This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, we talk to the people responsible for a number of the biggest and strangest soundtracks from one of the final years where films still invested in their accompanying albums being as wild and wonderful as possible.
A prehistoric menace threatens to destroy New York City, a presidential candidate says the most outrageous things while cheating on his wife and embracing rappers, teens get hammered at a house party and a group of NASA astronauts are blasted into space to stop a killer asteroid from destroying earth. Just the elevator pitches for a few of 1998’s most popular movies, which, as it happens, also had killer soundtracks.
Way before Spotify or Apple music, soundtracks were our playlists, and the best ones pulled together the most unlikely musical combos for albums that helped propel their film’s action and sold a ton of units. “At that time, movie studio marketing departments started to realize that music could be a big marketing tool, and it was an easy way to reach an audience that maybe their 30-60 second TV spots weren’t going to,” says Kathy Nelson, a music supervisor who worked on such classics as Reservoir Dogs, Dangerous Minds, Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity.
Explaining why 1998 featured more than a dozen soundtrack albums that sold over 500,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music, Nelson tells Billboard that before streaming and Pandora, “soundtracks were the ultimate party playlist.” And music supervisors like Nelson were laser-focused on finding the perfect track orders for their projects. “I could put them together the way that I wanted so, and I was a nut about sequencing because I wanted one song to flow into another without you pushing the button to skip… for me, these were my playlists.”
It was also a time when she and her peers were emboldened to take risks with how they juxtaposed artists from different genres, pushed acts to do challenging covers or just cherry-picked the hottest bands, which is why you had original songs by Tori Amos, Pulp, Chris Cornell and Stone Temple Pilots‘ Scott Weiland on the soundtrack to Alfonso Cuaron’s contemporary update of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (600,000 copies sold), a who’s-who of hip-hop (Ice Cube, DMX, Scarface, JAY-Z) on The Players Club (899,000) and Public Enemy turning the album for Spike Lee’s He Got Game into their sixth album. “I helped put Public Enemy back together for that… and they did every song, including the title track that had that great Buffalo Springfield sample, and Spike directed the video,” says Nelson.
With the top 12 soundtracks moving a staggering 29 million copies — including 9.3 million for the unstoppable late 1997 Titanic album, 4.1 million for City of Angels (featuring the Goo Goo Dolls‘ “Iris” and Alanis Morissette‘s “Uninvited”) and Platinum sales for Armageddon (3.2 million), Hope Floats (2.1 million), Dr. Dolittle (2 million), The Wedding Singer (1.5 million), Godzilla (1.3 million), Bulworth (1.2 million), and even the 20th anniversary reissue of Grease (1.2 million) — it was truly the best of times for soundtracks.
As part of our celebration of all things 1998, Billboard spoke to the music supervisors for some of the year’s biggest, best and weirdest soundtrack albums (Armageddon, Chef Aid, Bulworth, Dead Man on Campus and Can’t Hardly Wait) to find out the stories behind the music.
Project: Chef Aid: The South Park Album
Plot: A concept album about a fake live concert in benefit of the titular Isaac Hayes-voiced character, featuring songs from the long-running animated show and original tracks.
Music Supervisors: Mary Ramos (Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Planner) and Michelle Kuznetsky-Silverman (Sons of Anarchy, Kill Bill: Vol. 1)
Numbers: No. 16 peak on Billboard 200, 1.3 million copies sold since release, according to Nielsen Music
The dynamic duo of Ramos and Kuznetsky-Silverman have worked on hundreds of soundtracks over the years, but this one-of-a-kind effort, produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, was totally different. The pair were asked to come up with legitimately good new rock and rap songs for the imaginary soundtrack to an episode of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s gleefully rude animated series.
“Rick didn’t want it to be a novelty, and he wanted to mix different people together, so from day-to-day, Michelle and I would have a four-page long, single-spaced list of things to do and people to contact,” says Ramos of the daunting roster, which at one point included a dream duet between Bob Dylan and Fiona Apple. (Alas, even they couldn’t land that one.)
One name that Silverman says was on the list from day one? Elton John. Parker and Stone were huge John fans, but the Rocket Man’s manager wanted nothing to do with the project, so the women reached out to the manager for John’s longtime musical partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin. He, on the other hand, was immediately on board, and helped land the “crazy wonderful” love song “Wake Up Wendy,” which led to John later being included in a South Park episode.
The problem was not nailing artists — Ween (“The Rainbow”), Devo (“Huboon Stomp”), Wyclef (“Bubblegoose”) and Rancid (“Brad Logan”) were more than happy to participate — it was fighting off the one request nearly every rapper, including JAY-Z, made: “Can I kill Kenny?”
At a time before texting, instant messaging or even widespread email use, Silverman and Ramos had to track down most of the participants via fax machine, endless phone calls or unannounced drop-ins. They were down to send up the BatSignal for just about anyone on Rubin’s long list, especially a seemingly impossible suggestion: putting rock and funk icons Ike Turner and Rick James together for the salty “Love Gravy.”
The women remember calling Master P. every 30 minutes for weeks on end in an effort to get his take on Curtis Mayfield‘s iconic “Freddie’s Dead,” reworked as “Kenny’s Dead,” and then doing a drop-in at Ozzy Osbourne‘s Los Angeles office and confronting his wife/manager Sharon Osbourne. They were trying to get the heavy metal icon to lay down vocals on frantic rap/dance attack “Nowhere to Run (Vapor Trail),” a riotous collab that also features rappers DMX and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and a track from EDM duo The Crystal Method and Diddy proteges Fuzzbubble.
“It was a concept album, versus a lot of other soundtrack albums that were basically something to take home with the movie,” says Silverman of the time both women refer to as “a golden era” for soundtracks. “Back then TV was not as much of a force and the idea of an album to coincide with a TV show was new. It was a super-creative [project] where we could come up with a list of everyone we wanted to go after.” The latter might explain why Aaliyah was on the short list (but didn’t make the album) and the final product included “Will They Die 4 You,” featuring Mase, Puffy, Lil Kim and hard rockers System of a Down.
Plot: NASA recruits misfit team to drill into a huge asteroid headed towards Earth.
Music supervisor: Kathy Nelson (He Got Game, Rushmore)
Numbers: No. 1 for two weeks on Billboard 200, 3.2 million copies sold, according to Nielsen Music
Nelson reached out to her good friend Oscar-winning songwriter Diane Warren to deliver the big ballad she was confident this bombastic Michael Bay-directed box office clickbait needed. She knew if she showed Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler the footage of star Bruce Willis telling his on-screen daughter (Tyler’s real-life daughter Liv Tyler) that he wasn’t going to make it home, the rock icon would break down and definitely say yes. “There was no way he wasn’t going to fall apart,” she says, adding that when she approached the band’s manager she was told what they really wanted was to land a song on the soundtrack of that year’s Godzilla reboot. “But Sony [the film’s studio] didn’t want them, because their previous album hadn’t done that well.”
After a mid-1980s reboot, the band’s 1997 Nine Lives album was a relative sales dud, but wily veteran Nelson was positive Aerosmith were the one and only call for her latest collaboration on a Jerry Bruckheimer big explosion production. “It was the perfect storm… these guys loved great rock music, so you had ZZ Top, Bob Seger, Bon Jovi, Patty Smyth and [Yes’] Trevor Rabin score the movie… the whole sound and texture of it was very rock and roll, very testosterone,” she says. Nelson’s track record on these hunches was stellar: she’d picked Coolio‘s “Gangsta’s Paradise” smash for 1995’s Dangerous Minds and Eric Clapton‘s Grammy-winning “Change the World” for Phenomenon.
Tyler, as predicted, folded when he saw the footage. “Sure enough, when we showed him Bruce Willis saying goodbye to Liv, he [Tyler] was in tears,” she says of the flamboyant singer. “I’d never met them before, but I couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t have that emotional response to it.” Not only was it Aerosmith’s first No. 1 hit, but it was nominated for an Oscar for best original song. The band also had three other songs on the soundtrack (a remix of their 1975 classic “Sweet Emotion,” the band’s 1978 cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together” and the Nine Lives outtake “What Kind of Love Are You On”), which sat nicely alongside the new and classic tracks by Journey, ZZ Top, Seger, Shawn Colvin and Jon Bon Jovi.
“The most fun was when Aerosmith rocked and rolled out onto the stage at the Oscars with everyone there in black tie, and they’re sitting there with Steven Tyler with all his scarves,” she says.
Movie: Can’t Hardly Wait
Plot: One wild night at a high school graduation party with a killer cast of future stars (Melissa Joan Hart, Selma Blair, Donald Faison, Freddy Rodriguez, Jeniffer Love Hewitt, Jason Segel).
Music supervisor: Ralph Sall (10 Things I Hate About You, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Numbers: No. 25 peak on Billboard 200, 774,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen Music.
Sall has worked on dozens of soundtracks, but for him the late 1990s were a time when music felt super crucial, which made his job easier, and way more fun. “The song list [for Can’t Hardly Wait] was totally informed by the movie, which takes place at a party — so the thing about a good party is you’re, not only playing new music, but all sorts of music,” he says. That explains why the Can’t Hardly Wait OST features classic roof-raisers like Guns N’ Roses‘ “Paradise City,” Run-DMC‘s “It’s Tricky” and Parliament‘s “Flashlight,” alongside remixes of Busta Rhymes then-new “Turn it Up (Remix)/Fire It Up” and Missy Elliott‘s “Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee,” and three late-’90s modern rock hits: Third Eye Blind‘s “Graduate,” Blink-182‘s “Dammit, and Smash Mouth‘s “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” the latter recorded specifically for the movie.
As you might imagine, landing GNR was hard, given the band’s difficult reputation. But because Sall had given the group their first movie placement for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” — in the little-seen 1988 horror film Bad Dreams — they didn’t hesitate when he came around again. Another notoriously exasperating band on the album is The Replacements, whose college-rock standard-bearer “Can’t Hardly Wait” was actually picked by the movie’s directors — who loved the song so much that once they got approval, they changed the film’s title (from The Party) to match it.
Sall convinced Smash Mouth to cover the 1967 hit “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” for the album, and he produced tracks by Black Lab (“Tell Me What To Say”) and Matthew Sweet (“Farther Down”), but if you look at the eclectic track list today, Sall says it’s really just a sliver of what ended up in the music-heavy movie. “There are 15 songs on the soundtrack, but more than 50 in the movie, so what made the soundtrack was an interesting dance,” he says. A lot of it was informed by the fact that Elektra Records released the album, so naturally some of the label’s acts got precedence while others — Yaz “Only You” and 311’s “All Mixed Up” — didn’t. If he could release a 20th anniversary edition today, Sall says he would definitely make it a double-disc, with guaranteed party-starters like Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina” and Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.”
“It’s never going to be the 90s again, but the appetite for soundtracks seems to be at a higher level again than it’s been for a while,” he says, pointing to the recent success of The Greatest Showman‘s accompanying album. “The job of making soundtracks is a byproduct of enhancing the experience of the movie, so hopefully the choices make it better at any given moment and bolster a scene that would have been less impactful without the perfect song choice.”
Plot: A suicidal democratic senator losing an election starts speaking his mind (sometimes rapping it) and the people love it.
Music supervisors: Karyn Rachtman (Reality Bites, Pulp Fiction, Romeo + Juliet, Grace of My Heart)
Numbers: No. 10 on Billboard 200, 1.2 million copies according to Nielsen Music
When Warren Beatty calls, you answer. Rachtman was on a super hot streak at the time with Boogie Nights and Pulp Fiction, and Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine wanted her on his team to shepherd this oddball project written, directed, produced and starring Hollywood legend Beatty. A huge rap fan, she’d never worked on a hip-hop project at that point, but after meeting with Beatty and hearing him say he wanted the Bulworth soundtrack to “bust a cap in your ass” with real, hardcore hip-hop, she was in.
“He wanted everybody on it and he wanted to meet everybody — West Coast people, East Coast people — so he had a screening of the rough cut in New York, and he invited Method Man and the Wu-Tang Clan and Prodigy, KRS-One,” she says of the all-star summit Beatty set up. The only problem was not one of the rappers showed up, bumming out Beatty, who said he had a feeling the rapper screening would be a bust. But then, as the night went on, poet Amiri Baraka came to a very late dinner and by 3 a.m. KRS dropped by for tea at the Carlyle Hotel, and as the sun was coming up Meth and the rest of the crew fell in line. “Everyone loved Warren because of his reputation as a ladies man,” she says. “So slowly but surely, we got everyone together.”
The numerous East Coast sit-downs were complemented by near-weekly West Coast dinners at Beatty’s Hollywood home, where good pal comedian Garry Shandling was always invited to sit down with guests including P.E.’s Chuck D. She also remembers Beatty pointing out to her that Organized Noize producer Rico Wade had dozed off during a screening at the actor’s home, prompting her to hit Wade on his SkyTel pager to wake him up.
Rachtman became friendly with Fugees member Pras during filming and though she delivered bangers from RZA, Eve, Mack 10 and Ice Cube, B Real, Cappadonna and Public Enemy, near the end, Beatty — who was heavily involved in the soundtrack process — asked her “where’s the song for my people?” What he meant was, where is the song that he would listen to. “You delivered, but I still want my hit song,” he told her. So, she gave Pras a rough cut, and he went off to write some lyrics, which included “ghetto superstar, that is what I am.” Good, but she suggested he switch the second bit up to “that is what you are,” ultimately echoing the chorus to Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ 1983 Hot 100-topper “Islands in the Stream.”
Boom. When she read those lyrics to Beatty over the phone he was ecstatic. “Pras worked really hard on it and so did Wyclef,” she says of “Ghetto Supastar,” which added guest contributions from Wu-Tang rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the verses and recently minted R&B solo star Mya on the hook, and peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June, becoming Pras’ signature solo hit.
The sessions were a revelation for Rachtman on a daily basis, mostly when ODB was in the mix. In the middle of the “Supastar” recording — during which she says ODB would repeatedly ask for additional cash and a chauffeured BMW — the rapper informed her that he was changing his name to “Big Baby Jesus.” “We were going to do the Sinbad show and perform ‘Supastar,’ and I went to get him and he wouldn’t come out of his apartment until I called him Big Baby Jesus,” she recalls. “So finally Pras has his big moment after Lauryn [Hill] and Wyclef had had their solo moments, and ODB comes out and says ‘I’m Big Baby Jesus!’ and steals the show.”
She also remembers that the lead track, “Zoom,” was originally slated to be another Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg collab, but after Dre’s original protege hopped over to Priority Records the track fell apart and Iovine suggested old school legend LL Cool J instead. “That was a demo with Dre and Snoop and it was sooo good!” she raves. “Jimmy was upset we couldn’t get Snoop on the album, so we got LL, and Jimmy really wanted it to be the first single because he didn’t think ‘Ghetto Supastar’ was the right call.” So, “Zoom” was released as the first single — along with a high-concept, expensive video, which Dre insisted shouldn’t have any film footage in it — but the song underperformed commercially, not even scraping the Hot 100.
Another example of how flush those times were was the “generous” budget Iovine offered Rachtman — which she said was no budget, really. “He would just say, ‘Get it done,'” she remembers about a figure that was easily over $1 million, maybe more.
Just like prestige TV is the new place to be for film stars in this Netflix era, Rachtman’s soundtrack plate was so full in 1998 that she also pulled together some very impressive superstar power for The Rugrats Movie soundtrack that same year. The line-up featured Blackstreet, Mya & Mase, No Doubt with Elvis Costello, Busta Rhymes, Devo, Rakim and an epic track (“This World is Something New to Me”) that featured Lisa Loeb, B-Real, Patti Smith, Lou Rawls, Laurie Anderson, Lenny Kravitz, Beck, Jakob Dylan and Iggy Pop, among others.
It was an era when the film studios and labels had a love-love relationship that found studios paying for big-budget music videos to promote their films on MTV, in what amounted to free commercial time. “It’s fascinating. I miss those days, but for me it looks like they’re [soundtracks] getting big again,” says Rachtman.
Movie: Dead Man on Campus
Plot: Two friends try to get their depressed roommate to commit suicide, under the mistaken impression it will earn them automatic straight A’s.
Music supervisors: The Dust Brothers aka Mike Simpson and John King (Beck, Odelay, Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique)
While some jobs are a dream, for Simpson, this first shot at supervising a soundtrack after a stellar run writing and producing for Beck (Odelay), the Beastie Boys (Paul’s Boutique), Hanson (“MMMbop”) and the Rolling Stones (Bridges to Babylon) was a nightmare. “We were brought on early and they just had a script, there were big expectations for MTV’s first feature film and the Dust Brothers were peaking in popularity,” Simpson — who retired from the music business 15 year ago — tells Billboard. With the original “dark and funny” script from acclaimed writer/director Mike White (Chuck & Buck, School of Rock), Simpson was stoked to potentially score and supervise the project.
And then director Alan Cohn came on board, and the script went from brilliant to “a lame, typical dumb teenage sex comedy,” and Simpson tried to bail, but was threatened with legal action. So he and King shrunk their role as much as possible and gave Cohn a list of songs they thought would work for each scene. “We met with him and played all our choices, and we were excited, but after four recommendations he said he didn’t like any of them, and he told us about the punk band he was in in college, and said at our next meeting he was going to play us his band’s music,” says Simpson, still confused all these years later by the meeting.
The pair obviously grabbed “Empty Ships” by Creeper Lagoon, who were signed to the Dust Bros. label, NickelBag Records, but they weren’t interested in finding much else until Simpson went to the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards and was blown away by Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” performance. David Bowie’s smooth R&B hit “Golden Years” had always been a favorite of Simpson’s, but he could never figure out the right person to cover it for the soundtrack… until he met Manson. The shock-rocker nailed a creepy take for the film that became its lead track and signature song.
Another fond memory is Simpson’s first trip to London, which resulted in the funky, fuzzy “Cowboy Song” from Blur, during a session where he and King had to re-learn sampling and looping after leaving all their familiar equipment at home. The pair also produced “We Still Nee More (Than Anyone Can Give),” by Britpop stars Supergrass (who they didn’t really know at the time), but they had little to do with the inclusion of tracks by such-then hot acts as Jonathan Fire*Eater, Goldfinger, Creed, Powerman 5000, and perhaps the weirdest song on the set, a cover of Dusty Springfield’s 1963 hit “I Only Want to be With You” by the 1960s supermodel Twiggy and former Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez.
One of the most interesting tracks turned into a peace offering between the Dust Brothers and the Chemical Brothers, the latter a British EDM duo who were briefly known as the Dust Brothers as well. “They obviously stole our name and they were just fans of our when they were DJing in college,” says Simpson, who adds that a cease and desist must have gotten in the English pair’s head, since they studiously avoided coming to the U.S. or meeting Simpson and King for quite some time.
An intermediary tried to quash the feud by suggesting the Chems remix a Dust song for the soundtrack, but Simpson says the U.K. duo may have gotten the last word. “We sent them this song and I don’t think there are more than two elements from our original track on it, so it’s not even a Dust Brothers song,” he says of the propulsive “Realize.” Though the project ended up being a bummer, Simpson says he’s glad they got the opportunity to get their feet wet, which led to future work on the soundtracks for Muppets from Space and the X-Files movie.
“We also did [the score for the 1999 David Fincher drama] Fight Club, which I consider my proudest work, so it was the worst one and the best ones back-to-back,” he says. “In retrospect I can’t believe I was so disrespectful, and should have just quit right away when I knew the movie wasn’t going to be any good.”