Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Everyone likes the idea of music being economical or minimal or haunting, or groundbreaking or sensitive or profound, but when you come down to it I don’t think there’s a single music lover on this planet who doesn’t sometimes want a bit of stupid, eye-popping, excess. And LL Cool J is more than happy to provide. “Mama Said Knock You Out” goes far over the top, then builds a whole new top just so it can go over that too.

Yeah, there’s this whole tradition of battle rhymes in hip-hop, it’s a music that wouldn’t even exist without them: the act of boasting about your skills being the perfect demonstration of them and all that. But this isn’t just a battle – J comes on like a pro wrestler before a match, ranting against anybody, everybody, everything. He’s like a circus wild man and his ringmaster, both at once, he sounds like Henry Rollins looks. The relentless chanting, the ants-in-the-pants rhythm, the whistle-blowing, the blackboard-screech “Yeeeeeah”s and beefcake “Huhh”s, the dismissively brutal scratching, the crisp snap of the beats – just musically this is high-octane, berserk stuff: sports as war, war as entertainment.

On top of it all LL flexes his vocal muscles until the veins are fit to burst. He starts savagely enough, but still in the boundaries of battle-rhyming sanity. But then, sometime after he tells us not to call it a regular jam, the man starts to lose it – the amazing thing about “Mama Said…” is the way it builds in aggression and never plateaus, the way it manages to get more ridiculous every minute but more effective too. After the breakdown he goes completely into warp-spasm, his metaphors increasingly deranged, drowning every vowel in violence: “Shotgun blasts are hearrrrrd….when I RIP! and KILL! at WILL!”, leads to the outrageously voluptuous “Ooooooh! Listen to the way I SLAAAAAAAY your crew”, and then to the breathless yells of “Damage! UH!”, and then to the simply awe-inspiring call and response where LL in his bloodlust decides to bomb a whole fucking town. It’s an unbelievable performance, like the Incredible Hulk decided to make a record – and he thanks God at the end of this? Not that I’m, uh, arguing with him or anything. Oh no.