Monday, May 17, 2010

LL Cool J “Mama Said Knock You Out”

While writing about the Bob Dylan cover version of this song, I was reminded of an LL Cool J version---not the original.

Sure, I liked the original. It had the right mix of LL punch and swagger.

But the version that really stands out to me as a seminal musical moment, is from an MTV Unplugged episode.

Rap music is so much a part of the culture now, it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t have wide main stream acceptance, or even the acceptance as a legitimate musical form from the musical establishment. But yeah, even in the late 80s/early 90s Rap was having to defend its credibility.

Among the not-entirely-baseless claims was that Rap was a studio confection, that could not be reproduced in a live setting.

At the time, if you saw a Rap act in concert, you probably saw the MC onstage, maybe a DJ in the background, and the music was provided by a backing track. Flat and flaccid.

MTV was having a pretty successful run with its Unplugged format, and while there was no one Rap performer who could carry a full episode, they at least insured a curiosity factor, filling an episode with a couple songs each by De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, MC Lyte and LL Cool J, backed by a live instrument House Band.

The thing about concerts on TV is that they can only do so much to transcend the medium. With rare exception, the power of being in the room with a live act, is completely squeezed out when wrung through a TV’s tiny speakers and screen.

With rare exception.

I don’t know that the YouTube clip is going to do it justice either, but I remember watching on my TV as LL took the stage on this episode (which had the unfortunate title “Yo! Unplugged Rap”). The camera shows enough of the audience to really get the sense that the power of his performance was winning the crowd over, second by second, until the song’s frenzied conclusion, in the same manner it was winning me over at home.

It was an impressive performance, and I think it went a long way to legitimize the form for non-believers, as well as pave the way for the acceptance of live instrumentation in Rap, from bands like The Roots and The Beastie Boys, among others.

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