How one experiences “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls, depends largely on the viewer’s relationship with the man commonly regarded as the most famous — if not best — player to professionally dribble a basketball.
But one element has received near-universal praise: the music. Beyond the dramatic strings and moody transitions typically found in documentaries, the makers of “The Last Dance” have assembled a soundtrack that not only snapshots the music of Jordan’s era — particularly hip-hop — but organically accentuates both the documentary footage and the actual basketball being played.
“Been Around the World,” the opulent 1997 Puff Daddy track featuring Mase and the Notorious B.I.G. that opens the documentary, perfectly captures the cultural glamour the Bulls had attained by the late ’90s. A montage of Jordan’s 63-point playoff game against the 1985-86 Celtics is perfectly synchronized to the booming percussion and braggadocious rapping of LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” — marvel at how Jordan eyes the opening tipoff as LL’s voice builds in pitch and intensity.
“I was blown away,” LL Cool J said of the sync in an interview. “I’m not just saying that because it’s my song, either — I just thought it worked.”
Rudy Chung, the music supervisor of the series, said the filmmakers considered incorporating contemporary music, “But I think we pretty quickly realized that the best thing was to tell the story with songs from the era.” Jason Hehir, the series director, said he met with the label Interscope to discuss the possibility of current-day rappers like Kendrick Lamar covering hip-hop classics, but the project proved too time-consuming given the responsibilities of making the documentary.
“The Last Dance” is not exclusively a sightseeing tour through hip-hop’s golden years, which loosely coincide with both Jordan’s early career and the N.B.A.’s rise to cultural prominence. Prince’s delirious “Partyman” anoints Jordan’s informal crowning by the late ’80s as the league’s most magnificent player, and “I Feel Free,” a heady track by the psychedelic rock band Cream, takes us through the wild and woolly years of Phil Jackson, the Bulls’ hippie Svengali. Some tracks split the difference: “The Maestro,” a raucous number by the Beastie Boys that falls somewhere between punk rock and rap, provides a perfect accompaniment to Dennis Rodman’s chaotic playing style and colorful public life.
But hip-hop is by far the dominant influence. “The entire story of the Bulls for someone like me, who’s 43 years old, is grounded in nostalgia,” Hehir said. “I really wanted to reflect the music of the times in telling the story of the ’80s and ’90s and the world the Bulls were living in.”
Securing these songs wasn’t always simple. Hip-hop from that period often incorporated sampling, a technique that was legally straitjacketed by 1991. Much of Chung’s work involved jumping through legal hoops. “A lot of these songs are insanely difficult to clear,” he said. “There was so much music we were interested in, but couldn’t get because of sample issues and legal issues.”
For example, Eric B. and Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke” wasn’t the first choice to score an early montage of Jordan highlights: Initially, Hehir sought to use the duo’s “I Know You Got Soul,” but couldn’t get permission. “I vividly remember hearing that song on my brother’s radio for the first time and it sounded nothing like any rap song I’d heard up until that point,” Hehir said. “Michael, at that point, looked nothing like any player the N.B.A. had ever seen. But it’s an embarrassment of riches when your second place is ‘I Ain’t No Joke.’”
Basketball’s relationship to hip-hop is now firmly established, maintained by rappers who reference players contemporary and retired, and formally embraced by the N.B.A., which frequently books rap acts for the halftime show at its annual All-Star Game, itself a legendary party setting for the broader hip-hop community. A generation of basketball fans has grown up watching thousands of homemade compilation videos of N.B.A. highlights set to rap music, uploaded to YouTube — an aesthetic freely echoed throughout “The Last Dance.”
This relationship, and its codification by the league, has been a gradual evolution from Jordan’s early playing days. “I think it developed over time,” LL Cool J said. “Obviously, you have to be successful enough to come to the attention of people.”
Older basketball fans may recall “Come Fly With Me,” a 1989 documentary released by N.B.A. Entertainment that followed Jordan’s career from his childhood to the league, and features some of the same archival footage found in “The Last Dance.” The film’s soundtrack, however, is almost exclusively music by smooth jazz artists such as Yanni, Najee and David Benoit. “N.B.A. Superstars,” a 1990 VHS release that set highlights of then-active stars to popular music, syncs a montage of Jordan soaring through the air to Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” primarily known as the ballad from “Top Gun.” (Try to imagine a licensed N.B.A. documentary setting LeBron James highlights to something like Adele’s “Someone Like You.”)
There are some throughlines linking past and present: The sole rap song on “N.B.A. Superstars” is Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now,” which scores a piece about the Houston Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon. “It was a perfect match of lyrics and music for Hakeem, who really was totally coming into his own in the N.B.A.,” said Gil Kerr, who helped oversee the production of “Come Fly With Me” and “N.B.A. Superstars.” “How Ya Like Me Now” is used to roughly the same effect in Episode 4 of “The Last Dance,” where it accompanies a celebratory sequence after Jordan’s first playoff triumph over the hated Detroit Pistons. The team is briefly seen watching a lighthearted video from 1988, where several players — including Jordan — danced and lip-synced to Kool Moe Dee’s hit.
The “How Ya Like Me Now” we hear in “The Last Dance” is actually not the 1987 original, but a rerecorded take that removes an impossible-to-clear James Brown sample. Speaking over the phone, Kool Moe Dee said the producers had incorporated “the wrong version.” Still, he thought they had done “a very good job in terms of using hip-hop music as a storytelling mechanism.” He noted the contrast between today and the late ’80s, when he stood relatively alone as a mainstream hip-hop artist. “I was absolutely the guy that when people didn’t like hip-hop, they’d always say, ‘I don’t like hip-hop but I like Kool Moe Dee.’”
Today, it’s difficult to imagine the N.B.A. without hip-hop. Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” which topped the Billboard singles chart for several weeks this year, references an iconic Vince Carter dunk. Drake is the designated “global ambassador” of the Toronto Raptors, and a frequent courtside presence. (During the 2019 N.B.A. playoffs, he was unofficially reprimanded by the league for trash-talking Toronto’s opponents.) Roc Nation, an entertainment agency founded by Jay-Z, represents multiple players, including the superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets.
“I think the popularity of basketball as a cultural sport — not just as an athletic sport — is a testament to that connection,” LL Cool J said.
The N.B.A.’s growing comfort with rap music mirrored rap’s own absorption into — and later domination of — mainstream culture, where by the turn of the millennium, it wasn’t just the players who were devoted listeners. “The executives behind it are growing up with hip-hop,” Kool Moe Dee said of the league. “They’re way more comfortable making those kinds of choices. It’s very hard to understate the racial tones that go on in every aspect of business in America.”
Balancing those demands remains an ongoing process. In 2005, the league instituted a dress code that some saw as targeting the influence of hip-hop style on players. “The Last Dance” was jointly produced by multiple companies, and Hehir said “there were certain partners who thought there was too much hip-hop in this.”
Judging by the final product, he prevailed, and the predominance of rap in the series further revises not just the N.B.A.’s legacy with the music now inseparable from its culture, but Jordan’s personal relationship with the genre, as well.
In 1997, just before the events of “The Last Dance” took place, the hip-hop journalist Bobbito Garcia interviewed Jordan for a recurring feature in Vibe magazine where he played music for celebrities and asked their opinion. One of his selections was Eric B. and Rakim’s “In the Ghetto,” from the duo’s 1990 album “Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em.” Jordan’s response? “You got me on this one. I don’t listen to rap at all.”
Garcia, who called the interaction “my most memorable exchange” (it seems to go viral on social media every few years) said in an interview that he wasn’t surprised that Jordan didn’t listen to rap: He was born in 1963, which would’ve made him a young adult when hip-hop was just taking off. By comparison, today’s players have never known a world where rap music wasn’t fully integrated into pop culture. Still, “The fact that he had never heard of Rakim, I just thought that was surprising,” Garcia said. “I would’ve imagined that at some point he was at a party that was playing ‘Paid in Full,’ or one of his teammates was nodding along to the chorus at some point in the locker room.”
Then again, Garcia noted Jordan was a single-minded winner, “So it’s highly believable he didn’t pay any attention to anything but his stats and his win-loss column and winning a championship.” Hehir, for his part, said Jordan, who offered feedback on the documentary, “never commented on the music.”