Former San Antonio Spur Matt Bonner’s love for music — especially underground hip-hop and indie rock — isn’t exactly a secret.
This summer, Trinity University’s KRTU-FM hit up the Red Rocket to talk music and featured a playlist curated by the former basketball star. Bonner, who played power forward for the Spurs from 2006-2016, has also popped up at local venues, catching touring acts like underground rap pioneer Sage Francis and Aussie hard-rockers Wolfmother.
When news broke that Bonner would be headlining San Antonio’s official New Year’s Eve party to do a DJ set under the moniker DJ Red Mamba — a handle given to him by fellow NBAer Kobe Bryant — we wanted to know more about his transformation into this new persona.
How do you feel about performing on New Year’s Eve?
I am beyond excited. I have tremendous respect for DJing as an artform, and I’ve talked to several DJs. I talk to DJ Hella Yella at the Austin Spurs games, he DJs there. I talked to a couple of the DJs at the Spurs games just for help and pointers — what equipment to use, like, everything. I’ve only DJed— DJ Red Mamba has only DJed two previous times. Both times, I used some rudimentary software on my iPad, so I needed to start from scratch. That’s not going to cut it for this big of a stage, because I need to put together a show.
So, I went to these other DJs. I was kind of worried that they were going to be like, “Who is this amateur?” Or that I would be making a mockery of the art form. But it wasn’t the case at all. They were super supportive — pumping me and giving me confidence, telling me to keep practicing, don’t worry and that I’d be fine. So, I really appreciate what the DJ community has done thus far.
Obviously, becoming a professional athlete is a goal anyone in sports could hope to achieve. What does success look like for you as a DJ? And are you trying to take it as far as you did with your career with the Spurs?
I’m looking at success the same way I approached basketball, which is two things: work hard in your preparation and do your best, and the rest will take care of itself. You know, I can’t turn myself into a master DJ in one night, but I could come up with a plan to put on a heck of a show, so that everyone has a great time — and in the process continue to improve.
I’m kind of brainwashed in the Spurs way, so it’s a big-picture, embrace-the-process type thing for me, as far as artistically. I mean, DJing, it’s a similar pressure, a similar rush, to when you’re playing basketball — to hit your transitions, to hit your cue points. Everyone’s watching you, you have control over the crowd and the atmosphere. All eyes are on you in that situation — you feel the pressure and it’s a good pressure. The two other times I’ve gotten to DJ on a big stage, when I finished, it felt like I got done playing an NBA basketball game; that type of feeling.
What does failure look like as a DJ?
Failure is [when] you lose the crowd. Especially a large crowd. A big-venue performance should [include music that’s] majority crowd-pleasers.
Like, I’ve seen Rush two times here in San Antonio, and the first time I went to see them, they played all their hits, and it was awesome. Everyone was singing every word, and everyone was having a great time. Everyone heard all the songs they wanted to hear and left happy. We went back a second time, and they played everything off their new album and hardly any of their hits, and everybody left unsatisfied like, “What the heck?” Like, we appreciate the artform, and you’re awesome musicians, but we wanted to hear “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight.” So, I kind of have that memory in the back of my mind.
And I could get up [on stage] and try to impress people and play obscure indie electronic pop dance songs that nobody’s heard, but it’s New Year’s Eve. Thousands of people wanna dance, party and sing along, and I gotta remember that and keep the party moving.
What was some of your favorite music growing up?
So, I would say, before I had any control over the radio, being a kid, one of the earlier songs I can remember really loving was “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. When that opening bass line came on with the synth, I’d put my ear right up to the radio. Also: “Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer.
Embarrassingly enough. And “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul. I remember in third grade, the whole class had to learn the recorder, and I remember playing the little flute/recorder hook part that came on at the end of the song.
That’s awesome, did you get into playing any other instruments?
I have zero musical talent. I tried to play the clarinet in fifth grade. It went horribly. I tried to teach myself the guitar in my early 20s, and it was just a disaster. I learned quickly to stay in my lane.
Later on, what was some of the stuff you got into?
I remember my aunt gave me her old CD player, and I went to the store and got to pick out any album. I got Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin’ [with] “Bust a Move” and “Principal’s office” on it, and it kind of ignited my love for early late ’80s, early ’90s hip-hop. And, if you remember back then, if you bought an album it’d be $15, but you could buy the single for $2.99. I used to buy all the early ’90s one-hit-wonder hip-hop singles.
We had one hip-hop station in all of New England — JAM’N 94.5 out of Boston. And I had a boombox in my room, and I had to get the antenna just right to get the signal strong enough. It was the old-school blank tape, play-record, and when the song came on, halfway through the song you think you finally got it. Then your mom comes in and tells you to pick up your laundry, and it would ruin the recording, because the boombox would pick up any sound that comes up.
I knew you were into different kinds of music, but when I saw you at the Sage Francis show a couple years ago, I didn’t realize that you were into underground rap like that.
Yeah, well Sage and most of those Anticon [label] guys started out in New England, and the first concert I ever went to without my parents — my senior year of high school — a good friend of mine and I drove down to Sage Francis in Providence in 1998.
Is there other underground music, not just hip-hop, that you get down with?
For hip-hop, I really love Buck65 and Edan, and then non-hip-hop, I really got into the indie rock scene in the mid-2000s, right when it first started to explode and go mainstream. Deer Tick, Elbow, the Walkmen and Stars are probably my favorite.
There’s a band called Okkervil River, and the lead singer is from New Hampshire — the same state I’m from — and I was playing for the Toronto Raptors in 2005-6. We had just played Lebron and the Cavs. I was getting dressed after the game in the locker room, and I had a message from my brother. He’s like, “Hey, there’s this band, Okkervil River, the lead singer’s from New Hampshire. They’re playing Lee’s Palace in Toronto. You should go check them out after the game.” So, I got in the taxi and went to Lee’s Palace, which is a legendary music venue in Toronto, and I walked in, and that was my first underground, indie rock experience. I was just blown away by the musicianship, the content of the songs, the scene. The crowd was just so into the music and appreciative of the art form. I was like, “Wait, there’s bands like this that you can’t hear on the radio?” I didn’t know that there was music like this, and I started talking to people at the show, and they were like, “Oh yeah, you gotta check out the Walkmen or Arcade Fire,” which are bands that are now pretty big.
It’s kind of interesting seeing a lot of those underground bands explode into the mainstream. Honestly, though, I really enjoyed coming of age musically in the ’90s. Obviously, I’m biased, but to me the ’90s was the greatest decade, and I was into all of it. I was into grunge, the whole Seattle scene. I loved Rage Against the Machine — still do. I actually have “Renegades of Funk” in my setlist for New Year’s Eve.
So, with the Spurs, were you that guy that was always trying to get your teammates into some weird underground music?
I mean, I had allies along the way, like Brent Barry. He’s actually the one who introduced me to Elbow, and we’d go back and forth a lot. And that’s how you learn about new music that’s not on the radio: you have to find someone whose musical taste you trust and who strongly recommends something, and then you listen to it.
In the second stage of my career with the Spurs, Patty Mills. He’s a music appreciator as well — of all genres.
Did any one of your teammates ever try and get you into some trash pop song?
You know what, no one ever was like, “You know, Matt, you gotta listen to that new Jeezy.” The guys kind of stick to themselves music-wise. Whatever’s playing in the weight room, everyone can hear, so who’s there first — Manu might be blasting Argentinian music or Tony might be playing French rap music, Patty could be playing some reggae or something. You never know what you’re going to get.
Being in San Antonio as long as you have, are they any local performers you notice really representing the city well?
In that regard, I am very lame. I have three kids now and work a lot of nights, and the shows I usually go to have openers that aren’t local — like I saw Smashing Pumpkins and Elton John. But I like Garrett T. Capps, though. I listened to his “Born in San Antone” song. I like him; I like how hard he represents San Antonio. I think that’s really cool. Buttercup’s been representing San Antonio for years.
How about that Smashing Pumpkins show, though?
I thought they were amazing. They far exceeded my expectations. I thought Billy Corgan’s voice was on point. I couldn’t believe it. It was cold as hell too, but they were so professional.
We’re looking forward to you wrecking shop on New Year’s Eve.
Me too, and I’m super appreciative of this opportunity to share some of the music I like — and to be able to be a participator in the art and music scene here in San Antonio instead of just a spectator. It is super exciting to me.
San Antonio’s Official New Year’s Eve Celebration with DJ Red Mamba, The Satisfactions and more
Free, Mon Dec. 31, 6pm, Hemisfair/La Villita/Maverick Plaza, saparksfoundation.org/event/celebrate-sa/
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