Back in January, I published a post titled “15 Record Store Releases That Should Exist,” outlining a selection of music related releases — resissues, first time vinyl pressings, book and video ideas — that I’d like to see finally become available to the public. While I opted to go in a different direction than the typical route of cutting and pasting the full RSD list and/or posting recommendations from this year’s titles, there was one specific album that I did consider doing an entire piece on: the Judgment Night original motion picture soundtrack. This album continues to fascinate me for a handful of different reasons, but the idea would have been to present a track by track review to see how well the material has held up, since it originally hit shelves in 1993. I would imagine that most people on the younger side of the record collecting game may not have even been familiar with this release prior to the RSD announcement — this marked its first ever vinyl treatment in the US — but for many of us who were alive and purchasing music the first time around, the Judgment Night soundtrack is remembered as somewhat of a monumental project. That being said, what level of impact or influence it truly had or continues to possess in the music world is still debatable.
One of the most notable things about the compilation is that it was by far more successful than the motion picture that it was created for. In fact, most of the people who I’ve spoken to about it over the years barely remember the film at all, or even if they’ve watched it all the way through or not — it’s forgettable, at best, and the critical reception was garbage. The plot revolves around a group of friends played by Emilio Estevez (The Breakfast Club, Repo Man, Young Guns, The Mighty Ducks), Stephen Dorff (The Gate, S.F.W., Blade), Cuba Gooding Jr, (Boyz N The Hood, Jerry Maguire), and Jeremy Piven (PCU), who accidentally witness a murder while taking a shortcut through the inner city on their way to a boxing match. This results in them being pursued by a dangerous street gang led by comedian, Denis Leary (The Ref, Demolition Man) for the rest of the movie. Like the film itself, the music that accompanied it is about as 90s as you’re gonna get.
One of Leary‘s goons in the flick is played by Eric “Everlast” Schrody from House Of Pain, and the Los Angles rap trio teamed up with the band Helmet for the soundtrack’s lead-off number, “Just Another Victim.” The rest of the album consists of similar pairings of prominent figures in the rock and hip hop worlds, including Biohazard and ONYX; Slayer doing a medley of 3 Exploited songs with Ice-T; Faith No More backing Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E.; and Cypress Hill appearing on two separate tracks: one with Sonic Youth and the other with Pearl Jam. There were moments that sounded slightly forced or jammed together, but there were also gems like that Sonic Youth/Cypress HIll cut and the tune by De La Soul and Teenage Fanclub that really felt like a blend of the respective groups’ sounds melding together for something unique, rather than something that was simply constructed for the sake of novelty.
The amount of respected names that were brought in for this thing and the fact that the album was comprised entirely of these sort of collaborations was seen as fairly innovative and groundbreaking at the time. Thanks to Record Store Day, a new generation of music lovers are now being given the opportunity to experience the soundtrack 23 years after it first made waves on alternative radio. But more importantly are the droves of aging Gen-Xers inspired to force this music, and their tales of its incredible “importance,” down the throats of their offspring in that younger generation who simply couldn’t give a shit. Thanks to the magic of Youtube, I recently stumbled across live footage of Dinosaur Jr and Del The Funky Homosapian performing their contribution, “Missing Link,” on none other than the Arsenio Hall show and, if you’re a fan of nostalgia, this thing contains enough throwback mojo to suck you into a bottomless rabbit hole of Jncos and flannels with a hood sewn in.
Nothing captures the time period and musical climate of the early 90s better than Arsenio. Keep in mind that this was 1993 and, while the late night program would only last for another year, Late Night with Conan O’Brien had been on for less than a month when the Dinosaur/Del appearance aired, so Hall‘s show was still the go-to for more cutting edge musical acts back then. Dinosaur was at their commercial peak during that period, after releasing Where You Been, their last studio effort created as a full band during their initial run, before becoming what was, for all intents and purposes, a J Mascis solo project. I had recently caught them on the main stage at Lollapalooza that summer, a tour that Mascis has been quoted as claiming they were “tricked” into playing, adding that the experience was so terrible that drummer, Murph “was really freaked out by all of it and had to quit when it was over.” It had been years since founding (and now current) bassist, Lou Barlow “left” the band and was ultimately replaced by Mike Johnson (Mark Lanegan, Caustic Resin), and the lineup that was assembled for the Arsenio show is what really makes this video standout. Along with Del on the mic, Mascis is accompanied by 3 Mikes of his own. This time around, Johnson was manning a second guitar, making room for legendary bassist, Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOUSE, The Stooges) in the ensemble. Adding another level to the rap/rock crossover concept, the group was rounded off with drummer, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, which were not only one of the all-time most influential groups in hip hop history, but also started out as a punk outfit.
Analyzing The Impact
Beyond the typical racist comments that are expected below any Youtube video regardless of content, the comment section under the above video includes a number of people reminiscing about when the Judgment Night soundtrack was first released and/or crediting it for being “influential” and “groundbreaking.” One such comment urges people to remember that it was “pre-Roots era,” but that statement is only partially true and can be fairly misleading. The Roots actually formed in ’87 and their debut album, Organix, came out months prior to the soundtrack’s release. Of course, that didn’t exactly springboard the Philadelphia crew into the spotlight overnight and I’m sure that by “era,” the commenter was likely referring more to when they finally gained their popularity, but this remains a discussion about influence, which means that it’s important to clarify that Judgment Night had no impact on the formation or musical direction that would launch The Roots, whatsoever. Comparisons between the two are limited and feel somewhat inconsequential anyway, as The Roots are a hip hop group through and through, while the significance of Judgment Night is attributed to it being the collision of two otherwise separate musical worlds. Plus, Stetsasonic was utilizing live instrumentation in hip hop well before The Roots were, anyway.
If the focus is placed exclusively on the merger of rock and rap music, as it should be, then even then, we’re dealing with somewhat of a grey area, because hip hop music by nature is built on a foundation of sampling and re-purposing of other genres. The rock-heavy production of albums like the Beasties Boys debut, Licensed To Ill (1986), which prominently features samples by rock legends like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, is one prime example. Even more apt would be RUN-DMC‘s rap version/remake of Aerosmith‘s “Walk This Way” (also in ’86), which featured Aerosmith frontman, Steven Tyler, and guitarist, Joe Perry, joining the rap trio on both the track and its iconic music video. A critical and commercial success, this collaboration, which was in heavy rotation on MTV back in the day, represents an undeniable milestone, rightly credited with helping rap music finally break into mainstream culture and the public consciousness at a level that it had never achieved up until that point. Another rap/rock collab pre-dating the soundtrack is the version of “Bring The Noise” that Public Enemy re-recorded with Anthrax in 1991. This marked another important crossover milestone, but since both PE and Anthrax tended to drift toward the more extreme ends of their respective genres, it seemed to make less of a widespread impact across the board, not heavily showcased during prime-time hours the way that “Walk This Way” had been.
What many people probably don’t realize is that House Of Pain originally involved a live band, too, but as Everlast has explained, they bagged that idea after MTV aired Yo! Unplugged Rap back in May of 1991, prompting a wave of other rap crews to adopt a similar formula and making them feel much less original and enthusiastic about their direction. If anything, that hour-long special featuring various hip hop acts being given the “unplugged” treatment with a live acoustic backing band, coupled with the RUN-DMC/Aerosmith and Public Enemy/Anthrax tracks before it, are what established the foundation for the Judgment Night soundtrack to exist, at all.
Am I claiming that Judgment Night had no impact or influence on music and popular culture, whatsoever? Definitely not. But, I do believe that the impact and influence that it did have may not necessarily be what most people so often attribute to it. Live hip hop groups and even rock/rap collaborations predated it, and not exclusively on an underground level, either — “Walk This Way” infiltrated the top 5 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, while resurrecting Aerosmith‘s failing career. In fact, the first Rage Against the Machine album was released in September of 1992, almost a full year before Judgment Night. Even earlier in ’92, the Beastie Boys released Check Your Head, which saw them wielding live instruments on the recording and touring in support of the album alongside Cypress Hill and Rollins Band. What Judgment Night really did was take that formula presented by its predecessors and build on it, while benefiting from both timing and scale. Its level of impact stems from the fact that nothing of that magnitude had ever been attempted before, let alone with that many notable names tied to it.
Any attempt to truly analyze the impact of the soundtrack, I believe, requires one to really consider, if not research, the time period in which it was released. It was around this time when I began seeing hip hop acts like Cypress Hill being played on Alternative Nation for the first time; something that seemed unheard of prior to that. The era wasn’t so much a Downtown 81 situation where hip hop, No Wave and Post Punk intertwined with each other effortlessly, and Blondie mingled with the likes of Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash. Lollapalooza was still an anomaly — the US had yet to be overwhelmed by the multi-genre music festival format to the degree of what we have today. In the early 90s, genres continued to remain segregated, for the most part, with limited crossover between those worlds — at least, on a mainstream level. This was assisted by the marketing of MTV which, throughout the decade, had genre-specific video programming designated and blocked out for everything. There was Yo! MTV Raps for hip hop videos, MTV Jams for lighter R&B grooves, Headbanger’s Ball for metal, Alternative Nation for the “alternative” set, and 120 Minutes for the more legitimately alternative set. The rest of the hours were dedicated, primarily, to mainstream popular music. Within that context, everything was divided, and I believe that Judgment Night played a huge role in encouraging people that may have typically restricted themselves to one particular type of music to feel more inclined to investigating another genre.
This Del/Dinosaur Jr footage is great and the soundtrack, although somewhat uneven, had some solid cuts on it, but acts like The Roots and Rage Against The Machine, as well as collaborations between seemingly disparate genres, existed before it and would have existed without it. How much commercial support they would have received could be another story. But in the end, what Judgment Night really seemed to give way to, unfortunately, is the birth and widespread embrace of the whole nu-metal rap/rock surge consisting of bands like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, which is one aspect that is difficult for me to look too favorably upon. When House Of Pain disbanded in 1996, DJ Lethal actually joined Limp Bizkit prior to their first album, remaining an official member of the group for 15 years.
What I find worthy of exploration as much as if something is influential is how something is influential, as well as how that influence does and does not reflect directly upon the quality of the original project that manifested that influence. I’m sure that Zeppelin was a direct influence on a plethora of shitty hair metal bands fronted by blonde lead singers in the 80s, but that doesn’t negate what they were able to accomplish anymore than bands like Bush could tarnish the legacy of Nirvana. In that respect, the Judgment Night soundtrack stands on its own, despite anything that may have come before or after it. That being said, I believe that it did its part to help open the door for the masses to really step across lines and open their minds to other genres, in general. No small feat, it is something that we’re continuing to witness the effects of to this day.