When first bracing Space Jam: A New Legacy, the much-anticipated sequel out this weekend (July 16), it’s easy to get caught up in all the drastic changes from the original. Now, the Looney Tunes are computer-generated, Warner Bros. properties formed their own multiverse, and LeBron James is leading the Tune Squad. In the era of reboots, this franchise has gotten its own spit-shine. But there’s one holdover from the ‘96 blockbuster: the title theme, courtesy of Quad City DJ’s. A mashup of the “Space Jam” theme and RL Grime’s “Scylla” punctuates each frame of the film’s trailer — and unwittingly taps into a deep current of internet culture.
For those who don’t know, QCD’s “Space Jam” theme opens the NBA / Warner Bros. crossover of a quarter century ago, with a mix of pumped-up raps and bass-heavy dance beats. The looney tune plays over the title sequence: a highlight reel of Michael Jordan’s NBA career. The DJs throw us one sound bite after another. “Shake it, quake it, space kaboom!” It’s a full-body exercise in action verbs so catchy, it catapulted the Jacksonville trio to No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. But the song’s real cultural imprint lies outside of its big-picture trappings. As it turns out, “slam remixes” took the song’s legacy into overtime.
Slam remixes are a bit like the Rule 34 of the music world. If you can think of an IP, the internet has probably mashed it up with QCD’s ‘90s anthem. Cowboy Bebop? Slam. The Price Is Right? Slam. Space Jam?! Slam. It’s almost like the online community created an extended musical multiverse connecting Space Jam to every cultural touchstone in sight.
Tracing the origins of the meme involves a labyrinthine journey through now-defunct forum posts dating back to 2005. Ian Kelly, a mashup artist known as Psynwav, happens to be qualified to further break down the broken links.
“So ‘Space Jam’ first started with Randy Savage stuff,” the remixer says. The late wrestler offered the requisite flamboyance to carry the first wave of the fad. “It was mostly associated with Randy Savage because it was a Jock Jams mix. A lot of Jock Jams songs had a certain popularity to them back then.”
A testament to digital impermanence of the mid-aughts, you’ll hear a jumble of the “early content creation areas” credited. “I think that was Something Awful, if I remember correctly,” the remixer says. “It went from there to 4chan, Newgrounds, YTMND.” The latter’s Wiki page attributes a user called “L-ShapedTetrisBlock” for creating a since-wiped site pairing the Macho Man’s image with a proto-slam remix.
Then Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden (2008) popularized the meme on YouTube while it gained notoriety as a fan sequel to both the SNES basketball game and Space Jam. “Because Internet,” Psynwav concludes. “That’s sort of what combines the two.”
Got all that?
After littering the Internet for nearly a full decade, slam remixes haven’t been viral since 2014, but the meme remains a slow-simmering constant. The still-active r/comeonandslam subreddit amassed nearly 37,000 slammers. There are whole sites dedicated to hosting slamjams. Lin-Manuel Miranda even lost his sh-t over Slamilton — Psynwav’s full-length LP splicing Space Jam with Hamilton — on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last month.
“I have seen this,” the Pulitzer winner confirmed, waving his hands in the air to the opening notes of “Alexander Slamilton.” “It works! It really works! Kudos to the genius who made that. The internet remains undefeated.”
When the titular baller in Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden faces off against the final boss, he has the fate of the galaxy and “all of B-balldom” in his hands. He’s given a choice: to slam with the best, or jam with the rest. Just as the emotional climax hits, the immortal lyric fades in: “Everybody get up, it’s time to slam now.” Spoiler alert: It’s a slam dunk.
Back in 2008, a group of pop culture nerds banded together to offer up their fan-made version of a Space Jam sequel… in the form of a cyberpunk dystopia. Set in 2053, Gaiden follows Charles Barkley’s journey to save “B-ball” in the wake of the Chaos Dunk that destroyed the world.
The free-to-play PC game emerged from the depths of a forum called Gaming World that the Tales of Game’s team frequented. “Originally, we literally just had it hosted on some site as a forum link,” Jesse Ceranowicz (one of the fan-game’s devs known as “GZ”) explains.
In true internet fashion, the game file hop-scotched across various channels — to the point where data on playthroughs is unlikely to be collected any time soon. (“So I couldn’t tell you the numbers.”) Let’s just say it was popular enough for TOG to raise $120,335 for Barkley 2 on Kickstarter in 2012. (GZ confirms the sequel is “100%” dead. Long story!)
While the pop culture junkies behind Gaiden were aware of the SavageSlams, GZ says “a lot of stuff from the game was just ripped from tons of stuff,” including sprites from the ‘90s brawler Streets of Rage and “Eternity” from the 2007 JRPG Blue Dragon (sung by Ian Gillan from classic rock legends Deep Purple!). “The game was just all about funny stuff. That includes picking funny songs,” GZ says. “There really was no grand scheme behind [it]… We were on an IRC channel at the time, and we would just throw links in there. Whatever we thought was funny, we would just stick with.”
Psynwav played the game back in university. “I’m pretty sure it’s one of the better-known RPG Maker games,” they say. “It is definitely a cult classic. The writing, it’ll be a little bit aged now, especially considering how internet humor was back then.” Otherwise, they give the greenlight: “It still holds up surprisingly well.”
Over on YouTube, Tales of Game’s stumbled upon the chiptune classic, “Hybrid Song” (also known as “Funky Stars”) by Quazar (a.k.a. Axwell from Swedish House Mafia). It’s the same song heard in the initial SavageSlam uploaded to YTMND in 2005 — and later became the theme to Gaiden.
The QCD x Quazar mix is sprinkled throughout the game, including the menu screen — it’s no wonder why the internet associates the tune with Charles Barkley’s face. The rise of Gaiden meant the meme’s “Slamsiah” was born.
“Everybody knows who Charles Barkley is,” GZ says. “Then especially with the game coming out, it’s just natural to make the link to say, ‘Hey, this game popularized it. Therefore, let’s put Barkley’s face on it.’”
Tre Locke, the mashup artist known as BotanicSage, remembers where he was when he was welcomed to the jam. Back in October 2011, the Kansas City-based memesmith was playing a Marvel vs. Capcom game with his friends when one of his buddies “dropped a couple of links” to some slam remixes. “It was Charles Barkley’s face on She-Hulk and all these other characters,” he recalls. “I was just like, ‘What the heck is this?’”
After that first video, he started searching for cracks in the meme’s virtual omnipresence. “I was like, ‘Did they do this track?’ I’d look for it, and I couldn’t find it anywhere on YouTube,” he says. By December, he decided to come on and slam and create his first jam — by melding QCD with the Super Smash Bros. Melee menu theme.
Quad City DJ’s licensed their records — and they’ve got a lot of records. The Florida-based act — consisting of Jay Ski, C.C. Lemonhead, and later JeLana LaFleur — became a chart fixture for a spell in the ‘90s by taking Miami bass to the world stage. “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)“ sealed their crossover success when it hit No. 3 on the Hot 100 in ‘96, three months before Space Jam hit theaters. The Quad City team also produced high-energy crossover hits for 69 Boyz, 95 South, and Dis-n-Dat.
So when Jay Ski (real name: Johnny McGowan) looks at his royalty statement, he doesn’t “go line by line” — and he had no idea about the infamy of his most famous theme.
“It’s funny, because I would see [remixes] all the time on YouTube,” Ski says. “But I didn’t know the origin and where it came from. I just thought it was just somebody playing around with mixes… I didn’t realize that it was a whole world out here.”
The slam community is a bit like ska, in the sense that intentionally goofy puns are a must-have in each mashup title, like “Dunk Like an Egyptian,” “My Slam Will Jam On,” or “Reboundabout.” The distinction between a “slam” and a “jam” is never made clear. GZ doesn’t even know. “So much of the stuff that [Tales of Game’s did], it’s almost like just a thing for the sake of the thing,” Gaiden’s lead programmer says. “To create the question that you’re asking me right now.”
However, the insertion of “power words” was by design. Take it from Ski. The connoisseur of Jock Jams (“Tootsee Roll” is in the ‘97 Megamix) knew he had to design a track that captured the excitement of the sport. QCD had access to wireframe clips of the movie pre-release that were “very scaled down.” “So I wanted very powerful [phrases]. ‘Come on and slam,’” he recites. “I wanted to put some aggressive lyrics and statements in it.”
It seemed fated that Quad City DJ’s would become such ESPN fixtures that Craig Kallman, Atlantic’s then-senior vice president of A&R, would tap the group for Space Jam. The Floridians had an ear for what they called “energy records.”
Miami bass is driven by, well, bass instead of drums, and its speedier tempo matches its “booty” music nickname. QCD hails from Jacksonville, six hours north of the genre’s namesake — and the production team ended up putting a “different twist” on the regional phenomenon.
“All of our records, including ‘Space Jam,’ is our version of Miami bass,” Jay Ski says. “What we were trying to do with bass music, we were trying to really grow it and make it more national — international, if you will.”
Jay doesn’t consider the theme a “bass record,” but it shares one core element with the rest of their sonic output: the use of call-and-response as an instrument. If you listen to QCD’s only studio album, Get on Up and Dance, you’ll notice the ever-present buzz of crowd ambience in each block-party jam.
“We are from Florida, and energy and party is our thing,” Jay explains. “When I record, it’s better for me to have an audience, if you will… So I initially was like, let’s put [in] crowd sounds.
In the early ‘90s, Jay Ski and C.C. Lemonhead hopped in the studio with about five women and five men to put a party on tape. Jay doesn’t remember which record he played on their headphones. But they started “chanting and just making noise like they really were in a club.” Amid the multiple takes, the producers went to work making the dectet sound like a 1,000-capacity venue. “If you pull the crowd out the record, you would absolutely know it because all the energy died.”
That canned heat “became an instrument” to the DJs. “Matter of fact, the same crowd noise that you hear in ‘Space Jam’ is the exact same crowd noise that you hear in ‘Tootsee Roll,’” Jay explains. “It’s the exact same crowd noise in ‘C’mon Ride the Train’ and [95 South’s] ‘Whoot, There It Is.’ It’s not like we recorded a new one.”
The mystery of how the theme brought such a wide range of remixers to the fray might be answered by the production style. “It’s primarily just percussion,” says BotanicSage. “The bassline on the track is so subtle, that it’s practically undetectable for most parts. Aside from the woman in the song singing, there’s not really a key you have to match.”
Making it easier for fans to organically meme your stuff is sort of like Marketing 101 in 2021. That reality is not lost on the most viral of mashup artists. BotanicSage — who has over 83 million views on YouTube — underscores the potential for a “remix resurgence” in the wake of A New Legacy, if Warner Bros. doesn’t treat sampling like an afterthought.
“[The meme] hasn’t really died out but more high-quality stuff would come out if they just released a cappella,” he says. “Just put one out there, and you’ll see Space Jam 2 reach levels of hype and memery that you have never seen from anything else.”
The technical constraints of working with an older recording hasn’t stopped innovators from subverting slamjam conventions. Released in March, Slamilton goes beyond your standard-issue mashup. Psynwav didn’t just remix the music — they fused the entirety of the storylines from Space Jam and Hamilton into one.
From the jump, the Scottish artist breezes past questions of lining up BPMs and moves into splicing audio grabs from the film with instrumentals from the musical. Their full-length album is so fluid that the original works move in dialogue with each other. The cross-franchise characters even appear to trade lines: “My Hoop Shot” syncs young Michael Jordan’s hopes and dreams with Alexander Hamilton’s declaration of ascendance.
“I liked the challenge because it was interesting to see how I can use this song,” Psynwav says. Look no further than “The Court Where It Happened.” In this multilayered track, “Basketball Jones” and “It’s Quiet Uptown” overlap for a spell, forming a sonic split-screen that treats Alexander Hamilton working through the loss of his son as a 1:1 comparison with the Face of Slam wallowing in misery after losing his basketball ability.
“I have to credit [my wife] with my favorite joke in the entire thing,” they say. “When I put it in there, I had to stop working on it for like, four hours, because I just couldn’t stop laughing.
This is a very surreal morning lads. pic.twitter.com/PIKSAEXxxC
— Ian Kelly (@Psynwav) June 9, 2021
Psynwav — who works as a QA tester on the upcoming Back 4 Blood at Turtle Rock Studios — also took the remix format a step further and recorded original vocals. They recruited friends, coworkers, and their wife for the ensemble, while casting their pal, a Twitch streamer known as Mic the Microphone, as the dastardly Swackhammer. Then they enlisted fellow musician Teza Belmond — who made the original “Space Jam” remix that inspired this project — to fill in for Eliza on the expertly titled “Who Slams, Who Jams, Who Tells Your Story.”
“That was what made me realize this project can be bigger than just remixes,” they say. “Everyone that’s on the project are friends of mine. So it means it’s a very personal project as well.”
It’s not lost on Jay Ski that the fan art has helped define the DJ’s legacy. “I feel so honored that the community embraced us and said, ‘Hey, let’s use this.’ Think about all the records they could’ve used,” he says. “For ours to take on its own direction and own little world, that’s awesome.”
If QCD ever makes more records — which looks like a possibility based on an Instagram post teasing “Brand New Jam” — Jay wants them to “breathe” in a way that lends itself to remix. “People are inspired by our work to create other works. That’s just awesome. I think that’s what music is for,” he says. “I hope it continues.”
The staying power of the “slam remix” remains an anomaly amid today’s meme turnover rates. There aren’t many memes with a shelf-life exceeding the 16-year mark. Chalk it up to the power of nostalgia, the backbone of brand loyalty for the younger set of millennials.
“I personally will still like the meme for nostalgia’s sake,” BotanicSage says. The ‘96 movie came out when he was in second grade, and soon thereafter his room was decked out in Space Jam paraphernalia. He fell asleep to the glow of the trademarked nightlight, nestled into matching bedsheets. He had all the action figures from the “Hare Jordan” adaptation, even the Sylvester the Cat one. After all, the commercial juggernaut raked in $1.2 billion in merchandise alone, according to a 2009 Chicago Tribune report.
“I loved that movie,” BotanicSage says with a dramatic pause, “as a kid. I rewatched it recently. [It] did not age well.”
Still, BotanicSage and Psynwav retain an earnest appreciation for the QCD track. The latter met their wife, Jackie, thanks to slam remixes. During their weekly 2012 project called “Space Jam Sundays,” Psynwav released a Gravity Falls mix on Tumblr. An artist who goes by Starsalts ended up reblogging it. “I was like, ‘Oh, I really like this artist. I’m glad that she likes my stuff,’” they say. “Then I decided to start talking to her — and then we got married.”
They’ve been married for almost seven years now. “It’s weird how much this song means to me,” they say with half-joking resignation. “Even if the movie itself isn’t good, it’s very dear to my heart.”