Happy 25th Anniversary to LL Cool Js album Mama Said Knock You Out, originally released August 27, 1990.
If you have young children in your home, chances are better than good that you absorb a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your tolerance threshold) dose of Sesame Street on a regular, if not daily basis. My 3-year old adores the show, and its admittedly one of the very few childrens programs that doesnt test my patience each time its on. This may be partly due to my firsthand familiarity with the show, having also grown up with Sesame Street as an integral part of my early adolescence, as I suspect most of my generation can attest to as well.
However, what has really attracted me to Sesame Street recently is the impressive and eclectic array of singers & musicians the show invites to perform original songs or modified, kid-friendlier versions of their popular tunes. One of the more memorable performances that still surfaces on the show periodically is LL Cool Js An Addition Expedition. Upon seeing it for the first time about a year ago, my ceaselessly inquisitive, information-sponge of a daughter asked me Who is that? I explained that he is a very famous and talented hip-hop artist, one that her Daddy grew up listening to years and years ago. She considered it for a moment, nodded her head, and then concluded I like him.
This brief exchange with my daughter reinforced three key things for me. One, it thrills me to no end that I get to share and discuss the music and artists I grew up with and still love with my two children, and observe how they respond to it. Two, the fact that LL Cool J is performing on Sesame Street, and Im watching it with my daughter, reminds me that I can no longer consider myself young. And three, LL Cool J is indeed one of the most likeable and approachable emcees ever to rock the mic. Which partly explains why LL has experienced so much crossover multimedia success beyond his iconic status within hip-hop and popular music circles, most notably across film and TV.
Born James Todd Smith, the Hollis, Queens native was originally discovered by the late Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys), who listened to the teenage LLs demo tape and passed it along to Def Jam Recordings co-founders Rick Rubin & Russell Simmons. Recalling the moment, Rubin explains This was the summer when Horovitz kinda lived in the [NYU] dorm with me. We started getting demo tapes as if we were a record company, and one of the tapes was labeled Ladies Love Cool James. I think Horovitz might have heard it first, then called it to my attention. We listened to it and laughed…and that was always a good sign. The precocious, 16 year-old LL was swiftly signed to the label in 1984, and the success of his debut single I Need a Beatalong with the Beastie Boys Rock Hardhelped Def Jam secure a distribution deal with CBS/Columbia Records, a partnership that ultimately transformed the label from ambitious startup to industry powerhouse.
More than just a hip-hop wunderkind, LL was creative independence personified when he broke through in a major way during the mid 1980s. As one of the first truly solo hip-hop acts who didnt rep or run with a crew, LLs artistry wasand has always beenpredicated upon not just his rhyme skills, but his effervescent personality as well. Throughout his 30-plus year recording career, LLs style has been defined by his unbridled confidence, passion and charisma, qualities that have simultaneously earned him respect among hardcore hip-hop heads and endeared him to his ever-expanding throng of female fans. Its a tough balancing act for a hip-hop artist to pull off without compromising his artistic integrity, but LL has always mastered this tricky balance, even in the earliest days of his career.
On the heels of I Need a Beats unprecedented success, LL recorded and released three albums from 1985 to 1989. Radio (1985), Bigger and Deffer (1987) and Walking with a Panther (1989) produced a handful of classic singles, including Rock the Bells, I Cant Live Without My Radio, Im Bad, I Need Love, Going Back to Cali, Big Ole Butt, Im the Type of Guy, and Jingling Baby. In retrospect, it seems like this early chapter of LLs career was longer, but I suppose my hazy chronology reinforces that it was an exceptionally (and incredulously) prolific period for LL, during which he was transformed into a bona fide hip-hop superstar.
While Radio and Bigger and Deffer were universally embraced breakthroughs, both critically and commercially, Walking with a Panther was perceived as a relative disappointment on both counts. The New York Times went so far as to label it a dud album, an unfairly exaggerated condemnation, in my opinion. Sure, the album isnt as strong as its precursors, but it certainly doesnt qualify as a dud.
Meanwhile, as LL began to espouse the material benefits of his hard-earned fame more emphatically on his records, some folksincluding a handful of fellow hip-hop artists, most notably Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T and MC Hammertook pot-shots at LL on and off record, questioning his sincerity and street credibility. At a 1989 benefit concert for murdered Black youth Yusef Hawkins headlined by Public Enemy, LL was allegedly dismissed by the audience in attendance through a cacophony of boos. In deference to his critics and prompted by genuine self-reflection, LL admitted that The songs that hit were talking about how many women I could do, how many gold chains I had, and how bad I was. I was rapping about champagne, silk shirts, cars, jewelry, girls. I had become the anti-Christ of rap. I was selfish. I was egocentric. People felt like I was not being honorable and that I didnt represent where the black community should be heading.
So in the fallout of his much-maligned third album, the 22 year-old LLby that time, already considered a hip-hop veteranregrouped and channeled every ounce of his energy toward stepping up his game and restoring his once rock-solid reputation. LL joined forces with iconic producer Marley Marl to initially remix Jingling Baby from Walking and to subsequently produce the follow-up LP. In Marl, he found a kindred musical spirit who fully understood and empathized with the challenge at hand. Marl has conceded that:
[LLs] street cred wasn’t right. Because of the Walking with a Panther albumit was a great album but it wasn’t street. Because N.W.A started coming out at that point. You got Public Enemy fighting the power. It was political or gun shit. He was in the middle and that’s just what happened. I guess the hood felt that he wasn’t supplying them with what they want, and they booed him. He had to regroup. His grandmother said, “Go knock ’em out,” and he came to my house and we knocked ’em out.
Indeed, the output of LL and Marls collaboration, Mama Said Knock You Out (Mama serving as a reference to LLs aforementioned grandmother), was a booming, bumping clarion call for the emcees naysayersand the hip-hop community at largeto give LL the respect he deserved.
Released in the summer for 1990, Mama may not have been a comeback album per se (as LL defiantly clarifies on the LPs ferocious title track), but it most certainly was a moment of maturation for him, which simultaneously reinforced his superior rhyming prowess and proved that his career was still very much in the ascendant. The album cover photography, which features a poised LL seemingly ready to throw down at any moment, epitomizes LLs newfound sense of purpose at the time and reflects his steadfast determination to brush the heavy chip of criticism off his shoulder in convincing style.
Largely co-produced by LL and Marl, with Bobby Bobcat Erving taking the reins on the title track, the 14-track Mama proved a smashing success, buoyed by a handful of memorable singles that caught fire across radio, MTV and the Billboard charts. Most notably, the title track yielded more crossover appeal than any other track on the album and emerged as a universal battle cry for anyone intent on crushing their competition. While Lose Yourself has since become a more prominent hype-up anthem among hip-hop heads, I, for one, still prefer LLs effort which preceded Eminems by a dozen years.
Thematically, Mama is arguably LLs most balanced affair across his discography. Consistent with the message of the title track, Murdergram and To Da Break of Dawn find LL touting his rhyme skills, but doing so more explicitly in opposition to his specific hip-hop adversaries. While LL focuses his vitriol squarely toward Kool Moe Dee on Murdergram with lyrics like Perpetrating in your video, here’s the real schooling / Country accents, who you think you’re fooling? (a subtle reference to Dees Wild Wild West), LLs battle rhymes are less discriminating on To Da Break of Dawn. Widely considered one of the greatest diss tracks in hip-hop history, LL calls out Kool Moe Dee once again (Songs that ain’t strong, brother, you’re dead wrong / And got the nerve to have them Star Trek shades on), as well as MC Hammer (You swing a hammer, but you couldnt break a glass and My old gym teacher aint supposed to rap) and finally, Ice-T (Im cool, I freeze I-C-E). Seldom has an emcee taken his rivals to task as methodically and passionately as LL does here, and it makes for provocative listening for more historically-inclined hip-hop heads, if nothing else.
Elsewhere, and as expected, LL showers the ladies with plenty of love. An endearingly humble and heartfelt ode to the neighborhood jewels, album highlight Around the Way Girl and its memorable video likely prompted millions of real-life around-the-way girls to imagine that LL was speaking directly to them. Mr. Goodbar proves that LL is ready and willing to swoop in on a lady whos less than satisfied with her man, while 6 Minutes of Pleasure is an unabashed ode to more carnal pursuits. One of the albums more cleverly comical moments can be found in Milky Cereal, in which LL metaphorically likens women to cereal brands, a lyrical trick that the Wu-Tang Clan and Q-Tip would adopt years later on Ice Cream and Mobb Deeps Drink Away the Pain, respectively.
Other high points include LLs tribute to the seductive power of fly sound systems (The Boomin System), the Marley Marl-blessed, more dancefloor-friendly remix of Jingling Baby which improves upon the original, and The Power of God, LLs call-to-arms to prioritize the soul and spirit above materialism and vice.
Further testament to its greatness, Mama Said Knock You Out translated remarkably well from the studio to a live setting, as gloriously evidenced by LLs classic appearance on Yo! MTV Raps Unplugged in May of 1991, alongside his fellow hip-hop stalwarts De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and MC Lyte. And while LL Cool Js first few albums will always be evocative of a purer, more unblemished chapter in hip-hop history and their creators prolific career, Mama Said Knock You Out nevertheless remains his strongest suite of songs overall and still sounds awesome twenty-five years later.
My Favorite Song: Around the Way Girl