L.L Cool J’s classic 1990 (don’t call it a )comeback album, “Mama Said Knock You Out”, is one of the greatest albums in Hip Hop history, and one of its most well balanced. Hip Hop can often be a genre where observing certain limits can often drive an artists appeal. Some of the greatest artists are known for creating and exploring rather limited personas. At the same time, there are also Hip Hop artists who have always started from the center of Hip Hop and made excursions to the boundary lines. LL, from the beginning of his career, to the present, has always been one of those artists. What amazes me to this day about “Mama Said Knock You Out” is it’s incredible balance and range. Hip Hop albums were generally diverse in Hip Hop’s “Golden Age”, but few did it as well as LL did on “Mama’s.” On this one album L.L included a posse cut (“Farmers Blvd”) an ode to car soundsystems that sampled En Vogue’s then current hit, “Hold On”, (“Boomin System”), songs that addressed his legions of enemies (“To Da Break of Dawn”, “Jingling Baby”), an allegorical story about a down on his luck rapper (“Cheesy Rat Blues”), one of the greatest ode to everyday working class women ever penned (“Around the Way Girl”) and an extremely funky Hip Hop/House?New Jack Swing fusion (“6 Minutes of Pleasure”) along with several other varieties of cuts. This was all crucial to LL’s career survival at the the time because his previous album, “Walking With a Panther”, was seen as overindulgent, bloated, satisfied, and not politically relevant to those revolutionary times. But on “Mama’s”, L.L expanded his scope and topic range, taking from all the approaches that were developed during that era of Hip Hop and delivered the solo artist masterpiece of the times. On todays Black History Month song, “Illegal Search”, L.L took the time to discuss racial issues from his perspective, that of a successful young Black man who despite his success, and really BECAUSE of it, still couldn’t get himself out of that target Chuck D designed for the Public Enemy logo.
The driving force behind the “Mama Said Knock You Out” album is the legendary Marley Marl’s production. Marley was already acclaimed by 1990 as one of the top producers in Hip Hop by virtue of his work with Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap and the rest of the artists associated with his conglomeration, “The Juice Crew.” The music he provided for the album was a cutting edge collage of the most popular funk samples of the day such as James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”, cut and pasted in a method that was dense like Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad but also done in a way that was more consonant and tuneful. The song begins with L.L in his car, with some blaring guitar playing from his system, instructing a passenger in his car to “put your seat belt on.” After that a swinging New Jack influenced Hip Hop beat kicks in, with a looped bass part that will reappear later in the song during the break. The vocalists harmonize on the song title, “Illegal Search” as a sample of Rufus Thomas says “I’m gonna do it”, taken from one of his dance classics. Along with that funky swinging groove, a swirling digital organ tone of the type then popular in house and New Jack Swing plays a funky riff. L.L begins his rap strong, “What the hell are you looking for?/cant a young man make money any more?/wear my jewels/and like freakin’ on the floor?/or is it my job to make sure I’m poor?/cant my car look better than yours?. LL goes on to paint the police animosity towards him as jealousy towards his success combined with stereotypical beliefs about how the financial rewards of that success were earned. Behind him the groove features a sharp, metallic snare sound with a trash can tone and shakers that keep the rhythm hot. During the next chorus L.L tells us he’s “totally relaxed” because he knows he’s done nothing wrong.
In the next verse L.L again highlights the difference of perspective between he and the prejudiced cop, “I call it nice/you call it a drug car/I say disco/you call it a drug bar/I say nice guy/you call me Mr. Goodbar/I make progress/you say “not that far.” But L.L’s paperwork checks out because his car is in his “Uncle’s name.” L.L goes on to detail a traffic stop where the police harrasses him, because he wants to turn LL’s silk outfits into prison “stripes.” After that verse L.L tells Marley Marl to “get funky”, after which Marley reintroduces the repeating, looping bassline heard at the top of the track, with the the vocals all cut up to say “Illegal/Illegal/Illegal Search.” In the last verse L.L wins his court case against the prejudiced cop. The beat breaks down to a drumbeat with some the “Illegal Search” vocals phased and vocoder like while L.L chides the police and memorializes a brother who was evidently killed or beaten back in that time in New Jersey. Marley Marl let’s the swinging groove play out for almost a minute after L.L’s last words.
“Illegal Search” is an important song to me because of the perspective L.L was writing from. While it was after N.W.A’s classic anti police songs, and nowhere near as hard hitting, it presented the perspective of an average, hard working young Black man who was being stigmatized by racist cops. L.L was the premiere male solo Hip Hop artist in the world at the time, but in his narrative he also represented those young men who had nice little jobs and were able to stack their money to buy nice cars that were their pride and joy. This is all in a climate of the late ’80s crack cocaine trade and the drug raids that treated every young Black man in or out of the inner city area as a threat. So L.L’s side of the story, with no allusions to being involved in any type of criminal activity on his part, was the basic young Black male story of his times in many ways. Sadly, the swinging New Jack song is still relevant in today’s climate of increased police killings. In L.L’s time I must admit, we were worried more about police brutality than police murder. As brutally as Rodney King was treated, he also lived for many years after that whipping, which show you to a degree how bad things are in our current times. So the police brutality of that time has seemed to escalate into more and more police killings. But it’s a testament to L.L Cool J’s artistry and the unique position he has always had in rap, as your everyday, around the way fly guy that he was able to capture the situation as well as he did on “Illegal Search.”