The Truth About The Mad Men Theme Song

Cable network AMC has developed a well-deserved reputation for being one of the major players in the Golden Age of Television, which began right around the time HBO's The Sopranos did in 1999 and arguably continues today. In the last 15 years or so, the network has fielded such acclaimed series as The Walking Dead, The Killing, Halt and Catch Fire, and (of course) Breaking Bad, which has a permanent home in every single discussion of the most perfect TV shows ever made for as long as such things are discussed. Indeed, AMC has given us so many brilliant dramas that it can be easy to overlook the one that started it all: Mad Men, which ran for seven seasons between 2007 and 2015.

The series followed various advertising executives at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency (which would undergo a couple of name changes throughout the show's run) in the swinging '60s. However, it focused heavily on one man in particular: Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a hard-drinking, brilliant exec whose secrets have secrets, some of which are eventually revealed in shocking fashion. Among Mad Men's uniformly excellent supporting cast were several future leads of their own serials, including Good Girls' Christina Hendricks, The Handmaid's Tale's Elisabeth Moss, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina's Kiernan Shipka.

The show is memorable for virtually every aspect of its production, from its writing and plotting to its cinematography and soundtrack selections. More than any of AMC's other offerings throughout the years, though, it's also fondly remembered for its striking, art-deco animated opening credits sequence, in which a shadowy man plummets from a tall building, past a slew of '60s-style advertisements projected onto the building's facade, accompanied by an orchestral, uptempo instrumental tune. This tune is a heavily edited clip from the instrumental version of a hip-hop track entitled "A Beautiful Mine" — but it almost wasn't chosen to be Mad Men's theme song.

Beck repeatedly turned down a chance to write the theme

Mad Men's creator, Matthew Weiner, has gone on record stating that music is very, very important to him, and as such, he was more than a little hands-on about the approach to its music his series would take. In an interview with in 2012, Weiner made clear that it was nearly always he, and he alone, who dictated Mad Men's musical motifs. "I choose almost every piece of music on the series. I am open to suggestions, but usually not interested," he said, via Mic. "I have a very personal relationship with music, and am a delusional person to the degree that before the show existed, I kept a file in my iTunes of all the songs that could [be used] one day in the show."

Before the series began production, Weiner had his heart set on one of his favorite artists to pen a custom theme song: Beck, the famously weird indie-rock icon who has won seven Grammys over the course of his three-decade career. Beck, however, turned down the opportunity multiple times, and he did it for a simple reason: he didn't think the show would be any good, as he revealed in a 2014 interview with Billboard. "It's about ad executives in the '60s? They're going to make a show about that? Really? Um, I don't think so," he said, characterizing his position at the time he was asked. "Yeah, [Mad Men is] just like the best show ever made!"

With Beck having removed himself from the equation, Weiner was left theme-less — until fate intervened in the form of inspiration from an unlikely source.

Matthew Weiner heard 'A Beautiful Mine' while listening to NPR

In his chat with, Weiner remembered that he had been on the road one day, listening to Marketplace on NPR. In between two of the show's segments, he heard a striking piece of music that he immediately took a liking to. There was only one problem: he had no idea what it was, and he had to enlist the aid of an assistant to identify the piece as "A Beautiful Mine." It's a deep cut from the 2006 album Magnificent City, a collaborative effort between DJ and producer RJD2 and underground rapper Aceyalone — and for Weiner, who still hadn't landed on a song to play over Mad Men's opening credits, it fit the bill perfectly. "[I] listened to it, and it had everything to it: Big old movie quality to it, and updated beat to it, it had drama," Weiner said. "I just loved it."

Weiner would later elaborate on how the song informed his show's opening sequence in a 2015 conversation with Business Insidersaying that his fateful car ride took place at the very time that sequence was being conceptualized, and that he appreciated how the song "had this sort of falling sound to it." 

'Mad Men's theme is by a pair of hip-hop legends

The diminutive, geeky-looking RJD2 is one of the most well-regarded producers in all of hip-hop, with a penchant for tracks that incorporate wildly varying elements, often shifting on a dime into something completely new and unexpected. He's produced or remixed tracks for underground icons like Aesop Rock, the late MF DOOM, Cage, J-Live, Souls of Mischief, and many others — but he has particular chemistry with the legendary Aceyalone of Freestyle Fellowship, and Magnificent City is, on the whole, a stunning, breathless work of creativity.

Aceyalone is a famously esoteric MC whose lyrics often border on the surreal, and his characteristically poetic lyrics on "A Beautiful Mine" at times seem to serendipitously dovetail with some of the themes Weiner would explore with Mad Men

"On top of the mountain peak where the man speaks to himself / Cursing to them with a start / What he felt can't be described / It's alive," he raps. "They opened up the brain and opened up the heart / What is man made of / Love from the dark / The will to invent the will / Work the field, the shield, the intent to kill, the uphill / Finder of lost souls, teacher of apostles, the mind's so colossal / A beautiful mind."

It's easy to imagine how Weiner might have been inspired by what he was hearing the first time he cued up the track. In particular, because once he pegged it as Mad Men's perfect theme song, every idea he had previously had about the opening credits sequence — and there were a lot of them — went out the window.

The song changed Weiner's ideas about the 'Mad Men' opening sequence

While Weiner was still mulling over how to soundtrack the opening sequence, he kicked around a number of ideas for how it should look — many of which made it as far as the storyboard stage, and none of which would have been as striking and memorable as the sequence we ended up with. According to USA Today, the creator's initial idea — as outlined in the pilot script he wrote all the way back in 1999 — was a great deal more conventional. It was a simple montage of celebrities hawking liquor, bikini models presenting the latest model of vacuum cleaner, and families piloting their oversized vehicles through idyllic suburbs — pretty on-the-nose, even for a first draft.

Three other ideas were seriously considered. The first was a "white" theme, in which comforting images of white picket fences, clean laundry, and fluffy pillows are all supplanted by a white title card, which promptly begins to bleed. The second featured a shadowy, suited figure entering an elevator bathed in a ghastly red light, with the series' title printed on the closing elevator doors. The third featured a couple about to partake in a romantic, candlelit dinner, only for the camera to pull back to reveal the whole scene as a commercial shoot. 

Fortunately, Weiner happened to stumble upon "A Beautiful Mine," and one of the most iconic opening sequences of all time was born. However, the track had to go under the knife at first.

The full-length song was edited extensively for the opening credits

Rather than just grabbing a portion of the instrumental version for the title sequence, Mad Men's music team performed extensive surgery on the tune, using different elements from across its entire run time and even altering some of those elements to suit their purpose. RJD2 himself was a little puzzled by it, as he remembered in a 2013 conversation with OkayPlayer. "I don't remember if I approved the edit or not, honestly, cause it was so long ago," he said. "But I do know that the very last chord of the edit — which is taken from later in the song — is just a few cents flat and makes the intro end on a sort of ominous note. For the longest time I'd watch the show and think, 'They sure tacked on a weird a** chord right there' — and then [I] realized that, no. That was my weird a** chord."

The producer took a rather philosophical stance on his legacy in television. Asked by the interviewer if he now knew what it felt like to be Henry Mancini — the iconic composer responsible for the theme songs which accompanied such series as The Pink Panther, Peter Gunn, and Charlie's Angels — he offered a self-deprecating response: "I definitely don't know what it feels like to be Henry Mancini, because that dude was a genius and I'm still a hack."

RJD2 didn't get rich from the 'Mad Men' theme song

One might think that contributing the theme song to a long-running, critically acclaimed TV series would be just what the doctor ordered to keep an underground, hard-working hip-hop artist from ever having to work again, but one would be wrong. It's not that RJD2 isn't commercially savvy; in a 2016 conversation with Billboard, he revealed that "synchs" (licensing songs for use in other media) represent about 15-25 percent of his income and that his work has been used by brands as varied as Nissan, Residence Inn, and Miller Lite. But he explained that at the time he was approached by AMC, it wasn't a cable drama powerhouse, just an unknown commodity — so he took a "buyout," or a one-time payment, for use of "A Beautiful Mine." Had he known he was agreeing to provide the theme for one of the greatest TV shows ever, he says he might have made a different deal. 

"When they first came to me I was like, 'Nah, I'll license the song but I don't want to do a buyout.' It went back-and-forth for weeks," he remembered. "It was [my record label] and Aceyalone who were like, 'We really want to do this thing, they keep coming back to us.'" 

Finally, he decided to get the deal done — and at the end of the day, he figures it was the right choice. "I'm happy with it because I know now there was only one way that 'A Beautiful Mine' would have wound up in Mad Men, and that was the way it did," he said. "They were either going to buy out the song and use that song, or they were not going to use the song at all and find something else — but there was no middle ground to be had."