Sonic the Hedgehog is an iconic video game series, and one of the most iconic parts of it are the soundtracks, especially in the Genesis era. However, throughout the 2000s, the involvement of a pop mega star in Sonic the Hedgehog 3‘s soundtrack went from urban legend to confirmed reality after a number of surprising revelations.
In 1993, Michael Jackson — yes, the Michael Jackson — began work on the soundtrack for one of the most anticipated games of the era, Sonic 3. Over the past decade or so, details have emerged outlining how Jackson and Sega became involved with one another, why Jackson goes completely unmentioned in the game’s credits, and where his fingerprints are still seen (and heard) in the game. Let’s take a look back at the discoveries, the story, and the resolution of this unlikely collaboration and bizarre moment in video game history.
One of the most obvious similarities comes between the theme for Carnival Night Zone Act 1 and Michael Jackson’s song “Jam”.
Not only does Carnival Night’s theme feature the exact same six note progression as “Jam,” but it even features a (heavily compressed) sample of Heavy D saying “jam,” which made it to the final version of Jackson’s song. Heavy D is even featured in the song’s music video:
Additionally, in 2008, it was proven by Sonic fanatics that the glass shatter sound in Carnival Night’s theme was exactly the same sample from Jackson’s song “In the Closet”.
This is one of the biggest discoveries made in the whole saga, and kickstarted the theory that Jackson himself was involved in the creation of Sonic 3‘s soundtrack.
Another pretty clear similarity is between Ice Cap Zone Act 1 and one of Jackson’s biggest hits, “Smooth Criminal”:
(Interestingly, Ice Cap Zone’s theme turned out not to be related to Smooth Criminal. The story gets even weirder than that. More on that later.)
Sonic 3‘s end credits theme seems eerily similar to Michael Jackson’s “Stranger in Moscow.”
And lastly, the drums in Knuckles’ theme seem to correlate with Jackson’s 1997 song, “Blood on the Dance Floor”:
So it’s pretty clear that there are some blatant similarities between some of Sonic 3‘s tracks and some of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits. But so what? Michael Jackson was arguably the biggest star in the world during the Genesis’s heyday — isn’t it only natural that some of Sonic’s music composers were influenced by the King of Pop?
The timeline just doesn’t support that theory. Like I said above, “Blood on the Dance Floor” was released in 1997, on the remix album Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix. That’s a full three years after Sonic 3 was released on the Sega Genesis. Similarly, “Stranger in Moscow” wouldn’t be released by Michael Jackson until 1996.
So, what’s going on here?
It all started with Masato Nakamura, composer for Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Naturally, Nakamura was slated to join the Sonic 3 project and compose the game’s soundtrack. However, given the popularity of — and more importantly, the revenue generated by — the first two games in the series, Nakamura’s price tag had increased. Sega refused to pay him the amount he was looking for, and Sega was forced to look for other options.
Michael Jackson caught wind of this, as a documented fan of video games and Sega in particular at the time. When Jackson was forced to stop touring due to an ankle injury in early 1993, he visited the Sega Technical Institute (STI) to congratulate the team on the success of Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. The team asked if he’d be interested in collaborating on the upcoming sequel’s soundtrack, and Jackson agreed.
(Makes you wonder just how much Nakamura thought his services were worth, if Michael effing Jackson was the cheaper alternative.)
With Michael Jackson beginning to think about Sonic 3‘s soundtrack, STI and Jackson amassed a group of composers to help him out on the project. Most of these composers would go on to work with Jackson on his ninth studio album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1. The soundtrack would be worked on throughout the summer of 1993.
And then, Jackson left the project…or was removed. Here’s where the story gets a bit messy. According to some, including keyboardist Brad Buxer in an interview with Black & White magazine in December 2009, Jackson was unhappy with the quality of the sound chip in the Sega Genesis, and the songs that resulted from it. Said Buxer (translated from the magazine’s original French by Sonic Retro Wiki):
” …he is not credited for composing the music, because he was not happy with the result[ing] sound coming out of the console. At the time, game consoles did not allow [for] an optimal sound reproduction, and Michael found it frustrating. He did not want to be associated with a product that devalued his music.”
That seems to make sense on the surface — the hardware powering music and sound in the 16-bit era was not terribly sophisticated, which could lead to muddy sounds and extreme compression if programmers weren’t careful.
Buxter also went on to confirm that the end credit theme of Sonic 3 was indeed the basis for Jackson’s 1997 single “Stranger in Moscow”, further entwining the histories of Michael Jackson and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Unless you’ve been in a coma since the 1980s, you know that Michael Jackson was accused of some pretty abhorrent stuff in 1993, when Sonic 3 was being worked on.
In a 2008 interview in the IRC channel Sagexpo, composer Howard Drossin said:
“I know that SEGA wanted to distance themselves from him after the sex scandal. If MJ’s tracks influenced some of the music it is a coincidence as far as I know.”
“Jam” being directly sampled in Carnival Night’s theme is certainly a little more than a coincidental influence, but Drossin may have been onto something: In 1997, a compilation game named Sonic & Knuckles Collection landed on PC. The game of course included a port of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, with some interesting changes: namely, the tracks for Carnival Night, Ice Cap and Launch Base were completely changed, ostensibly removing any song produced with Jackson’s involvement.
Case closed, right? Well, not so fast. It turns out these songs changing may have been a red herring, as Sonic & Knuckles Collection could only produce MIDI music, which meant the sampling the Genesis could take advantage of could not be carried over. So maybe they weren’t changed because of Michael Jackson after all.
Further muddying the waters, Sega’s Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, yet another compilation released in 2009, marked the first time Sega publicly admitted Michael Jackson was at one time involved in Sonic 3‘s production.
And finally, years later in 2013, what may be the final puzzle piece to this mystery was unearthed. Sonic fanatics were still trying to crack the code of Sonic 3‘s music production when there was an epiphany: Ice Cap Zone’s theme, which was originally thought to be a dead-ringer for “Smooth Criminal” and later “Who Is It”, was actually neither: Its iconic melody comes from an unreleased 1982 song from an obscure band called The Jetzons, called “Hard Times”.
“Hard Times”‘s composer? Brad Buxer, the man credited as the composer for Sonic 3 and the keyboardist who worked with Jackson and claims Jackson left the project due to the Genesis’s lagging hardware.
So, What Actually Happened?
It’s a long, winding, confusing road, but after all of that information and literally decades of piecing together interviews, dissecting sound files, and searching for the truth, we may have an answer.
It would appear that Michael Jackson truly was just unhappy with what the Genesis was capable of, and began to distance himself personally from the project while letting the team that was assembled around him finish up. Around the same time, allegations of sexual abuse against Jackson became public, and Sega decided to use that as a reason to cut ties from the pop star completely, both sides’ egos intact.
This is about as complete a picture as we have right now about what actually happened in one of the strangest stories of 1990s video game development: how the world’s biggest pop star began work on a soundtrack for one of the most popular video game franchises of the era, essentially in secret, before deciding to distance himself from the project at nearly the same time Sega decided they had to distance themselves from him for totally unrelated reasons.
For more information, I highly recommend watching The D-Pad’s excellent video about the subject on YouTube.