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How LL Cool J inspired a classic rock song

New York was a diverse music scene during the 1980s. Two disparate genres were evolving past their basic starting points and turning into movements that could encompass just about any other style of music. First off was punk, which had been born thanks to the CBGB scene on the Bowery and was splitting off between the aggressive double-down of hardcore and the more experimental turn of no-wave. The other was hip-hop, which was discarding its initial disco flavour and becoming more closely aligned with street culture. In those ways, Sonic Youth could be equally evocative of New York City as LL Cool J was.

Despite being based in the same city, the two acts never really crossed paths until Kim Gordon interviewed LL Cool J in the September issue of Spin Magazine in 1989. That article, titled ‘Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy’ after The Who’s 1971 compilation of the same name, saw Gordon attempt to approach rap with a more feminist point of view. LL Cool J didn’t have much to say, and the two found that common ground was elusive.

Occasionally combative and sometimes flat-out strange, Gordon and LL Cool J were complete opposites: LL promoted a chauvinistic worldview in the face of Gordon’s feminist perspective, while Gordon’s attempt to explain the appeal of The Stooges could only be countered by LL’s assertion that he loved Bon Jovi. After finishing the piece, Gordon decided to satirise the entire meeting in the lyrics of a new song, ‘Kool Thing’.

Gordon opted to include a number of references to LL Cool J in the lyrics to ‘Kool Thing’. Those include “walking like a panther”, a take on LL’s Walking With a Panther album; “let me play with your radio”, a send-up of LL’s debut Radio and his single ‘I Can’t Live Without My Radio’; and the chorus interjections of “I don’t think so”, which directly reference the same lines rapped by LL in ‘Goin’ Back to Cali’.

Just to drive the point home, Gordon employed another great New York MC, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, the add some ad-libs during the song’s breakdown. Filled with sarcasm and occasional self-mocking barbs at her own politics (“are you gonna liberate us girls / from male white corporate oppression”), ‘Kool Thing’ also happened to feature one of the few streamlined riffs and alt-rock radio-ready arrangements of Sonic Youth’s entire career.

Reaching number seven on the US Alternative Airplay chart, ‘Kool Thing’ was one of the few songs that found Sonic Youth crossing over from the noise-rock underground and into the alternative wave that was about to hit big when Nirvana released Nevermind a year later. Along with ‘Teenage Riot’, ‘Kool Thing’ remains one of Sonic Youth’s most recognised songs, and it was all thanks to a rough interview with LL Cool J.