The Arrowhead Stadium crowd didn’t quite know how to react when Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman forced a fumble during the Christmas night showdown against the Denver Broncos. What was that?
But in a split second, a DJ in a control room high above the field knew just what to do: He cued up “Give It Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and thousands of Chiefs fans erupted with cheers and chants.
Giveitaway, giveitaway, giveitaway now.
Playing the right song at the right time is as satisfying as a touchdown for DJ Bobby Keys, the man who mixes the soundtrack at the world’s loudest stadium.
But his talents just might extend beyond his playlists. Keys, of Lee’s Summit, started his stadium DJ career across the parking lot at Kauffman Stadium in late summer 2014. The Royals had been losing, so he thought the gig would last only a month.
“Coincidentally enough, when I took over, we started winning,” Keys says. The Royals made it to the World Series for the first time since 1985. Keys was invited back in 2015, and the Royals became champions.
In 2016, Keys got the DJ job at Arrowhead as well. The Chiefs won the AFC West division for the first time since 2010 and on Sunday will host their first home playoff game in six years. Coincidence? Maybe not.
The DJ is a lot like a conductor — and every throw, catch, hit and screaming fan is part of his symphony.
When the energy lags, Keys delivers a jolt with AC/DC’s classic rock anthem “Thunderstruck” or a rap track such as “We Dem Boyz” by Wiz Khalifa. When the visiting team is on a roll, he’ll play something soft and mellow to throw off the players. Think George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.”
Appropriately enough, considering his name, Keys, 43, has always loved all kinds of music. When he was growing up in Blue Springs, classic rock was everywhere. His mom loved soul singers Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson.
His childhood was rocky at times, but Keys found peace playing songs.
“Music was always my sanctity,” he says. “After swim practice I would come home and start playing my trumpet. My mom told me she could hear me start to relax when I started playing.”
Keys played football in high school, but swimming was his specialty. Like Michael Phelps, he used music to get in the zone before meets: Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest.
While attending the former Southwest Missouri State University, Keys worked as a nightclub DJ to help pay for classes. But the job paid better than he expected, and when a nightclub management company offered Keys a job opening clubs across the Midwest, he couldn’t refuse.
After a couple of years, Keys returned to Kansas City. He worked in radio and local theater before getting a job with a local creative agency. He continued his club gigs on top of the weekday marketing job until about five years ago, when he gave up DJing so he could focus on building his own production company, Bobby Keys Media.
But in the late summer of 2014, Keys was offered another DJ gig that he couldn’t refuse. The Royals needed a new music director, and Don Costante, the team’s senior director of event presentation and production, had heard good things about Keys.
The next season, he got to know the players.
“Everybody has their flavor that they get into,” Keys says. “My job is to find out what they like and what sparks them.”
Backup catcher Drew Butera always bobbed his head to “Informer,” the 1993 reggae hit by Snow. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain’s obsession with Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” was unstoppable. The whole team loved Phil Collins’ ominous “In the Air Tonight.”
When Keys took the Chiefs job, he switched his style to match football’s faster pace and younger demographic.
“There’s more of a contemporary feel with football,” he says. “You play a little bit more hip-hop.”
At Royals games, Keys plays power songs as players walk up to the plate.
“I can’t do that on offense in football because then our quarterback can’t hear,” he says. When the home team is on defense, he plays loud, fast rock music to get the crowd and the Chiefs amped up.
“We want everybody screaming and drowning out (the other team’s) quarterback,” Keys says.
Music drives the whole mood of the game, says Brad Young, the Chiefs’ senior producer of game and event entertainment.
“It’s one of the most important things when it comes to watching a TV show, a movie — anything,” Young says. “Just imagine watching ‘Game of Thrones,’ but instead of ‘Game of Thrones’ music you put on Bruno Mars. Bruno is great, but that completely changes it.”
Young says football game presentations are scripted down to the second. The control room where he and Keys work is responsible for timing out every flyover, break, sponsor announcement and pyro explosion. The script for Sunday’s game is 41 pages long, and Keys has to know it backwards to nail every cue.
That’s why DJing an NFL game is nothing like DJing a wedding, Young says.
“You’ve got to understand the crowd, the pace and flow of the game,” Young says. “You don’t want to jump into things late or early — otherwise it kills the moment.”
Keys treats DJing games like playing a video game. His headset allows him to listen to his music in one ear and the voices of his production team in the other. If he doesn’t push the right button at the right time, game over.
“A lot of people can’t handle it,” Keys says.
And in a stadium that seats thousands, it’s hard to please everyone. Some fans hate country. Or rap.
At the K last spring, Keys played Lenny Kravitz’s version of the Guess Who’s “American Woman” while Mets starter Noah Syndergaard warmed up on the pitcher’s mound. Syndergaard, who’s known for his long blond locks, said after the game that he thought it was funny. But many news outlets called foul and accused the Royals of being sexist.
Keys says that wasn’t his intention.
“Lenny Kravitz is my all-time favorite rocker,” he says. “I love this dude, and I just happened to play the song.”
Some Chiefs fans are still warming up to the team’s new touchdown song. The team used Gary Glitter’s “Rock ’N’ Roll Part 2” until 2015, when Glitter was convicted and imprisoned for sexually abusing three young girls between 1975 and 1980.
Fans argued that although Glitter was evil, the song was not — but the Chiefs and the NFL ditched the song anyway. In 2015, the Chiefs adopted the touchdown song “Hey, Kansas City!” by David George and a Crooked Mile. But after he took over, Keys started playing “Let Me Clear My Throat” every time the home team scored.
For Keys, there’s nothing like pressing play and hearing thousands of people clap and jump until the whole stadium shakes to the beat. People from all walks of life connect in a moment of pure joy.
“They get louder than our sound system,” he says. “It’s pretty cool.”
Bobby Keys, music director for Chiefs games at Arrowhead Stadium, will take song requests via Twitter during Sunday’s division playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Send requests to @DJBobbyKeys.