This is the 34th post in a weekly, yearlong series.Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
James Todd Smith grew up in Queens, raised primarily by his grandparents. He began rapping in the late ’70s, when he was just 9 years old. Two years later, he began making mixtapes with a DJ system given to him by his grandfather. After sending those tapes to record companies, he attracted the interest of fledgling label Def Jam, which had been started by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. Smith’s first single, “I Need a Beat,” was released in 1984, under the moniker LL Cool J, an acronym for “Ladies Love Cool James.” On the success of that single, LL Cool J dropped out of high school to record his debut album, 1985’s “Radio.” Featuring “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Rock the Bells,” the album went platinum in 1986, the year that LL Cool J turned 18.
LL Cool J recorded two more albums in the ’80s: 1987’s “Bigger and Deffer” and 1989’s “Walking with a Panther.” Both were commercially successful, in large part because he structured his rap songs like pop songs. That pop-rap crossover was hugely successful, not just for LL Cool J, but for rap, as it exposed the genre to a wider audience. But that crossover earned Smith some scorn from some fans, who accused him of selling out, and at a concert at the Apollo, he was booed.
Around that same time, gangsta rap was emerging as an edgier sub-genre, bolstered by the relatable, raw anger of acts like N.W.A., Ice T, Public Enemy, and Too Short. LL Cool J, keenly aware of the hit his reputation had taken because of “Walking with a Panther,” wondered if his career was already over when he was just 22 years old.
In his 1998 autobiography, “I Make My Own Rules,” he wrote:
I had to regroup. So I went back to the beginning, to Grandma’s. One night, I left the studio early and just went to the house where it all began, into the basement so I could think and get connected. My grandmother knew something was up. She came down and asked me what was the matter.
“Grandma, I don’t know if I have it anymore,” I said. “I feel like all these other guys are getting over.”
She didn’t understand.
“It’s changed so much,” I said. “I can’t do it the way they do it. What’s selling now is something totally different.”
She said, “Oh, baby, just knock them out!” And she went back upstairs.
Knock them out, I thought? Yeah, I’ll knock them out. I rolled the idea over and over again in my brain. And that night I started writing.
“Don’t call it a comeback
I’ve been here for years,
Rocking my peers, puttin’ suckers in fear…
I’m gonna knock you out! Mama said knock you out!”
Those lyrics became “Mama Said Knock You Out,” the centerpiece single of LL Cool J’s 1990 album of the same name. The song’s namesake even appeared in the video. In the closing scene, LL Cool J’s grandma said, “Todd! Todd! Get upstairs and take out that garbage!”
Produced by the legendary Marley Marl, the single hit Number One on the Hot Rap Singles chart and Number 17 on the US Hot 100. Additionally, it won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance and was certified gold by the RIAA. The album went double platinum, selling more than 2 million copies.
The seething track boasted LL Cool J’s musical prowess (“Listen to the bass go boom/Explosions, overpowerin’/Over the competition I’m towerin’) with the same bravado that rap MCs had boasted from the beginning. But it was more aggressive that anything he had released before, as he adopted a violent persona not unlike those of his gangsta rap adversaries:
Just like Muhammed Ali
They called him Cassius
Watch me bash this beat like a skull
That you know I’ve beef with
Why do you riff with me
The maniac psycho
And when I pull out my jammy get ready
Cause I might go Blaw!
How you like me now?
…Shotgun blasts are heard
When I rip and kill at will
The man of the hour, tower of power
I’m gonna tie you up and let you understand
That I’m not your average man
When I gotta jammy in my hand…
The song’s samples — James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” the Chicago Gangsters’ “Gangster Boogie,” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Trip to Your Heart,” and Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” — made it accessible to pop fans; it was an LL Cool J song, afterall. Unlike so many hip-hop songs inspired by beefs between rappers, “Mama Said Knock You Out” was not so specific that it wasn’t relatable. Later in the decade, 2Pac would deliver several volleys toward Notorious B.I.G. that were so specific and personal that the lyrics were not universal stories but rather WWF-like rants set to a beat. Because LL Cool J didn’t specifically name any of his enemies in the song, the “Mama Said Knock You Out” had enough flexibility that listeners could project their own anger onto LL Cool J’s rage. It even worked acoustically, which LL Cool J demonstrated when he performed it for MTV’s “Unplugged.”
The punk band Lagwagon’s 1994 album “Trashed” featured “Back One Out,” a parody cover of “Mama Said Knock You Out.” The minute-and-a-half track began with a sample from the 1991 Bruce Willis movie “The Last Boy Scout,” in which Taylor Negron’s character said, “You think you’re so fuckin’ cool, don’t you? You think you’re so fuckin’ cool. Well just once, I would like to hear you scream, in pain.” Willis responded, “Play some rap music.” That led into a heavy, crunchy guitar riff based on the “Ahh, ahhh, ahhh ahhh” chorus. The only other part of “Back One Out” that came from “Mama Said Knock You Out” was a reworked version of the chorus (“I’m gonna back one out/Mama said back one out”). The rest of the lyrics bear no resemblance to LL Cool J’s song, as “Back One Out” was entirely about defecation, bringing a new meaning to “shitty punk cover.”
Swedish singer Eagle-Eye Cherry, best known for “Save Tonight,” recorded a funky, stripped-down “Mama Said Knock You Out” on the 1999 single, “Permanent Tears.” It wasn’t rap, per se, but it wasn’t straight singing, either. Regardless of how one defined it, his flow in the song was impressive, as he sang each line right after the other, with hardly any pause to take a breath.
Californian metalcore band Hoods recorded a blood-curdling, headache-inducing minute and a half cover of “Mama Said Knock You Out” for the compilation “Too Legit for the Pit: Hardcore Takes the Rap.” Maybe its arrangement was inspired by the original? Hard to tell, as it was a barrage of screams, guitars, and drums.
Hard rock band Deviate released a rap metal version of the song on its 2002 album “Red Asunder.” Reminiscent of Cypress Hill’s “Rap Superstar,” the track featured multiple rappers with a variety of styles and voices, from smooth-voiced naturals to gravelly guys who sounded more like they were yelling than rhyming.
Surf-rock/pop-punk band The Tarantualas covered “Mama Said Knock You Out” on its 2006 album, “Don’t Murder Anyone… Listen to the Lovebeats.” The track recast LL Cool J’s rap diss into a jangly song reminiscent of The Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl.” Rather than sound like an angry battle cry, The Tarantulas’ sunny take on the song could be a soundtrack for a lovely day at the beach. There was no trace of anger until the end, when the backing track sped up in time for a slew of obscenities, capped off by a barking dog. Because why not?
Singer and steel guitarist Sammo recorded “Mama Said K.Y.O.” for his 2009 album, “Vagabondage.” Sammo combined elements of folk, country, and blues such that the anger of the song seemed less brash and more controlled. Whereas LL Cool J delivered his version with the hot-headed rage of a 22-year-old resentful that he should have to prove himself to rappers like Kool Moe Dee, Sammo sounded like he was disciplining a mouthy neighborhood kid who needed to be put in his place.
B.A. Baracus Band, named for Mr. T’s character in “The A-Team,” is an acoustic duo from Canada that mainly plays cover songs using only an acoustic guitar, a kazoo and an African drum called a djembe. But despite not having any electric or sampled parts, B.A. Baracus Band’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” was as energetic as the original. Matt Dewar’s frenetic flow was just as good as LL Cool J’s, and yet by adding his own phrasing, he put his own stamp on the song. The looped “Ahh, ahh, ahh ahh” part gave the song a fuller sound, evoking the image a crowd surrounding the singer as he spat out his rhymes, not unlike the rap battles in the early days of hip-hop. And the way he sang “maniac psycho,” one is tempted to believe him.
Formed by rapper Boots Riley and former Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, Street Sweeper Social Club combined metal, funk, hip-hop and rock. The band’s version of “Mama Said You Out,” featured on 2010’s “The Ghetto Blaster EP,” had Morello’s signature guitar sound, but sounded more like Funkadelic than any of Morello’s previous bands. Riley’s acumen as a rapper gave the song a legitimate hip-hop feel, unlike previous rap metal tracks when non-rappers try to rhyme and fail miserably. There’s a place for samples in rap songs, as LL Cool J’s catalog deftly demonstrates, but Street Sweeper Social Club’s appeal came from its ability to make hip-hop as heavy as it was slick.
English group Senser’s rap metal version of “Mama Said Knock You Out” stood out in the way that most rap with an Enlish accent stands out. Additionally noteworthy was the fact that the backing “Ohhh, ohhh, ohhh” vocals throughout the track sounded uncannily like Eddie Vedder. Listen to it and try not to think of him. You won’t be able to do it.
Singer-songwriter Alyson Greenfield combines aspects of folk, orchestral, and hip-hop. On her “Rock Out With Your Glockenspiel Out,” she covered, among others, Coolio, Kelis, and LL Cool J. Her “Mama Said Knock You Out” featured just her and a piano, but there was nothing bare or scaled down about her performance. With a vocal style equally reminiscent of both Kate Bush and Fiona Apple, Greenfield sang as if she were weaving through an obstacle course, slowing down and speeding down her pace throughout all while delivering multiple lines in one dizzying breath. Her classically-inspired arrangement was just as complex as her vocal delivery, indicating a prowess that obviously indicated several years of advanced training. Greenfield ended her song by repeating “My mama told me to/And I always do what my mama tells me to,” a sentiment that coincidentally captured LL Cool J’s inspiration for writing “Mama Said Knock You Out” in the first place.
Comprising former members of U.P.O. and W.A.S.P., Five Finger Death Punch is a super group of sorts, playing crunchy, guitar-laden metal with funk grooves. Whereas Street Sweeper Social Club sounded like a heavy funk band with a rapper as its singer, Five Finger Death Punch more closely resembled the blood-curdling metal bands of Europe. On the band’s 2013 album, “The Wrong Side Of Heaven And The Righteous Side Of Hell, Volume 1,” vocalist Ivan Moody didn’t sing so much as he screamed in beat with the wall of noise. Rapper Tech N9ne, no stranger to rhyming over heavy, textured tracks, was a guest for one of the verses, performing LL Cool J’s rhymes with a new flow and different phrasing. In an interview with Metal Covenant, guituarist Zoltan Bathory explained why the band decided to cover the song:
“Today, it’s not okay to collaborate with anybody in hip-hop,” he said.”Ten to fifteen years ago, that was the norm and then we wouldn’t have done it. Now, when it’s not okay, [and now that] it’s taboo, I wanna do it. That’s the point — when you rebel, when you give that middle finger, because today this is a sacrilege. You don’t touch hip-hop, but fuck that, we’re gonna and we did it. We had an idea to cover “Mama Said Knock You Out.” We thought it was the irony of Five Finger Death Punch, when people said “Mama Said Knock You Out,” it just kinda went hand in hand. LL Cool J was always somebody who was cool. Even metalheads are okay with him. Everybody’s heard that song and everybody knows that one and people are down with him. He’s cool, he’s okay, right? He’s an artist that everybody accepts. Then we made the song heavy and when Tech N9ne came in, we thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is happening. Fuck it, Let’s put it on the record.'”
Singer Nathan Marshall recorded an acoustic version in the style of light ’90s rock (the milquetoast Deep Blue Something came to mind). The jokey premise of having a white guy sing a mellow version of a rap song notwithstanding, the cover was not horrible, and Marshall injected some humor by breaking character halfway through the song to point out that he didn’t write the lyrics, so if you had a problem with the song, take it up with LL Cool J.
Rap songs are not easy to cover, in part because of those circumstance-specific beefs that drive that lyrics. Furthermore, so much of hip-hop is sampled from previous songs, so it would be hard to cover those songs without recreating the songs from which those samples came. Otherwise, rap covers would just sound like karaoke songs in which a different rapper was rapping the same lyrics over the same background tracks, but with a slightly different flow.
As such, the more notable covers of rap songs are not performed as rap songs. Acoustic and scaled-back versions of “Gin & Juice” and “Boyz In The Hood” have been well-received because they translated the songs into new genres. We’ve seen the power of taking a hit of one genre and completely upending it. That’s what made Self’s version of “What A Fool Believes” so interesting, and what blew us away about Frente!’s take on New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” So despite the fact that rap metal sounds dated or folky versions of hip-hop are no longer novel, the covers of “Mama Said Knock You Out” are still noteworthy, not because any of them were recorded by super-famous marquee artists, but because they succeed in one of the most essential missions of a cover song: taking something that’s recognizable, and reinterpreting it in a new, fresh way.