Remembering LL Cool J’s game-changing appearance on MTV Unplugged
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Old School Archives

Remembering LL Cool J's game-changing appearance on MTV Unplugged

LL Cool J is one of the most revered golden-age East Coast rappers alive. Born and raised in Queens, the emcee (real name James Smith) first arose in the early 1980s as part of The Extravagant 3, a trio comprised of Dr. Butcher, Royal Rich, and Smith. However, although The Extravagant 3 did not garner much attention in New York, the trio served as LL Cool J’s launchpad into the higher échelons of hip-hop.

Smith entered hip-hop as a teenage b-boy but began rapping upon joining The Extravagant Three. However, he quickly began networking and releasing solo material after the trio’s dissipation. Operating in Queens, the musician worked alongside Rick Rubin, who was producing with Run-DMC at the time. With the help of Rubin and the pioneering Jazzy Jay, in 1985, Smith released his debut studio album, Radio. Most known for its hit single ‘Rock The Bells.’

In 1987, LL released his second project, Bigger And Deffer. This album peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 and boasted hit singles such as ‘I’m Bad’ and the legendary rap-ballad ‘I Need Love’ and was recorded in its entirety at Chung King Studios in New York. Two after the release of Bigger & Deffer, Music Television (MTV) began airing their legendary afternoon pop culture segment ‘MTV Unplugged.’ The program was revolutionary and defined the 1980s and ’90s era, featuring performances from the likes of Paul McCartney, Nirvana, Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, and Oasis, to name but a few.

However, in 1991 LL Cool J made a legendary appearance on MTV Unplugged as one of the first emcees to ever successfully pull off a televised performance with a live backing band. In an interview with Hard Rock, Smith spoke about the performance and revealed he didn’t even know what he was doing as he explained, “I was clueless! I was absolutely clueless man! I just went in and I thought ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do!’ If we’re gonna do it with a band this is how we do it!”

The 1991 MTV Unplugged showcase was the first time that the segment had included hip-hop artists and LL Cool J performed alongside acts such as De La Soul, MC Lyte, and A Tribe Called Quest. Reminiscing on the performance and detailing what made it so great in hindsight, Smith stated, “It was a fun, fun experience. I think there’s a certain amount of purity that went into that performance. It wasn’t contrived. There was no ego, I was just kinda doing music and letting it flow!”

The showcase was recorded at Chelsea Studios, and the usual turntables were replaced by the Pop’s Cool Love live band. LL provided fans with an ultra-smooth take on ‘Jinglin’ Baby.’ However, the Queens native then removed his shirt and unleashed an animalistic performance of ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.’ The performance was so legendary MTV put the clip into regular rotation and played it multiple times a week.

You can watch the performance and LL Cool J’s interview in the video below.