follow us in feedly
‘Kool Thing’: Kim Gordon’s 1989 interview with LL Cool J that inspired the Sonic Youth song

In the September 1989 issue of SPIN magazine, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon interviewed LL Cool J to get a feminist perspective on the male-dominated world of hip-hop. The result was an awkward and unintentionally hilarious conversation that served as the inspiration for the 1990 song “Kool Thing” (which was Sonic Youth’s first major label single). At the time, LL was promoting his third studio album, Walking with a Panther, the cover which depicted the rapper posing alongside a cuddly and adorable black panther sporting gold chains.

“I had a thing for male Black Panthers, I also loved LL Cool J’s first record, Radio, which was produced by Rick Rubin.” Kim recounts in her memoir Girl in a Band. She had said publicly that Radio was one of the albums that turned her on to rap music, and that “Going Back to Cali” was one of her favorite music videos because as someone who grew up in L.A. she appreciated “the humorous way it made fun of the 1960s archetypal Southern California sexy white-girl aesthetic.” LL’s publicist couldn’t believe that anyone in Sonic Youth knew about LL Cool J and happily granted an interview which took place during a rehearsal break for an upcoming tour. “I’ve never interviewed a pop star before, and having just seen LL on The Arsenio Hall Show I’m nervous.” Kim prefaced in the SPIN magazine interview titled “Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy.”

“When I — the Lower East Side scum-rocker, feeling really, really uncool — arrive at the rehearsal studio, the dancers are taking a break. They’re real friendly; we talk about my shoes for a second. They are three girls — one of whom, Rosie Perez, is in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing — and a young boy. A bunch of other people are just hanging out. LL is preoccupied talking to some stylists, gesturing about clothes. Occasionally he shoots a look my way; I have no idea if he’s expecting me or he’s just looking at my out-of-place bleached blonde hair. LL slowly approaches, checking me out but stopping to talk to friends. I jump up, walk over, grab his hand, introduce myself and say, ‘Can I shake your hand?’ He’s aloof. I marvel how boys who’re tough or cool to cover up their sensitivity keep attracting girls and fooling themselves.” Kim and LL sat down at a nearby empty studio and she began the interview by asking him to sign her Radio CD. She then gave him a copy of Ciccone Youth’s The Whitey Album (a pseudonymous side project of Sonic Youth and Minutemen/Firehose member Mike Watt). When she told LL Cool J that The Whitey Album sampled beats off his records he laughed out loud and said, “I got a CD in a couple of my cars, I’ll play it.”

They began discussing sports cars and LL’s newly purchased home he called “Wonderland,” as LL flipped through The Whitey Album CD packaging. He pulled out and unfolded an insert which featured a photograph of a young girl with dozens of black & white flyers for hardcore shows plastered all over her bedroom wall. “Who’s this girl? It must have been a long time ago for it to say The Negroes.” LL mistook a flyer he noticed for Necros (a punk band from the Detroit music scene.) “That’s the Necros, an early hardcore band. Are you familiar with the early hardcore scene?” “Uh-uh, what is that, like heavy metal?” “No, not at all! It was basically kids talking to other kids. The Beastie Boys were part of that. I remember when they were a hardcore band.” LL processes the information and then quips, “The Young and the Useless?” (referring to an early 1980s punk band that included future Beastie Boys member Ad-Rock, and so, cool points for LL Cool J). “That was another band. The Beastie Boys had their same name when they were a hardcore band. Hardcore was so fast that if your ears weren’t attuned to it you couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t meant for anyone outside the scene. Like rap music, some of it is so fast, unless you’re familiar with the slang you can’t get it. That’s why so many people who were into hardcore listen to rap. It’s something that excludes white mainstream culture.” Gordon explained. “That’s interesting, I never really knew anything about that.” Cool J said.

Photo from Ciccone Youth’s The Whitey Album CD insert fold-out
While Kim Gordon’s connecting the dots between hip hop and the early hardcore music scene made for a great start to the interview, things then took a dive when she asked him about the females fans who admire him. “What about women who are so into you as a sex object that they take a picture of you to bed with them and their boyfriends or husbands start freaking out?” “It’s not my problem,” LL responded. “The guy has to have control over his woman.” Gordon plays along without confronting LL Cool J about his misogynist comments. “Are there any female sex symbols that you relate to?” Kim asks, “Oh yeah, every day on the way to work.”

“It was totally ridiculous for me to assume that we had anything in common” Gordon later admitted in a 1991 telephone interview with the Phoenix New Times. “That’s why I tried to make the article show how elite and small the downtown scene that I come out of is. I was trying to make fun of myself. I don’t know if that came across.” Six months after the interview was published, Sonic Youth recorded the song “Kool Thing” at Sorcerer Sound Recording Studios in New York City. Although LL Cool J’s name is never mentioned, the song’s lyrics contain several references to the rapper’s music. Kim Gordon sings “Kool Thing let me play it with your radio” (a reference to LL Cool J’s single “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”). The lyrics “Kool thing walkin’ like a panther” are a reference to the LL Cool J album Walking With a Panther. She repeats the line “I don’t think so” over and over again which is also a repeating line in the LL Cool J hit “Going Back to Cali.”

Elissa Schappell, author of the short-story collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls, perfectly summarizes the clash between Gordon and Cool J in an essay she wrote for the anthology book Here She Comes Now: Women in Music Who Have Changed Our Lives:

“Kim was able to take the disastrous interview and elegantly turn it into something much larger than its parts. Working at SPY I was used to putting myself into the path of trouble, and when it found me I took notes. Kim had taken notes and then transformed the experience into a sharp and witty social critique of gender, race and power that you could dance to. ‘Kool Thing’ is more than Kim’s assault on LL Cool J’s ego, but a self-mocking jibe at her own liberal politics. The sarcasm in her voice when she addresses ‘Kool Thing’ (Public Enemy’s Chuck D) in the breakdown is self-mocking — the female voice inflated by privilege and naïveté. (‘I just wanna know, what are you gonna do for me? I mean, are you going to liberate us girls from the white male corporate oppression?’)

More after the jump…

Posted by Doug Jones | Leave a comment
LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and others strut their stuff on ‘Yo! MTV Raps Unplugged’

The Yo! MTV Raps edition of MTV Unplugged dropped in May of 1991, featuring the considerable talents of De La Soul, MC Lyte, A Tribe Called Quest, and LL Cool J for a glorious half-hour of bootylicious rhymes. It was a very interesting moment for a show of this type to run. A lot was happening in the world of hip-hop right around then, including increased respectability among mainstream critics—but ironically, in the years to come the very rappers who had earned that reputation were about to become marginalized. Just a year or so earlier, one of the biggest rap-related news stories was the obscenity trial of 2 Live Crew, who while wonderful in their way may not have been the most ideal poster children for the budding artform. One would have been forgiven for ridiculing the notion of an “unplugged” rap show in 1991; the music was strongly associated with sampling and scratching (not to mention cursing), and its R&B roots, which had been there all along, had been somewhat obscured.

The rap world was in a massively sampladelic phase at that point, what with recent masterpieces like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, and De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising. However, practitioners must have been aware on some level that the days of rampant sampling were about to come to an end. Sure enough, six months after this episode of MTV Unplugged debuted, a judge named Kevin Thomas Duffy began his ruling in a court case in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York called Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. with the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” Duffy held that Biz Markie had infringed on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s copyright when he used O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” for his own song “Alone Again,” which appeared on his third album I Need a Haircut. The hip-hop world was about to learn how to do without sampling as a primary component of the music. (For an insightful reaction to this case from the time, check out Robert Christgau’s article “Adventures in Information Capitalism: Gilbert O’Sullivan Meets Biz Markie” from 1992.) The performers here may not have known it, but an exhibition of the musicality of rap was about to become a key part of the defense of the artform.

When this was taped, Arrested Development was right around the corner, but their time in the spotlight wouldn’t last. The music here sounds a bit like the Roots, no? Black Thought and Questlove had formed the band already, in 1987, but were still two years away from releasing their first LP, Organix. The lineup of A Tribe Called Quest, MC Lyte, LL Cool J, and De La Soul was highly NYC-centric, and another influence that was in the process of defining hip-hop in the 1990s was gangsta rap, led by the musicians associated with N.W.A., out of Los Angeles, who released their first album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988. (The East Coast/West Coast battles between rap factions would soon become an unfortunate staple of the hip-hop scene.) Putting it mildly, the gangsta revolution in rap would serve as one solution to the sampling ruling, while also marginalizing acts like De La Soul and Tribe for the time being.

The centerpiece of the show here is clearly LL Cool J’s galvanizing rendition of “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which he performed shirtless. The rampant booty-shaking that is evident during that cut should serve as the rebuttal to anyone who ever thought that an unplugged rap show was a silly idea.

A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It”
MC Lyte, “Cappucino”
LL Cool J, “Jingling Baby”
LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”
De La Soul, “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)”


Thank you Joe Yachanin!

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Before he was famous, watch a teenage LL Cool J explain rapping and scratching to children, 1985
11:59 am


LL Cool J

How old school is this 1985 LL Cool J performance? Well, aside from the fact that this was shot a good five months before his debut album Radio came out, he felt the need to explain to his young audience what they were about to witness:

“What you’re about to see right now is called rapping and scratching. How many of you saw this before?”

Shot on June 21, 1985 at the Wadsworth Gymnasium at Colby College in Maine. There’s an interesting context: this was part of an event to cheer kids up after several recent student suicides in the area and LL Cool J was thought to be a positive role model.

Via Glen E. Friedman

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Glen E. Friedman Interview at the opening of FUCK YOU ALL

Photo Credit: Glen E. Friedman
Photo Credit: Glen E. Friedman
Photo Credit: Glen E. Friedman
Here’s a really wonderful interview with one of my favorite photographers and artists, Glen E. Friedman. Do yourself a favor and watch the video. From State Magazine:

It was then that I found that the most beautiful, gripping color photographs were taken by just a single photographer, a very young teenager, by the name of Glen E. Friedman. Glen would go on to take these skills he learnt as a kid and apply them to his other great love in life, music. What you’re about to hear is an interview I did with Glen, who describes for you, some of his favourite shots from the last four decades. It’s a journey which has taken Glen from the mosh-pits of American punk-rock with bands like Black Flag and Fugazi to the suburban streets with hip-hop where Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Run DMC, LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest and Ice-T all became subjects in front of Glen’s lens. So, less talk, more action; press play. After all, they say a picture is worth a thousand…well, you know…

Interview with Glen E. Friedman in pictures & audio

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment