By Shawn Setaro
The 1996 movie Space Jam, a half-animated, half-live-action trifle featuring Michael Jordan in his, um, "acting" debut, caused a big splash at the time of its release. However, it was quickly forgotten about and relegated to a special hell where other post-Mel Blanc Bugs projects lie. (We're looking at you, Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue and The Earth Day Special!) But one aspect of the film lives on. Its soundtrack provided two of the most iconic R&B songs of the 90's, Monica's "For You I Will," written by Diane Warren, and R. Kelly's monster hit "I Believe I Can Fly." Another slightly less remembered slow jam from the soundtrack would have a notable afterlife as well, as All-4-One's "I Turn to You," also written by Warren (who, after penning all of your mom's favorite jams, surely must live in a palace made of gold by now), was made into a top ten hit by Christina Aguilera in 1998.
So while everyone remembers the R&B hits from the soundtrack, and they have hopefully forgotten the weird rocker/rapper collaborations and bizarre cover songs that were staples of seemingly every 90's soundtrack album -- if you haven't heard the Spin Doctors/Biz Markie version of "That's the Way (I Like It)" or Seal doing a note-for-note cover of "Fly Like An Eagle," consider yourself very, very fortunate -- there's more to the Space Jam soundtrack story than meets the eye.
This little collection serves as a fantastic snapshot of where hip-hop was at in 1996. There's an overstuffed but awesome posse cut, a serious message tune, a nod to the South, a song by and for ladies getting their freak on, and, most notably, a couple of appearances by Jay-Z, including one in a very unexpected place.
To begin, there's the inspirational song from Coolio. The tune is an obvious attempt to follow-up his other message-song-on-a-movie-soundtrack hit from the previous year, "Gangsta's Paradise," but simply falls flat. The only possible relevance to the movie is a few glancing references to penalties, disqualifications, and eliminations in the final verse. The rapper's flow is awful as he attempts to fit syllables in places they just shouldn't go. While we at RG have been big Coolio supporters since he was just a W.C. protege, we have to call 'em like we see 'em, and this one is garbage.
As it turns out, though, that's the only loser in the bunch. Salt-N-Pepa's "Upside Down (Round and Round)" has the ladies, then at the absolute apex of their career, in fine style. Salt sings her man's praises, singling out his triceps and biceps for special acclaim. Pepa, however, has no time for such niceties and just wants to get down to business. "I'm coming for you, I'm coming through with the force of 10 men.../As I perceive a need to please ya/I wanna squeeze ya and wanna tease ya," she raps, displaying the group's usual directness.
That's far from the only rap love jam on the record. Jay-Z makes the first of his two appearances on "All of My Days," a collaboration with R. Kelly and Kelly's proteges, the duo Changing Faces. The Jigga/Kelly collaboration shows considerable chemistry, something the two would take advantage of half a decade later on their monster hit "Fiesta (Remix)." They would then, of course, drive this chemistry into the ground on two mediocre collaboration albums that we prefer to forget ever happened.
But all that was years in the future when "All of My Days" came out. The song shows a romantic Jay who is still sly and clever, and not a little proud of his past player-ific ways. "Probably was wilder than Bobby/Are you the Whitney to get me?" he asks in his opening verse. Hov, who at that point was still a few years away from multi-platinum success, was even then showing his skill at the r&b remix genre. He would, of course, continue to shine in this setting throughout his career, lifting jams from Mya, Mariah, Mary, and singers whose names start with other letters into the stratosphere.
In fact, the Space Jam soundtrack was released only months after Jay's debut album, Reasonable Doubt. That record, an uncompromising burst of knotty wordplay and understated violence, provides an interesting contrast with his other contribution to the record. "Buggin'," performed by Bugs Bunny, was written by Jay. There is even, rumor has it, a demo somewhere of him rapping it.
The tune is notable for a few reasons. Knowing that Jay wrote it, and when he wrote it, gives us some valuable insight into his career path. The lyrics and flow in the song sound much more like a version of Jay-Z that the world wouldn't see until two years later -- the five-million-record-selling rapper who "dumbed down", as he put it looking back, in order to "double [his] dollars". "Buggin'" sounds a lot more like "Hard Knock Life" Jay than "Can't Knock the Hustle" Jay, and shows us that his ability to cross over was there from the beginning -- it just took a few years to find the right vehicle.
The song, despite being written from the point of view of a cartoon character, has many of Jay-Z's signature moves. The constant Michael Jordan references (appropriate here, as Jordan was a star of the movie), the bragging about money, even the subtle, blink-and-you-miss-them puns that characterize much of Jay's work. Here, he fleetingly nods to another hit basketball movie from a few years prior, Above the Rim. In addition, there's a pun on "karats" that is pretty good, when you take into account that it's in a song rapped by a cartoon bunny.
There are other notable tunes in the movie as well. There's a great posse cut, "Hit 'Em High," that features B-Real, Coolio, Method Man, Busta Rhymes, and, in a show-stopping performance, LL Cool J. While all the other rappers are very good, Cool J really gives it his all and sticks with the concept in the extreme. The song is from the point of view of the Monstars, the evil basketball team who Jordan and Bugs must defeat. Accordingly, LL goes all out and taunts MJ ("23 ways to make him pay"), and even gets at Bugs. "I'm rugged raw, my Monstars is getting money/When cliques get to bugging, I'm snatching up their bunnies," he raps. Somehow, his full-blooded engagement in the concept of the tune prevents him from sounding ridiculous.
Finally, there's the title cut, "Space Jam," by Quad City DJs. Quite surprisingly, this turns out to be an awesome slice of Miami bass, done by the same people who produced the original "Whoot, There It Is." The banging track brings a nice bit of the South to an otherwise East and West coast heavy record.
The record as a whole stacks up nicely against its soundtrack album competition, a bunch of albums that had one or two noteworthy songs and a lot of filler. For some reason, whether it was Jordan's involvement, the power of Looney Tunes, or just that the movie people had a lot of money to throw around, the Space Jam soundtrack stands as a remarkable artifact of the tail end of rap's last Golden Age, as well as a marker of and precursor to the major stylistic shifts of one of the greatest rappers of all time. Not bad for a movie about a cartoon rabbit.