L. L. DELIVERS HOT RAP WITH A COOL MESSAGE
There are 12 song titles on the back cover of L. L. Cool J’s new album, “Bigger and Deffer,” but only 11 songs on the LP. The final track--"On the Ill"--is simply a 25-second message from L. L.
“Don’t touch that needle,” a voice advises. “Yo, this is L. L. again . . . (laughter). . . . You didn’t think I could do it again, did ya? Another album . . . (more laughter). . . . The joke’s on you, Jack.”
Listeners who have their fingers on the pulse of rap no doubt assumed the barb was directed at Rick Rubin, the high-strung, in-demand record producer who worked on L. L.'s first album, a million-seller that established the 19-year-old New Yorker last year as the hottest solo star in rap.
When word leaked out a few months ago that Rubin wasn’t going back in the studio with L. L. for the second LP, there was suspicion of a rift. Because Rubin is on a hot streak (he also helped shape the rock ‘n’ rap sensibilities of the latest Run-D.M.C. and the debut Beastie Boys albums), it’s easy to think that he was the controlling vision in the studio.
Without Rubin in his corner, L. L. knew there would be doubts about his ability to come up with another hit.
But L. L.--who produced the new album in association with a crew called L.A. Posse--denies the joke on the record is aimed at Rubin.
“Naw,” L. L. said quickly and pointedly during an interview after a recent concert here. “That wasn’t about Rick. That was to all the doubters . . . all the people who said the first album was a fluke. They thought I was a producer’s pet, more than likely, and that it was just a one-shot deal. I just had to prove to the world that it wasn’t like that.
“Rick was busy working on (the upcoming Run-D.M.C. movie), and besides I thought it would be good to do my own album . . . to show that I could switch trainers and still knock people out. Things are cool between us. We may work together on my next album or even do some B-sides for the singles.”
L. L. Cool J’s youth isn’t the only reason people were skeptical about his ability to make an album without Rubin. There’s still a large section of the record industry that looks on rap as a novelty, where each hit album is simply another lucky break.
Even Run-D.M.C.--which has now delivered three best-selling LPs--continues to be considered something of a fluke. And you can find a lot of takers around town if you are willing to bet the Beastie Boys will ever see the Top 10 again with an album. The smart money was lined up heavily against L. L. before “Bigger and Deffer.”
The skepticism carries over to the media. Some East Coast publications, notably the Village Voice, have done insightful spreads on the important rappers, but most national pop-rock publications have shown little interest in the rap phenomenon.
Run-D.M.C. finally made the cover of Rolling Stone last year, but the Beastie Boys still haven’t had their mugs on the cover, even though the trio’s “Licensed to Ill” was clearly the favorite album on campus for much of the last nine months. L. L. Cool J, too, is generally underexposed, considering his charisma and popularity.
See L. L. live and it’s easy to understand why he is emerging as a legitimate culture hero. While Run-D.M.C and the Beastie Boys have been making headlines with their tour, which started a few weeks ago on the West Coast, L. L. is headlining an equally successful tour that began on the East Coast and is now headed West for a series of dates that includes a stop Friday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
L. L. isn’t the only act on the bill. The others include Whodini, Doug E. Fresh and the especially interesting Public Enemy, led by Chuck D., a self-proclaimed “raptivist” whose black-consciousness message is more consistently and pointedly political than those of other contemporary rappers.
Yet L. L. is clearly the star. He says it loud and proud.
L. L. Cool J (real name: James T. Todd) is a charismatic performer and deft rapper who is extremely competitive--that’s one reason he favors prize-fight analogies. He even looked like a fighter as he sat on a chair in the dressing room of the ancient Municipal Auditorium, a towel draped around his bare, muscular shoulders as he cooled down from his fast-moving, fast-talking performance.
“That’s true,” he said, when asked about the boxing terminology. “I look at rap like boxing. . . . The quicker you knock ‘em out in the ring, the quicker you can get out of the ring and talk to the reporters, you know what I am saying.
“To me, my first album was a title match. I was a challenger going for a title and I took the title. This album is a title defense, and I’m happy that it is selling so fast. I feel like I have a championship belt around my waist and God is going to help me keep it.
“This (career) isn’t going to be no one-shot, two-shot thing. I’m going to keep trying harder and harder and harder. I feel like (heavyweight champ Mike) Tyson. He’s young also. . . . It’s like out with the old, in with the new.”
In his boxing parlance, L. L.'s second album is a knockout, a record that combines much of the energy and flash of Run-D.M.C. with the humor, variety and colorful, self-promoting autobiographical bravado of the Beastie Boys. Like the other two acts, L. L. is also managed by Russell Simmons, brother of Run-D.M.C.'s Joseph Simmons.
L. L. (the nickname is an abbreviation of Ladies Love) doesn’t get involved musically with punk and heavy metal the way the Beasties do in “Licensed to Ill,” but he reaches back to ‘50s rock and some classic R&B; strains in ways that should make his music appeal to more than the hard-core rap audience.
L. L. kicks off “Go Cut Creator Go,” the first song on Side 2, by shouting “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock,” the famous opening line from Bill Haley’s classic “Rock Around the Clock,” before reprising Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” guitar riff. There’s a touch of early Jackson 5 innocence on “I Need Love,” and an actual snippet from “Sincerely,” the Moonglows’ dreamy ‘50s hit, on “The Do Wop.” On “Kanday,” he throws in a few James Brown wails.
But L. L. looks surprised when asked if the album was influenced by the Beastie Boys’ success.
“No way. My first album came out before the Beastie Boys, so there’s no way I’m copying them,” he said. “The album is just the way my mind works. I’m interested in a lot of things and I thought I’d just have fun with the record . . . do all the things I’ve always wanted to do with a record.”
He pauses, as if trying to decide whether to reveal a secret about himself.
“You know why I put the Bill Haley and Chuck Berry things on the record?” he asked sheepishly, as if his answer would be too endearing for someone with such a confident and aggressive image. “I’m the real ‘American Graffiti’ kid. I loved everything about the ‘50s. I never missed an episode of ‘Happy Days.’ If I could go back in time, it’d be to the ‘50s . . . riding in the car with the black leather jacket and the hair slicked back . . . going into the ice cream parlor for a shake with the girl on my arm. That’s my fantasy world.
“When I was making the record, I just did the things I wanted to do . . . a lot of the music I loved. I adored the Moonglows and ‘50s ballads. I didn’t have the Jackson 5 in mind at all (on ‘I Need Love’). I was just aiming for a sweet ballad. The same with James Brown. The line, ‘I f-e-e-l g - o - o - o-d ,’ just came out one day and I thought it was fun so we left it in.”
On stage, other models come to mind. L. L.'s confidence and way with rhymes suggest a young, charismatic Muhammad Ali, but some of his sexy stage antics--moving his body up and down on a couch with a determined vigor in a motion that no one would mistake for push-ups--are reminiscent of Prince.
“I never really wanted to be on stage as a young boy,” he said, more relaxed now that he had dropped the somewhat tough exterior. “I was just fascinated with the music and with rapping. I loved groups like the Treacherous Three, the Fearless Four, the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash. I heard the records and I thought, ‘I could do that.’ I used to run around in my pajamas when I was 9.
“When I eventually got on stage, I was too hectic. I was so excited that I would run around in circles . . . always moving, but no direction. It took a long time for me to learn to settle down a bit on stage.”
L. L.--who grew up just a few blocks from the members of Run-D.M.C. in the Queens section of New York--was leading local rap crews by the time he was 11 and making demo tapes in his basement at 13. He was 16 when he released his first record, “I Need a Beat,” on Def Jam, the rap-oriented label owned by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin.
Like many other rappers, L. L. frequently deals in blunt language and macho imagery. When you add the sounds of police sirens to “I’m Bad,” it’s easy to see how L. L.'s current hit single could be mistaken on casual listening for some sort of glorification of tough guys. Yet it’s just a good-natured boast, about how L. L. is the coolest of the rappers:
Not bitter or mad, just provin’ I’m bad
If you want a hit, give me an hour
Plus a pencil and pad . . .
I’m the baddest, taking out all rookies
So forget Oreos--eat Cool J cookies.
Because of the music’s rough edges and its aggressive, street-wise imagery, rap is viewed uneasily by many parents, black and white. Though the message of rap is generally positive (see separate story on Page 92), it is frequently associated with gangs and inner-city toughs. The alarm was heightened after more than 40 people were injured during gang violence at a Run-D.M.C. concert last year at the Long Beach Arena.
About rap’s public image, L. L. said, “I definitely want the kids to be cool. The main thing I am saying is, ‘Come to the show and have fun,’ but I don’t mind slipping in a few messages. I hope I can inspire the young black youth, especially the males, to do something positive.
“I think that message comes across naturally. When they look at me, they see someone their own age or just a little bit older who has got everything they want . . . gold chains around his neck, fancy cars . . . yet I ain’t selling drugs. I am showing them there is another way. That’s the most positive message you can give someone.”
What about the parents’ groups that have said rap is a bad influence?
“That’s garbage, man,” he said. “When they (parents) used to run to the show and watch Elvis or Ol’ Blue Eyes, their folks were saying the same thing. The same with the Jackson 5. The only thing I can say to them is stay home, keep your mouth shut and give your kid some money so he can go see the show. He knows what’s happenin’.”