Hit 'Em High: In Praise of the "Space Jam" Soundtrack

Hit 'Em High: In Praise of the "Space Jam" Soundtrack

There is a generation of rap and R&B fans who were first introduced to the genres by way of the soundtrack for the 1996 Michael Jordan-Looney Tunes feature Space Jam. To celebrate Jordan's birthday (February 17), Complex contributor Jordan Sargent (@jordansarge) reflects on the collection, discovering music as child, and its influence on his adulthood.

Classic movie that it is, I actually remember very little about Space Jam. I don’t think I’ve seen it since I was an 8-year-old in the fall of 1996, and I don’t really intend do. To do so would be to excavate and dismantle a small part of my childhood. The premise of the film—Michael Jordan is abducted by Looney Tunes characters to play basketball against a team of monsters who have absorbed the talents of NBA stars like Patrick Ewing—is novel but dumb. The special effects, I imagine, probably do not hold up. I’d rather reality not puncture my foggy memories of that film, and by extension that time in my life. The ability to ignore reality with no consequence becomes a rare luxury as you get older.

Likewise, I don’t actually know how much of a push I received from the Space Jam soundtrack to end up where I am now, as someone whose personal and professional life is inextricable from R&B, pop, and rap music. I don’t actually know if "I Believe I Can Fly," the first single from the soundtrack, was the first time I ever heard R. Kelly, but I suspect it was. I suspect it was the first time I ever heard D’Angelo or Monica or Robin S. The first memory I think I have of Chris Rock is sitting on my parents’ kitchen counter up close to the stereo to hear him talking shit on his and Barry White’s version of "Basketball Jones."

The Space Jam soundtrack was the first time I remember hearing the song "Fly Like an Eagle"—as sung by Seal. I definitely know that it wasn’t my first time hearing Seal, though, because I have a clear memory of singing "Kiss From a Rose," his massive hit off the Batman Forever soundtrack (another film that I barely have any recollection of), to nobody in particular in an elementary school classroom. My parents didn’t listen really listen to music—or much care about it, at least—so I grew up on whatever I heard just existing as a child in the ’90s.

This meant the radio, obviously, and Nickelodeon, MTV, the Box and, shit, even VH1 was playing videos back then. But radio and TV can be more ephemeral than film: you get out of the car or your mom tells you to change the channel or you decide to go outside and play football, whatever. Film—and I say this as someone less interested in movies than songs and shows—can be the opposite: You sit in a dark room for two hours and do nothing but see and hear what is in front of you. There is no other choice. You must absorb. You must be absorbed.

I was a pop culture orphan—no older siblings, parents who listened to sports talk and lite jazz— and so I absorbed the Space Jam soundtrack, which is good but not great and perhaps a bit too goofy for its own good. But the theme song—courtesy of Quad City DJ’s, surfing the "C'mon N' Ride It (The Train)" wave—improbably stands up to Jock Jams classics and also bangs harder than half the rap songs I heard last year. The R&B, be it D’Angelo or All-4-One, is impeccable: Sweeping and uplifting and perfectly sung.

The soundtrack is probably only important now to a group of adults who were kids during a very specific band of time. But I was one of those kids, a young one, and my identity as a 25-year-old has roots, as tangled and knotty and buried as they might be, in hearing R. Kelly and Robin S. in a cartoon movie about aliens. I don’t need a BuzzFeed quiz to tell me that I’m the Space Jam soundtrack.

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