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Sega Legends: Michael Jackson and Sonic 3

Among the many myths and urban legends surrounding gaming, few are as notorious as those which surround the soundtrack to Sonic The Hedgehog 3. Rumors have abounded for years that Michael Jackson (yes, that Michael Jackson) was contracted by Sega to compose the music for the third installment of Sega’s flagship series. The extent of his involvement – if he was even involved at all – has been a bone of contention with Sonic fans for well over a decade now, and there is now much evidence that suggests he was actually working on… something.

Granted, most of what’s out there is circumstantial and riddled with speculation. There is a dearth of hard proof that Jackson was ever actually contracted to work with Sega, but people still cling to the hope that the King of Pop was writing music for the Blue Blur. Sega-16 has been investigating the issue for the past year, and what we’ve turned up heavily suggests that Jackson did indeed have some sort of communication with Sega, but nothing concrete ever came from the discussions.

According to several sources – which include a myriad of emails, forum conversations, this YouTube video, and a Sept. 2005 interview with former Sega Technical Institute head Roger Hector over at the website Sonic Retro – Sega contracted Jackson to compose the music for Sonic 3. Still favored by the company since his mega hit Moonwalker, Jackson had come to Sega’s American headquarters on several occasions since that game shipped. However, when Jackson was accused in November, 1993 of sexually molesting thirteen-year-old Jordan Chandler, Sega dropped him from the project. Supposedly, Jackson had by then finished the entire score to the game, and Hector himself turned over the only audio cassette copy of it to Sega of Japan, which promptly forwarded it to its legal department.

Truth…?

Sonic 3/MJ theorists point to many factors that tie him to Sega, particularly citing statements made by Hector and STI composer Howard Drossin in interviews as proof of Jackson’s role in the game’s development. Drossin told Sonic Retro that Jackson was originally involved but had departed by the end of development. Hector, on the other hand, was quite direct in his comments, mentioning that “Sonic 3 was a lot of fun, but it was also very difficult. Michael Jackson was originally brought in to compose all the music for the game, but at the very end, his work was dropped after his scandals became public. This caused a lot of problems and required a lot of reworking. But the game turned out great in the end.”

Whether he has meant to or not, Hector has fanned the flames of this rumor more consistently throughout the years than anyone else. For example, in an August 2005 interview with the website Secrets of Sonic Team, he mentioned that whenever a problem arose, such as “the whole Michael Jackson thing,” it fell to him to set things right. Perhaps Hector’s most compelling insights come from GamesTM magazine, where he went into great detail about Jackson’s involvement. “Michael Jackson was a very big fan of Sonic,” he revealed, “and he wanted to record a soundtrack for the game. He came to STI and met with the team to discuss the design theme, story and and feel of the game. He then went away and recorded an entire soundtrack that covered all of the worlds. It was fantastic.” Hector’s revelations don’t stop there, and he continued to explain what happened. “the music fitted [sic] perfectly for the game, and they had a distinctive Michael Jackson sound. We had it all ready and integrated into the game when the first news stories came out accusing him of child molestation, and Sega had to back away from this collaboration.” As most theorists mention, Hector went on to say that the music was shelved and Howard Drossin was brought in to write the soundtrack.

It is thought that though Jackson’s soundtrack was removed, STI was so fond of it that it had the new score composed to sound very much like something he would write. Theorists address this issue by pointing to the incredible similarities between songs in the game and music in Jackson’s own albums HIStory and Dangerous. Here’s a sample of the comparison:

- Sonic 3 Staff Roll (MP3 format, 761 kb)“Stranger in Moscow,” instrumental (MP3 format, 1.75 megs)

Notice the similarities? Many cite this as a definite indication of Jackson’s participation, or at least of that of a team seeking to emulate his particular sound.

So, when played side-by-side or even overlayed (as some have done on YouTube), the tracks are shockingly alike. In fact, the similarities found between Sonic 3 and MJ’s music number more than just a single song. For instance, some people note the similarity between a section of the theme to Carnival Night Zone’s acts and Jackson’s “Jam.” But for most, it seems that the comparison clincher is the remarkable resemblance between Sonic 3′s end credit theme and “Stranger in Moscow.”

Add to this the fact that several themes (Carnival Night Zone, Ice Cap Zone, Launch Base Zone, Knuckles’ theme, and the credits music) were later removed from the PC version Sonic & Knuckles Collection, and one begins to suspect some some legal maneuvering on Sega’s part. Much discussion continues to this day as to why these tracks were removed, especially when they are still present in later compilations, such as Sonic Jam on the Saturn. Many fans speculate that the removal owed itself to problems with converting the pieces to MIDI format.

Another detail that seemingly brings the two together is the list of musicians that appear in Sonic 3′s ending credits – musicians who all (save for Drossin) worked with Jackson for years. Both Geoff Grace and Brad Buxor arranged music for Jackson, and Bobby Brooks sequenced synthesizers and drums on Blood on the Dance Floor and mixed HIStory. The most heavily-mentioned one of all is a producer called Cirocco, who even goes so far as to list the collaboration with Jackson on a Sonic The Hedgehog game on his web page. Adding to the fire, James Hansen (alias Qjimbo) of Sonic Stuff Research Group claims that Cirocco told him in an email that he still has possession of presumably a demo version of fabled soundtrack. “I actually have “ALL” of the tracks…,” he writes, “from the original humming of Michael calling in the middle of the night leaving messages, to his ideas at Record One with Matt and Bruce. – BUT, I don’t think I can let any of that out to the public without permission.”

Jackson himself is not credited anywhere at all in the game, but this isn’t surprising. Supposedly, several other people involved with Sonic 3 weren’t credited, and even if he were to be mentioned, it is unlikely that his actual name would have been used. There is already an established precedent for this, as seen in episode 7F24 of The Simpsons, where he provided the voice for an insane asylum inmate who believed himself to be the pop star. Due to contractual problems, MJ was credited as “John Jay Smith” – a pseudonym. His name is reportedly divulged by Lisa Simpson in a later episode (9F09) in reference to the new Itchy & Scratchy movie, when she states “it was the greatest movie I’ve ever seen in my life! And you wouldn’t believe the celebrities who did cameos. Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson… of course they didn’t use their real names, but you could tell it was them.”

Admittedly, when one considers the statement of these former Sega employees, the actual songs themselves, and the situation surrounding the musicians, it can be quite easy to make a determination about Michael Jackson potentially having a role in the development of Sonic 3. The reports of his departure after the 1993 child molestation case became news make perfect sense, and the fallout definitely hurt his career, beyond its possible effect on the music for Sonic’s third outing. For instance, songs Jackson composed for the Addam’s Family Values soundtrack were dropped, and plans for a perfume line were cancelled. Even Pepsi severed ties with him (Campbell, 1995).

… or Urban Legend?

At first glance, this seems like a slam dunk case, and there appears to be little room for doubt about Jackson’s part in the development of Sonic 3. It’s incredible then, that given the sheer amount of evidence present which suggests he was indeed hired to compose its music, there are almost as many details that seem to directly contradict it all. Questions are quickly raised in regards to the statements made by former STI members, how much was ever actually put into writing, who actually composed the songs used in the actual game, and the similarities between the songs themselves and the ones Jackson used for later albums. As one sifts through the mountain of information on the subject, a singular fact becomes abundantly clear: nothing is ever actually confirmed by anyone outside of the game’s development team, an information void centered squarely around the higher ups who had the power to approve or deny everything that went into it.

The first bone of contention deals with the interviews with Hector and Drossin. After granting several interviews where he spoke openly on the subject, Hector changed direction when we asked him about it in March of 2008. “I have recently been asked to not comment on this subject as promises of confidentiality were made (I had nothing to do with it and only recently found out about this). It was the case that Michael Jackson was a big fan of the Sonic games, and he did make a visit to STI once to say hi to the team, but I guess the rest will remain unconfirmed rumors…”

That’s pretty cryptic for someone who openly talked about the subject for so long. Who made those promises of confidentiality? Could Hector have been asked to keep quiet for legal reasons? Possibly, but how vital would it be for Sega to keep mum on events that happened fourteen years ago? Virtually no one from the Genesis era remains at SOA today, and others have already spoken on the issue, so why the need to keep silent? Then again, Hector isn’t alone in his silence. Yuji Naka also went the “no comment” route in a recent interview with Kikizo. Between bouts of laughter, his answer to questions about the MJ/Sonic 3 connection was the following: “It’s a mystery. This information is on a need-to-know basis! One day, when the time comes, I will give you the information!”

For his part, Drossin’s comment to Sonic Retro on Jackson was followed by another that partially confirms Hector’s claim about the Gloved One’s work not making it into the final product. “I did not do all of the music for the game. However, 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.” In essence, Drossin confirms that no songs written by Jackson were used, and instead only talks about a possible influence. Interestingly enough, Drossin never mentions the size of Jackson’s role in scoring the game. He only mentions that he was involved at first but later wasn’t. That’s not very specific information about someone who supposedly composed themes for the entire project, and it lends credence to the theory that Jackson’s participation never really left the STI offices.

Additionally, Drossin’s own involvement has to come under scrutiny. Roger Hector stated that he was brought in to do the score for Sonic 3 after Jackson was dropped, but it’s been confirmed that this is not the case. Drossin is credited as a music composer in Sonic & Knuckles, along with the team identified with Jackson, but he is only given a special thanks in Sonic 3, and he isn’t the only one to receive such accolades. This flies in the face of what Hector revealed in the GamesTM interview, where he explained that after Jackson departed, STI had to compose an entirely new soundtrack in a short time. Hector specifically mentioned to GamesTM that Drossin came in and finished the job. “Howard Drossin, STI’s music guy, stepped in and did a great job, working around the clock to get it done.”

However, in his own interview with Sonic Retro, Drossin clearly states that while he composed many themes for both games (he worked on them simultaneously), he didn’t write all the music, and some of the songs he did write weren’t used. “There were a lot of composers on Sonic 3,” Drossin explained, “I was one. I don’t want to take credit for anyone else’s music.” Thus we have contradictory statements about what happened. Given that Hector and Drossin’s comments represent the bulk of proof that Jackson was a part of Sonic 3′s development, this represents a serious problem. Taking both interviews at face value, Drossin’s sounds more plausible, as he would perhaps have a better recollection of which games he did and did not score. It’s quite possible that the music was done by a collection of artists, many of whom did work with Jackson, and they may in fact be responsible for the songs attributed to him. Bringing the artist in may have actually meant hiring his team, which used its familiarity with his style to create the soundtrack. If MJ did indeed compose anything for the game, his team would have been tasked with transforming the music into something legally usable, which would explain Hector’s comment about the songs needing “reworking.”

Perhaps the most substantial proof that there was nothing contractual between the two parties comes directly from those working at Sega itself. When contacted about the subject, former Sega senior producer and then-head of testing Mike Latham explained that Jackson arrived at SOA with junk bond king Michael Miken for a meeting to pitch a partnership for a children’s charity. Latham, who was present at that meeting, said that some ideas – none relating to Sonic – were tossed around but nothing more. “Nothing ever became of it,” Latham told Sega-16. “I remember the meeting for two big reasons. One was Michael Jackson was on crutches, having just had an injury. The other was there was a contest to get a signed CD from him for his favorite game presentation, which was Joe Miller’s idea. Having Eternal Champions to present, I was the long shot, but I happened to mention that as part of our character creation we used many different ages of kids, who were in to test other products for feedback on which archetypes they liked. We used that to create the EC characters.”

Latham also stated that nothing was ever negotiated with Jackson after Moonwalker, a sentiment somewhat shared by another Sega alumni, former director of marketing Al Nilsen. In our interview with him, Nilsen told Sega-16 that Sega wasn’t interested in pursuing any other endeavors with Jackson for the Genesis. “I know the Sega arcade group was looking into developing other potential arcade games with Michael,” he said, “but on the Genesis side we weren’t. In the end Sega never pursued another arcade game with him.”

Not enough Sega executive recollections to convince you? How about those of the man in charge at SOA at the time, former head Tom Kalinske, who recently spoke exclusively to us on the subject thanks to IGN freelancer and Sega-16 contributor Travis Fahs? “He [Michael Jackson] hung around Sega quite a bit in those days,” Kalinske detailed. “We did Moonwalker on Genesis, and it was reasonably successful, and he used to come up to Redwood Shores and wander around, and he was always very interested in what was going on, and because he was the celebrity that he was, he would sit and talk with the R&D guys. But I don’t recall him having any deep involvement with that product. I know he loved it; he loved all the Sonic products. He was particularly close to Al Nilsen, who was the marketing director, so he was around the project, but I don’t think he had any real involvement in it.”

Jackson spending time at Sega during the period between Moonwalker and the release of Sonic 3 is pretty well documented, and if the man could help design an entire game, he would undoubtedly be interested in writing music for one his favorite characters. In addition to Hector and Kalinske having seen him, there are pictures of him playing Sonic 2 (such as the one in this very article). Other Sega executives interacted with him as well, and they noted his famous eccentric behavior. Former technical director Scott Bayless, who many of you may know as the fellow casually holding the Sega CD in the famous nighttime beach ad, once gave him a tour of the company offices. “He’d already signed the Moonwalker deal with Sega,” Bayless recently told Retro Gamer magazine, “and they were touring him around the Redwood City studio. I spent about a half hour showing him all kinds of techie stuff we were doing, and not once did he ever comment or make eye contact; he just kind of stood there with about fifteen of his minions around him.” Bayless then recalls how Jackson’s demeanor suddenly changed completely when they arrived at where Sega recorded its game music. “When we finished there we walked him over to the sound studio, which was just down the hall. Suddenly there was this new person in the room; it was uncanny. Jackson came to life like someone had flipped a switch. It was obvious that the only thing he was excited about was the music.”

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