Atlanta Hawks, rapper Killer Mike killin’ it with first arena barbershop with a view A-Town wanted its home to feel authentic: Enter the SWAG Shop
ATLANTA — Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin made a rapper cry. And he accomplished this near-impossible feat two years ago when he offered Atlanta native Killer Mike an opportunity to open a barbershop in the Hawks’ new arena.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Killer Mike told The Undefeated from his barbershop overlooking State Farm Arena. “Everything I do is with the imagination and dream of a kid who grew up 4½ miles from here where we are standing. I wanted to open a barbershop up when I was a kid. I wanted to be a rapper when I was a kid.
“I wanted to own parts of my community like middle-class blacks that I knew since I was a kid. I’m essentially living the dream of a 12-year-old who loved Dominique Wilkins, who thought Spud Webb was his hero, and you couldn’t tell me that Doc Rivers wasn’t the coolest dude. To me, this is a dream fulfilled.”
The Hawks reopened a refurbished, state-of-the-art venue in State Farm Arena, formerly Philips Arena, on Wednesday before a 111-104 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Among the long list of amenities are a courtside bar, Las Vegas-style cabana suites, TopGolf, singer Kandi Burruss-Tucker’s restaurant Old Lady Gang and chicken wing restaurant J.R. Crickets, made famous nationally in the TV show Atlanta. But perhaps the coolest spot is Killer Mike’s SWAG Shop, a four-chair barbershop where fans can watch the game while getting a haircut, shave or wash and buy some swag before they go.
The barbershop has OutKast music playing in the background, framed old Hawks jerseys on the walls from Hall of Famers Wilkins, “Pistol Pete” Maravich and Dikembe Mutombo, as well as clothing, hats and other souvenirs available for purchase.
“We are proud to be the first barbershop and retail shop of our kind in a sports arena,” Killer Mike said. “It’s a great view, ain’t it? It’s a working man’s suite. It’s a blue-collar suite.”
Killer Mike was born Michael Santiago Render in Atlanta on April 20, 1975, to two teenage parents and spent time being raised by his grandparents in Collier Heights, an African-American middle-class neighborhood built by blacks. It was there that Killer Mike learned black history from his grandmother and showed, while still in his teens, an elite ability to rap. He earned the nickname “Killer Mike” after an impressed listener said, “That kid’s a killer” with his lyrics.
Killer Mike met rapper Big Boi of the famed rap duo OutKast during his brief stint at Morehouse College. He also guest-rapped on OutKast’s 2001 Grammy-winning single “The Whole World” and Jay-Z’s song “Poppin’ Tags.” Part of the rap duo Run the Jewels and founder of Grind Time Official Records, Killer Mike also owns a respected political voice that has advocated for the poor and Hurricane Katrina victims, challenged former President Barack Obama and talked about police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore. Killer Mike also campaigned for Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries and said he would do so again.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms named him to her 38-member transition team that includes rapper T.I. and the CEOs of Delta Air Lines Inc. and UPS Inc. And Killer Mike said he wants to run for the school board in Atlanta once he retires.
“What really sets Mike apart — and I’ve worked with a lot of worldwide-known artists in Atlanta — is the fact that Killer Mike gives back,” said Jerry Clark, a veteran music executive and Atlanta native. “He talks the talk. He walks the walk. He is not afraid of pushing the agenda in his community.”
An old goal of Killer Mike’s was to own an old-school barbershop where a wash, shave and cut could be had, and where the community could feel pride. Another goal was to make smart business decisions. When he bought his first barbershop “sight unseen” off the internet in the Southside of Atlanta in 2011, Killer Mike says his wife did not talk to him for two weeks.
“We didn’t have a lot of money then,” Killer Mike said. “But I said that if I ever had any money, I wouldn’t waste it on frivolous things. I’d make an honest investment into what I should do in the world in terms of business. So I did it, and it took about two or three years to understand what we are doing.”
Now he has a signature barbershop in the Atlanta neighborhood of Edgewood that new Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce regularly visits. He attempted to own a barbershop in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport but ended up buying an apartment complex instead. And now he has the SWAG Shop in State Farm Arena, of all places.
Killer Mike showed up later than expected to State Farm Arena for the Hawks’ home opener because his wife’s Mercedes-Benz coupe was stolen earlier in the day. Local deejay Greg Street ended up getting a tip from someone who located the stolen vehicle. After getting word of whose car it was, the thieves left it in a parking lot, where it was reclaimed safely, Killer Mike said on Instagram.
Killer Mike said he was not mad at the thieves and challenged them to work hard to get their own Mercedes. He also said that if they got a barber’s license, he would hire them just as long as they did not steal.
“The community and DJ Greg Street are to thank,” Killer Mike said. “I am glad that kind of goodwill exists for me and my wife in our community.”
The Greater Atlanta community attending the Hawks’ home opener certainly had a lot to fall in love with at State Farm Arena, although the finishing touches are far from done. Crews wearing hard hats were working up until game time on the arena, and it’s uncertain when the project will be completed.
The Hawks surely felt pressure to upgrade the 19-year-old venue after the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons recently opened new buildings. The Hawks’ ownership lost millions of dollars in the renovation process, turning down 15 events over the two NBA offseasons, including two Paul McCartney shows and two U2 concerts. This renovated venue, however, now has several notable clubs with food and drinks already included and USB outlets everywhere. Koonin said ideas were taken from new venues in Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Sacramento, California.
“We understand we have to put on a show. It’s not a linear experience. You have to entertain people,” Koonin said.
The Players Club, located in the lower bowl underneath the seats behind the team benches, offered its 700 lower bowl members exclusive views of the players’ tunnel and news conferences. Outside of the entrance is a large Hawks logo where fans can talk about the game or business. The new Jumbotron has a Samsung Prism screen and is the third largest in the league, extending from free throw line to free throw line. There are veranda suites with a Southern feel, featuring ceiling fans and Charleston shutters. There are TopGolf Swing Suites with golf simulators on each side of the arena. There are also Las Vegas-style cabanas in the Atlanta Social area. And of course, in the South, the restaurants include Chick-fil-A.
“We wanted to do things very authentic,” Koonin said.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Hawks were questioned for being racially insensitive. Now, the team is embracing diversity.
The barbershop itself had two black male barbers, one black female barber and one white male barber, along with two black women taking reservations and selling swag to anyone interested in a haircut.
Said barber K-Fresh: “Everyone is welcome at the SWAG Shop.”