Career Turn: From NCAA Star to Grammy-Nominated DJ
Posted May 3, 2018 6:49 p.m. EDT
There is the travel: New York and Boston, Paris and Rio. There is the adrenaline of performing, the joy of bringing people to their feet. There is the money and the fame, each growing every time the iPhone commercials air or another venue sells out.
These are the things Tucker Halpern saw for himself as a 12-year-old crisscrossing the country with an elite amateur basketball team. What he grinded for as a 15-year-old running stadiums steps until he collapsed. What he played for as a 6-foot-8, sweet-shooting, Ivy League star at Brown University.
But basketball gave Halpern none of it. In fact, it wasn’t until the game he loved was snatched from him halfway through his collegiate career that he found another way to achieve his childhood dreams.
Until that point, Halpern, 28, had seemed bound for a pro basketball career. Now he is a DJ, music producer and half of the Grammy-nominated dance pop duo Sofi Tukker. It is their song “Best Friend” that was featured in the commercial that launched the iPhone X. It is their music that has topped charts from Belarus to the United States and that has Halpern making the late-night talk show rounds.
This new passion was ignited by a computer music program, nurtured by how-to-videos on YouTube and perfected by a chance meeting with another eclectically wired Brown classmate in Sophie Hawley-Weld. And it has produced a career that was all forced upon him by an autoimmune disease that once put him in bed for eight terrifying months.
After earning All-Ivy honorable mention honors in 2011 as a sophomore, Halpern was sidelined by fatigue from what he thought was a persistent case of mononucleosis. Months of hospital stays and medical tests ruled out everything from cancer to blood diseases, but they did little to get him back on his feet
Halpern withdrew from Brown and returned to his family home in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he escaped his bedroom only on rare lunch outings with his mother. He was scared, bored and depressed. He needed to get out of his own head. Reading wasn’t an option; Halpern says he is slightly dyslexic.
But he did play the drums as a child and had always been taken by music.
“So I laid there with the laptop, pushing buttons and watching videos about how to make samples and beats,” Halpern said. “Pretty soon, I was reaching for my computer as soon as I woke up and working on music until I fell asleep.” He was able to manage the fatigue well enough to return to Brown in the fall of 2012 for his junior season, but he soon realized he was just a shadow of himself. A heartbreaking epiphany, after the best game that he ever played, pushed him even further into music. In a nationally televised matchup that December against Providence, Halpern hit the winning shot, his eighth 3-pointer of the night, to upset the Friars.
“I sat down and cried,” he said. “I was so exhausted I couldn’t celebrate. I knew it was over. My body couldn’t do it.”
The next summer, Dr. Scott Hammer, an infectious disease specialist, made it official. “He told me I was going to kill myself,” Halpern said, “and he would not clear me to play.” (It was not until months later that Halpern was told he had a severe strain of the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis and often presents, as it did in Halpern’s case, with symptoms like debilitating fatigue.)
On the day in 2013 when Hammer told him his basketball career was over, Halpern stopped at a music store and bought a DJ setup and speaker. He promised his parents he would finish his studies of the history of art and architecture, and graduate, but he already had another plan in mind.
“I’m sure the last thing they wanted to hear was that I wanted to be a DJ,” Halpern said.
Just as he once roamed playgrounds and gyms in search of pickup basketball games, Halpern hustled DJ gigs around campus. He lugged his gear and speakers to midnight house parties or Sunday morning brunches, mostly working free.
“I have approached music like I did basketball,” Halpern said. “I wanted to see how good I could get.”
It was at a gig at an art gallery that he met Hawley-Weld. She was playing bossa nova music in a trio. She was playing beautifully but, he thought, much too slowly. So Halpern laid down a computer beat and asked Hawley-Weld to go through the song again. Pleased with what they heard, the two agreed to meet the next day and record it.
Hawley-Weld had grown up all over the world, spoke several languages and was about to graduate with a degree in conflict resolution and social justice. They had never seen each other before.
They wrote and performed their first song, “Drinkee,” the week before graduation, and nearly two years later, it was a nominated for a Grammy. But Hawley-Weld had a fellowship to teach yoga and music in Brazil after graduation. Halpern persuaded her to pass it up to stick with their music.
“I was calling up anyone I knew and asking them if I should really start a band with this guy,” she said. “We didn’t really know each other.”
When another dance pop duo, the Knocks, offered them time in their Brooklyn studio, Halpern and Hawley-Weld moved to New York and got to work. It wasn’t easy; the studio was available only at odd hours, and opportunities to show off their work were limited.
“We’ve been the opening act at places where we performed in front of 10 or 20 people,” Halpern said.
But as they persevered, “Drinkee” was finding an audience. Sung by Hawley-Weld in Portuguese with lyrics by Brazilian poet Chacal, the song caught the ear of Apple executives, who bought it for a 2015 Apple Watch ad.
“There is a certain kind of leadership that you develop being on a team,” Hawley-Weld said. “And more and more, I’ve recognized how pivotal Tucker’s athletic discipline and work ethic have been to what we have been able to achieve. He’s helped me get better at pushing through when I’m tired or frustrated.”
They are headliners now. Their crowds have gotten bigger, and they will not stop touring until the end of 2019. There’s even another Apple collaboration: That’s Sofi Tukker’s song, and Halpern’s deep, rhythmic voice, on the commercial for the iPhone 8 Red. Still, Halpern remains a basketball fan. He has kept an eye on his beloved Boston Celtics as well as the Golden State Warriors. (“Stephen Curry was my host on my recruiting visit to Davidson,” he said.) And during a recent tour stop in New York, Halpern, his illness under control, shot around at a playground for the first time in more than a year.
“I still have it,” he joked. “Nothing but nylon.”
But there is no looking back. He has a new game now. And just like with the old one, he is trying to find out how much better he can get.