay closer attention to what we are playing and what it means.

Many have voiced their opinion on the matter, calling the Cubs hypocrites for firing the DJ while keeping Chapman on the roster.  I have my own feelings on spouse abuse, as do many others.  This is not the forum to talk about them or what I feel should be done, my wife and I talk about this topic quite a bit and we prefer to keep it among ourselves but feel that it is in line with the majority.  What we, as sports DJs and game operations personnel, can learn from this situation, is to make sure you know the whole situation and not just rely on instrumentals.

First, be wary of anything that could be detrimental to your own team.  When I was DJing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998, we had a steadfast rule of not playing “Addams Family”.  It was not in our system, our organist didn’t play it, and it was well known that we were not to play it because of a reference to one of our players’ past.  Understood, but that’s nothing close to what we saw in Chicago last weekend.

What we saw in that case, was a song by The Prodigy called “Smack My B**** Up”.  The song, like others from The Prodigy, has a great baseline and you can use it for many different situations.  “Firestarter” is another popular song used in professional sports that you may have heard.  However, those who know music know the difference between the two songs, and though they sound familiar.  The lyrics of the song that repeat throughout, “Change my pitch up, smack my b**** up.”  Ok, so it mentions pitching, however you really need to think before putting this out there.  Honestly, we can see a mistake could be made here, however even if it was a loop of the lyrics with “b****” being edited out, but it’s still crossing the line.

Second, be wary of current events that song references could cause some issues.  When the Paris attacks happened, it was a fluid story on the same night I was to DJ an NHL game.  Even before our production meeting, it was going through my head, “what do we have that I cannot play”.  The game director and I had a conversation that confirmed we were in agreement with each other that we had to avoid songs that had a theme of war, violence, or anything that could be tied to what had happened.  We had some Eagles of Death Metal in the system.

While the tweet below went out, we did our best to find a few songs that sent a nod to France though we still had yet to comprehend all that was happening. 

With apps like Shazam and social media quick to ignite over anything that happens, you need to be careful as to what is played and what context it could have.  While the baseline to the song is upbeat and the type of thing that gets you moving, people still know the name of the song just by the music that’s played.  Think of Genuwine’s “Pony”, 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”, Van Halen’s “Jump”, even Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk”.  You know these songs before you hear a word sung.

There are so many songs that are suitable for a strikeout to end the inning, that it’s ok to reject a few here or there.  Ultimately, it’s on the DJ who loads the music because most DJs are entrusted to screen the music before it goes into the system or rotation.

There are times that athletes ask for songs to be played for warm-up, or walk-up, or any other situations, and sometimes they want it now.  It happened many times when I was working in Minor League Baseball.  One team, I put DVD cases in each player’s locker with a note that asked them for their music choices and to provide the CD.  There were some who asked for music that had questionable lyrics that I had to work around.  One of those songs that comes to mind is Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness”.  There’s a good chance you’ve heard this song at a sports event, however the original version contains many expletives that can’t be played.  This particular player noted the start and end time of the clip he wanted which avoided all profanity.  We could play it.  And if you know the song, you know the parts of the song that are inappropriate.  However the song didn’t talk about spouse abuse and the player it was used for didn’t have a history of spouse abuse.

Being a sports DJ isn’t as simple as being the DJ at a club, or being a wedding DJ, or being a mobile DJ in general, all things I have done.  At a bar or club, I can play unedited versions, at weddings I have to ask questions and know the crowd–or do my research, as a mobile DJ you need to read the crowd.  A sports DJ, I’ve said many times, is more difficult because you have thousands of fans from all backgrounds who have their own tastes and you need to find just the right combination of songs to keep them happy and entertained, while something completely out of your control also affects their moods.

“It’s a lot easier to DJ a wedding than a sports event.  At a wedding, I don’t have to worry about someone intercepting the cake and running it back 80 yards for a reception-ending touchdown.  I also don’t have to worry about an officiant making a bad call and sending the best man to the penalty box forcing the groom to pull his ring bearer and bring in someone out of the audience to stand next to him.”

I have this one down, and it brings laughter from prospective wedding couples when the comparison of what it’s like to DJ a sports event, versus working with them to create an amazing wedding day for them and their guests is made.

That all said, I have played songs at weddings that you wouldn’t hear at a sports event.  These are the songs that you may blare in the privacy of your own headphones or maybe in your car when your significant other and young kids aren’t around.  These receptions had people 21 and over, with the blessing of the couple who were the ones who chose the songs.

While there has always been a history of home teams playing something to get the goat of someone on the visiting team in a show of gamesmanship, there’s always been unspoken rules.  However, the visiting team is the visiting team and most of the time it becomes no holds barred.  What we don’t hear in these situations are the ideas that were vetoed, and anyone who has been part of a game operations staff, or has worked in professional sports can tell you, there is a gigantic graveyard of ideas that never came to fruition for one reason or another.

When I was working in St. Petersburg in 2000, Earl Snyder was playing against us with St. Lucie and the Dixie Chicks (leave politics aside please) were at the top of the charts with “Goodbye Earl”.  Every time Snyder made an out, we played this.  Every time.  Snyder was not happy after the series was over.  This led to growing the idea of playing songs for visiting players.  Click the link below for more on that.

SportsAnnouncing.com:  Playing Music For The Visiting Team

Thought the list highlights a lot of what I did in Minor League Baseball, some of the funnier moments came to the chagrin of the wonderful athletes of National Pro Fastpitch.  Our coaching staff, owner, fans and reportedly other team’s players absolutely loved to play in Washington.  We treated it like a professional sporting event and the visiting team was fair game.  Eileen Canney was a great pitcher in the league and when the Glory would get a rally going, we’d play, “Come On Eileen”.  Radara McHugh was the top pitcher for another team in the league and warmed up to “Barbie Girl”, which we used when we had a rally going against her.  Since we played music after all base hits, it was known there would be music, but to have a little fun with the players that way to throw them off their game was part of the show.

In the above, we were using music that was what the players had chosen, however we turned it against them.  We didn’t play music, or instrumentals, that were derogatory toward women.  The athletes were referred to as athletes, announced as athletes, and treated like athletes, the home team got the benefit of the doubt and we were all trying to promote a family-friendly environment.  Playing songs that were upbeat and promoted a positive environment was important.

There are songs however that just the title of the song should discount the song from being played to avoid situations like what happened in Chicago.  Playing the instrumental of “Cop Killer” makes a nice bed of music, however what it is linked to is a definite no-no especially with recent events that have happened in the United States.  An example of an instrumental that shouldn’t be played in which the title seems tame is M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” which has a series of gun shots in the chorus.  This is included on most instrumental tracks.

What’s happened in Chicago is a learning experience on a much larger scale than playing the wrong backing track the San Diego Padres DJ did earlier this year.  That situation was an honest mistake and this one could have been as well.  However, we still need to play attention to what we play and when we play it.  We know this as a whole, we know this as individuals, and we need to make sure we don’t get lax in our ways or we may use a job that we love.

Jarrod Wronski

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