‘The Last Dance’ Music Supervisor Reimagines Chicago Bulls’ Heyday Through 90s Hip-Hop

Rudy Chung’s ballin’ soundtrack infuses a fitting playlist into the epic series chronicling Michael Jordan’s historic swan song season. 

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA and hip-hop music have become inseparable best friends throughout the last decade. Throw on any recent Raptor’s game and it’s standard to hear Kendrick beats echo across the court during play, and when the clock runs out, Drake’s “Money in the Grave” blasts from the arena sound system. But it wasn’t always that way.

Speaking to music supervisor Rudy Chung about his work on the wildly popular Netflix & ESPN Films docu-series, The Last Dance, a chronicling of Michael Jordan’s famous swan song season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98, he talks about recreating history through the series’ hip-hop heavy soundtrack.

“It was clear that we wanted to tell the story, in part, with a lot of classic hip-hop,” he says over the phone from Los Angeles. “And we found it interesting, just because it’s not a genre of music that was associated with Jordan, or even the NBA back in the 90s.”

Those glued to standard-def TV sets during the Bulls’ heyday will remember “Roundball Rock,” the hip-shakin’ bop of a song and NBC’s basketball theme that set the tempo before tip-off each night from 1990-2002. It’s a big band orchestral-rock number written by Entertainment Tonight host, John Tesh, that is so far removed from the modern NBA marketing strategy that it’s hard to imagine the two were synonymous at any point in time. 

When asked about the usage of so many rap and hip-hop classics in the soundtrack—songs like “Can I Kick It?” by Tribe Called Quest or “I’m Bad” by LL Cool J—Chung rationalizes this deliberate decision. “Hip-hop and the NBA; you can’t separate the two now. The culture, the music, the sports, the athletes,” he says. “It feels very relevant now because we’ve never seen these classic game highlights set to hip-hop like that before.

Chung has been in the music supervision business for nearly 17 years, and with a stainless steel resume of work on shows like Silicon Valley and Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, it carries a lot of weight to hear him refer to this particular project as a “dream gig.” But he grew up during the era and as a “closet Jordan fan” at the time (being a Detroit native, this was naturally frowned upon), the song choices are a clear reflection of that.

When asked about the pairing of the Beastie Boys’ track, “The Maestro,” with a particularly memorable Dennis Rodman sequence, his dedication to dig deep shines through. “Check your head was a very important album to me, personally,” he says. “But ‘The Maestro’ is not even one of the big songs from that album, although it works perfectly for Rodman.”

And it’s not all rap and hip-hop. There’s Queen (of course), Simon and Garfunkel, and, perhaps the song choice that’s making the biggest waves on social media: “Partyman.”

“I don’t think that ‘Partyman’ from Prince is the most obvious Prince song for a show about Michael Jordan,” Chung laughs when asked about the revelatory choice to use the song in a groovy montage.

The series has been receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews with weekly episode releases on both ESPN and Netflix. Originally scheduled to release in June, the decision was made to move the series up to April amid the pandemic and postponement of, quite literally, the entire sports world.

“We are very, very fortunate to have the audience we have. This coming during a pandemic, there’s no sports, there’s no NBA,” he says. “I’m hearing from family and friends that I haven’t heard from in ages who aren’t even sports fans watching it because this is just like a cultural moment in a way.”

It’s true that The Last Dance, along with anything released lately, has been permanently coloured by the very unique state of current events. But perhaps it’s fitting for a show so bound by history yet determined to project the events of the past through the ever-evolving lens of the present. With a fresh coat of paint in the form of so many old school hip-hop bangers, Michael Jordan flies higher than ever.

Anybody itching to vibe with the series’ eclectic tracklist of champions can follow along with a Spotify playlist curated by music supervisor, Rudy Chung.