Soundtrack Studies: ‘Judgment Night’

Tuesday, April 29 by
I swear to God, the bottom says, "Mudhoney & Sir-Mix-Alot 

If you’ve spent the past 15 or so years looking for someone to blame for the rap-metal proliferation of the late 90’s, you can find pretty good whipping boys in those behind the Judgment Night soundtrack. In the middle of the Great Grunge Movement of 1993, Judgment Night matched some of the best hip-hop and rock bands of the time with…some that weren’t.

But before we go down that rabbit hole, let’s get the nuts and bolts of the film out of the way. This shouldn’t take long. Judgment Night takes good guys Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Jeremy Piven, and pits them against Denis Leary and the guy from House of Pain. The former group, while in an illicitly borrowed RV, runs afoul of the latter group on the wrong side of the tracks.

Bad stuff happens, and the whole thing is a pretty weak film.

There. That was easy.

Intentionally in keeping with the “worlds colliding” motif that is pretty much all the film stands on, the soundtrack serves as a high concept anthology of hip-hop and rock collaborations. It succeeded on many levels when it was released, and it still, somewhat remarkably, succeeds on most of them 21 years later, when the face of hip-hop and rock are really, really, really different.

Here’s the soundtrack:

I would think that most things that came across as ambitious and inspired 21 years ago (as this soundtrack did) would come across as pretty fucking stupid viewed through today’s lens. Let the fashions of 1993 serve as a case study. Remarkably, this album stands pretty strong. Most of the bands (both rap and rock) are pretty esteemed, and some (lookin’ at you, Boo-Yah Tribe) are piss-poor.

However, much as you can blame whoever crafted this soundtrack (Amanda Scheer-Demme, by the way, nightlife impresario and wife of director Ted Demme) for the onslaught of blindly-raging rap-metal years later, you can also credit her for curating some strong collaborations. None are transcendent, but almost all range from pretty good to very good.

So even though you haven’t heard from Helmet or House of Pain in a while, and you might not even like their music, give the first track a listen. It’s surprisingly tolerable. And anyone who can make bands tolerable to the masses is pretty much a magician. Both bands are talented and had their devotees, but their collaboration serves as a converse to the adage, “People in the middle of the road get hit by traffic going both ways.”

It serves to support, “Soundtracks that take elements of very distinct genres not only don’t alienate fans, but become greater than the sum of their parts. “

I don’t think that adage is in danger of becoming commonly used, but there you go.

Of course, if you really want to buy into this, I strongly suggest you don’t listen to the Ice-T/Slayer track. That not only unravels my argument here, but most of man’s accomplishment for the past couple millennia. Really terrible.

And as long as we’re disclosing things, I don’t think it’s actually fair to blame Amanda Scheer-Demme for rap-metal. It would have happened with or without her, so let’s continue to just blame Woodstock ’99, Carson Daly, Fred Durst, and Florida.

There isn’t much more to say about the soundtrack without forcibly sitting the reader down to listen to it, then conducting a conversation about what they heard. A slightly surprising number of bands here are still relevant, but none as big as they were when this album came out. It didn’t really change anything in soundtracks, or in music. It simply serves as an example of what happens when more than a cursory nod is given to such a high-concept undertaking.

The artists and soundtrack producers clearly worked to make this work, and considering how unlikely that was to happen, probably deserve a small parade.

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