EAGAN — Jaleel Johnson and Danielle Hunter do not use words when they exchange text messages, they only send links. Tiny colorful rectangular boxes on their iPhone screens connect to songs that have been sent with hopes of expanding the barriers of the other’s musical knowledge.
Hunter scrolls with his thumb up and down to demonstrate the treasure trove of tunes that represent everything from a pregame hype song to melodies for the next road city to things with deeper personal connections. When the Minnesota Vikings’ superstar pass rusher took an offseason trip to Tokyo, Japan, he passed along a song by Yoshida Brothers, whose stylings were feature in a Nintendo Wii commercial once upon a time. Johnson randomly sent Hunter back a hit song from the early 2000s.
“I’ll send him some random stuff…whenever I think, ‘Jaleel might like this,’ he listens to everything, man,” Hunter said.
If you spent time around TCO Performance Center and take in the non-football audio, you might come away feeling like you’d tuned into a Hip Hop Top 40 station. The Vikings play warm-up music in practice and something or other over the loud speakers in the locker room on Fridays. It’s usually not a deep cut. Inside Johnson’s headphones, however, there’s so much more going on. He has a dictionary on his phone that could be a museum of modern music history.
On the trip to New York, he made sure the defensive line got their fair share of Frank Sinatra and played “Can I Live” off Jay-Z’s 1996 classic Reasonable Doubt.
“As I got older I appreciated different feelings and emotions that different songs can be to a person so I never just stick to one genre of music,” Johnson said. “It can range anywhere from Notorious B.I.G. to Frank Sinatra. It’s all about the feeling and emotions.”
He remembers distinctly the first time he discovered that there was a vast world of musical shades that could be explored. The lightbulb moment came from a song that you’d never guess in 100 years.
“The very first time I listened to Blink 182’s ‘All The Small Things’ it changed my life,” Johnson said. “Ever since then I’ve had an appreciation for different kinds of music. That’s one of my favorite songs to this day. I’ve never been stuck on one genre.”
Johnson grew up in Brooklyn but he moved to Chicago to live with his aunt as a teenager with hopes of having a better chance to succeed there. In Westchester, Ill., he became a first-team All-State football player and heavyweight wrestler. When his early years come up, he thinks about tough times that came along with them and hears one song in his head: “Through the Wire” by Kanye West.
In his youth, the songs that impacted him came from download programs like Limewire. He laughs at the sheer number of viruses that infected his computer because of it. That’s when society turned the hours of hunting through record stores to a screen experience. Now the quest for new jams is ever-present on his phone.
“Whenever I have downtime to explore,” he said. “This morning I woke up a little bit early and went on the browse thing and a lot of music that’s dropping I just go through and play it. If I’m not familiar with it but the cover is incredible I’ll just listen to it. If the cover intrigues me I’ll listen to it.”
As an example of how random his discoveries can be:
“I just downloaded a Christmas album recently, I have a lot of Quentin Tarantino playlists from his movies,” Johnson said, swiping through his thousands of options to demonstrate.
Hunter isn’t the only one to share music with Johnson. It’s become a bonding experience for the entire defensive line, which is one of the most talented, deep and consistent in the NFL.
Defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, who returned to Minnesota after signing to play the 2018 season in Seattle, grew up in Westbury, N.Y. Stephen and Johnson are encyclopedic in their knowledge of New York hip hop, name dropping artists from years past like Big Pun, Shyne, Capone and Noreaga and on and on.
“We will be like walking around listening to music and [Jaleel] will be like ‘You heard this? You heard this? You heard this new A$AP [Rocky], you heard this new Casanova?’ We just share things. Listen to this, listen to that,” Stephen said. “Even sometimes on game day, it will be like, ‘you have to listen to this before a game.’ It evolved into that.”
Even the younger players get in on the sharing act.
“Hercules [Mata’afa] introduced me to an artist J Boog, out of Hawaii,” Johnson said.
Former seventh-round Stephen Weatherly, who has turned into a solid rotational D-lineman much like Johnson, prefers older, more lyrical music like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and A Tribe Called Quest. He’s also a musician himself, playing a number of instruments, which gives him an ability to point things out within the music that most people wouldn’t catch.
Weatherly makes an important point about the noises being blaring inside their headphones: It matters toward their game. He takes himself through all the things he needs to remember once he gets on the field.
When Hunter is listening to tunes, he’s envisioning things that are about to happen.
“You can imagine yourself just going through the technique with the music in the background,” Hunter said. “Out there you can’t really hear the music but it just makes you focus in more and makes you see yourself doing what you need to do. That’s how I see it. Before games I just imagine myself making a play or going like this after a play (Danielle does his sack celebration). Feeling like you’re about to jump off the edge and start flying, that’s what music does for me, man.”
Some use it for focus, Everson Griffen has music to energize him. Weatherly said that Griffen has the same playlist that he’s basically memorized and often sings out loud. (Minutes after Weatherly’s comment, Griffen walked by in a towel, rapping loudly to the background music in the locker room).
“Music plays a big role in playing football,” Stephen said. “It’s kind of like your personality, who you are, what gets you hyped, what gets you up and what gets you going. It connects people, too. It’s a bridge when it comes to playing football.”
The focus and chemistry gained by the defensive line matters. Head coach Mike Zimmer explained the technical ways that it can make a difference.
“They can communicate way better [when they have chemistry], they see certain splits, they see guys sitting back, they see guys leaning forward, the splits cut down, those things, and they’re able to communicate it during the game,” Zimmer said.
When you can connect off the field, it helps on the field. And the Vikings’ D-line does that through the vast world of music.
“The power of music bringing people together is crazy,” Johnson said.