Interview: David Kelley talks NBA 2K24’s soundtrack and the 25th anniversary of the NBA 2K franchise

  • Matthew Arcari
  • August 18, 2023
  • Comments Off on Interview: David Kelley talks NBA 2K24’s soundtrack and the 25th anniversary of the NBA 2K franchise

With the release of NBA 2K24 right around the corner, we got the chance to speak with David Kelley, Director of Partnerships and Licensing at 2K about the upcoming NBA 2K24 soundtrack and its various influences and inspirations that also culminate in honouring the 25th anniversary of the NBA 2K franchise itself.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, David. I’m a huge Boston Celtics fan, so I’m always around and about the NBA, and I’m also a huge Hip-Hop fan, so this all correlates with me very strongly. 

Awesome. Great to meet you, Matthew. And yeah, really excited for the opportunity here. Thanks for taking some time.

What goes into putting together and curating an NBA 2K soundtrack and are there any tracks, artists or things in general that you look out for? 

Yeah, absolutely, love talking about this subject! The curation for the NBA 2K soundtrack is really a year-round process. We kind of mean that literally, wherein NBA 2K24 is going to launch on September 8th, and about a week after that, we start work on the next year’s soundtrack for NBA 2K25. Essentially on the curation side of things, myself and the music team at 2K, comprised of two other people, and then the NBA marketing and brands team, kind of all sit-down. We have a few various Slack channels, a few various standing meetings where we go and look at artists that were interested in artists that are creating a buzz not only in like, kinda you know, U.S. Hip-Hop culture.

But around the world, there are things that we should be paying attention to. We use a lot of data from Spotify and other places to kinda see what artists are really hitting or resonating regionally in certain places. So, for example, if we see an artist that has, like a million plays in the greater Houston area, but maybe doesn’t have plays in L.A.  and New York, we know that that’s somebody who’s probably likely about to pop or they’re about to hit a new milestone in their career. So one of the things that’s most important to us is that we are a platform for music discovery. And so that not only means discovering new songs that our community is gonna love and honouring their trust in us to curate that, but also new artists that may become future favourite artists for life that are in there. So we’ve really got an ear and an eye on those kinds of things.

We typically look to do about 200-250 songs in the game a year now at this point, and we update the soundtrack regularly throughout the year. So not only at the start of our seasons in the live service model within the season format but also every Friday we have 3 to 4 to 5 new songs that go live in the game as well. So the curation aspect as you can imagine is kind of always ongoing. Yeah, there’s always usually a theme that we’re trying to hit. The theme may be centred around kind of like our messaging from within the game

This year it is, of course, Hip-Hop’s 50th anniversary. Nicely nestled into that is NBA 2K’s 25th anniversary, and because of that, we are really running with a past, present, and future theme this year. So really a nod to past artists that are just iconic in hip hop past artists that have been iconic on our soundtrack, Jay-Z, DJ Khalid, DJ Mustard, J. Cole, and Travis Scott, but also with the present and the future plays, present looking at who’s kind of established now, and who’s making big music or big noise now. The future play is very much gonna be around a lot of up-and-coming artists or developing artists that we’re excited about, and many of whom we’ve partnered with this year, to exclusively debut music within the game. So you’ll be able to hear those songs within NBA 2K for the first time ever before you hear them on streaming platforms or anywhere else. So that’s kind of the curation effort. Let me know if there are any other questions you have within that for me.

That leads very well into my next question and you can build upon it if you like. It’s more so relating to the 25th anniversary of the NBA 2K franchise and I didn’t even think of the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop, which is fantastic! You mentioned songs and artists, I know a recurring player like Dame Lillard who has featured in previous soundtracks, but is there anything specifically that you’re looking to incorporate into that 25th anniversary? 

Yes, so we’re very much taking a look back through kind of the annals of the 2K soundtrack, really from like 2K6 onwards. We’re reinviting a lot of the artists that participated as executive producers, we’re looking at songs that were standouts to the community then or now. As you can imagine, there’s oftentimes lists that get formed about what everybody’s favourite 2K soundtrack is. So we’ve paid a lot of attention to those specifically throughout this year’s curation, and are really looking to kind of do an homage and almost kind of like a campaign tribute to the soundtracks that have come before this one.

And you’ll see that within our curation not only with the launch list but also with the partners that we’re gonna be bringing on, the label and artists partners and curation partners that we’re gonna be bringing on throughout the year. There will very much be a nod to kind of the past soundtracks that have been enjoyed and really paying attention to how that informs the NBA 2K soundtracks of the future.

Given how important the 25th anniversary is itself, is there anything you believe sets this soundtrack apart from previous soundtracks? 

You know, I do. I think every year we really strive to set each soundtrack apart, whether that’s by kind of paying attention to specific things that are happening within music at that point, or whether that’s paying attention to kind of movements or micro-genres or regions that are putting music out that is just exciting and unheard. So I think this one will very much be set apart; one, because of the past, present, and future themes. But also, again, we really paid a lot of attention to kind of what’s happening in this moment in music in the world, and what’s standing out, and what’s important and what we think should be heard. So, as always, there will be a lot of new artists that we’re sure our community will be hearing for the first time. There will be a lot of artists that people know and are aware of and probably pay a lot of attention to, but that are releasing new music with us, or music that has never been heard before. And then we’ll see a lot of collaborations and features that pop up.

Additionally this year, for the first time ever we have a big partner who are not at liberty to name yet, but who’s also celebrating a very important milestone, an anniversary in their legacy. I can give you a little hint, they are probably the most iconic label in Hip-Hop and they’re celebrating their anniversary as well. So we’re partnering with them, to release music that was specifically written for NBA 2K and for the 25th anniversary with a crop of their developing artists that we’re really excited about. So that will definitely set this soundtrack apart as well as the many other partners we’ll see that come down the road throughout the game of the year.

Finally, in your opinion, what goes into or is essential to crafting a perfect soundtrack, particularly for an NBA 2K game?

Oh, wow! That’s such a good question. You know, it’s so many different kinds of items you have to pay attention to. I think the perfect NBA 2K soundtrack is something that sounds familiar but maybe doesn’t feel so much familiar. It’s something that you know, sounds new and fresh and invigorating. I think that two of the things that we really pay attention to and kind of used as a guide post, I guess, as a north star, as a good soundtrack for NBA 2K has to be future-facing. It’s definitely, very easy now in this day and age to go to Spotify and list the top 100 songs in Hip-Hop, and R&B, and have them all at your fingertips and listen to them all in an afternoon.

So I think our challenge really becomes about, you know, not only working with the artists who are on that list, finding the next artists who are going to be on that list or finding artists that we think, maybe, you know, challenge our community a little bit and get them to think about music in ways that they haven’t before in the game, and how those all relate to basketball culture. And of course, you know we very much lean into the Hip-Hop and R&B kind of rap worlds. But what are those other kinda you know, genres are melting and disappearing, you know, with every day. So there’s some kind of things that we can bring in there that are adjacent to those spaces, you know. I think you’ll see a lot of the U.K. grime and garage and dub stuff that comes bubbles up to the surface.

We’ve got a lot of music from ANZ, from Australia and New Zealand. Some psych pops and things that are happening from Polynesian artists and artists indigenous artists in Australia that you’ll see. So I think the perfect soundtrack is really, it’s very much global. It’s diverse in the community that’s represented, the people that are making the music and presenting that music. And then I think it always sounds future-facing new. And again, we wanna be a platform for music discovery. So it, of course, needs to contain elements that you’ve never heard before and never seen before in our soundtrack.

Amazing, that sums it up perfectly! Thank you so much for diving in. It was very insightful, and I’m looking forward to hearing everything in this soundtrack as well.

Awesome. Thank you so much, Matt. I can’t wait for you to see and play the game on September 8th. Definitely let us know your thoughts on the soundtrack once you hear it.

NBA 2K24 will launch on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch and Windows PC on the 8th of September, 2023. Stay tuned for our review closer to release.

Matthew Arcari

Matthew Arcari is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. You can find him on Twitter at @sirchunkee, or at the Dagobah System, chilling with Luke and Yoda.