Originally published in ‘Q’ magazine, January 1988
A STORM IN A TEACUP
LL Cool J talks to Lloyd Bradley after his 1987 UK tour.
A rap package featuring L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy and Eric B & Rakim met with over-anxious press and police reaction when it came to Britain. But events at recent American concerts suggest that rap artist's current vogue for aggressive self-promotion is inciting violence and "killing the music".
With worldwide sales of his second album, Bigger And Deffer, approaching the three million mark (50,000 in Britain) three times more than the last David Bowie album, Never Let Me Down and his top 10 single I Need Love still in the charts, New York rap artist L.L. Cool J has just finished his first headlining tour of the UK. Performing in Glasgow, London, Manchester, Nottingham and Brighton his shows sold out instantly, extra dates being added at Hammersmith Odeon and the Brixton Academy. On the first leg of the tour, early in November , advance ticket applications for the Hammersmith dates were sufficient to have filled the 4,500 capacity venue for seven nights (he played three).
But as London's rap fans turned out in force, so did the Metropolitan Police. After two hours energetically appreciating L.L. Cool J and support acts Public Enemy and Eric B & Rakim, patrons left the theatre to be met by a massive police presence lining the short route to Hammersmith underground station. Police dogs and discreetly parked coaches of reinforcements were also in evidence. There followed what a Scotland Yard spokesman described as "minor disorders" - scuffles on the platform, five reported robberies and a train's alarm signal being pressed - resulting in a handful of arrests.
Whether such saturation policing prevented any serious incidents is anybody's guess, but the public statement from the constabulary was hardly open to misinterpretation "Rap music," they claimed, "seems to encourage the worst elements." On BBC's South East news, a Hammersmith police spokesman took what has become a party line concerning any event likely to attract a young, largely black crowd (usually reggae shows or the Notting Hill Carnival): he described the concerts as attracting "thousands of the wrong types". and "appealed" to the management of Hammersmith Odeon to ban the music. As yet, no official request has been made.
The London Evening Standard also left no room for doubt as to where it stood in regard to rap music and its supporters. It's newsagent billboards screamed "Knife Terror At Rock Concert", trailing a brief page two story. Under the headline "Tube Knife Terror After Rock Show", it described the show as a "gangster music concert", commenting that rap "always has violence attached to it". Stretched to substantiate the dangerous weapons angle, the reporters managed to find an unnamed "eyewitness" who mentioned the word "knife" once in a wildly inaccurate account of the Odeon's security measures.
To put things into perspective, it was not totally without justification that the newspaper was anticipating violence at the concert (though their eagerness to point the blame in the direction of the black element of the crowd was reprehensible). Crowd violence has, over the last three years, cast a shadow over the US rap music scene. Last summer the Raising Hell show (Run DMC, L.L. Cool J, Whodini and The Beastie Boys) at the Long Beach Arena in Los Angeles was abandoned before any act took the stage. Teenage street gangs in the 20,000 audience - one particularly psychopathic faction rallying under the name The Insane Crips - battled for four hours with guns, knives and clubs fashioned from broken seats. The fighting spilled into the backstage area, forcing the groups to barricade themselves in a dressing room. When police in full riot gear finally dispersed the crowd, 41 people needed hospital treatment.
The rap film Krush Groove - a tale of two young rapper's rise to stardom, starring Run DMC, The Fat Boys and Kurtis Blow - had it's US release marred by armed confrontations among it's urban audiences. Two years ago a hip hop festival in New York's Madison Square Garden, headlined by Doug E. Fresh And The Get Fresh Crew, was blighted by marauding street gangs causing trouble afterwards.
The music itself has come a long way from the social concerns of Grandmaster Flash's '82 hit The Message. Melle Mel's anti-drug propaganda White Lines and Gary Byrd's black pride anthem The Crown (both '83). Today's titles tend to steer a less responsible line with tracks like King T's Ya Better Bring A Gun and Public Enemy's Mi Uzi Weighs A Ton. On the L.L. Cool J tour, Public Enemy's stage act included two stoney-faced young men sporting paramilitary outfits, Raybans and model machine guns. The other act, Erik B & Rakim, in their chart hit Paid In Full, inform us of their previous occupation: "I used to roll up / this is a hold up / Aint nothing funny / Stop smilling / Let's see nothing move but the money."
Last year, the Philadelphia-based Schooly D earned himself considerable notoriety with an album glorifying street violence. Entitled PSK, after his former gang the Park Side Killers, it featured the less than tasteful rhyming couplet "I put my pistol up to his head / I said sucker ass nigger I'll shoot you dead." Recently The Guardian ran a feature from New York detailing how the rivalry between Brooklyn and Bronx rappers has escalated from a war of words to armed warfare - in October, rising rap star Scott La Rock was shot dead in the street. No arrest has been made, but it is believed a rival rap crew was responsible.
As the main act on the UK tour, naturally L.L. Cool J's name has been the one mentioned in the criticisms of rap. It is both unfortunate and ironic that he should be at the centre of this latest controversy. True, he does more than his fair share of street-corner style chest beating - "hard as hell", "a legend in leather", "a hip hop gangster", "the ninja of rap" are just some of the ways he sees himself - but his swift rise to fame is because he has far more to offer than the average microphone toting would-be hard man.
His musical horizons are far less limited: the new album finds him incorporating doo-wop (The Do Wop - a song which features a slowed down excerpt from Sincerely by '50s doo-wop group The Moonglows), rock'n'roll (Go Cut Creator Go) and bedroom soul (best known are I Need Love and I Want You) among the beatbox backing tracks. A sharp sense of humour allows him to occasionally distance himself from the intense world of the B-Boy (originally an abbreviation of Bronx Boy, now a catch-all term for any male rap devotee) and mildly send it up (the fiscal and physical conquest of a typical day turn out to be "just a dream" in the Do Wop and My Rhyme Ain't Done). With untypical shrewdness he has anticipated potential critical brickbats and fielded them in his lyrics - his first big hit Radio contained the line "You think because I'm making records now I must've relaxed", and the second album, Bigger And Deffer, ends with the triumphant exclamation "Ha! Another album - you didn't think I could do it again!"
But most of all, L.L. Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James) is more interested in foreplay than gunplay: his boyish good looks ("the brother with dimples" is another self-description), a penchant for puppy love subject matter (I Need Love was just one of a series of dewy-eyed ballads), a high sex appeal quotient among high school age girls (his stage set is a mock-up of a high school playground) has given him a huge female following. A most unusual situation in the boys' town of hardcore hip hop. Fittingly, rap's first pin-up has only ever been arrested for breaking a public lewdness ordinance - in Georgia, his overtly sexual stage act (simulated intercourse with a sofa!) landed him a night in jail and a small fine.
Although he views the London event as "a storm in a teacup" - an understandable reaction from a man present at the Long Beach riot - he is upset about the inordinate violence associated with rap. He sees it as a sad but inevitable evolution. "Rap has always been street music. It began with kids in parks fooling around with turntables and a mike. It'll always reflect the street, and unfortunately, in the last 10 years, the streets have become increasingly violent. So many rappers just talk about their own real lives, and as more and more make records it's averaging out that alot of those lives are violent.
"There's a lot more to rap music than that, but in America, and it looks like it's happening in England too, people get nervous when they see a whole bunch of black kids in the same place. Panic sets in. Often news reports set out to justify that panic with reports of violence blown out of all proportion, that'll attract kids who don't care nothing about rap, but are just there to get paid (commit robberies or settle scores)."
But the violence at Long Beach was real enough. "That wasn't down to the music, that was down to those kids. They were going to meet somewhere to do battle, they just picked where we were playing. It's like football matches in England, but you don't blame the game do you?"
But even among rappers who don't write rhymes about guns and killing, the bragging and posturing seems to be designed to encourage aggression. Is that entirely necessary if you want to play down any violent associations?
"Yes, it's the foundation of rap, just as the foundation of pop or rock is how much in love you are. When rap began there were so many kids doing it, that's the only way you could get the crowd to remember you was to talk about yourself, play up your name. Take rappers like Whistle (Just Buggin') and Lovebug Starsky (Amityville), they had hits with records that people remembered, but because they didn't play up their names no-one knew who the hell they were, so they couldn't do it again.
"It's what you do after you've established your own name that proves if you're special or not. Too many acts don't have nothing else to say, so all they can do is step up the way they talk about themselves. It gets to the point where they go from simply saying they're bad to saying how they're killers to try and impress the audience. Too many rappers think that all there is to rap is to talk about yourself - it's killing the music."
L.L Cool J takes rap very seriously. Nineteen-years-old now and having lived in Queens, New York all his life, he grew up listening to nothing but rap. To him, tapes, turntables and drum machines as onstage backing, are as natural as a guitar and drum combo to his elders. At the age of nine, influenced by acts such as Grandmaster Flash, Double Trouble and DJ Hollywood - before any rap was put onto record, when artists sold cassette tapes of their shows for "a buck a time" - James Todd Smith began rapping anywhere he could. Six years later, with no intention of doing anything else with his life ("I really couldn't see myself aiming to be a supervisor in the Post Office") he re-invented himself as L.L. Cool J. He recorded demo tapes on his mother's stereo, using the pause button to effect the twin-turntable manipulating quick mixes called for in hip hop.
He sent these tapes to every New York label that had released so much as a rap single. Established rap labels like Profile, Sugarhill, Tommy Boy and Celluloid and major companies like RCA, Islans and Elektra all turned him down for "not being like every other rapper they'd signed". The only interested party, Rush Productions/Management had plenty of acts - Run DMC, Whodini, The Beastie Boys, T La Rock - but no record label. The company's two partners, Russell Simmons (Run of Run DMC's older brother) and Rick Rubin were in the act of forming Def Jam Records (whose biggest success was to be achieved with The Beastie Boys) to, as Simmons put it, "educate people to the value of real street music by putting out records nobody in the business would distribute".
In November 1984, L.L. Cool J's 'I Need A Beat' was the first Def Jam release. Made for less than $700 and selling over 120,000 12-inch singles, it began a success story which, two years ago resulted in Simmons and Rubin (aged 27 and 22 respectively) signing a pressing and distribution deal with CBS for a reported seven figure sum. Some of whatever money they received was immediately spent on the label's first album, L.L. Cool J's Radio. Within weeks it had sold 500,000, to earn the company its first gold disc.
He views rap as a valid form in its own right, rather than merely the bastard offspring of funk. Hence his successful approach to making a rounded album, rather than slapping together a collection of singles (Bigger And Deffer went to number 7 in Billboard's pop chart). He believes that after a decade, rap is capable of taking its place alongside such accepted and varied pop forms as disco and soul. Curiously, he is convinced that the only way to do that is to ignore mainstream pop's guidlines.
"Rap won't get nowhere by trying to be pop. Rap fans are the most critical in the world, always wanting something new. When guys like myself, Run DMC and Whodini come up with something fresh enough for them, it's so good the big radio stations can't ignore it. And even if they do, there's enough rap fans to see you get a good living.
"Left to itself, rap's been the fastest evolving music for a long time - listen to The Sugarhill Gang and compare it with today's rap, they sound like disco music... they had a house band. It'll always survive if it goes on changing like that."
And the violence?
"Rappers with nothing to say never last too long. Neither do kids who go out every night looking for trouble."
LL Cool J with boxer Mike Tyson backstage at a Run-DMC concert at Madison Square Garden, New York City, July 1986