For most people, Space Jam is nothing more than a pleasant bit of nostalgia, a movie you might have loved as a kid growing up in the 90s but don’t think about much these days. Maybe you remember the Monstars, but you can’t recall the name of their conniving alien overlord; perhaps you can still picture Michael Jordan crash-landing in ToonTown, but you can’t quite put your finger on how he got there. No matter how foggy your recollection of Space Jam may be, there’s one piece of it you almost certainly remember clear as day: the fucking ripper of a theme song that thing had.
If, consumed by a strange desire to revisit “Space Jam” by the Quad City DJ’s, you go looking for it on YouTube, you’ll find a song just as earth-shatteringly good as you remember—but you’ll also find something else: hundreds upon hundreds of “Space Jam” mashups. They span pretty much every genre imaginable, covering everything from classic rock:
To eighties classics:
To nineties bops:
The further down the “Space Jam” mashup rabbit hole you go, the weirder it gets. There’s a subreddit called r/comeonandslam devoted to these things—known as “slams,” “jams,” or “slamjams”—that has more than 36,000 members. To these people, slams are a religion, and Charles Barkley—not Michael Jordan—is their messiah. His face appears in almost every “Space Jam” mashup video on YouTube, crudely photoshopped over that of Cher, or Ritchie Valens, or all six members of Kansas.
Why do so many of these exist? Why lionize Barkley, who appeared in Space Jam for about 15 seconds, over Jordan, the movie’s star? And how is it possible that 25 years after Space Jam came out, people are still making slams to this day?
If you dig deep enough, you’ll find answers to those questions on r/comeonandslam, where self-described slammers and jammers have chronicled the rise, fall, and rebirth of slams with the rigor and dedication of PhD-endowed historians. According to one longtime slammer, the saga begins around 2005, when the first-ever “Space Jam” mashup—“Savage Slam”—surfaced on the forum You’re the Man Now, Dog, an early aughts oasis of memes, dumb jokes, and other obscure internet ephemera. Other slams followed in its wake—because people thought they were a) funny b) legitimately sick or c) both—and, according to the aforementioned slammer, they “possibly started to migrate onto YouTube (no evidence found as of yet).”
Then, in 2008, brothers Brian and Liam Raum created a free online role-playing game known as Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. (The game was inspired, in part, by Barkley Shut Up and Jam!, made for the Sega Genesis. Its full title: Tales of Game's Presents Chef Boyardee's Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa.) Here’s the synopsis of the Baums’ game, per GameSetWatch:
[In 2041,] thousands upon thousands of the world's greatest ballers were massacred in a swath of violence and sports bigotry as the game was outlawed worldwide. The reason: the Chaos Dunk, a jam so powerful its mere existence threatens the balance of chaos and order. Among the few ballers and fans that survived the basketball genocide was Charles Barkley, the man capable of performing the "Verboten Jam"…
Flash forward 12 years to the post-cyberpocalyptic ruins of Neo New York, 2053. A Chaos Dunk rocks the island of Manhattan, killing 15 million. When the finger is put on the aging Charles Barkley, he must evade the capture of the B-Ball Removal Department, led by former friend and baller Michael Jordan, and disappear into the dangerous underground of the post-cyberpocalypse to clear his name and find out the mysterious truth behind the Chaos Dunk. Joined by allies along the way, including his son Hoopz, Barkley must face the dangers of a life he thought he gave up a long time ago and discover the secrets behind the terrorist organization B.L.O.O.D.M.O.S.E.S.
The game was, according to the Baums, an elaborate bit, created largely as an excuse to call something “Barkley Shut Up and Jam”—but it was so weirdly well-made that it gained a cult following. Here’s where slams come in: The game’s main theme song was the first ever “Space Jam” mashup, “Savage Slam.”
As Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden made its way around the internet, so, too, did “Savage Slam.” Suddenly, slams began to spread like wildfire. According to that previously cited redditor, 2009-2014 marked “the golden age of Slam Jams on YouTube, spurred on by Gaiden and initially popularized by 'comeonandslam'.” From 2015 to the present, slams have “died down a lot,” the user writes—but they’re “still being made by those who want to work that body, work that body, and make sure they don't hurt nobody.”
Barkley’s Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden only goes so far in explaining Barkley’s primacy in the slamjam canon. An equally large reason for his dominance in the hearts and minds of slammers, they say, is simply because they like him better than Michael Jordan. As one slammer put it: “Michael Jordan isn't funny. Charles Barkley is hilarious.”
After a long dry spell, the past several months have seen new slams appear on YouTube, and in the annals of r/comeonandslam, every few days. It’s impossible to say for sure what triggered the renaissance, but the most likely explanation may be that Space Jam: A New Legacy, starring LeBron James, is coming out next month. The film’s producers have abandoned the old theme song for a new one, “We Win,” by Lil Baby and Kirk Franklin. No one, not even the messianic Barkley himself, can predict the future—but if a mashup called “We Slam” doesn’t make its way to the top of r/comeonandslam by the end of July, I’ll eat a basketball.
Come on and slam, and follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.