In honor of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, Out of the Shadows, Ryan Sheely and Richard Rosenbaum delved deeply into the cultural history, lyrics, and musical influences of “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs.” Read on to learn what they discovered, and buy the Ninja Turtles Overview Box Set for more analysis of the classic 1990s TMNT movies.
Ryan Sheely: I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs,” and I want to do a bit of analysis about what these are and what is interesting about them.
For me, this started to become a point of interest when I first heard “Shell Shocked,” the song by Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa, and Ty Dolla $ign that is from the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was listening to a Spotify playlist and it just came on, so I didn’t know that it was a Ninja Turtles song until Juicy J says “We all want our cut like the Shredder” which made me take out my phone and look at it, and then caused me to laugh when I saw the TMNT cover art.
I laughed because it immediately made me think of Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap” from 1991’s Secret of the Ooze, which stands up as such a amazing piece of early 1990s kitch, in part because it achieves the seemingly impossible task of making Vanilla Ice seem even more ridiculous by having him chant “Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go!”
So I initially took “Shell Shocked” as just a nod to “Ninja Rap” as a way to reproduce a similar piece of kitsch 13 years later.
But once I talked to you about it, I realized that these are just two nodes of a much larger phenomenon of “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs.” The most famous incarnation that I had forgotten about was “Turtle Power” by Partners in Kryme, which was the credits music for the 1990 TMNT film. Although this has had less kitschy ‘90s nostalgia staying power than “Ninja Rap,” it was actually much more popular – it even peaked at #1 on the UK singles charts, and in the US #2 on the hot rap singles chart and #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 (“Ninja Rap” didn’t chart and “Shell Shocked” peaked at 84).
You also pointed out two other more obscure “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs,” like “Awesome (You Are My Hero)” by Ya Kid K, which is also from Secret of the Ooze and “Turtle Jam” by Psychedelic Dust and Loose Bruce from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.
And then I came across one other, “Shellshock” by Gym Class Heroes from the 2007 film TMNT. This is the one that is somehow the most interesting to me, in terms of identifying this pattern I’ve mentioned a few times of “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs.” The soundtrack to TMNT is almost entirely rock-oriented, and yet it still has a rap song on it (albeit by a group that is a hybrid of rap and rock).
So this is the crux of what I mean by this phenomenon of the “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Song” – every single one of the five TMNT films released between 1990 and 2014 has at least one rap song on the soundtrack in which the rapper talks explicitly about the turtles (and as I mentioned above, Secret of the Ooze has two).
Before delving into trying to understand this phenomenon it is worth highlighting the criteria for inclusion in the category, and giving examples of a few songs that fall outside of the scope of “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs.”First, songs in this category explicitly mention the Ninja Turtles in the song’s lyrics. This puts all of the songs we’re looking at here in contrast with several rap songs from each of the movie soundtracks that don’t mention the turtles at all in the lyrics. From the 1990 film, M.C. Hammer’s “This is What We Do” falls into this category, as does “Spin That Wheel (Turtles Get Real)” by Hi Tek 3. Even though the latter has Turtles in the title, it was tacked on, and the song itself doesn’t have any connection to the Turtleverse.
The second criterion is that the song is released in conjunction with the cinematic release of a Ninja Turtles film, on the film’s soundtrack, in the film itself or the credits, or as a promotional single. This is in contrast to a few other Ninja Turtles Rap songs that are out there as independent releases. The 2015 Ninja Turtles song by Partners in Kryme called “Rock the Halfshell” and this amazing gem I found, “El Rap De Las Tortugas Ninja” by Juanito Say:
And the third criterion is that the songs are Rap songs, which excludes most of the rest of the rock-heavy 2007 TMNT soundtrack and other dance and pop songs from the other films.
I guess that should be the first criterion… so reordering them, 1) These are rap songs, 2) they are rap songs that mention the Ninja Turtles, and 3) They are released in conjunction with the movies.
Richard Rosenbaum: There is also an absolutely, UNironically fantastic concept album by a (sadly, recently disbanded) group called The BCASA, who sound like a mashup of the Hives and the Beastie Boys, where every single song is about TMNT. The album is titled “F—- You Shredder.”
Sheely: In general, the unsanctioned Ninja Turtles rap songs (like the BCASA album and “El Rap De Las Tortugas Ninja”) are better than the ones from the movies, because they are fan art, created by artists who love the property. In contrast, what is fascinating about the set of songs I’m calling “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs” is that they are all commissioned, and they all feel like they were written with a plot synopsis/Ninja Turtles glossary in hand. I think there is probably heterogeneity in the extent of each rapper’s latent Ninja Turtles interest/knowledge, but in general, even the most engaged ones are kind of arms length.
And this isn’t just a matter of the artists’ fandom or not; I think there is something awkward about rapping in some amount of detail about the Ninja Turtles, as there is a bit of tension between the world and vocabulary of the turtles and the typical language and imagery of hip hop.
So it seems important that one of the first key elements of a “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Song” is that someone on the movie production side of things said “Hey, we need a rap song about the Turtles” – this could have been a producer, maybe a music supervisor, maybe a marketing director. I find it so interesting that this was essentially decided five different times for five different movies. At this point, if Out of the Shadows doesn’t have a “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Song, I will be very disappointed.
In terms of thinking about how “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs” became a thing, it is worth noting that in 1990, hip hop was growing in popularity, but hadn’t yet totally crossed over to the pop charts. At the time of the film’s release in March 1990, no rap song had topped the Billboard singles chart. That wouldn’t happen until later in the year with… wait for it… “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice.
So there is something of an interesting accident of history that links the turtles to rap (much like the accident with the ooze that made them mutants in the first place). Someone in the production of the first TMNT movie saw the growing popularity of rap music, especially among pre-teens and teens who were watching MTV, and so built a soundtrack filled with hip hop, and a purpose-built Ninja Turtles rap song.
What is brilliant about “Turtle Power” is that it was a way to make rap music seem less threatening to parents; this is in a context where most mainstream awareness of hip hop is connected to censorship and boycotts related to N.W.A., Public Enemy, and 2 Live Crew.
So you end up having this perfect storm with “Turtle Power” where it is in the very popular movie (and in fact just summarizes the plot of the movie), and it isn’t particularly offensive, which means that it can allow parents to satiate their kids’ demands for both Ninja Turtles and rap music. I’m not saying that “Turtle Power” single-handedly took rap mainstream, but it was definitely part of a number of currents that were moving in that direction.
And breaking down resistance/censorship is a big part of that. It is noteworthy that the first few rap songs to top the Billboard Hot 100 share a lot of similarities with with “Turtle Power” in terms of being either acceptable to parents (think Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations”) or in the case of Kris Kross, being performed by kids themselves.
Rosenbaum: At the same time, though, it’s kind of paradoxical. Because all the music referenced in the original comic is not rap but 80s rock/punk/metal; and also because remember that the Turtles phenomenon at that time was often portrayed as incredibly destructive to children – some ridiculous statistic I read was that NINETY-FIVE PERCENT of American teachers polled attributed classroom misbehavior to the influence of Ninja Turtles.
Sheely: Oh wow, that is incredible.
I wonder if the Ninja Turtles are a wedge issue where parents and teachers were not aligned.
The 1990 movie has a pretty pro-family message (even if it is a non-traditional family), and so I could imagine that parents liked it (or at least tolerated it) for that.
But in the movie, Splinter’s parenting style was not really ultra-disciplinarian; he kind of leads the turtles to find self-discipline from within, but tolerates a lot hi-jinks (most of them related to pizza and/or dancing). I could imagine that that kind of behavior was very irritating to teachers even if it was tolerated by parents.
I’m thinking back to my own childhood here. You’ve seen the photo of me in my Ninja Turtles pyjamas, which must have been somewhere in that 1990-1991 era. From that same Christmas or another Christmas around that time, there is also a video of my brother and me lip syncing Kris Kross’s “Jump.”
So it is interesting that these are both pieces of pop culture that I really loved and which were tolerated/supported by my family.
Like you said, it is absolutely paradoxical… there isn’t really anything in the 80s comics that links it to hip hop, and I think it is interesting that it is instead much more connected to the more rebellious corners or rock music. As we noted in our Overview commentary track for the 1990 movie, all of Danny’s t-shirts feature Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. So even at that stage of the film production, it is much more rock-leaning.
Rosenbaum: The one rap reference from the comic books I can recall is from the LETTER COLUMN from the comic based on the cartoon published by Archie. Someone wrote in to ask if the Turtles liked Public Enemy. The answer from the editor was yes, the Turtles like Public Enemy.
Sheely: Oh man, now I want to write a TMNT/Public Enemy parody called “Fight the Shredder” to the tune of “Fight the Power.”
Rosenbaum: ”It takes a nation of millions (of Foot Soldiers) to hold us back”
But even if the comics aligned the Turtles much with Public Enemy if they addressed rap at all, the early film Turtles are much closer to Kris Kross and actually C&C Music Factory, which was considered dance music but was MUCH “rappier” than what we’d call dance music today. This kind of dance rap is what was in the music zeitgeist, at least in my circles at the same time as Ninja Turtles.
Sheely: It is interesting that you mention C&C Music Factory, because Ya Kid K (the rapper from Technotronic, of “Pump up the Jam” fame) is on two of the TMNT movie soundtracks.
She’s on “Spin that Wheel” (which falls out of our scope because it doesn’t actually mention the Turtles) and then she does “Awesome (You Are My Hero)” from Secret of the Ooze. Both of those songs very much have that euro dance rap vibe (I believe Technotronic was Belgian). But “Ninja Rap” is also very dancey, but a bit more connected to New Jack Swing (think things like Bel Biv Devoe, Boyz II Men, a lot of the production on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous).
So there is this interesting transition. “Turtle Power” is a bit slower, the beat is a bit more sparse and has that “Boom Bap” sound that characterizes sampled drums of 80s rap.
In terms of lyrics and delivery, although it comes after the Rakim renaissance, it is much more indebted to 1985-1986 era rap, say like Run DMC, where there is just a bit less fluidity and flexibility with metrical structure and rhyme schemes.
So this gives it all a pretty repetitive, simplistic, and literal feel – and that fits with the lyrical content: a recap of what happened in the movies (with the often-noted error citing Raphael as the leader).
By 1991, pop rap has come to focus on these more dance-oriented styles, and it has become much more of a “thing,” to the extent that in this case the integration with hip hop is explicit – Vanilla Ice is in the movie, and the soundtrack has both “Ninja Rap” and “Awesome.”
Both of these songs are interesting because they abstract from a lot of the details of the movie. They even both downplay the ninja aspect of the turtles, in favor of a focus on partying and dancing. Turtles are “awesome” and yelling “Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go” is something you would do on a dancefloor rather than in a ninja battle.
This then morphs again by 1993, when the third movie comes out. The rap song from this movie, “Turtle Jam” is a pretty hard left turn from the two dance rap tracks on Secret of the Ooze in a few ways.
First, the opening is so ominous and serious – it opens with these synth washes that connect to musical language of martial arts movies, which connects this movie’s “time travel to feudal Japan plot.” The intro vocals are similarly intense: “1993, y’all… Straight from the Sewer… Ninja Turtles Comin’ Out Strong in Full Effect.”
Second, when the beat does come in, it is slowed down again from the two dance tracks, but the beat is pretty different from what was in 1990’s “Turtle Power.”
Where Turtle Power was relatively sparse, you hear a lot more funky thickness in these samples. Especially in that little guitar lick, but also in the synth bass and backup vocals.
Third, lyrically, this song does a lot more to integrate the Turtles with other pieces of popular culture. It does this through a lot of non-sequitur references to celebrities and products and to the “Jungle Boogie” sample in the chorus.
So over the course of three “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs,” we’ve gone from summarizing the plot of the movie, to an incorporation of the Ninja Turtles into the Dance Rap Trend, to the Ninja Turtles as part of the landscape of pop culture (and pop music) that the rappers can play with.
Rosenbaum: It also seems to be referencing “Rebirth of Slick” a couple of times, if I’m not mistaken.
Sheely: Yes, I think so. I actually can’t track down transcribed lyrics for this one. It is definitely one of the deeper cuts, as “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs” go.
I think all three of these elements connect “Turtle Jam” to things that were happening in rap music in 1992-1994.
The serious movie scoring combined with the vocal intro reminds me a lot of how the kung fu movie samples are used in the Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers. The funkiness is definitely borrowing from a lot of Dr. Dre’s production innovations, both with NWA and the G-Funk stuff from Death Row (The Chronic and Doggystyle). And the sampling and dialogue with pop culture is very Puff Daddy and really strongly suggests the ways that pop rap ends up going in the mid-late 90s. You can draw a line from “Turtle Jam” through to “Mo Money Mo Problems” and then to Will Smith and “Men In Black” and “Wild Wild West.”
Rosenbaum: In a way, “Turtle Jam” is maybe the most TMNT of all of these, precisely because of the broad dialogue with pop culture that runs through it. Turtles in every incarnation is very reference-heavy in an almost Tarantino-esque way. It’s incredibly intertextual, and quite explicit about it.
Sheely: I like that criterion a lot. The earlier songs draw on aspects of TMNTness… for “Turtle Power” it is story and for the Secret of the Ooze tracks it is the sense of fun and partying. But I agree that this kind of post-modern bricolage (in which story and party are still important) is what sets “Turtle Jam” apart from all other “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs.”
I think this is something that other commentary on “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs” really misses. There were a bunch of articles on the phenomenon that came out in 2014, right when “Shell Shocked” was released. A lot of these either just pile on the snark about how terrible these songs are or rank them basically based on a very plot-driven conception of “TMNT-ness.” I think both kinds of treatment are simplistic and do a bit of a disservice to both the rap songs and to the TMNT franchise.
I think the two most recent “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Songs” get the shortest shrift in these overviews, “Shell Shock” from the 2007 TMNT film and “Shell Shocked” from the 2014 film. Most of the snark pieces stop at “look how dumb Ninja Turtles Rap Songs are, they can’t even come up with unique titles.” But the songs are actually quite different in a lot of ways that connect to what we’ve been discussing.
Let’s look at the lyrics. In the Gym Class Heroes version “shellshock” is a state of mind (or almost a notional place) that the listener is already in and being welcomed too. It is worth noting that this hook draws on two earlier songs, the 2004 song “Welcome to Jamrock” by Damian Marley and 2004’s “Lighters Up” by Lil Kim (which tweaks it to “Welcome to Brooklyn”. In contrast, in “Shell Shocked,” it is used as a verb “Knock knock, you’re about to get shell shocked”- it is anticipatory, and is a warning or maybe a threat.
I think these differences fit well with what is going on musically in each song. In the Gym Class Heroes song, I see “shellshock” as representing this kind of adolescent, juvenile mode that we talked about earlier- the kind of boisterousness misbehavior that made teachers in the early 90s hate the Ninja Turtles. In the lyrics and music, there is a lot of focus on pieces of youth culture that tie together rap and punk- skateboarder culture, vandalism, and the crude yo momma jokes at the end.
In contrast, the 2014 “Shell Shocked” is posse rap for the EDM era. All of the lyrics focus on the TMNT as a model of a bro squad and emphasize brotherhood and a bit more of the violence (or at least the capacity for violence) in a way that harkens back to “Turtle Power.” This fits with the music in an interesting way, as the chant of “knock knock, you’re about to get shell shocked” is a set up for the release of the EDM Drop, which in live shows is the musical cue for physical release.
Despite these differences, I think it is also interesting that in both songs, the rappers do a lot more integration of their own perspective/persona/perspective with the world of the turtles. Of the older songs, Vanilla Ice probably did this the most in “Ninja Rap,” but “Shell Shock” and “Shell Shocked” take this to a new level, and it makes sense. The big difference here is that on all of the newer songs, the rappers grew up in a post-turtles world. I don’t know a lot about how big of fans either Gym Class Heroes or Juicy J et al were, but they’re more or less of the right age to have gotten into the turtles as kids. Travie McCoy (of Gym Class Heroes) would have been 9 when the original TMNT movie came out. Of the crew in “Shell Shocked,” Juicy J would have been 15, Ty Dolla $ign would have been 5, and Wiz Khalifa would have been 3.
This brings us to the new movie, “Out of Shadows.” A soundtrack hasn’t yet been released even though the release of the movie is upon us. I’m really curious about whether there will be a “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Song” in this film. The strength of the pattern makes me feel like there will in some way, as does the usage of some classic hip hop in the trailer for the film. That said, the only song I can find released in conjunction with the film is this cover of the TV show theme song by the Mexican Boy Band CD9:
Based on this, the music in the new film could go in a number of different directions. It could go back to pop punk in the style of the 2007 film, or it could go in a more pure pop direction. Whichever path it takes, I certainly hope there is at least one “Ninja Turtles Movie Rap Song,” as this phenomenon is so compelling that it only benefits from each subsequent iteration.
Want more Ninja Turtles overthinking? Buy the Overview alternative commentary tracks for the first two TMNT movies today!