LL Cool J’s career has been a long-lasting and exceptional one that has seen the Queens emcee (real name James Smith) organically transform from a b-boy to a platinum-selling artist and actor. However, before he transitioned into the world of Hollywood, Smith had an unfathomable amount of success as a musician, and during the 1980s and early-’90s, he was one of the most prominent solo artists.
Def Jam and Rick Rubin picked up Smith after Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys heard his demo. As he got ushered into the Def Jam family alongside the likes of Run-DMC, Smith worked tirelessly with Rubin and DJ Jazzy Jay to curate his 1985 debut album, Radio. The project was certified platinum and contained hits such as ‘Rock The Bells’ and ‘I Can’t Live Without My Radio.’
Following Radio, LL Cool J released two more albums, Bigger And Deffer and Walking With A Panther. However, in 1990 Smith released his highly successful fourth album, Mama Said Knock You Out. One of its most well-known singles is the project’s title track ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.’ Produced by Juice Crew’s legendary Marley Marl, ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ was recorded at Chung King House of Metal in New York City. The track was released as the fourth single for the 1990 project and, due to its excellence, won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance.
For this single, Marley Marl amalgamated several samples, including the 1970 James Brown track ‘Funky Drummer,’ the 1975 Chicago Gangsters’ song ‘Gangster Boogie’ and Sly & The Family Stone’s 1967 cut ‘Trip to Your Heart.’ However, the initial loop that acts as the backbone of the track was given to Marl by DJ Bobcat. Speaking with online music publication Rock The Bells about the melodic loop, DJ Bobcat explained, “I originally recorded the ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ beat in 1989 with my group Microphone Mafia (Threat, K-Born, and Nefertiti). I also recorded it with another group I had called Menace to Society.”
However, Bobcat admitted they weren’t doing the beat justice. He continued, “About a week later I grabbed my SP, my records, turntables and flew to New York and stayed at LL’s condo. He called up some of the homies from Farmers Blvd., we got some 40 ounces, and we started vibing and kicking it.” Marley Marl beefed the track up and tweaked it, adding new samples and making it more dynamic, according to LL.
Smith told the publication about the track’s lyrics,”‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ was pretty much stream-of-consciousness from beginning to end. I was sitting around in a room full of dudes. We’re talking. The SP12 is playing. I’m coming up with vocals. I’m writing it down. I’m drinking beer and Old English is filling my mind and sh*t.” Once the song was finished, Smith handed it in to the label who knew it needed a video.
For the visuals, LL teamed up with his frequent collaborator, director Paris Barclay. Explaining the concept of the video, Smith unveiled, “The video was about the microphone, about performance, and about getting busy. So we had boxers getting hit and me knocking it out on the mic. And that felt right to me. And then a lot of angles. I asked Paris to take it to another level when we were inspired by that Raging Bull motif.” ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ debuted at number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is one of the quintessential golden age hip-hop tracks.