LL Cool J – “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990)
90’s Band Name: At first blush, “LL Cool J” sounds pretty 90’s. But really look at that name with fresh eyes. It actually sounds like a rap nickname from the early 80’s, when people weren’t exactly sure how rap nicknames worked, they just knew they wanted one. “What’s your rap nickname?” “LL Cool J. You?” “Fresh Man Dope-De-Dope.” “Nice.” Since LL’s first album actually dropped in 1985, it’s possible this is a true story, though I won’t know until I finish his 1998 autobiography, I Make My Own Rules. (3/10)
90’s Musical Stylings: A simple beat, shouted raps, and lame, unmelodic choruses? Yet it still somehow manages to sample five different songs within the track, including two Sly & The Family Stone songs, and one of LL Cool J’s own songs? Yup, this is early-90’s hip hop, right here. (6/10)
90’s Cred: This song made the list because multiple people asked me to cover it, even though my memories of the track are pretty vague. Reviewing it here just made it more obvious how unremarkable this song really is – it reached #17 on the Billboard chart, then disappeared. It is, however, clearly a track of its time: it takes numerous shots at Kool Moe Dee, which, as rap battles goes, is definitely a war LL ended up winning long term. (5/10)
Pop Culture: It was featured on a couple different 90’s standards: the soundtrack to Encino Man, an episode of “Kenan & Kel,” but the thing I really want to focus on is its appearance on the soundtrack to the Michael J. Fox action comedy The Hard Way, which also featured the acting debut of one Mr. LL Cool J as the unforgettable “Detective Billy.” Without this song, his work as a tech-savvy naval investigator on “NCIS: Los Angeles” would just be a pipe dream, guys. (5/10)
Music Video: Somehow, even though it’s a different song, I seem to be watching the same music video as last time, guys. Could video cameras in 1990 only shoot in sepia or something?
The video doesn’t seem like a train wreck at first. LL, his face moodily lit by harsh downlight, raps and points energetically into a dangling announcer microphone. Seems like a good place to stage part of your music video, as long as we aren’t here for too terribly long.
It seems we won’t be. LL opens the door to his basement, then poses like Peter Pan on the top of the stairs for a moment.
And they said the man wasn’t hard. After a brief pause, LL descends the steps, sits down, then takes off his shirt, which is an order of events I have never duplicated.
Why does he wait to sit down to take off his shirt? Does he end up walking into things or falling over if he tries to take it off while standing? I’m betting yes.
Now the boxing ring footage is interspersed with quick cuts of LL’s sweaty biceps and abs. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to seem tough, or sexy. Either way, it’s neither.
Now there’s more weightlifting footage. Was this video made by the same guy who made “I Wanna Be Rich”? Several minutes of Googling reveals only that whichever individuals directed these two videos both did a very good job of removing these credits later in life.
LL now tries to do what I’m relatively sure is the first ever attempt at a “bad ass spit take.”
Our boy is still in the boxing ring, pacing about, totally ready to face any boxer that his mother indicates is worthy of being defeated. Since no one shows up, he contents himself with punching the air frenetically.
And shouting angrily into the blackness.
I guess LL is starting to feel pretty alone. His hand slides tenderly up his own thigh.
I’m beginning to get worried about where this video is gonna take us.
LL’s look is clearly supposed to be “tough guy boxer,” but the hoodie obscuring his eyes just makes it look like he’s going for “very aggressive monk.” Not great for street cred, I bet.
DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT WATER IS FOR?
This whole thing is starting to feel more and more like I’m making a list of “worst homoerotic videos of all time.” Let me tell you, this video would score better on that list than this one.
The video ends with an appearance by LL’s mom (+2), unless it's an actress playing LL's mom who has no acting talent whatsoever.
And then LL hurling what I’m pretty sure is a boxing glove at the camera lens for no reason.
Once again, this video does not grade out particularly 90’s. Or particularly 80’s. It’s mostly just a snoozer from start to finish, intercut with barbells and glistening abs. It’s the sort of fever dream a sexually confused boxer would get after eight or nine concussions, and I award it a score of only (3/10).
Final Score: For a song with clear 90’s name recognition, it certainly didn’t test out very 90’s. My big takeaway was just that LL Cool J has a lot to learn about hydration. (22/50)
The Offspring – Pretty Fly For A White Guy (1998)
90’s Band Name: I guess? There’s something indefinably 90’s about the band name, which I guess is the pattern of a band name that starts with “the” and then has a vaguely off-putting noun afterwards, i.e. The Flies, The Breeders, The Hives, The Faint, The Suicide Machines, The New Pornographers, etc. It’s certainly deserving of a few points. (5/10)
90’s Musical Stylings: Well, there’s 90’s elements here: the pop-punk elements, electric guitars infused with 90’s distortion, plus the chanted female vocals and that cowbell. If a rock music fan was hearing the song for the first time, he could likely pin it as “1997-2005,” as it’s very indicative of that era. But that just makes it tougher to call it “90’s.” (3/10)
Am I doing the wrong Offspring song? I’m doing the wrong Offspring song. I should be doing “Self Esteem.”
The Offspring – “Self Esteem” (1994)
90’s Band Name: We’ve done this. (5/10)
90’s Musical Stylings: This is more like it. A lot of punk, a little pop, a touch of grunge. Riff-heavy. Tons of raw, yell-along-with-the-radio singability. When in public, I try and avoid joining in on “and I wonder why She! Sleeps! With! My! Friends!” and then vigorously air-drumming, but it can’t be done. (7/10)
90’s Cred: The Offspring are clearly a 90’s band: the had two top-10 rock singles in 1994, three more in 1998, and no other singles of note. “Self Esteem” was a number one single from Smash, an album that sold a record 16 million copies from an independent label (+5). That record is not going to be broken any time soon. “Self Esteem” was a worldwide smash, going number one in Sweden, Latvia, and Norway. Would not have called that before starting this. (8/10)
Pop Culture: Tons and tons of MTV airplay, but no appearances on any soundtracks or TV shows. (2/10)
Music Video: Oh, 90’s from the outset! I’m so glad that we switched. The opening shot is x-ray footage of a skeleton singing along to the opening lyrics, and it only gets more 90’s from there.
Watching the video, I’m immediately struck by not just how 90’s it is, but by how 1994 it is. The band is all wearing punk t-shirts with cut-offs (+1), with long hair or thin cornrows (+1) spilling out from under non-fitted baseball caps turned backwards (+1). Sometimes they’re wearing other outfits, but when they are, they’ve just changed into other punk t-shirts and cut-offs.
There’s clearly no “concept” to the video. The band is in a big room with a curtain on one side of it. Someone turned on a fog machine and a couple of black lights (+1), and they started jumping around. “We’ll cut it really fast,” the director told them. Forty-five minutes later, the video was done.
The video also includes this fellow, who I’m pretty sure is a Hanson brother. Not Taylor, one of the other ones. Len? Len Hanson? Something like that. (+2)
His footage is intercut with teens skateboarding on a lawn and… huffing oxygen, I think? Maybe they’re actually sick and need the oxygen. It’s hard to tell. “Story” is not a big element in this director’s video work. “Cross-dissolving” is more his game (+1):
Ye gads. Don’t worry; Len Hanson is here to investigate.
Later, the kids throw eggs at the camera (+1), and stock footage (+1) of Evel Knievel taking off in a rocket is shown. Also, this happens.
I didn’t understand any of that. (9/10)
Final Score: The Offspring are a much more 90’s band than I anticipated – huge success that ended as the millennium did, plus a sound and a look that fits perfectly into one’s recollection of 90’s music. If they were featured on more movies and TV shows, they’d be a real force to be reckoned with in this competition. As it is, a strong - but not remarkable - (31/50).