- June 30, 2021
Before Game 5 of the NHL's Stanley Cup semifinal series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders, the Lightning ran a series of activities on Amalie Arena's video board designed to get the 14,800 people in attendance primed for the game.
The team showed highlights of its season. It had Greg Wolf, the team's in-arena host, scream at the crowd to get on its feet. A montage reminiscent of the intro to a ride at Disney World, showing various weather reporters calling for a "storm" of epic proportions, played into the thundering atmosphere.
And a musician by the name of Vo Williams performed his song "Ready Set" live for the first time.
The song has become the official anthem of the Lightning's 2021 playoff run. For Williams, who was born and raised in Sarasota, it has also become his ticket to his dreams coming true. Long before he was performing at Amalie Arena, Williams was a typical teenager, inspired to make music after hearing artists such as Michael Jackson, Metallica, Jay-Z and Kanye West.
"It was music designed for performing in front of a massive audience," Williams said. "I didn't realize it then, but now I can see that I was drawn to that music because of how it made me feel: confident and powerful. I wanted to give people that same feeling."
Williams began writing music on his own, though he admits his first few attempts "sucked really bad." As he improved, the Booker High graduate burned his songs onto CDs and tried selling them, but the streaming era ushered in by Spotify squashed any hope of making money that way.
It wasn't until he tried out for 106 & Park, a freestyle rap battle show on BET, that he began to break though the industry. Williams, who attended the Ringing College of Art and Design, said he would fly to New York to tape the show and then fly home. His first performance on the show was his first stage performance ever.
Williams watched his performance on TV while waiting tables at a chain restaurant. He was on the show seven times and won seven times; after that, the show "retired" him, Williams said. His final performance was in front of Jay-Z, one of his childhood idols. It went so well, Williams said, that Jay-Z wanted to sign Williams to Roc-A-Fella Records, but the deal was never finalized because of the music label's restructuring.
In pursuit of his music career, Williams moved to Los Angeles. There, through a series of connections, he had the opportunity to make music for television commercials and film trailers. His love of massive sounds meshed well with what directors wanted. From there, his career took off. A short list of where Williams' music has appeared: HBO's "Vice Principals," FX's "Atlanta," Discovery's "Deadliest Catch," this year's NBA Conference Finals, even a commercial in last year's Super Bowl. Williams said he is the most synced hip-hop artist ever, meaning his music has appeared in the most things — more than 1,500 projects.
Even with all those credits, performing at Amalie Arena hit Williams in a way other things did not. Williams played hockey growing up, first on inline skates at Stardust Skating — before there was a rink anywhere close — and then on the ice at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex. He started in middle school and played though high school. His love of the sport began even earlier, when his father, Emanuel Williams, took him to see a Lightning game. At the time, the team played at what is now known as Tropicana Field, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Williams was a defenseman when he played hockey; there was a reason for that.
"I was nasty," Williams said. "I'm not like [Lightning forward] Brayden Point. I can't do all the shuffling and stuff he does. But I can focus on the puck. If someone's trying to do a lot of tricks, I won't be taken off balance. I lock in. At minimum, I'll knock the puck away."
For a time, after moving to Los Angeles, Williams' love of sports — he also played basketball — took a backseat as he focused on his career. He stopped following things for a few years. But the kind of music he makes, what Williams calls "epic hip-hop," is perfect for sports, he said.
That was exemplified with "Ready Set," which he dropped the first week of January. The song was part of Williams' "Winzday" series, in which he drops a new track each Wednesday to help motivate his fans to push though the rest of the week. The Lightning's in-house DJ, Sean Bovelsky aka DJ Bolt, heard the song and sent it to the team's higher ups. They liked it so much, they wanted to use it as the Lightning's playoff anthem.
Fast forward to June 21 and Williams has returned home. Clad in a Lightning jersey, he steps in front of the 14,800-person crowd to perform his song for his hometown team.
"It's an unexplainable feeling," Williams said. "I've rapped on TV and movie trailers with my music have a lot of views, but I had never physically seen that many people looking at me. Those 15,000 might as well have been 2 million. Hearing everyone screaming with one purpose, one objective, it was like I was standing in the middle of a ceremonial circle and leading the call to victory. Then our guys head into battle to duke it out.
"Everyone in the building is a part of the show. Leading into this [a game] with music, there's nothing like it."
The Lighting won the game 8-0 and won the series 3-2, advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second-straight season. The defending champions are up 1-0 on the Montreal Canadians in the Finals. Williams performed at Game 1 of this series, too, and with the expanded crowd — the Lightning are now allowing in 16,300 fans for the Finals — Williams said he was even more nervous than before. But he's also grateful for the chance to follow in the footsteps of the artists who got him into music. Now, Williams is the one making crowds feel like they can conquer the world.
"This has been life-changing," Williams said. "I'm manifesting a dream into reality. It's been special."