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The Judgment Night soundtrack foretold the rap-rock apocalypse

B-Real and Thurston Moore serenade a burning RV (Illustration: Nick Wanserski)
B-Real and Thurston Moore serenade a burning RV (Illustration: Nick Wanserski)

Rap-rock, nu-metal, rap-metal, shit-metal, douche-rock. Whatever variably damning epithet you wanted to call it (just don’t call it late for its shift at Lids), the hybrid genre broke out in the mid- to late 1990s as a cathartic, unintelligible yaaaargh youuuu reaaadyyyy against the increasingly strained earnestness of alternative music and the sanitized horniness of Disney-bred teen pop. Its rapid ascendancy into the mainstream can be attributed to plenty of things: boredom with grunge’s tedious sensitivity, rejection of Clinton-era political correctness, Doom-agitated gamers. But really, it all boils down to the timeless love young people will always have for music that makes them feel powerful during the most powerless times of their lives. For the many pissed-off teens of 1993—and here I incriminate my 15-year-old self—rap-rock felt as liberating, if ultimately as pointless, as carving “Fuck You” in your homeroom desk. And we were all primed for its explosion by the Judgment Night soundtrack, the seminal commingling of alternative and hip-hop artists that helped to test-market its mosh-pit mashup, in much the same way Burger King might try out the Whopperito.

As a musical idea, melding chugging guitar riffs to hip-hop’s rhythms and rhymes was already well-trod territory before the soundtrack came along. In 1992, the year before Judgment Night’s release, Rage Against The Machine went triple-platinum with its self-titled debut, a record that merged the aggressive, funk-punk stew of the Beastie Boys with Public Enemy’s militance and the righteous anger of a freshman poli-sci major. The year before that, Public Enemy and Anthrax teamed up on “Bring The Noise,” then embarked on a joint tour aimed at getting more metalheads into rap (if slightly fewer hip-hop-heads into metal). The year before that, lifelong metal fan Ice T formed his infamous “Cop Killer” group Body Count, introducing the band on his ’91 O.G. Original Gangster album with a monologue preemptively chastising listeners who denounced rappers embracing rock as “selling out.” And well before any of this, you had Run-D.M.C. doing “Rock Box” and dueting with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way,” Slayer’s Kerry King shredding on the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Public Enemy sampling Slayer again on “She Watch Channel Zero?!”—pretty much everything producer Rick Rubin touched, actually. As Ice T condescendingly reminded everyone, rap and rock had been friendly, if uneasy, acquaintances from the get-go.

But despite these sporadic successful mergers, no one had yet thought to do an entire album based on getting established rap and rock artists in the same studio to hash something out. That revolutionary concept in doubling your market share fell to Happy Walters, the then-25-year-old upstart music mogul who founded Buzztone Music and Immortal Records, fostering the careers of hip-hop artists like House Of Pain and Cypress Hill, and later rock acts like Korn, Incubus, and Thirty Seconds To Mars. If any man can be seen as the Berry Gordy of the most aggro, angst-ridden music of the 1990s, it’s the ironically named Happy, who told Billboard in ’93 that his big idea for Judgment Night—and in a way, the next seven ensuing years of music—was his realization that “a lot of alternative artists dig hip-hop and a lot of hip-hop artists like alternative. It kind of made sense to do something that brings the two together.” On a more pragmatic note, it also made sense for Walters to do something that would make use of his own artists, many of whom hailed from the Soul Assassins crew. Specifically, Walters wanted to build something around House Of Pain’s Everlast, who’d also landed a supporting role in the film helping Denis Leary look intimidating.

Thematically, it made sense for Judgment Night the movie as well. Like that same year’s Falling Down and 1992’s Trespass, Judgment Night captured the pervasive, L.A. riots-era paranoia among Middle Americans that the inner cities are a lawless jungle, telling the spooky campfire tale of a group of nice, middle-class dads who get sidetracked on their way to a boxing match and end up on Chicago’s South Side—where obviously, within mere minutes, they bear witness to a grisly murder and find themselves ruthlessly hunted by gang members. The movie sidesteps any uncomfortable racial implications by making that gang Irish, with a sylphlike Peter Greene and the aforementioned Everlast backing up Leary in the full, early-’90s bloom of his menacing crankiness. Meanwhile, their targets are a multiracial grab bag of dudes who would never actually hang out together, including Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jeremy Piven, and Stephen Dorff. They don’t even see race. Just look how natural these guys are with each other.

Photo: Largo Entertainment

Still, while the movie never makes it a race thing, the subtext of these Graying Goonies’ terrifying odyssey from idyllic cul-de-sacs to their literal crash-landing inside the garbage-strewn ghetto is pretty clear. And that culture clash is made even clearer on the soundtrack, where nice white-boy music like Pearl Jam and Teenage Fanclub wanders blithely into the hip-hop fray, then tries its best not to get buried under a whole lot of violent gat talk.

Much like Emilio Estevez’s group, some of these bands fare better than others. And while we’re already on the subject, Pearl Jam isn’t one of them—even though, in terms of appealing to the alternative-rock fans of ’93, there was no more intriguing team-up than Eddie Vedder and company trading musical ideas with Cypress Hill. By then, “Insane In The Brain” had already become a huge crossover hit, back during that weird era when listeners like me could hear it bleeding into “Even Flow” on wildly loose alternative-radio formats like Dallas’ The Edge 94.5 FM. Cypress Hill’s Black Sabbath samples and the very metal mountain-of-skulls cover art of Black Sundayas well as its side-stage gig at Lollapalooza ’92—had already anointed it as one of the select few hip-hop groups alterna-kids could officially be down with, alongside the Beastie Boys. So it seemed like a potentially era-defining moment when, in a tantalizing interview for Rolling Stone, Sen Dog teased, “The Pearl Jam shit is dope because we put hard B-boy rhymes on top of some heavy-metal-sounding shit. We were talking real street shit like we always do.”

Sen Dog was right about one thing: “Real Thing” is indeed some plodding, generic, heavy-metal-sounding shit, with B-Real—apart from name-checking Stone Gossard—mostly trotting out boilerplate rhymes about pigs, nines, and AKs, while Gossard adds some gratuitous “na-na-na” backing vocals over music that might as well be a GarageBand “Hard Rock Loop 2” preset. For all its momentous promises, “Real Thing” is really a duet in name only: The groups simply traded tracks by mail—and to make matters worse (or possibly for the better), Vedder didn’t even bother to participate. The result is such an anticlimax, it’s no wonder “Real Thing” is buried at the very end of the album, despite boasting the album’s two biggest names.

Instead, Judgment Night’s best moments belong to some of the smaller names, often in pairings that seem like they were drawn out of a bucket hat. Not even the biggest Bandwagonesque believer would have predicted the wan Scottish power-poppers in Teenage Fanclub to deliver one of the album’s strongest showings in their team-up with De La Soul, but they do so by taking the exact opposite tack from their metal-and-street-shit compatriots. “Fallin’” is a playful look at fleeting fame built around a Tom Petty sample, all laid-back, finger-snapping grooves and front-porch-lounging vibes that underscore the movie’s own moments of calm on manicured lawns. Kicking off with an infectious cry of “Hey yo, kids!” (recently sampled to similarly summery effect by The Avalanches) and ending with a goofy, belted-out block quote of Duice’s “Dazzey Duks,” the whole thing sounds like two wildly different artists genuinely having a good time working together, as opposed to simply bashing out the quickest, dirtiest distillation of their respective sounds so they could all go home.

Not that the simple, quick-and-dirty approach didn’t also have its merits. Pairing Queens-based rappers Onyx and Brooklyn-based thrashers Biohazard on the title track was less cross-cultural summit than drive across town, considering the two already shared mutual interests in barking about fights, drugs, and guns. They’d even already performed together as “BiOnyx” for a version of Onyx’s breakthrough, “Slam.” For “Judgment Night,” they simply repeated that proven formula: thick guitars over hip-hop beats, gang-shout choruses, and a whole lot of tough talk about who’s about to get smacked the fuck up if they don’t back the fuck up. And while it’s slightly weird to hear Sticky Fingaz roaring that he’s out to “make the white man call me master” while a bunch of white dudes back him up, it’s very much an embodiment of the way gangsta rap speaks to a lot of white kids, where raging against racism can stand in for any teen’s own antiauthoritarian anger.

There’s no deeper sociopolitical subtext to Helmet and House Of Pain’s track “Just Another Victim” beyond “the city will kill you.” But it similarly works thanks to John Stanier’s syncopated drumming style and signature, way-too-tight snare sound, which lends itself so naturally to churning, hip-hop hostility. Of course, Page Hamilton, while great at creating monster downtuned riffs, continued to be the worst lyricist this side of your own high school journals, grunting out half-baked abstractions like, “My hands are tied / Webbed feet again / Fell in behind / And claim us dead.” (Aww man, webbed feet again?) Still, everything comes together once Everlast is let loose to freestyle off IMDB, riffing, “Feeling like De Niro in Taxi Driver / With Jodie Foster, and Harvey Keitel / Looks like I’m walkin‘ through a livin‘ hell.” (One wonders how Walters—who told Billboard he sent everyone scenes from the movie, along with detailed descriptions of the shots—felt when none of his artists bothered to reference the movie they were actually working on. Though in their defense, it’s pretty hard to rhyme something with “Estevez.”)

Like Helmet, Faith No More would denounce its influence on rap-rock and nu-metal, despite bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit citing it—along with Mike Patton’s other band, Mr. Bungle—as revered inspirations. (“I do find that people who make bad music often have really good taste,” keyboardist Roddy Bottum would sneer to Noisey in 2015.) Despite their protests, between the band’s heavy, dissonant riffs and Patton’s Anthony Kiedis-enraging funk-rapping, you can definitely hear the ground being laid for the scores of bands who would strip Faith No More of all its oddball eccentricity, then regurgitate only its meatiest chunks. And in that sense, the band’s collaboration with the mostly forgotten Samoan rap crew Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. on “Another Body Murdered” may as well be rap-metal’s Rosetta Stone, reducing Patton to ominous “Ohhhh” backing vocals and the lyrics to generic gun bluster, all culminating in a mookish refrain of “Bang your head to this!” You can almost imagine Fred Durst’s cousin Marvin excitedly calling him to play this over the phone.

And yet, for all their garden-variety grittiness, “Just Another Victim” and “Another Body Murdered” have a chest-puffing, smack-talking energy that’s undeniable—and as so many imitators would discover, not so easy to replicate as it might seem. Judgment Night itself proves that a scant few tracks later with “Come And Die,” a collaboration between Irish alt-metal band Therapy? and obscure Soul Assassins signee Joe Fatal (not, as many erroneously claim, Tupac cohort Hussein Fatal, who would have been all of 16 at the time). As unimaginative and enervated as its title, “Come And Die” is both parody and prophecy of everything that rap-metal would become, the song’s monotonous horror-movie atmospherics and bonehead lyrics like “Thugs on the wall are goin‘ insane / When I catch this motherfucker I’m-a shoot his fuckin‘ brain” lending credence to Fatal later declaring, “At the end of the day, I wasn’t a rapper.” What could have been a breakthrough moment for the two most obscure artists on the bill ends up being just more confirmation of why they remained that way.

That’s especially true considering that the album’s two artists who’d been at this rap-rock game the longest—Ice T and Run-D.M.C.—somehow end up with some of its weakest moments. Teaming Ice T with Slayer should have been a slam dunk, for one, considering their respective histories in dabbling in each other’s genres. An in-studio segment taped for MTV elucidates what deep respect they had for each other and the excitement they had to be collaborating (along with confirmation that Guy Fieri styles his entire wardrobe on early-’90s Riki Rachtman). But in light of all that, they never fully explain why they chose to bang out a shouty medley of songs by U.K. punk band The Exploited, rather than using this rare opportunity to create something new together. As is, “Disorder” comes off like an appropriately pissed, if perfectly fine thrash-metal track that may as well have been a Body Count B-side.

On that same note, you’d think that Run-D.M.C. would have showed up all these sucker MCs by absolutely dominating a sound they’d all but invented. But despite some typically swaggering rhyming, the surprisingly bland duet with Living Colour on “Me, Myself And My Microphone” is undercut by the song’s persistent need to have Vernon Reid’s guitar drown out nearly every single bar, suggesting he was just handed the finished tune and told to “rock it up.”

As heard on the De La Soul-Teenage Fanclub track, Judgment Night works best when the artists are fully in this weird experiment together. Corny as the song is, the team-up between grungy blues-punks Mudhoney and their fellow Seattleite Sir Mix-A-Lot on “Freak Momma” at least sounds like they made it in the same room. That’s because they did: “There I was with a dude on guitar, bass and a motherfucker on drums—that was strange as fuck to me, man, it was very new,” Mix-A-Lot told Rolling Stone. And he fully went with that strangeness and clearly ended up having fun as he clowned around, shouting-out his new pals with the lyric “I wanna push you in the mud, honey” and his outro exclamation of “Just lost my street credibility, y’all!!” (Fortunately for the “Baby Got Back” rapper, he would quickly regain it with “Put ’Em On The Glass,” his gritty street anthem about putting breasts on glass.)

As DJ Muggs later told Complex, Cypress Hill’s second collaboration of the album was also its first time in the studio with a rock band, and again—unlike the duet-by-mail with Pearl Jam—it’s that awkward energy that led to a far better song. I’ve written about “I Love You Mary Jane” before, but in summation, it works because, by Muggs’ own admission, they were forced to make it work. Muggs may have tried to bail on the session, citing the classic proviso of “It ain’t dope,” but by being conscripted into wrapping Sonic Youth’s scraping guitar pings and Kim Gordon’s breathy vocal hook into something he could make sense of, he succeeded in creating a uniquely off-kilter groove. Yes, it’s another Cypress Hill track about weed. But much like “Fallin’,” “I Love You Mary Jane” showed how rap and rock could meet in the middle without either side being over-compromised.

Similarly, the appropriately named “Missing Link” manages to find unexpected common ground between Dinosaur Jr. and Del The Funky Homosapien. Years before he’d do the same for Gorillaz, Del brought his breathless, stream-of-consciousness flow to J Mascis’ equally verbose wah-wah wizardry, and the result is something, as he raps, with “no simile”—a song whose loopy, loping funk truthfully didn’t do much for me as a keyed-up young man, but stands out now as one of the album’s more inspired pairings. Even better, it led to video of Del, Mascis, Mike Watt, and Mike D playing the song on Arsenio, as perfect a 1990s time capsule as ever created.

“It’s cool, but it’s some alternative shit. I doubt that it’s the future of rap,” Del would later tell Rolling Stone of “Missing Link” and the Judgment Night soundtrack as a whole. And for the most part, he was correct, though the album’s success certainly affected the specific rappers who participated. Del would, in fact, do more alternative shit. As would Sir Mix-A-Lot, who would team up with another Seattle band, The Presidents Of The United States Of America, in 1997 to record and tour as Subset. Even Run-D.M.C. would eventually come full circle, falling prey to the siren screech of rap-rock/nu-metal on 2001’s Crown Royal by trading hooks with artists like Sugar Ray, Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins, Kid Rock, and (of course) Fred Durst. After House Of Pain disbanded in 1996, Everlast blended hip-hop and countrified blues-rock across a series of solo albums. And as Sen Dog explained to HipHopDX in 2012, the soundtrack had a profound effect on Cypress Hill’s eagerness to dabble in rock, punk, and reggae stylistic shifts across 2000s efforts like Skull & Bones: “Once we did the Judgment Night soundtrack and we got a chance to write with Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth and I saw the reaction that people had behind it, I was like, ‘At one point here, we’re going to have to take this chance and this risk and go rock and metal.’ It worked out good.”

Maybe. But it was mostly the rock groups who began incorporating more hip-hop into their sound who got the better end of the deal. Rage Against The Machine—who actually recorded a song with Tool for Judgment Night, variably known as “You Can’t Kill The Revolution” or “Revolution,” only to drop it after being unsatisfied with the result—continued to flourish, and the mainstream success of both that band and the Judgment Night soundtrack set the stage for Korn’s Happy Walters-released, self-titled debut in 1994. From there, it was just a quickening bro-slide of bands like 311, P.O.D., Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, etc., until by 1998, seemingly every popular rock group trafficked in the same break-shit aggression and B-boy posturing, while even go-nowhere garage bands started having serious talks about whether they needed to add a DJ. As with any musical movement, there wasn’t any single, clearly defined source for the rap-metal/nu-metal outbreak. But as a means of fostering a widespread interest in rock and rap living together, Judgment Night had been a popular Patient Zero, reaching No. 17 on the Billboard charts and spawning videos that could live just as easily across Yo! MTV Raps, Alternative Nation, and Headbangers Ball.

It had a profound effect on other soundtracks, too—particularly those that were also produced by Happy Walters, who attempted to recreate its alchemical magic on Spawn and Blade II (we’ll get to those later) by pairing hip-hop, rock, and electronic acts together, all in increasing, “Let’s have Marilyn Manson jam with Sneaker Pimps!” levels of ridiculousness. Walters, in the meantime, would experience his own unfortunate hip-hop crossover when he was allegedly abducted by Suge Knight—reportedly as a way of intimidating him into handing over RZA—and was found two days later beaten, dazed, and covered in cigar burns. He would soon drop RZA along with most of his hip-hop clients, then find a far safer career working as a sports agent before serving as co-president of Relativity Media (and as the inspiration for titles of movies starring his pal Adam Sandler). He also went on to supervise soundtracks for films like The Big Lebowski, There’s Something About Mary, and MacGruber, some of these more renowned than others.

But while few of them had anywhere near the same ambition as Judgment Night, Walters’ big idea saw a resurgence this summer in the soundtrack for Ghostbusters, where Fall Out Boy paired up with Missy Elliott to give the Ghostbusters theme an emo-punk/hip-hop makeover. Meanwhile, the companion album to Suicide Squadperhaps as rap-metal a movie as has ever been made—threw Lil Wayne and Imagine Dragons, Action Bronson and The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and Rick Ross and Skrillex together on the same tracks, in hopes that their uneasy pairings could create their own wicked chemistry/irritating headaches. The experiment raked in a No. 1 album in the process. It seems that, even in an era when digital music makes these studio-compiled mixtapes feel unnecessary, the lesson of Judgment Night lives on: Graft an ambitious concept and some unlikely musical pairings onto even the shittiest of films, and people will be compelled to check it out, if only out of morbid curiosity.

As for me, Judgment Night’s influence was fairly short-lived. While I already liked and continued to enjoy Rage Against The Machine—and I have a fuzzy memory of buying Biohazard’s State Of The World Address, then selling it a couple weeks later—the burgeoning rap-rock scene mostly felt embarrassingly, phonily macho to me. Angry young man though I was, I far preferred the melodramatic gloominess epitomized by The Crow soundtrack and the snotty petulance of Green Day and Rancid, both of which led me to the classic goth and punk music that dominated my high school years—as well as just listening to hip-hop, without the added posturing of metal dudes hammering guitars. Judgment Night was ultimately such a short blip on my radar, I didn’t even bother to upgrade my copy from cassette to CD, meaning it went more or less forgotten in my closet for years beyond the occasional joking reference.

And yet, when this year’s Record Store Day saw Judgment Night get a fancy vinyl reissue on 180-gram vinyl (but still with that cheap, flyer-for-an-energy–drink–sponsored-party cover), I’ll admit there was a part of me that felt the urge to buy it, and not just out of nostalgia—or for the laughs. For all the dumbed-down imitators it spawned, Judgment Night remains a fitfully fascinating curio, capturing that brief moment when bringing rap and rock together still felt like an excitingly dangerous detour. And that’s true even if, for so many of us soft-bellied suburbanites, it led us right into a dead end.