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Nostalgia Ultra: Why the Music of ‘The Last Dance’ Hits So Hard

The sports documentary event of the year plots the tale of Michael Jordan’s rise alongside hip-hop’s. It also invokes feelings from the past at a time when we need them the most.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nostalgia exploded as its own genre due to habitual reevaluations of the past becoming a dependable source of traffic. Revisiting the shows, movies, music, and moments of yesterday sparks conversation because there’s distinct joy in remembering the good old days. It’s arguably the most reliable call in the content playbook. But while nostalgia was on the verge of becoming exhausting in recent years, a global pandemic with no end in sight has turned it into a necessity.

DJs spin classics on Instagram Live to much adoration. Hundreds of thousands of viewers flock to the platform to watch esteemed artists, producers, and songwriters press “play” on their greatest hits during the Verzuz battles. Networks schedule marathons of classic shows, further enabling binge-watching. The pause of sports hit ESPN particularly hard, so it opened its vaults to fill daily programming schedules: Legendary Monday Night Football games, a day’s worth of storied boxing matches, and strategic deployment of its 30 for 30 documentary series are just a few examples.

No bit of sports nostalgia has resonated these past few months like The Last Dance. ESPN released its highly anticipated study of the ’90s Chicago Bulls two months ahead of its originally planned June debut to help fill the void. The first two episodes averaged a record 6.1 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN2, and it continues to set new benchmarks thanks to the voracious appetites of a literal captive audience. The 10-part documentary uses Michael Jordan’s ascent as its lodestar, and chronicles the saga of the team of the 1990s with the help of well-placed music at every turn.

The Last Dance, which concludes this weekend, has featured an apt selection of songs from the ’80s and ’90s, chiefly hip-hop. Throughout its first eight episodes, the series has juxtaposed the evolution of the genre into the heartbeat of popular culture with Jordan’s rise into the most powerful athlete in the world. The Last Dance is a nostalgia supernova; it’s the Chicago Bulls’ climb to dominance set to music from that era. “It just seemed that with the rise of the Bulls from obscure NBA team to global symbols of American pop culture and the rise of hip-hop from obscure musical genre to a global symbol of American pop culture, there were direct parallels from 1984 to 1998,” says director Jason Hehir.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has left the future uncertain at best. Sports and music, in the way we’re accustomed to consuming them, feel like distant memories. The Last Dance utilizes both to revisit a critical moment in popular culture. The music has been the most rewarding surprise, playing an integral role in the documentary’s reexamination of history while we live through it.

It’s fitting that music factors heavily into a documentary about the Bulls’ dynasty; those teams had their own theme song, after all. “Sirius,” a 1982 Alan Parsons Project instrumental, blared triumphantly throughout the United Center as the Bulls starting lineups were introduced, earning the song a unique place in the zeitgeist. It’s featured in The Last Dance, surfacing at the end of the first episode ahead of the Bulls’ 1997-98 home opener, because it’s essential to the team’s history.

“Sirius” may be the song most associated with the Bulls’ reign, but it plays only a minor role in contextualizing that period. According to Hehir, the vision for The Last Dance’s music was delivering something personal that he knew would resonate widely. “The main objective for me was for people to experience the music that I experienced during the time that I was watching Michael,” he explains. “Michael, and that era of the NBA, were so vital to my formative years as a sports fan, and that era of hip-hop was so vital to my formative years as a music fan, as well.” Although Hehir selected the songs himself, Rudy Chung, The Last Dance’s music supervisor, was invaluable to the process. In addition to solving problems by dealing with record labels, lawyers, and sample clearances, Chung provided Hehir with alternatives when necessary. He says the goal was using music to help guide the narrative. “It wasn’t about making a great soundtrack necessarily,” he says. “With all these film and TV projects, it’s about making the best episodes possible. Music was just one component of that.”

Even if the music is secondary to The Last Dance’s success, having it serve as a portal into the era was imperative. Hehir tried to be as true as possible to the times—even down to the specific year or month, in some cases. For someone with vast knowledge of music (“He has encyclopedic knowledge; it’s pretty remarkable,” Chung says), recalling what he was listening to during specific moments was no challenge. “You put yourself back in that place—the houses you were spending time at, the friends you were spending time with, the cars you were driving around in—and I’m thinking, ‘Black Sheep, “The Choice Is Yours.”’ That was on, constantly,” he says when remembering the best way to capture 1992, when the Bulls won their second consecutive NBA title. “’97, ’98, that’s right around the time that ‘Rosa Parks’ came out. That made sense in the ’97-98 season and they’re playing in Atlanta, so let’s play some Outkast here.”

Matching the music with the visuals is a through line for the entire series because properly framing the eras is just as important as capturing the mood of the action on screen. The Last Dance has succeeded in finding the right balance between the two. “Part of my job was to test Jason’s sensibilities and present ideas from the era that spanned very different genres,” Chung says. “I think we kind of identified early on that hip-hop just felt right.” The spirit and energy were deciding factors. Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke,” which plays during a montage of Jordan’s rookie season, draws parallels between Rakim as a genre-shifting rapper whose gift for lyricism was ahead of his time and Jordan as a player who changed both the sport and the culture around it almost immediately.

In what remains one of The Last Dance’s most impressive sequences, LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” amplifies Jordan’s 63-point performance at Boston Garden during the 1986 NBA playoffs. The link is their relentless aggression: Each of LL’s bars is a warning shot to challengers; each of Jordan’s buckets a dagger to Boston’s defense and morale. But it’s not just the music, or even their presences, that makes for the perfect match—it’s the pacing and editing. There’s one particular moment when still photos from the game flash onscreen in sync with the song’s piercing snares. “It’s two young guys who are staking their claim as the best in their games,” Hehir says. “So a lot of it comes down to something as simple as beats per minute when you’re trying to match the action on the screen to the energy of the track.”

There’s a wealth of irony in associating Jordan and hip-hop, considering his musical tastes. At 57, Jordan is a late-stage boomer who’s been up front about his indifference towards hip-hop. “He was more of an R&B guy,” Hehir says. After dispatching the Cleveland Cavaliers from the 1989 NBA playoffs with “The Shot,” Jordan famously told sportscaster James Brown he was listening to Anita Baker’s “Giving You the Best That I Got” before the game, inspiring a legendary story—and a running gagthat’s lasted for decades. Both Hehir and Chung were well aware of this (“It’s a beautiful song,” Hehir says with a laugh), but agreed it didn’t quite fit the aesthetic they hoped to establish. What’s more, the musical cues succeed in being intentional without being too on the nose.

The music of The Last Dance has found a groove between songs that are indelible to that time, yet unexpected. “We didn’t want this to be the most obvious Greatest Hits from the ‘90s,” Chung says. Accomplishing that involved walking a fine line where more arcane choices risked going over viewers’ heads. “There’s songs like ‘I Got It Made’ that’s something only hip-hop aficionados might recognize,” Hehir says of Special Ed’s 1989 single, which plays as Jordan signs his landmark deal with Nike and blossoms into an endorsement juggernaut. “But when you play something like ‘Hip Hop Hooray,’ that’s something that, by the time 1993 rolled along, Naughty By Nature was on the pop charts.”

“Hip Hop Hooray” is one of the best-known Naughty By Nature songs, but it also fits the vibe of the stretch of the Bulls’ 1992-93 season shown in The Last Dance. Success was business as usual for them at that point. “To be associated with the GOAT is incredible, but if you think about the era, they did a great job musically,” says Kay Gee, the group’s DJ and in-house producer. “They were talking about a lot of the success and celebratory things that were going on with Jordan, so it’s just a fitting record.”

While hip-hop governs the sound of the documentary, it isn’t the best fit for every situation. “Partyman,” from Prince’s 1989 Batman soundtrack, definitely isn’t the first song that comes to mind when recalling the great eccentric’s ’80s glory. It makes sense, however, when considering how it’s used in The Last Dance. In 1988, Jordan won his first league and All-Star Game MVP awards and Defensive Player of the Year. In 1989, he won his third consecutive scoring title. “Partyman,” all madcap funk, symbolizes coronation: Jordan as the best player in the league, Prince as one of the most singularly gifted artists in music, and both as iconoclastic figures who helped define a decade.

“I really wanted to keep it specific to late-’80s Prince. Something a little bit more obscure and something Prince fans would really appreciate, but non-Prince aficionados would still recognize,” Hehir says. “Sometimes you get to check all the boxes and the lyrics work. So for him to say ‘Young and old, gather ’round / Everybody hail the new king in town,’ that’s exactly what you could say about Michael during that era.”

This intuitive approach lets the music speak to the moment without being too explicit. In Episode 3, the Beastie Boys’ “The Maestro” is laid over footage of Dennis Rodman scrambling for rebounds and loose balls. It’s the perfect irreverent companion to the chaos Rodman caused on and off the court. “It’s not their biggest song, it’s not even the fourth- or fifth-biggest song off that album, Check Your Head, but it just worked,” Chung says. Stereo MCs’s entrancing “Connected” echoes the focus the Bulls employed after losing the first two games of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals to the New York Knicks. The song also speaks to Jordan’s state of mind as he struggles with the demands of being Michael Jordan and criticism about his gambling while pursuing the Bulls’ first three-peat. And if its rave-esque sway feels especially germane to the ’90s, keep in mind that it was used in the 1995 Gen X cult favorite Hackers.

Other songs work on multiple levels, helping to place viewers in the moment and characterize the action in a similar way. The fifth episode opens with Nas’s “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” playing over an aerial shot of Madison Square Garden. The setting is the 1998 NBA All-Star Game, Jordan’s last with the Bulls. At one point, he and Kobe Bryant—then just 19 and appearing in his first All-Star Game—acknowledge each other as they cross paths in the bowels of the arena. “That little Laker boy’s gonna take everybody one-on-one,” Jordan tells his teammates. The moment is positioned as a passing of the torch between the two, all the way down to the music. “John Salley’s saying ‘The king is still on the court’ and that Kobe Bryant wants to be the king,” Hehir says of the episode, which is dedicated to Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in January. “Kobe Bryant is essentially saying, ‘If I ruled the world’—because he has his eye on that crown, as well. That’s when it’s really fun to try and get multiple layers to this.”

The other layer, of course, is Jordan’s fondness for playing at the Garden. At the top of the episode, announcer Marv Albert mentions that Jordan considers it “the Mecca of basketball.” It’s a world Jordan owned for the better part of his career. He scored 33 points there in his very first visit as a Bull in 1984, then 42 in his final game as a Bull in 1998, just one month after winning MVP of the All-Star Game. Jordan famously wore a pair of his Air Jordan 1s in his last game at the Garden with the Bulls. In The Last Dance, A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” services the moments before the game as Jordan strolls into the building, retro sneakers in hand. Aside from being an allusion to footwear, the voice heard is that of Tribe’s Phife Dawg. Not only was Phife, who lost his battle with diabetes in 2016, one-fourth of a bedrock of ’90s hip-hop, he was an ardent sports fan. Surely the man who once called himself “Jordan with the mic” would appreciate playing a role, however small, in a documentary about Jordan and the Bulls—even if it shows them torching his beloved Knicks.

It would be remiss to mention Jordan’s brilliance at the Garden and exclude the double-nickel game. In March 1995, in just his fifth game back from his first retirement, he scored 55 points on basketball’s biggest stage, officially shedding the rust from his 18-month absence. The Last Dance shows Run-DMC’s 1993 hit “Down with the King,” a resurrective moment for the hip-hop legends (whose popularity had faded by then), bellowing atop footage of Jordan, ever surgical in his favorite arena, dissecting the Knicks. The best highlights—a miscellany of spot-up jumpers, turnarounds, and ball fakes—are set to the song’s scratched outro where “the king” is repeated for emphasis. The message is clear: The ruler’s back. “It had to display what he was about in New York, being as that’s a New York group and a New York song,” says Pete Rock, who was featured on the song with longtime partner CL Smooth in addition to producing it, including the scratches.

While lyrics and particular artists factor into the execution, they don’t supersede the feel of the scenes and how the music interacts with what’s on screen. The Last Dance offered Hehir and Chung opportunities to do the aforementioned while also sneaking little gems from the past into the documentary when possible.

After the Bulls finally defeated the Detroit Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, they’re seen celebrating on the team plane as they returned to Chicago victorious. A version of Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now” plays as they watch a 1988 video of Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and former Bull Charles Oakley dancing to the song while reciting its defiant lyrics. The old video has attained a degree of cult fame in the digital era. Because you can’t hear its audio clearly and wouldn’t catch the reference without being aware of it, Hehir confirms that its inclusion was deliberate. “You hit the sweet spot with these soundtracks when people who don’t get the hidden meaning appreciate it, but the people who do get it say, ‘That’s a little wink they were giving us,’” he explains. “That’s why we showed that quick clip on the plane when they’re literally watching that video.”

The scene ends with Jordan literally driving off into the sunset in his white Porsche 911. In addition to “How Ya Like Me Now” exemplifying the Bulls’ long-gestating “Fuck you” to the Pistons, the scene doubles down on what The Last Dance represents: layers of nostalgia.

The power and reliability of nostalgia makes Hehir’s and Chung’s jobs easier. “It was almost selfish the amount of music I put in there because I just love these songs so much and they remind me of listening to them with my brothers and friends, and these things blasting out of a boombox when I was a little kid,” Hehir says. “But I did not expect for so many people to have shared that exact same experience with their friends and family, and their boomboxes back when they were kids.” Chung says they flirted with the idea of having contemporary artists cover classics. They made the correct decision to avoid that, as it would’ve undercut the potency of the songs they selected. “[Jason] wanted this thing to almost be like a time capsule,” he says. “I think that was the right choice, because part of the reason people have really responded to the show and to the music is the nostalgia factor.”

The Last Dance is an intriguing look at one of the biggest stories in sports’ history, but there’s no doubt that its inherent nostalgia is a key element of the response to it. With people forced to quarantine for the sake of self-preservation, many are finding collective solace in not only the things they enjoy, but small liberties they perhaps took for granted in the pre-coronavirus days. The Last Dance’s mission was to combine sports and music in an effort to encapsulate the era, but that adopted a different meaning when “normal” life came to a hard stop in March. In a time of severe doubt, fascination with the past has become an area of security. “I think people are watching and seeing that, and it’s sparking nostalgia and making people think, ‘I miss that right now,’” Kay Gee says. “At this time, anything is great to get us through this.”

“I’ve heard a lot of feedback from friends whose kids are playing youth-league basketball who are just as riveted by this series as their parents,” Chung says. “And I think that’s a really powerful thing: The timing of the appeal of Jordan, Jordan Brand, basketball, and the lack of sports is kind of the perfect storm for the series.” In addition to inspiring numerous debates, The Last Dance’s arrival is adjacent to certain discussions that won’t go away. The Jordan versus Kobe versus LeBron argument. If certain players would thrive in different eras. Whether Drake is a more prolific hitmaker than Jay-Z. “I think that while people are yearning for nostalgia, I think there’s also comparisons between sports today and different eras,” Chung says. “So I guess, in a way, it’s not just nostalgia, which is cool, but it’s also kicking up a lot of conversations about the differences between then and now.”

That’s because nostalgia is a shelter. “It’s a safe, warm, comfortable place for people to go back to, and sports are such a way of connecting with people,” Hehir says. “That’s the most important aspect of sports fandom: connection. Whether it’s with your family and friends, or if it’s with strangers. High fiving a stranger next to you at a game or giving the guy wearing your team’s hat a nod. That’s how we connect with people through sports. There’s a fundamental lack of connection, globally, right now.” The Last Dance, Hehir says, serves as a remedy without feeling like medicine: “I think that, of all moments in my lifetime, this is when nostalgia is relied upon the most to make us feel better and to give us a momentary escape from a very scary time.”

All of the music featured in The Last Dance aims to establish a connection. “You’re at a party and you get to grab the aux cord and play your song, and it resonates with other people around you, and they give you a head nod like, ‘That’s a good choice,’” Hehir says. “Basically, I’m grabbing one giant aux cord and plugging it into the boom box that is this documentary and trying to get people to give me that nod that acknowledges they love this music, too. That’s a way of connecting strangers: through art.”

Still, Hehir insists he isn’t holding a torch for old-school hip-hop despite his relationship with it. “This was a nod to the people from that generation,” he says. “To say, ‘This, to me, was anthemic music for a pivotal moment in pop culture to see the rise of this team and this one superstar.’ So it was certainly done in hopes that the people who were alive then will connect with it, but if new fans want to connect with this music and their eyes are opened to the greatness of it, then fine. But I don’t even begrudge younger kids if they think current hip-hop is better than old hip-hop, because I felt that way 20 years ago.”

The music of The Last Dance charts hip-hop’s leap from nascent art form to the brink of its celebration as a dominant genre while Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls secured their place in history. It embodies the nostalgia that has become a safe form of escapism during the pandemic. We have little choice but to engage with the past for entertainment right now because the future seems bleak.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.

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