Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant (left) and rapper Lil Baby (Photo courtesy of Translation and Beats By Dre)
MUSIC EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS SNEAKERS & FASHION MEDIA

Dark Mode: Inside Beats By Dre’s Campaign Starring Ja Morant & Lil Baby

Steve Stoute and Chris Thorne, the masterminds behind Beats by Dre’s new ad fronted by Ja Morant and Lil Baby, walked Boardroom through the story behind the project.

As the Memphis Grizzlies try to stay alive Friday against the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of their Western Conference playoff series, Ja Morant will likely not play due to a bone bruise that could keep him out for the rest of the postseason. Instead of the traditional noise of thunderous dunks and game-changing plays, the All-Star point guard will transform and travel through the airwaves through a new Beats by Dre 90-second commercial titled “Dark Mode.”

The spot released on Saturday, May 7 and features Atlanta rapper Lil Baby performing a song written from Morant’s perspective. 

The concept actually originated 20 years ago in the mind of Steve Stoute, CEO of creator platform UnitedMasters and Translation, an advertising and marketing agency. The source was a Stoute-produced commercial for Reebok featuring Allen Iverson and superstar rapper Jadakiss.

“That Jadakiss commercial was the first commercial I had ever done,” Stoute told Boardroom. “It will always be dear to me, [but] it also gave me my credibility as a marketer and gave me the confidence that I could do this. So doing this 20 years later with the athletes and going through that same process, me sitting there watching it, the most astonishing thing was that it was 21 years ago. I can’t believe I’m still doing this 20 years later at the top of my game.” 

Early conversations about shooting the video started months ago, but things started to ramp up within the last two and a half weeks. Stoute saw parallelism between Morant and Lil Baby — Lil Baby is 27 years old and Ja is just 22, but both are rising superstars in their respective fields.

Lil Baby’s second studio album went triple-platinum, and he has nine top-10 hits that have charted on the Billboard Hot 100. If that weren’t enough, he’s been nominated for three Grammy Awards and was crowned the biggest all-genre Artist of the Year at the Apple Music Awards in 2020.

Ja has a stacked awards cabinet, too. The Murray State alum claimed NBA Rookie of the Year after going No. 2 overall in the 2019 draft. This season, he was voted as an All-Star en route to winning the league’s Most Improved Player honor. He’s currently awaiting what would be his first All-NBA nod.

The theme of the ad, “Dark Mode,” comes from the figurative place Morant goes to when putting in work that nobody sees.

“[Dark Mode] is going to this place of intense focus and always trying to get better and never thinking great is good enough. That really comes from a mantra that he’s had for a long time,” said Chris Thorne, Beats’ chief marketing officer. 

When the idea officially turned into an actual production, Thorne and the Beats team waited eagerly to see what Lil Baby would create. As it turns out, Translation’s Stoute was in the studio with the Atlanta native as they created the song.

“I don’t want to say he was in and out, it wasn’t like that,” Stoute recalled. “He had written the song prior and had the idea and unique perspective of writing the song through Ja Morant. That is the reason why he put all the other athletes in the song. It was one of those sessions where you get there at 7 p.m. and you leave at 3 in the morning or 5, or whatever time it was. And we literally recorded the song on a Sunday and shot the commercial on a Monday.”

The Beats and Translation team also worked with Lil Baby for the award-winning commercial “You Love Me” that ran in 2020.

“Lil Baby is just a professional,” Stoute continued. “He is a student of the business. He is a professional. He wants to make great work, and he listens well. He understood the assignment well. He knew we wanted a song about the abilities of Ja Morant, and he stuck to that script. Great songwriters know how to write in context, and they know how to write specific to the emotion that you are trying to convey. He is incredible at all of this.” 

Ja Morant and Lil Baby (Photo courtesy of Translation and Beats By Dre)

Thorne originally thought that the commercial would premiere at the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season, but because everyone zeroed in on getting the project done, it allowed Beats to release the spot during the NBA Playoffs. And while the idea had been floating for months, the tip-to-tail process of making the song and shooting the video played out in fewer than two weeks.

Thorne and Stoute noted that commercials typically don’t come together nearly as fast as “Dark Mode” did, but it was a testament to everyone buying into the vision.

“It was unbelievably quick how this came together,” said Thorne. “Once we were able to connect things and we both understood the opportunity with each other, [Ja and Baby] both moved heaven and Earth to make it happen.”

As Stoute added, “There are certain ideas where you have the creative team, the director, and the talent itself [where] everybody is fully aligned and has the passion to make the work. Everyone collapses their schedule so that you can turn it around that quick. It is not normal, but it happens when there is like-minded passion around an idea.”

The commercial has already been seen by athletes on Beats’ roster that are thinking of similar ideas. Translation’s Stoute did not tease or reveal what would be coming around but Beats’ Thorne teased that “the athlete-artist combo has been amazing for Beats.”

“Since the beginning, and now with the heat behind the brand and the Ja and Baby thing, it drew so much attention that we are already starting to talk with more athletes,” he continued. “You’ll see a lot more Ja moving forward with Beats. We [also] work with Jayson Tatum, who has quickly become an All-NBA player. We’ve started to do some stuff with Devin Booker. There’s a lot of exciting talent in the NBA. You will also start to see us in maybe more unexpected places in sports. Whether that’s Formula 1, football, or the college base, we’ve been active and we are pushing the envelope.”

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