Ten years ago at WrestleMania 21, wrestling star John Cena celebrated his first WWE Championship victory at a sold-out Staples Center as the sound of horns blared from his then-brand new entrance theme, “The Time Is Now.”
At tonight’s WWE Raw television broadcast from the Staples Center — and this Sunday in front of 70,000 wrestling fans packed into Levi’s Stadium in Northern California for WrestleMania 31 — Cena will enter the ring to that same tune, which is now very much entrenched in the ears of the millions of wrestling fans who watch WWE’s television programming every week.
What is not familiar to most of those fans is the origin of the horns that are the basis for one of professional wrestling’s most enduring pieces of music. In the 1960s and '70s, Pete Schofield was a music instructor in Toronto, teaching kids ages 13 to 21 the art of jazz and classical music on various instruments. He also put together a band of students to perform live in the area under the name “Pete Schofield and The Canadians.”
“For 35 bucks a day back in the late ‘60s, as a teenager, it was a pretty good gig,” says Robert Leonard, who played sax with The Canadians from 1969 to 1974 and has continued to perform professionally in the Toronto jazz scene in the years since. “Every three or four years he would do an album with a new batch of guys. You would record at a recording studio and do the whole album in a two-to-three-hour recording session, since these were mostly tunes you had been playing [at] gigs.”
One such album from 1974, entitled Do Something Nice Today, has gone on to have an afterlife no one could have anticipated. An instrumental version of the country standard “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” from that album came to the attention of a then-up-and-coming Seattle hip-hop producer named Jake One in 2004, who found it on a record-shopping excursion to Vancouver.
In the years since, Jake One has worked with artists as diverse as Drake, T.I. and De La Soul. Two weeks ago, he performed in front of a sold-out crowd at the Regent Theater in downtown L.A. as part of Tuxedo, a new project he has formed with soul singer Mayer Hawthorne. But back in 2004, he was a hungry young producer looking to take any work he could get. When Cena approached him looking for some entrance music, he was more than happy to contribute.
“I wasn’t a wrestling fan at that point,” says Jake One. “I didn’t really understand the depth of what was going on until WWE said it was going to be his theme song. I didn’t know he was going to be the champion or anything like that.”
The tracks that included the Schofield horn sample weren't even originally meant for Cena. “I made the beats initially to give them to Ghostface Killah,” Jake One says. “But I didn’t have the conviction at that point to present them to him.”
Cena had made his debut on WWE’s television programming in June 2002 as an athletic but relatively gimmick-less rookie. The Massachusetts native struggled to find a voice for himself in the ring until he began working his love of rap music into his persona, delivering freestyle raps dissing his opponents as he walked towards the ring for his matches.
Several months into the new gimmick, Cena collaborated with his cousin, Boston-area rapper Marc Predka (aka Tha Trademarc) on an entrance theme titled “Basic Thuganomics.” The song got Cena’s new persona across, but as he gained popularity among wrestling fans and was lined up for a main event push from WWE, he wanted something that had a little more punch.
“I remember John saying that he wanted something that sounded like the theme from Rocky,” says Predka. “We put a bunch of CDs full of beats we received in a five-disc changer and kept pressing ‘play-change-play-change-play-change.’ But as soon as we heard the beats Jake One had put together, we said ‘Oh my God, this is it!’ We stopped and decided that it wasn’t even worth going through the rest of the beats we received at that point.”
In the arrangements he had submitted on his original CD, Jake One had taken the ominous closing coda from Schofield’s rendition of “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia” and moved it to the front of the song, followed by a vocal effect from ‘90s New York hip-hop act M.O.P’s 2000 song “Ante Up,” followed by three minutes of the opening bars of Schofield’s arrangement on a loop. Both Predka and Jake One recall that outside of Cena adding his vocals, the final arrangement of “The Time Is Now” is virtually unchanged from what Jake One had originally submitted.
“It was laid out as a perfect hook from the beginning,” says Predka. “Every beat he gave us was amazing. It just has that, ‘I’m gonna walk to the ring and punch you in the face’ vibe all over it.”
Cena’s status as the most popular WWE wrestler of the last decade has undoubtedly contributed to the song’s durability. But while other WWE stars like Randy Orton have seen their entrance themes get cycled out every few years, Schofield’s original horn arrangement has helped Cena maintain his goal of an entrance theme that evokes the spirit of Rocky Balboa and stands out to this day among various trend-chasing WWE entrance themes.
“So many kids I know think that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” says Jake One. “It’s such a hard beat for pro wrestling. It has a really dramatic sounding start, and the first time you hear it you don’t know what’s going to happen next. It really makes sense as a wrestling theme.”