Like a rookie making their debut by hitting a Game 7 buzzer-beater, nobody saw Quad City DJ’s coming. Though not yet a household name when Space Jam debuted in 1996, the Florida trio’s theme song for the movie bounced across a digitally animated stage crawling with rabbits, basketball superstars, and aliens and into seemingly every pair of speakers around the world. “I have pictures of Michael [Jordan] pulling up at the premiere … and he told me that it was his two boys’ favorite song on the soundtrack,” says Quad City DJ’s cofounder Johnny “Jay Ski” McGowan. “He says, ‘Man, they play your song over and over again.’ … It was amazing!” With only a single album to their name, Quad City DJ’s ran through the halls of Miami bass culture to launch a pop smash as thrilling, propulsive, and instantly monumental as His Airness. Faster than you can rhyme “room” with “kaboom,” Jay Ski, JeLana LaFleur, and Nathaniel “C.C. Lemonhead” Orange became the resounding slam dunk of history’s greatest intergalactic sports pop culture film.
“I’m like a proud uncle, sitting there smiling,” says Luther Campbell, a.k.a. Luke Skyywalker of Miami bass legends 2 Live Crew. “Anything at those times not coming from New York, people had no time for. … And for these guys to be successful on a major soundtrack and it’s a bass record? … I was happy, proud, elated anytime our music and culture from the South, especially from Florida, gets recognized.”
As the leader of the platinum-selling 2 Live Crew, Campbell helped lay the groundwork for Miami bass as a genre and the Quad City DJ’s take on the state’s unique place in hip-hop history. This was when Miami locals skewered the idea that rap could live only in New York or L.A., and instead brought the city’s cultural imprint off the beaches and onto the dance floor at 120 beats per minute. “We have calypso, uptempo, congas, tom-toms, lots of beaches, sun, and fun,” Campbell says. “We live in a melting pot with people from Jamaica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Haiti. We weren’t trying to be like Run-DMC, Sugarhill Gang. I wanted to do music where people could appreciate where we’re from.”
While Campbell represented South Florida, Jay Ski and C.C. Lemonhead were establishing their own version of the bass scene in Jacksonville. Their first project was the Chill Deal Boyz, a group that Jay Ski himself admits was trying to make New York hip-hop records rather than fully embracing Florida. From there, the duo produced for other artists and formed a new group called 95 South, named after the highway that runs down the East Coast and ends in South Florida. As their journey toward embracing their home turf continued, 95 South’s debut album began building a following in Florida, despite a lukewarm reception nationally. It may have had something to do with the title, Quad City Knock. “Everybody thought that meant we were from Iowa,” Jay Ski says with a laugh. “For us, quad meant having four 15-inch speakers in your car. [Quad City] was our place, our fictitious world.” To add to the confusion, the group’s biggest hit, “Whoot, There It Is” predated Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is)” by only one month; 95 South’s song sold a very respectable 1 million copies and reached no. 11 on the Hot 100, but Tag Team’s track went quadruple platinum and was featured in TV shows and movies from Martin to Elf.
“[Miami bass] is influenced by Dominican music, Brazilian music, Afro-Cuban music. … It merged dance music and hip-hop in a way that I think is really profound,” explains Morgan Rhodes, co-music supervisor for Space Jam: A New Legacy, the sequel to the original out Friday. “That’s so important because of the global interface of all these cultures, and that extended the reach of hip-hop.” By being more honest about themselves and their city, Jay Ski and C.C. Lemonhead had no choice but to mine those depths of Miami’s bass sound and its global ties for their next project, 69 Boyz. “After hearing 2 Live Crew, that’s when I really started taking a real interest in the Miami sound,” Jay Ski adds. With “Whoot, There It Is” still sitting on the charts and demanding all of 95 South’s marketing push, the duo struck upon a track too good to have to wait to release. Jay Ski and C.C. Lemonhead wanted to pounce on the moment, but their 95 South contract meant that they couldn’t release a track elsewhere under their names. So instead they jumped behind the boards as producers and brought in the rapper Thrill Da Playa, and immediately hit it big with “Tootsee Roll,” a second simultaneous platinum-selling single on the chart along with “Whoot, There It Is.” The song also augmented Quad City’s world: “The beginning of that record, the lyrics go, ‘69 Boyz backed up by the Quad City DJ’s.’ There wasn’t a Quad City DJ’s, but again, thinking marketing, I started setting up for it to possibly be a group of DJs,” Jay Ski says. “Vocally I’m all over the records and we produced it … so 95 South and 69 Boyz were all really just our way of putting out records and not breaking contracts.” The duo were becoming accustomed to complex worlds and taking on other monikers, all in the pursuit of achieving the ultimate Miami bass heat—traits that would serve them well when Bugs Bunny and Space Jam came knocking.
From the age of 5 on, all JeLana LaFleur wanted to do was perform. “As long as I can remember, I told my mom I was going to be a superstar,” the Minnesotan says with a laugh. She studied ballet, tap, and jazz dance, but hip-hop took center stage in high school, when she began forming a series of dance groups. At 14, LaFleur put together a demo tape, singing with a group of friends under the name Pizazz. In college, she attended Freaknik, a spring break festival in Atlanta primarily attended by students of historically black colleges and universities. “I first met Jay there, when they were shooting a video there for their group, the 69 Boyz,” she says. LaFleur and her friends wove through the crowds, trying their best to get into the shot. “Their manager came over, and I’m begging them, like, ‘I can dance! I promise I won’t let you down!’” she says. “We harassed the band and their management company until they finally got super sick of us and offered us jobs as backup dancers.”
Then one afternoon, C.C. Lemonhead called LaFleur and her fellow dancers into the studio to do background vocals, but her move to Florida hadn’t quite shaken that Minnesotan twang. “[They said] the accent just wasn’t working for the vibe they were going for,” she says. Her Midwestern persistence pierced through, and after LaFleur insisted she could sing, C.C. Lemonhead brought LaFleur back in the following week to sing the hook for a new track he and Jay Ski were working on: “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train).”
Even if LaFleur claims not to have known of any potential double entendre in the song (“I don’t know if this is me being naive, but ‘The Train’ was always a dance move”), the Miami bass scene stood out for its sexually hypercharged lyrics. In fact, Luke and 2 Live Crew were long embroiled in a fight with the government over freedom of speech. Around the time Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center were looking to censor or limit the release of music with references to drugs, violence, and sex in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a U.S. District Court ruled that 2 Live Crew’s 1989 album As Nasty As They Wanna Be (which featured tracks like “The Fuck Shop” and “Dick Almighty,” not to mention breakout hit “Me So Horny”) was legally obscene. But after years of appeals, Campbell and the group won out, reinforcing an artist’s right to vulgarity. “You’ve got to create a Miami sound—not only a sound, but what are you going to be talking about? In Miami, there’s sun, fun, beaches, parties, half-naked this, half-naked that,” Luke says. 2 Live Crew started sampling comedians and Dolemite, and the lyrics became more explicit to match that energy.
When talking about sex is so good that it gets people out of the bedroom and onto the dance floor, DJs take notice. And between the heat generated by the likes of 2 Live Crew, the rapidfire success of “Whoot, There It Is” and “Tootsee Roll,” and a few well-placed demo tapes, labels came calling for Jay Ski and C.C. Lemonhead. As a former DJ himself and the owner of Big Beat Records (which had been acquired by Atlantic Records), Craig Kallman flew to Orlando to strike a deal. “For dance floors around the country, [Quad City DJ’s] would be an electrifying kind of sound,” Kallman says. “For club-goers, it would be a peak 1 a.m. record.” Thanks in part to gut instinct and a love for music amassed over years as a DJ in New York, Kallman has since risen to become chairman and CEO of the Atlantic Records Group. “I was always trying to be on the cutting edge of what was new and exciting, what was fresh and would really give the crowds that I was DJing to an exciting boost,” he explains.
After recording “The Train,” Jay Ski offered JeLana membership in a new project now known as Quad City DJ’s. At first designed as a trio with the formidable C.C. Lemonhead, the group became a duo when the writer-producer instead opted to stay behind the scenes. Once “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” solidified Quad City DJ’s as a third platinum-selling act in Jay Ski and C.C. Lemonhead’s repertoire, their high-energy bass sound perfectly fit a new project that recently arrived on Kallman’s radar. “I heard about Warner Bros. developing something with their cartoons and Michael Jordan. The minute I heard that, that was a project I had to get,” he explains. “[Quad City DJ’s] were just so brilliantly talented and fresh, really exciting, dynamic music. … I wanted to have what was really current and exciting in music. … They were in a great position to keep the party going.”
The cinematic Space Jam concept may now be a no-brainer, but when it was in development, it took some convincing. “Craig calls me one day and says, ‘Jay, there’s a movie coming out with Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, and we have the soundtrack.’ And I’m thinking, ‘OK,’” Jay Ski says with a laugh. But never one to pass up a good business move, he decided that not only would the group contribute a track, but it would need to be the title track. “I said to Craig, ‘I’ll give you a record under one condition. I want to do the title track just in case this movie is all what you’re saying.’ I’m smart enough to know that the title track gets a lot of extra attention,” Jay Ski says.
Combining Miami bass, a basketball hero, and iconic cartoons in an interstitial world, Space Jam entered the pop culture rhythm on the coattails of commercials for Nike and McDonald’s. Veteran commercial director Joe Pytka helmed the ads, the former featuring Bugs and MJ on the basketball court and the latter featuring Jordan dueling Larry Bird in a ludicrous game of horse. But the outlandish hooping wouldn’t end there, and Pytka eventually made the leap from the commercials to the big screen. “Jim Riswold at [ad agency] Wieden+Kennedy sent me some storyboards with Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. Jim is a Bugs Bunny freak,” Pytka explains. “The movie was based basically on the commercials. … Warner Bros. could see that the public liked the idea because of both commercials and Michael Jordan’s popularity. So putting Michael Jordan with Bugs Bunny seemed [like] a good corporate idea.”
Unlike advertising, Space Jam didn’t feel like it was trying to influence or rewire your brain into thinking there was something to be bought—even if Jordan’s publicist in the film (played by Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight) literally lists the full carousel of the Chicago Bull’s product sponsorships, from Hanes to Gatorade. That comes in part from Pytka’s absolute adoration of Jordan, an icon unmatched in his domination of the public consciousness in the ’90s. But rushed onto the project only months before shooting was meant to begin, Pytka and music supervisor Ken Ross shot to temp tracks, without knowing what would eventually become of the soundtrack. “[Ken] was having trouble with musicians because they didn’t really trust that the movie was going to be any good. … When we were casting, a lot of people wouldn’t be in the movie,” Pytka says. “[Bill] Murray was in the script from the beginning, but they couldn’t book him until the movie started. Rumor has it that Michael Jordan had to beg him to be in the movie.”
Jay Ski shared that hesitation after getting an early look at some footage of Jordan sharing dialogue with actors in green-screen suits, but forged ahead on “Space Jam” anyway. “I can’t say that I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to be a slam dunk.’ … When I saw some clips, I’m like, ‘This looks pretty cheesy,’” he says. Much more than a slam dunk, Space Jam earned more than $230 million worldwide at the box office, made even more on home media and merchandise, and developed an entire generation of acolytes. “The planets aligned and it took off. … [Space Jam] sealed us in the history books as that group that made those fun records.”
Quad City DJ’s “Space Jam” not only made it onto the soundtrack, it set the rim-rattling tone for the entire film. Laid over the opening credits and vintage photographs of a young Michael Jordan, those classic Miami bass 808s and call-and-response vocals match the tempo of both Jordan cutting through defenders and Porky Pig elevating on his teammates’ shoulders for a dunk. “The term ‘Space Jam’ is stupid. [The producers came up with] that title for our frickin’ movie. … [The song] is full of energy and joy, a great party song,” Pytka says. “The song is a perfect iteration of that title.”
True to form for a stadium anthem that could be peppered throughout an NBA game, Quad City DJ’s initially interpolated a sample of the now-incarcerated Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2),” but the sample was pulled at the last minute. “[Craig] was the one that said, ‘Pull that sample out and the record is still awesome,’” Jay Ski says. Kallman similarly recalls a collegial, collaborative process: “Jay was such a pleasure to work with, one of those real sonic geniuses. [He and C.C.] had such a creative, unique style and musical approach. It was a lot of fun to marry that to pictures on the screen.”
Throughout the track, JeLana’s voice ties the rubbery bass and Jay’s rhymes to the beat. A star turn, there’s a wild spirit and urgency in her hook: “Here’s your chance, do your dance at the Space Jam … all right,” she sings, the smirk immediately evident.
Warners loved the theme song so much that the studio brought Quad City DJ’s out to perform in front of the theater for multiple premiere screenings. “The soundtrack had R. Kelly, Seal, Monica, and we were the only ones that they invited,” Jay Ski says. “They set up a stage outside each premiere and we were [there] performing ‘Space Jam’ and ‘C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)’ on a loop.” LaFleur found herself overwhelmed by the fan response. “It was really weird! I’ve always been just me, this little 5-foot girl from Minnesota,” she says. “And to see people excited to see me, singing along with the songs, crying, I’m just like, ‘I don’t understand! It’s just me!’”
“I was very aware of that soundtrack. It was iconic. It was hard to go anywhere that summer without hearing a song from it,” says Malcolm D. Lee, director of Space Jam: A New Legacy. “I didn’t see it when it first came out. I watched it right before I came onto the movie. … [But] they’re songs that transcended the soundtrack.” Spawning six singles, five of which charted, and going on to certify six-times platinum, it seemed as if Space Jam: Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture was assigned to every young person with a CD player in 1996. During a time when pop music was still spoonfed through the radio funnel and access to local scenes was slim, soundtracks became essential gateways into the breadth of ’90s music, with CDs becoming a 4.75-inch portal of music discovery. “I do remember the ’90s as being a time where the soundtracks were phenomenal, and I was buying a lot of soundtracks,” Morgan Rhodes says. “Both Kier [Lehman, co–music supervisor] and I were fans of the original [Space Jam] soundtrack, so to re-create the feeling that we’d had listening to it was a joy.”
Twenty-five years later in its pop culture afterlife, the original “Space Jam” theme was remixed for early trailers for the imminent LeBron James–starring sequel. Jay Ski’s urges to run, shoot, slam, and jam are still there, as is JeLana’s smoky curl, but the quickfire bass and stuttered percussion are replaced with epic thumps and glitchy twinkles. “That song is fire and Quad City DJ’s are doing something … but we reimagined it in a very, very cool way,” Rhodes says. “[It’s] an aha moment for people like me that love Quad City DJ’s and Miami bass, but also something cool for this generation.” Rhodes and Lee hope that the likes of Chance the Rapper, Lil Baby, and Big Freedia can achieve the same dominant soundtrack success. “[Hip-hop] and basketball have always had a symbiotic relationship,” Lee says. “There is no American culture without African American culture. … And both today’s hip-hop and ’90s hip-hop have a strong influence in the fabric of the soundtrack.”
By taking a lead role in Space Jam, Quad City DJ’s opened Miami bass up to the world. Even with massive regional success and a handful of legitimate charting singles, nothing could’ve exposed the genre to the entire world as succinctly as “Space Jam.” Rather than competing, the Florida groups supported each other and grew together, uplifted by the Warners seal of approval. “When you start something, you want it to grow. You don’t want it to be just you,” Luke says. “I wanted all those guys to do good, and they made me right.”
In two and a half decades, boundless nostalgia has transformed Space Jam from mere film to cultural touchstone. Even NBA players idolize it, with Patrick Patterson calling Space Jam “the perfect movie” in a Players’ Tribune op-ed and Zach LaVine donning a Tune Squad jersey for the 2015 dunk contest. That kind of adoration amps up the pressure for anyone attempting to build on that legacy. “You try to respect the nostalgia that people feel for something, but … you have to realize you’re not going to satisfy everybody,” Lee says. “If people give it a chance, they’ll be more than satisfied.”
Since 1996, the Quad City DJ’s have largely drifted apart, with C.C. Lemonhead stepping out of the business and JeLana and Jay Ski only recently coming back together from time to time for NBA halftime performances. Their lone album, Get On Up and Dance, had its 25th anniversary a few months before that of Space Jam, and it never yielded a single that could rival “The Train” or “Space Jam.” Zoom into 2021 and Jay Ski couldn’t be more honored by the band’s corner in history. “I was pretty satisfied with ending it on ‘Space Jam.’ If I was going to go out, I was gonna go out on a hit record,” he says. For LaFleur, back in Minnesota, the film and interconnected memories pop up from time to time. “For a long time, to me, it was like a failure almost because I didn’t get to finish what I had dreamed about for so long,” she says of the group’s eventual dissolution. “It wasn’t until some friends of mine were like, ‘Do you know how proud of you we are?’ … that I was just like, ‘Wait, why am I ashamed of this? Why am I looking at this the wrong way? You’ve done something that people dream of doing.’”
Lior Phillips is a South African–born, Chicago-based freelance music and culture journalist who has written for The Guardian, Variety, GQ South Africa, and Billboard. She is also the host of the podcast This Must Be the Gig. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @liorphillips.