NBA

‘The Last Dance’ Soundtrack Perfectly Parallels the Rise of Hip Hop in America

The bulk of the debate surrounding ESPN’s The Last Dance involved the story it covered. After all, it’s the tale Michael Jordan, the most famous athlete in the world during the height of his career with an eclectic cast of amusing characters. Lost in all of this, however, is the documentary’s production. One exceptional way it set the mood was the soundtrack. 

Framing The Last Dance

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While The Last Dance frames its story as Michael Jordan’s final year as a member of the Bulls, reports the Deseret News, it tells the story of the culture that got him there, too. The film gave viewers candid details about not only his rise to fame but his teammates, too. People saw a kid growing up in North Carolina become one of the most recognizable people on earth, the rise of Dennis Rodman, and gripping tale of Steve Kerr’s childhood.

Director Jason Hehir used several techniques to capture these stories. Woven around the in-depth coverage captured by a camera crew in 1998 were news clips, interviews, film clips, and footage from dozens of basketball games. While the documentary was, at its core, a look at the career of Michael Jordan and how the Bulls both rose and fell, it was also about the culture that allowed that to happen. 

Music fans might have noticed that the documentary had an underlying score of classic hip-hop tracks to set the mood for every era presented. From the ’80s turntables to more heavily-produced ’90s samples, musical cues were vital to the story. Hehir and his production team made sure that every song in the soundtrack helped tell the overlying story. 

Selecting music for The Last Dance

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The 1998 Chicago Bulls were not just a basketball team. They were a cultural touchstone. Hehir knew this. As he chose music for the documentary, he wanted to parallel culture’s place with both the team and soundtrack.

 “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,” Hehir said in an interview with The Ringer. 

Music plays a significant role for Jordan and the Bulls. MJ had his own theme song in a classic Gatorade commercial. And the Alan Parsons Project song “Sirius” is synonymous with the Bulls’ glory days. For the documentary, however, the focus on the music went broader. 

Hehir worked with music director Rudy Chung to ensure that every song set the time and culture for those who didn’t experience it firsthand. 

“The main objective for me was for people to experience the music that I experienced during the time that I was watching Michael,” Hehir explained. “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.”

While the soundtrack was a dream for hip hop fans, Hehir was worried more about the story they helped tell than any song’s catchiness.

The Last Dance soundtrack

A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, The Beastie Boys, and Nas were just some of the legendary artists featured on the soundtrack, as Men’s Health details. It gives an unspoken history of hip hop through the lens of basketball without ever saying a word about it. Hehir and Chung knew this, and as a result, they created something extraordinary. 

Much like telling a work of fiction, telling a true-life is a process. All of the footage in the world can’t save a documentary if its story is told in a sloppy matter. The Last Dance showed this by giving audiences a soundtrack they could sink their teeth into. The result was one of the most memorable television events in years.