Music
Tune in and turn up

Nowadays, movies rarely garner the kind of pop cultural following that Space Jam has. Cartoon characters plucked straight from Looney Tunes, plus Michael effing Jordan and the world’s basketball elite enlisted to star IRL alongside them? On paper it sounded like a nightmare, but there was something about this off-kilter meeting of every ’90s-kids’ idols that worked. 22 years on, it’s still one of the most fondly-remembered movies of many of our childhoods – and the highest-grossing basketball film of all time, raking in a cool $230 million worldwide.

The fact that Warner Bros have kept its gloriously vintage website live – untouched since the film’s release – is a testimony to people’s thirst for the basketball-cartoon crossover. Honestly, it’s a goddamn goldmine. And if there’s anything that always manages to send us hurtling back to those halcyon days spent in front of the TV, exhausting the spools on our Space Jam VHS tapes, it’s that legendary soundtrack.

In a movie era that favors scores made from pop music rather than rousing orchestral numbers (Kendrick’s Black Panther album is great recent proof of that), the 1996 comical caper was, perhaps, a little ahead of its time in terms of channelling rap into blockbuster, kid-friendly films.

Today, it sounds like the quintessential ’90s time capsule: an instant reminder of how smoldering, slick, and fun hip-hop and RnB was back then. Packed with rap verses from JAY-Z, Busta Rhymes, Coolio and LL Cool J – with some songs from Barry White, R. Kelly (more on him in a moment) and Salt-n-Pepa mixed in for good measure – it functioned as a compilation record in itself, something more than just another movie soundtrack. In fact, the LP spawned half a dozen singles and managed to go six times platinum, widely becoming the film’s most respected asset and gaining its (problematic) producer two Grammys.

So what better time to bring it back out of the record drawer (and you’ll need to; the full tracklist is ominously missing from Spotify) than the beginning of basketball season? Kick back and enjoy it, and as images of Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan dance through your head, revisit a few of these key elements that make the Space Jam soundtrack such an iconic piece of pop culture.

1. It features Bugs Bunny jacking JAY-Z’s verse

One of the few songs that didn’t make the film, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the Space Jam LP actually has a song performed entirely by Bugs Bunny on it. Not gonna lie, it’s sort of hideous hearing the world’s most beloved bunny rabbit trying to act like he’s fresh off the streets, but since it doesn’t appear in the movie and sits neatly at the end of the soundtrack, you’ll barely have to encounter it.

What’s funny is that the rap was penned by a young JAY-Z and was released some six months after his debut LP Reasonable Doubt dropped. It doesn’t catch him at his finest (“Like Trump’s wife, up to my ears in carats / Not even the barber can fade the rabbit”), but it’s fascinating to see a future rap god do something as ridiculous as ghost writing for Bugs Bunny in his early days.

2. The theme song will still give you all the feels

If there’s anything that can send you hurtling back to 1996 at lightning speed, it’s that invigorating opening line from the film’s titular theme song, delivered to us by blink-and-you’ll-miss-them southern hip-hop quarter, Quad City DJ’s.

Still a banger that would inject energy into the grouchiest basketball fan’s cheer, it has that warm, nostalgic quality that all of the best mid-’90s chart music has. It’s all but guaranteed that when they asked you to “do your dance at the Space Jam” back then, you were on your goddamn feet busting some serious moves.

3. You can skip R. Kelly’s track

The one track that’s never left the public consciousness is R. Kelly’s soulful, ironically-angelic ballad, “I Believe I Can Fly.” A chart-topper that Kelly really managed to rinse (he added it to the tracklist for his solo record R after the film version achieved crazy success), it led him to Grammy success while the other – arguably better – songs were left in the shadows.

In retrospect, it seems a bit dangerous to lay bundles of praise on a problematic musician like R. Kelly, but regardless of whether you choose to engage with it, we can all agree that it’s the one Space Jam track that doesn’t need revisiting! Instead, spend more time with “Hit ‘Em High.” And on that note…

4. Fact – “Hit ‘Em High (The Monstars’ Anthem)” is a killer rap track

There’s this argument that quality rap rarely stems from large scale commercial projects, but anybody who has a bad word to say about “Hit ‘Em High (The Monstars’ Anthem)” has got a seriously-skewed viewpoint. Who would have thought that a film populated by talking rabbits, ducks, and pigs would be the catalyst for a B-Real, Method Man, Coolio, LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes collab?

And there’s no half-measures here. Everybody – from Busta’s violently-delivered verse to B-Real’s short, sweet entry – makes a mark. But all eyes are on Cool, who manages to slip in a dig at Space Jam’s lead star and his love for endorsements, so subtly that it made the cut: “Cumulus clouds bring darkness up above / You in it for the money, or in it for the love, M.J.?”

5. It saw Barry White and Chris Rock link up

We know Barry White as the gravelly-voiced king of sexed-up soul; Chris Rock as an expressive, raspy-toned comedian. But who would have thought such gold would come from the two polar opposite stars coming together, covering a vintage Cheech and Chong cut?

On the track (which is tied together by a pitched choral hook from Chris himself) the duo take liberties with the original lyrics. Barry starts by delivering his usually seductive stuff – “A burning desire… the love of someone – or something” he coos – while Chris bounces back offering the wtf factor. It’s bizarre – “After the game, I always took a shower with my basketball / Every now and then, the basketball pinched my butt,” Chris says – but with the fleeting shoutouts to Tweety Bird and sad old Elmer Fudd, it winds up being the perfect representation of Space Jam’s obscure yet star-aligning brilliance.

For more like this, read how Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Black Panther’ soundtrack is currently changing the game.

Words by Douglas Greenwood
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