77. LL Cool J - Going Back to Cali

I heard the wail of the muted trumpet and looked at the cassette cover again. Side 1, check, track four, check. Yep, it says LL Cool J, "Going Back to Cali." What the hell is going on? A few more seconds, and then the scratching comes in. That definitely sounds like a rap song. But then the trumpet continues, trading jabs with the DJ's scratching. A final round of scratching and then LL starts his rap, "I'm going back to Cali, Cali, Cali. I'm going back to Cali. Hmmm. I don't think so."

With less than forty seconds, James Todd Smith (LL's real name) changed the way I looked at rap music forever. It was 1988 and this song was on the soundtrack to Less Than Zero. Having been a big fan of Bigger And Deffer, LL Cool J's breakout album, I was looking forward to hearing this song. It confused me, but in that "Holy crap, this is really awesome!" way. The trumpet, the scratching, the lyrics, all of it. For the next few days, with probably a dozen listens, I never even made it to Side 2 of the cassette.

The song appears to be so very simple when he gets to the first verse. There's a drum machine with a high hat & bass drum beat and the scratch insert of a guitar chord as LL raps with an almost lackadaisical and conversational cadence. The video captures this style perfectly, with LL cruising along in a convertible, turning to us and just rappin'. It's like the simplicity of some songs in the 60's, with the acoustic guitar and simple beats. This one's just done in the hip-hop style. But there's this cool, intermittent "boing" sound that pops up throughout the song, especially in the instrumental break two minutes in. I don't know what it is, but I find myself listening for it as I'm listening. And any rap song that uses trombones, trumpets and saxophones has to be pretty awesome.

Rick Rubin did the production on this one and you can tell he really wanted to push the envelope with the style of the song. In fact, the whole album has a schizophrenic stylistic feel that many reviewers complained about. But I think that Rick and LL were trying to get all of their ideas and influences on one single album. That's why the album has "Going Back to Cali" as well as "I'm That Type of Guy," "I Need Love" and "Big Ole Butt." There's a musical buffet that would go on to be continued on with other albums like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique.

Lyrically, the song's all about returning to California, because as cool as New York is, there are things that you just can't get there. So back LL goes to the Golden State, looking for beaches and babes. There are great lyrics all around, but this verse is the best:

I'm going back to Cali, rising, surprising
Advising realizing, she's sizing me up
Her bikini - small; heels - tall
She said she liked the ocean
She showed me a beach, gave me a peach
and pulled out the suntan lotion

Lyrically, they're very cool, but the way he performs them is even cooler. The way he does "She said she liked the ocean" is just perfect. With the music not being overly complicated, the rhyming and the lyrics really need to stand out. And in "Going Back to Cali," LL Cool J brings it. More than just the usual "I'm so great and you suck" lyrics that lots of raps songs have as their base, he paints a real lyrical picture of hanging out in L.A. and soaking it all in. And the "Hmmm, I don't think so" line is classic as well. He doesn't want to do the normal Cali, he wants to do it on his terms. White wine and shopping on Melrose? Hmmm, I don't think so.

Rap music changed for me that day in late 1988. That's the day that I realized that rap could be more than drum machines, samples and boisterous lyrics. It meant that rap (and later hip-hop) was not just a fad that had overstayed its welcome, but a legitimate music genre that was here to stay. And thank God for that.

(Fun Fact #83: Not so much a fun fact as much as an endorsement. The soundtrack album that I mentioned earlier is definitely worth seeking out. It's got a great mix of all kinds of music. You've got Aerosmith kicking it off with "Rockin' Pneumonia & Boogie Woogie Flu." There's Poison covering Kiss' "Rock N Roll All Night," Public Enemy's original "Bring the Noise" as well as The Bangles doing a kick ass version of Simon & Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter." Check it out. It's a great cassette. Oh, I guess you could get the CD if you must.)

(Fun Fact #16: Most rap fans know this, but for the uninitiated, LL Cool J stands for "Ladies Love Cool James." If you could find a lamer origin for an MC name, I'd love to hear it, because this one is ridiculous!)

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