This article originally appeared in the September 1987 issue of SPIN. In honor of the 50th anniversary of hip hop, we’re republishing it here.
The room is filled with young, black rappers. I sniff around for the old familiar rock ‘n’ roll smells—beer, sweat, and weed—but all I get are competing whiffs of orange juice and aftershave. Since it is four hours before the main event, L.L. Cool J is nowhere to be found. His tour manager, Tony Rome, talks animatedly into the phone, stopping whenever some new guy enters the room to introduce me as Laura Devlin. Finally, he apologizes. “You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve been on the road too long.”
I nod in understanding. He thinks that the room is moving. He tells the rappers what he can remember about me, that I’m “no stranger to rock ‘n’ roll.” This holds their interest for about a minute, and after being asked a polite five questions about my-husband-the-Ramone, I’m retired to the wall. The talk returns to rap music and each other. Who’s good, who’s better. Who gave up rapping to become a singing-star. “I just told the guy to forget it,” says Ecstacy of Whodini, laughing. “I mean, it’s one thing if he wants to get three motherfucker backup singers. But for him to just go out there alone and sing—he just wants to be socially accepted, to sing because Diana sings and maybe he can get invited to the American Music Awards. No way it’s gonna happen.”
Here in New Orleans, on a five-band rapstravaganza starring L.L. Cool J, the big topic is, inappropriately enough, the Beastie Boys. Currently on the road with the star of their own show, a much-hyped giant hydraulic penis, the Beasties so infuriated the decent folk of Columbus, Georgia, that the elders called a town meeting and passed a law forbidding obscenities at local rock concerts.
So a week later, along came L.L. Cool J, the rap sex symbol of the moment, and business as usual: rubbing his balls, humping the audience. Shirtless, he simulated sex on a couch with his bronze back to the crowd. All you could see was a Kangol hat and this terrific ass, undulated up and down with the lyrics of his pop hit, “I Need Love.” As soon as the show finished, the Columbus authorities threw him in jail.
“But it wasn’t a racial thing,” Tony Rome assures me later. When I laugh cynically, he repeats himself. “It wasn’t a racial thing. it was a rock censorship thing.”
I’m sure it was. It’s just funny that the Beasties’ stampede on behalf of Evil Incarnate has finally won them recognition in law. And it’s ironic that L.L. Cool J—that’s short for Ladies Love Cool J—went to the slammer for some other rappers’ giant hydraulic schlong.
SPIN: Was the boxing photo on the back of Bigger and Deffer put there to draw a connection between yourself and Muhammad Ali?
L.L. Cool J: No, but I like the connection. I put the picture there to signify my own hunger, strength, and power. Ali is definitely a good example because I’ve got the eye of the tiger and I’m not gonna chill. My first album was a title match and I won the belt. Every one after that is a title match until I retire and bow out gracefully. Nobody’s gonna talk me.
SPIN: Why not?
L.L. Cool J: I’m not on a souped-up little brat trip. I’m not gonna let anyone take me because I’m gonna keep fighting and working. That’s not an arrogant point of view. I’m hungry and self-confident, and when you work hard, why not be proud? Pride and arrogance are two different things, and my audience—they know what time it is.
SPIN: When did you realize you had talent?
L.L. Cool J: I’ve been rhymin’ since I was nine years old.
SPIN: People see political significance in your work.
L.L. Cool J: Really? Where? My audience comes to my shows to have a good time.
SPIN: The ladies love you.
L.L.Cool J: That was just something I said a long time ago, once. A girl said to me, “You swear that the ladies love Cool J?” And I said, “I swear.” Then I made it L.L. because Ladies Love was just too egotistical. If they love me, they do, but I’m not going after that.
“Did you hear about the record, man?” L.L. asks Tony Rome triumphantly, slapping him on the back. The other performers are standing around talking about how great the record is, how great L.L. is, how great they all are. “Billboard says the record is No. 1.”
Tony corrects him: It’s No. 1 on the Black charts, No. 6 Pop. “But that’s good, L.L. It means it’s gonna be No. 1. It’s got a bullet.”
Bullet or not, L.L. is visibly disappointed. “You’re a great man,” says one of the members of Whodini, the group that played above L.L. last year. This year they open for him.
“I want it to be No. 1,” L.L. finishes.
It’s easy to see why the young girls love him. He’s handsome, tall, and poised for competition; athletically built and composed. His walk is half march, half strut, with his head forward and down, like he’s looking for something intimidating on the floor. Young girls love him in part because he’s distant, inaccessible. Even the ladies who are lucky enough to be granted backstage passes stand a proper ten feet away, whispering and giggling among themselves. Unless absolutely forced to do otherwise, he only talks to his fellow B-boys, passing all female attentions along to his teammates.
SPIN: You’re real disappointed that the record’s not a bigger hit?
L.L. Cool J: Yeah, but I thought about it, and even though I want to make continual strides to satisfy that audience, they love me because I did “I Need Love,” and I might not ever make another record like that. If I don’t, then I don’t care. I want to satisfy my own audience. Those others—well, I can’t have my heart set on them because they aren’t loyal. Next time they might not be cool. I’ll keep my cool audience.
SPIN: Who’s your cool audience?
L.L. Cool J: I’m not really sure what my demographics are. I’ve got to sit down with my manager and figure that out.
Ten thousand people, mostly black, mostly between the ages of seven and twenty-five, assemble at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena. Performing first is Def Jam’s newest rap attraction, Public Enemy, who march onstage in army active sportswear. The guy in the middle, the one who isn’t dressed like he just finished filming Platoon, speaks to the crowd. “There are people out there who don’t want this show to go on. I’m talking about the fuckin’ Klan, man.”
This message falls on deaf ears. The logistics and the timing are off. “Why don’t you just shut up,” the guy next to me calls out. “We came here to party.”
After a short set, Public Enemy yield to Kool Moe Dee, who does a funny song about a meaningful one-night stand with a woman hot like a microwave: “Three days later, go see the doctor.” The crowd loves him, and goes even higher with the following act, Doug E. Fresh. “L.L.’s gonna have a tough time beating that,” the guy next to me says, to no one in particular.
Finally, an elaborately lit, massive boom box is lowered from the ceiling. It has a working cassette door, which opens, and, to the delight of more than 5,000 screaming women, ejects L.L. Cool J. When the radio rises back up, L.L. stands in an exact replica of his old schoolyard, P.S. 119 in Queens, New York, which he chose so he could “feel like I was back at school, rappin’.”
We bask in radio afterglow. L.L. raps the songs from Bigger and Deffer, his critical and commercial smash; he throws out candy during “Kanday,” and asks the girls what they cooked for dinner tonight. “Do you cook Cajun?” he purrs. “I love the food here. Do you cook creole and crawfish tonight?” The purring and the cooking talk has the boys uncomfortable; they shift their bodies and focus on the floor. Preparing for the performance of “I Need Love,” the stage crew sets up a leather loveseat flanked on either side by palm plans. L.L. raps the ballad subtly at first, then begins to caress his balls. He stretches himself across the sofa, his back to the audience, and simulates sexual intercourse. It’s the most erotic thing anybody’s ever done to a sofa in public. The sexual bravado, with its mild element of teenage perversity, sets the boys at ease again, and now they love L.L. also.
He exhorts the crowd to scream his name: they gladly obey. He tells them to make the “L” symbols with their fingers, to light matches in the dark, to spell the names of his crew members; they couldn’t be happier. “These are not fans,” he says later. “I think of a fan as something you use to cool down. These people heat me up more. I call them my supporters.”
SPIN: Why do rappers rub their balls?
L.L. Cool J: A lot of guys who aren’t rappers rub their balls. With me it’s a habit. I just grab it to be grabbing it. I grab my dick because it’s there.
SPIN: How important are new sneakers?
L.L. Cool J: I buy new sneakers all the time, every week, every day. You gotta be fresh. I own at least two-hundred pairs. I travel with about fifty pairs. When I’m not busy, I go out and buy more.
SPIN: Maybe you should get a sneaker endorsement.
L.L. Cool J: Maybe in the future, I’d like it.
SPIN: White rock stars make lots of money, and when they flaunt their possessions, the fans get mad. You say stuff like, “Now I’ve got Porsche money,” and everyone thinks its cool.
L.L. Cool J: Look, I hate speaking about this racism stuff and I don’t even have all the answers. But the way I see it, the majority, not all, but a lot of white people are middle-and upper-middle class. They have money and because so many in their class dress up, it’s cooler to dress down. A lot of black people are seen to be lower-middle class and even poor, and it’s just cooler for them to dress up. It makes things even. You go to a high school where it’s half black and half white, and the white kids wear jeans with holes in them, while the black kids dress up. Everything evens out.
SPIN: When you performed “I Need Love,” the guys in the audience were put off at first. Then you attacked the sofa and they relaxed.
L.L. Cool J: I’m showing them that I wasn’t soft about it, that I’m cool. And they know exactly what I’m talking about.
SPIN: Who’d you write the song for?
L.L. Cool J: No one. I just felt romantic on that particular day. That’s all.
SPIN: Just that day?
L.L. Cool J: Just that day.
The big problem after the show is getting all these guys back to the hotel. “The chief of police visited the show tonight,” says Tony. “I don’t want to get these boys hangin’ around the French Quarter, getting arrested.”
Arrested for what?
“Hangin’ around. Run-D.M.C. comes here next week, and if there’s any trouble, it reflects badly on them. The chief was just here asking about the security for their concert.”
Amid hearty cheers and self-congratulations, the crews board the busses. Someone declares that the security problems are because “the Beastie Boys are assholes,” but L.L.’s preoccupations are elsewhere. “I want those women that are hanging around on the busses to get lost. I’m real tired of this shit.”
“Now is not the time to talk about it,” Tony says, but L.L. repeats his annoyance. Tony keeps trying to shut him up, to make him aware of the invisible writer girl on the bus, but L.L. couldn’t care less. Then he turns to Ecstacy and laughs. “Every time you see a skeezer that you like, she turns out to be a front.”
SPIN: What’s a skeezer and what’s a front?
L.L. Cool J: Oh, you heard that? [laughs]. That’s when the fellas are talking about a pretty girl walking around the hotel and she doesn’t want to give the guy nothing. She’s a front. She ain’t giving up nothing, she’s just frontin’. That’s why I don’t mess with no groupies in the hotel, because they’re all fronts. I don’t even want to find out anyway, because Liberace died, and so did Rock Hudson. So I just look at them like they’re all fronts, and that’s what keeps me from messing with them. I don’t mess around on the road. I get my girls in New York.
SPIN: Are women equal to you?
L.L. Cool J: Just like anybody else, a women get treated how she lets herself get treated.
SPIN: In your raps, you say some pretty tough things about girls. You’ve got this line about your rival’s woman and your name tattooed on her ass.
L.L. Cool J: You know that cliché, behind every great man, there’s a great woman and all that bullshit. I’ve got a lot of respect, but I also speak the truth. If I took his girl and she’s sitting on my lap, I speak about it.
SPIN: What do women like about you?
L.L. Cool J: I don’t know.
SPIN: What do you like in a girl?
L.L. Cool J: I like pretty, quiet girls.
SPIN: I guess you talk so much that there’s no room for her to be noisy.
L.L. Cool J: I guess so.
SPIN: Did you ever hit a girl?
L.L. Cool J: I don’t believe in hitting on women. It’s disrespectful.
SPIN: If you treat women the way they deserve, does that mean treat bad girls badly?
L.L. Cool J: No. I ignore them.
SPIN: What’s the nicest compliment you’ve gotten?
L.L. Cool J: I can tell you the funniest one. The girl comes up to me and says, “L.L., I love all your records except three.”
SPIN: What’s the worst thing?
L.L. Cool J: The loss of privacy and the envy.
SPIN: Is there a lot of competition between yourself and Run and the Beasties?
L.L. Cool J: I’m not having any competition with them.
SPIN: Are they having one with you?
L.L. Cool J: I don’t know. They’re groups. I’m trying to get my own thing. I don’t care about nothing they have. I’m tryin’ to make it to the top without steppin’ on toes. I don’t give two shits about what they’re doing. I wish them well but I don’t really give a damn. You don’t ever wish anybody bad because when you try to dig one grave, you end up diggin’ two.
We wait to board a 19-seater plane to Birmingham, Alabama. The pretty girl behind the ticket desk recognizes the group and asks for autographs. The guys line up chivalrously, happy to comply. All except L.L. He sits down, reads a magazine. Only when the girl asks him personally does he grant her his signature.
Before we board, Tony takes L.L. aside. After the conference, L.L. sits down next to me. “Ask all your questions, now.” he says.
SPIN: How did you lose your virginity?
L.L. Cool J: I had sex.
SPIN: Can you tell me any good sexual fantasies you’ve had?
L.L. Cool J: Sexual fantasies? Nah, I got none. A sexual fantasy [laughs] Are you serious? A sexual fantasy? That’s real ill.
SPIN: Look, when you’re a sex symbol, you’ve got to answer questions like this. Do you get along with your old girlfriends?
L.L. Cool J: Old girlfriends? You mean the ones over thirty years old? It’s not like I’m that old where I have old girlfriends. I ain’t been out there twenty years. I’m nineteen. What’s an old girlfriend?
SPIN: But you express a lot of experience in your songs.
L.L. Cool J: Listen, there’s no Yvette, there’s no Kanday, and I wrote “I Need Your Love” for that minute. I believe all entertainers are schizophrenic. In that moment your personality changes. You write things, and then you come back. All these songs—it’s just a picture.
SPIN: Are you afraid of everything?
L.L. Cool J: I’m afraid that this plane is gonna crash.
Rap history’s a relatively short one, but when L.L. Cool J declares he’s the “greatest rapper in the history of rap,” he’s uncharacteristically understanding of the matter. Other rappers might have attracted a more exclusive audience, maybe even—hard to imagine at this moment—a bigger audience, but no one has yet to inspire what he does with his audience. Adoration. No questions asked.
Perhaps the press’s rush to see significance in his appeal is due to the political style of his approach: pure politician on the campaign trail. In person, he gets down with his “supporters,” not as the mouth that roared, or even as a sexual hotbed of bad ideas, but as an ordinary kid who understands the appeal of his ordinariness. Apart from his small circle of B-boy friends, L.L. divides his fans/supporters into two camps. At his first promo appearance in Birmingham, he pointedly ignores the groupies, preferring to kiss the babies and pose and chat with children.
“We should let anyone under 14 come to the shows for free,” he whispers to his manager. “Tell the children to go to the bus before we go on, and we’ll give them the tickets.”
Tony doesn’t reply. He looks distracted, like he’s trying to figure out how much money it might lose them.
He should run for mayor, I suggest.
“You should print that!” Tony says gleefully. “Print it. L.L. Cool J for president!”
Meanwhile, at least five radio stations are awaiting his visit. We listen to the announcements as a limo takes us to the first one. L.L. keeps peeking out the window, satisfied when passing car passengers recognize him. “Oh my God, it’s him!” one girl yells. He immediately looks away.
The radio is playing “I’m Bad.” Several second into the rap a distant “motherfucker” comes across, the guys burst out laughing. “I guess he just forgot to listen to it before he played it,” L.L. concludes.
We stop for take-out food. Ecstacy wants a couple pieces of chicken. “Fuck it,” L.L. says. “Get a bucket.” We settle for Burger King, and L.L. gets two orders of everything. As he balances the food on his lap, a women sticks her head in the window, hands him an umbrella, and asks him to autograph it. Outside dozens more fans are gathering. L.L. checks them out only long enough to see if they’re looking at him. It’s like he’s looking to see how well his record is selling.
“I hate this shit. I’m eating now,” he says to the woman, while trying not to spill food on the umbrella. “Couldn’t we do this later?” She looks like she’s about to cry. “Okay give it to me. But you know it would have been better if we’d done it later.” He signs the thing and the girl goes away jubilantly with her score.
“You know, Tony, this is the part I hate about it. The part when you understand how little privacy you’ve got. They don’t care about me at all. They’d ask me to sign an autograph if I was pissing on the toilet. They’d just slip the paper on under the door and say, ‘Sign.’
“And a guy like me, I might just open the door, turn around, and ask, ‘What’s that you want?’ and piss down their leg.”