Ever since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations were announced on October 16, debate has raged over the worthiest candidates. One question that many fans have been asking: why is LL Cool J listed among rockers like Nirvana, Yes, and the Replacements? While younger generations now know him primarily as an actor, LL Cool J is also a pioneer in hip hop for a variety of reasons. He was the genre's first bonfide superstar and sex symbol. More importantly, he stands as a pioneer in combining rap with other styles: who else could have recorded rap's first song, "I Need Love"? His early experiments with edgier, rock-oriented material like "Going Back to Cali" and "I'm That Type of Guy" sound as fresh today as they did in the 1980s. But he took an even bigger chance in 1991, performing on MTV Unplugged's first acoustic rap show. LL Cool J's fiery performance of "Mama Said Knock You Out" ranks among hip hop's finest performances, proving that hip hop could work with live instrumentation in addition to record scratching and sound samples.
"More energy!" LL Cool J screams as the band kicks in. Immediately the crowd rises to their feet, fists pumping in the air, as the rapper delivers his signature lines "Don't call it a comeback / I've been here for years." He paces the stage, sweat pouring from his chest (and, unfortunately, white deodorant clumps dangling under his arms), taking full control of the band and audience. In rapid-fire style, he proves he can deliver on his boasts: "I'm gonna rock this land / I'm gonna take this itty bitty world by storm / And I'm just gettin' warm!" Demonstrating that hip hop derives from traditional soul, the band incorporates guitar and bass riffs from Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle."
As the song progresses, the audience never stops dancing and urging the performer on. The band drops out as he chants "damage!", leaving no doubt that LL Cool J owns the room. He becomes increasingly energized, at one point grabbing two microphones to sing in at once. After one mic begins squealing feedback, he simply throws it to the ground and continues. The band pounds on as the rapper asserts that "competition's payin' the price." Indeed, driving the crowd into a frenzy while rapping over all acoustic instruments supports this notion.
While LL Cool J turns in a bravura performance, his backing band shows particular skill in translating samples to live music. In the video below, watch the pianist pound the keys, practically breaking the piano, using it as a percussive instrument as much as a melodic one. Rehearsal footage shows the band collaborating with LL, melding two seemingly disparate styles. Not only does this unprecedented experiment work, but it revitalizes the rapper, delivering an unforgettable rendition that surpasses the stellar 1990 original.
Similar to other nominees, LL Cool J pushed the boundaries of music, venturing where few other rappers would dare to go. By embracing other genres and streamlining his sound to reach wider audiences, he helped popularize the now chart-dominating sound called hip hop. His maverick nature as well as his superior rapping skills render him a viable candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.