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Sir Foster brings a heavy dose of hip-hop to Hawks games

Organist is a crowd pleaser in the ATL and beyond

Organists at sporting events typically fire up the crowd by playing “Charge,” “Defense,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” “We Will Rock You” and “Funiculi Funicula.”

Then there is Atlanta Hawks organist Sir Foster, who gets the crowd “turnt up” by playing trap music such as “Mask Off” by Future, “T-Shirt” by Migos, “Portland” by Drake and “Tunnel Vision” by Kodak Black.

“I start playing a song as soon as I like it,” Foster recently told The Undefeated. “I used to try to look at the most popular songs and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to make sure I play something that people know.’ Now I don’t think that way. Now I hear a song, and the way music moves now is so fast, next month it is old. We want what came out yesterday. We want what came out today. I don’t even wait for the song to become popular.

“If I hear it and I like it and I think this is going to be a hit, then I will start playing it. I notice people will start tweeting me about two or three weeks later and they’re like, ‘Yo, he’s been playing that, ‘Mask Off,’ ‘ Future. The first time I heard it I was like, ‘Yo, this song is hot.’ When it started playing on the radio, people knew it immediately.”

The ancient Greeks performed music at sporting events, including the Olympics. Ballpark music performed by an organist debuted at Chicago Cubs games at Wrigley Field in 1941. While the Hawks, Los Angeles Lakers, Washington Wizards and New York Knicks are holding on to their organists, most NBA teams have done away with keyboard specialists and replaced them with DJs.

Foster, bored with the normal organ music at sporting events, brought life to that world by playing hip-hop when the Hawks hired him in 2009.

“That has always been who I am,” Foster said.

Foster first showed his music potential at 6 months old when he touched a key on his grandmother’s piano and sang the note. The Fort Valley, Georgia, native began taking piano lessons at church on Saturdays when he was nearly 7 years old. He learned how to play the saxophone in middle school and performed at talent shows, weddings and parties. He wrote arrangements and played the tuba for his high school band. He also played the organ at Shiloh Baptist Church in his hometown.

Foster first started playing hip-hop on an organ in high school.

“Even in the talent shows in high school, I always played the songs off the radio,” Foster said. “My friends would laugh at me because teachers would say, ‘Foster, you did a good job. It sounds good.’ But they didn’t know what I was playing. My friends would say, ‘Yo, they didn’t know that you were playing Trick Daddy.’ That’s just always been who I am. Now I just do it on a larger scale.”

In 2009, Foster was perusing Craigslist when he saw an ad that caught his eye after moving to Atlanta. Wanted: Organist for the Atlanta Hawks.

Foster sent in the needed questionnaire and resume. He aced the interview, in which he was asked what kind of pop and rap songs he would play as organist. The Hawks brought him in to try out at a preseason game. Therein lay a challenge, however, as Foster had never played the organ at a sporting event and didn’t have music prepared to play.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Foster said. “I didn’t know what the difference between an offensive song and a defensive song. So when I played one, I played the wrong thing. It was bad. Then this guy said, ‘Foster, play a groove for me.’ So I played Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face.’ And I remember this guy said over the headset, ‘I like this guy. We should keep him.’ ”

And the Hawks did.

Playing hip-hop on the organ certainly was out of the ordinary at sporting events and had the potential for resistance from the crowd. Foster, however, believes that playing at Hawks games in Atlanta — where the likes of OutKast, T.I., Future, Ludacris, Young Jeezy, Lil Jon, Jermaine Dupri, CeeLo Green, Left Eye and many other popular rappers hail from — made his music quickly accepted and appreciated. And if he sees a music artist at a Hawks game, don’t be surprised if he starts playing some of the artist’s songs.

“Atlanta is a little different. I think everyone is listening to rap in Atlanta. I’ve had 50-year-olds come up to me and ask me for Future. That kind of told me that I’m not just playing to one particular crowd. Everyone is well aware with what is going on,” Foster said.

Aiding Foster’s popularity is that hip-hop is the music choice of NBA players in a league that is about 75 percent black.

Foster said former Hawks forward Josh Smith once yelled to him in appreciation for the rap he played pregame. Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala once thanked him for playing “All Right” by Kendrick Lamar. Former Hawks assistant coach Nick Van Exel, now an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies, always asks Foster to play Snoop Dogg. Foster added that every Hawks player during his tenure has been positive.

“Sir Foster is a special talent,” Hawks guard Kent Bazemore said. “I haven’t heard a song that he can’t play. He’s definitely an asset to the fan experience.”

Although Foster favors hip-hop, he doesn’t discriminate against other genres. He occasionally plays one of his original songs, “Turn This Up,” on the organ at Hawks games.

“I try to play everything,” Foster said. “The goal for me is to play the music I like listening to. It could be everything from Future to Chain Smokers. I play Justin Bieber, Calvin Harris, Martin Garrix. It’s a heavy dose of hip-hop. I want it to feel like Atlanta. If there is a music that defines Atlanta, it’s hip-hop. So I play a heavy dose of that.”

Foster has played in an NBA preseason game in London and played the organ and DJed at the French LNB Pro A basketball league’s All-Star weekend. His biggest honor has been playing the organ during the NBA All-Star Game in 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Foster said he believed the basketball world noticed him when ESPN sports personality Bomani Jones reached out to him on Twitter during the 2014 NBA All-Star Game.

“That was the first time I ever did something on that scale,” Foster said. “I’ve done TV before, but the All-Star Game was the biggest thing the NBA does. My phone was blowing up the whole time. It was flashing the whole time, but I was so locked in that I wasn’t worried about it.

“After a little while it started occurring to me that it was my phone going off. I realized that Bomani Jones had tweeted me. And then I was like, this is different. People are listening. He asked me to play ‘Whistle While You Twerk.’ So I did it. After that, I was on his show and I was in magazines. It was life-changing. That was the first thing that happened to me that was really life-changing. People in the entertainment world say, ‘Yo, we see what you’re doing in Atlanta.’ I didn’t know that people in entertainment were watching this.”

Foster has learned about music from Hawks fans, who request songs on social media during games.

“When you open yourself up to thousands and thousands of requests, you’re going to get stuff you don’t know about,” Foster said. “There have been times it helped me because fans have put me on to a song. The first time I heard Bobby Shmurda, it was a fan request. They were saying, ‘Play the Shmoney Dance.’ I had to find out what it was. It was two weeks before it really blew up. They were putting me on it.”

Outside of the arena, Foster said, everything he does is based around music. He plays the saxophone on Def Jam artist Brenda Mada’s song “House Party,” was on CNN International last month and also was on Adult Swim. He finds time to practice daily to keep improving and honing his craft.

“It’s been huge. It has given me a whole different avenue,” said Foster, who said he is in his 30s. “I wanted to come to Atlanta and make it as a little musician. This has given me a whole new perspective to look at that from. It’s opened doors I never would have thought about. I’ve been overseas because of it. People have heard me on social media or on a game and inbox me, ‘Hey, we want you to come here and do stuff.’

“I don’t know what I would have done without this. I definitely owe a lot to the Hawks for taking a chance on me and allowing me to be myself.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.