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How ‘Hey Arnold!’ and Its Iconic Score Introduced a Generation to Jazz

A conversation with composer Jim Lang, whose music challenged kids but also hooked them in

Ringer illustration

Thirty years ago this week, a rising, but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s many iconic characters and the legacy of the network as a whole with the Best Nickelodeon Character Bracket. Below is an excerpt of a conversation from this week’s Ringer Music Show with Jim Lang, the composer of Hey Arnold! Listen to the full interview here.

I want to start by going back to the ’90s and talking about the golden age of Nickelodeon. You had shows like Blue’s Clues, you had Hey Arnold!, you had Rugrats, and you had people like Coolio doing the theme song for Kenan & Kel. Can you describe the world of Nick at that time and the process of you and the series’ creator, Craig Bartlett, coming together to work on the show?

Well, first of all, Nick at that time was a product of great, awesome women making animation. The girl power was palpable on the executive level. The women that we worked with and the women that started the network were trying to do something that did not really have anything to do with animation as it was being practiced at the time. Their aesthetic was renegade, and they were really open to making stuff that was just about letting the creators run with some crazy ideas. Ren & Stimpy, perfect example of that. But Craig and I met working for a company that does theme parks and visitor centers, so it was very buttoned-down. In fact, on the gig that I met him, he was locked in a warehouse in Japan with a bunch of Japanese engineers trying to make industrial robots do the “Funky Chicken.”

So we bonded on that gig and the rest was history, as they say. But we had done a few things together before Hey Arnold! came along. I knew that Craig was an animator and I had certainly seen the Arnold claymation stuff when we started out. But I didn’t really have much of an idea what the gig was going to turn into or what the show would be. And in fact, I don’t think any of us really did. The whole idea of Hey Arnold! was that he was being called back from daydreaming in class. If you’ve seen the original claymation videos, he’s sitting in church and imagining as they pray, walking through the valley of the shadow of death and all the crazy stuff, visualizing all that stuff. So he was a dreamer, but he hadn’t quite turned into the everyman that he became in the series. And that process of developing that character, watching that character develop and participating in that was really awesome. It was, I think, one of the coolest things about that gig.

I want to talk about you as a composer for a little bit. Talk to me about those recording sessions, the players that you got together, putting together the bands for these tunes. What was that like for you?

Well, technology has a lot to do with it. We all assume that technology is a big part of music because of the way we make music now, but you have to remember, at that point, MIDI was only a few years old. And so the traditional process of making music for TV had been turned upside down because you could sit in a room with a computer and basically build an entire track without having any other warm bodies involved. I played in bands, I toured with Joe Cocker, the Pointer Sisters, Todd Rundgren, and people like that. But for me in bands, there was always a frustration of not being able to get exactly the thing that I wanted, the sound that I had in my head. And now all of a sudden you could use a computer and you could get exactly the sound that you wanted to have in your head.

So a lot of the music-making process on that show for me was throwing these weird elements together and then at the end of the process, having say Nick Kirgo, who played all the guitar on the score, or Bill Liston who played all the woodwinds, having them come in at the end and just put the icing on the cake. I didn’t have a big studio. I was working in my basement. You could stand in the middle of the room and touch the ceiling with your hand. So, having a session was basically watching somebody lug a bunch of shit up Baxter Street, which is the third-steepest street in Los Angeles. And then pack them into a corner of the room and then pushing record.

Do you feel like you have a signature sound? Because to me, when I listen back to so much of that music, I hear obviously, the Fender Rhodes sounds, the Moogs. I’m going to take a guess and say the Roland keyboards and the Yamaha keyboards of the ’90s are in there.

I don’t know that I really could. I will say one thing, I love to play bass. I love to play synth bass, and so a lot of times, especially in the Hey Arnold! queues, it would start with a bass groove or a rhythmic figure that incorporated some bottom end in it. I’ve always been a very percussive keyboard player. I don’t have a lot of dexterity, but I love that polyrhythmic thinking where you’re basically playing drums on the keyboard. So I think a lot of the stuff sprang from that, at least the groove-oriented stuff.

I want to jump back to that, the influence of jazz. I recently found out as of yesterday, that you also were a composer on one of my other favorite shows, Lloyd in Space, which is such an underrated show.

Oh, get out of here, that’s great.

I love that show, but it made me start thinking about the era of the ’90s and early 2000s, and the music that was being created at that time. When you look at a company like Disney, they were very pop-oriented. Was there any pushback when you approached them and said, “Hey, here’s the score for this children’s show. It’s jazz, it’s fusion, it’s funk”?

I think we had one conversation about music with the producers, when we were talking about the theme song for the show. Craig always had the idea that there was a swing mentality around the music somewhere. And he always used to sing this little, “Arnold, you crazy nut,” finger popping in the background. “Arnold, you crazy nut.” And so we sat down with the executives and we were talking about the theme for the show. And we sang that thing and we were about three notes into it and they were low moaning at the other end of the table. So it was like, “OK, well, I guess that’s not going to work.” But that was the only time and then, obviously Craig and I talked about what we wanted to do musically heading into making the show.

Both of us independently had been listening to Jason Bentley’s show back in the day, and Jason was playing a lot of acid jazz. And we just thought that’s a really cool mashup of that great pop jazz era of the ‘60s and contemporary beats. We thought, “Hey, that’s a really good touchstone for making the music Hey Arnold!” But to really answer your question, I never ever got a note from the executives about the music in the show. And in fact, on certain occasions I would try to make them say, “Ouch.” I’d think, “OK, this a chase scene or something like that, I’m going to try and pretend I’m the Art Ensemble of Chicago.” And just see if I can get so out that they’ll say, “No, you can’t do that on TV.” And they never said anything.

Wow, that’s amazing.

It’s a real blessing. Making animation and filmmaking in general is very collaborative and that’s one of the really cool things about it. But also being given your head and being allowed to go out there and explore, do whatever you want, it’s a rarity and it’s awesome when it happens.

I think so often, older people that are working on shows or on media for children, tend to think, “Jazz isn’t relevant. Kids don’t like jazz. Jazz is culturally not important anymore.” But it’s funny because if you look at the basis of a lot of children’s TV shows, I think of The Pink Panther, I think of people like Vince Guaraldi, that’s just straight-up jazz. Why do we get that wrong?

I think people tend to assume that children can’t deal with complexity. I think it’s a curse of making entertainment for kids, animated entertainment especially. Craig and I were working on another show one time and we were making a song that was by its nature complicated. We were trying to make a song about the dinosaurs from A to Z, and you can imagine with names like ichthyosaurus and names like that, you’re making a song where you use all those names, 26 of them. It’s going to be a crazy-making attempt. And the song was really complex, and the conversation with the executives was, “Kids will never get this.” And I said, “One of my favorite songs when I was growing up was ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and the whole deal was it was a challenge to be able to learn how to say that song.”

So, no, kids do actually really love things that they’re challenged by. And as you cited, there’s some really great examples of jazz having been used in kids entertainment. Mister Rogers obviously had nothing but straight-up jazz piano behind that whole show. And they didn’t shy away from it for a second, and it was completely organic.

To hear the full conversation, check out this week’s episode of The Ringer Music Show here.