Happy 25th Anniversary to the New Jack City soundtrack, originally released March 5, 1991.
Just over a year ago, Alex Hardy wrote a thought-provoking piece for Saint Heron in which he suggested that “[Black soundtracks] have become afterthoughts, due largely to diminishing sales. As interest fades, that perfect audio, visual, and thematic synergy is far too uncommon, as the soundtrack appears to have become a lost art form.” Indeed, the Black soundtrack has been an endangered musical species for some time now, at least since its commercial and creative heyday during the 1990s.
In the waning years of the 20th century, urban music fans’ attention and wallets were captured by countless compilations inspired by such films as Above the Rim, Boomerang, Boyz N the Hood, House Party, Jason’s Lyric, Juice, Love Jones, Menace II Society, Poetic Justice, Set It Off, Soul Food, and Waiting to Exhale, among many others. But, as Hardy rightly points out, the proliferation of the Black soundtrack occurred years before digital downloading and streaming became the music consumption methods du jour, which have all but rendered carefully curated and sequenced film collections obsolete.
Thankfully, however, many of these classic throwback soundtracks are available to revisit—or for some, discover anew—courtesy of the same instant-gratification fueled music platforms that helped to destroy the format in the first place. One collection in particular that warrants a sentimental listen or two is 1991’s New Jack City soundtrack, and not simply because it celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. But rather because its balanced juxtaposition of R&B and hip-hop compositions arguably established the blueprint for the successful Black film soundtracks of the ‘90s.
Though the film examines the crack epidemic that swept across many of New York City’s predominantly Black neighborhoods during the mid to late ‘80s at the hands of the fictional drug lord Nino Brown (expertly played by Wesley Snipes), the music is squarely rooted within the emergent new jack swing movement of the early ‘90s, with a few solid hip-hop tracks included for good measure. Highlights include the buoyant title track by the Teddy Riley orchestrated trio Guy and the uptempo ditty “I’m Dreamin’” by the film’s co-star Christopher Williams, as well as the signature smooth slow jams “I’m Still Waiting” and “(There You Go) Tellin’ Me No Again” by soul crooners extraordinaire Johnny Gill and Keith Sweat, respectively.
Admittedly, hip-hop is less prominent across the album, but quality trumps quantity here, as the small handful of songs included are top-notch. The propulsive anthem “New Jack Hustler (Nino’s Theme)” is pure adrenaline on wax and remains one of co-star Ice-T’s finest moments across his storied career. Arguably the greatest surprise is 2 Live Crew’s closing track “In the Dust,” which finds the typically salacious group notorious for their NSFW rhymes in rare socially conscious mode. With incisive lyrics throughout, the Crew explores how America’s history of racism and the marginalization of the black community have led to, as group leader Luke Campbell proclaims, “a Nino Brown in every city. Basically because we have no way out!” Arguably the film’s theme song, the dynamic Troop, LeVert and Queen Latifah collaboration “For the Love of Money / Living for the City”—a stellar medley of the O’Jays and Stevie Wonder originals—represents one of the earliest examples of the convergence of R&B and hip-hop, a phenomenon that became increasingly commonplace as the 1990s progressed.
Also deserving of praise are the four fledgling acts that appear on the soundtrack, which include Essence (“Lyrics 2 My Rhythm”), F.S. Effect (the Al B. Sure! produced “Get It Together”), Danny Madden (“Facts of Life”), and most memorably, Color Me Badd (“I Wanna Sex You Up”). A multi-ethnic vocal quartet hailing from Oklahoma City, the latter scored a chart-topping hit with their brazen ballad, the accompanying video for which I can’t watch now without immediately conjuring images of Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake’s unforgettably clever “Dick in a Box” SNL sketch.
As I’ve written about recently, the New Jack City soundtrack was among the first CDs I ever bought, and I played it incessantly for the better part of 1991, the year I transitioned from junior high to high school. Twenty-five years later, the soundtrack remains a thrilling artifact of early ‘90s urban music and reminds us—as does director Mario Van Peebles’ decision to include cameo performances by Guy, Keith Sweat, Troop and LeVert within the film itself—of just how integral music once was in the broader context of filmmaking.