WATERVILLE — In the mid-1980s, central Mainers were vastly more familiar with L.L. Bean than LL Cool J.
That might still be true today, but in 1985 the odds were stacked even higher against the now-iconic hip-hop star when he played to a modest, somewhat bewildered crowd in Wadsworth Gymnasium at Colby College.
Last month, a video of the performance surfaced on YouTube and has been gathering lots of attention across blogs and social media. Last week alone, the video earned more than 48,959 views online and a shout-out from LL Cool J himself.
Some online commenters are calling the video a significant piece of hip-hop history — a snapshot of the days when rap music was poised to explode beyond its New York birthplace and onto the nation — but in June 1985, the momentum wasn’t quite there. Rap was so new to central Maine that LL Cool J spent a significant portion of his performance explaining the art form to his audience.
The video is owned by Solon resident Mike Starr. For nearly 30 years, a VHS copy of the performance sat on a shelf in his home until his adult son offered to post it to the Internet. Now the performance has been featured on the websites Slate, Kottke.org, The Stranger and Egotripland. It’s a surprising second life for the video, Starr said last week during a telephone interview.
“It was like a family video,” he said. “Every few years, we’d watch it and laugh.”
The 25-minute video begins with a shot of a small crowd, most of whom are grade-school children sitting in a semi-circle on the gymnasium floor, plus a few toddlers sitting on the edge of the stage. Starr said the video is deceiving, because he recalls selling more than 200 tickets.
“There were more people there than appear in the video,” he said. “All the teenagers were standing along the back wall, 150 feet away. All the parents were in the bleachers watching the kids.”
After a brief introduction, LL Cool J explained the music to the seemingly mild-mannered audience.
“What you’re about to see right now is called rapping and scratching,” he said. “How many of you saw this before?”
After a muted response from the audience, LL Cool J introduced DJ Cut Creator, who performed a demonstration.
“He has what’s known as a disco mixer in the middle, between two turntables like you would play at home,” LL Cool J said of the DJ equipment. “He takes the record and scratches it back and forth to make his own noise.”
Later, LL Cool J demonstrated the art of human beat-boxing.
“How many of y’all have heard of the human beat-box?” he asks to scattered applause from teenagers in the back of the room. “Everybody up there knows about it, and all these people are like, ‘What?'”
In 1985, Starr organized LL Cool J’s appearance in the wake of several teenagers’ suicides in the Waterville area, he said. Although the performance was held at Colby College, it wasn’t a school event. Starr said he and the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce wanted to give local teens something to do during that difficult period.
“We just wanted to send a positive vibe into the area,” he recalled.
In the mid-’80s, breakdancing was gaining popularity among teenagers in central Maine, which Starr felt was a positive form of self-expression, worthy of encouragement. Starr didn’t have any contact information for talent agents, so he did what anyone would at the time.
“I used the Dewey Decimal System and tracked down ‘rap,'” he recalled. “That’s pretty much how it worked back in 1985.”
Starr found a number for Def Jam Records and called the label on a whim. Starr was told he should book LL Cool J, because the 17-year-old rapper from New York was a positive influence, teen-oriented and relatively inexpensive, he recalled.
LL Cool J, who hadn’t yet released his debut album “Radio,” was paid $500 for the afternoon show. The rapper and a few people working for him, including DJ Cut Creator, arrived in Maine on People Airlines — the discount carrier at the time. Starr also hired a sound technician and a videographer to document the event, which gives the video high-quality audio.
“The reason the video is popular is because the sound is good,” he said. “People could actually play it at parties over YouTube because it’s clear enough. If it was scratchy and recorded on a cellphone, it wouldn’t be as interesting.”
Some online commenters have mocked central Mainers from the era for their apparent lack of hip-hop awareness, but Starr said the criticism is unwarranted.
“Outside the cities, no one knew about rap. It wasn’t just us,” he said.
Bob Richard, 60, owner of The Record Connection — a music store mainstay on Main Street for the past 32 years — attended the LL Cool J show with his wife and two young children. He agreed that hip-hop was a rare sound in central Maine at the time.
“It hadn’t hit at all. It was on the outside,” he said.
Even after the show, it would take a few more years for the music to reach mainstream status in Maine, Richard said.
“There weren’t that many people who saw it,” Richard said of the show. “It might have been the first wave of consciousness in central Maine for rap music, but I don’t remember it making a huge difference.”
LL Cool J, or Ladies Love Cool James, was born James Todd Smith. Later that year, “Radio” was released to critical acclaim and eventually would go platinum. His career continued to climb over the decades with hits such as “I’m Bad” and “Mama Said Knock You Out”; appearances in more than 20 movies, including “Any Given Sunday,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Deep Blue Sea”; and a starring role on the television drama “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
LL Cool J is apparently aware of Starr’s viral video. On Monday, the rapper posted a link to the video on his Twitter account. The tweet included a simple comment.
Ben McCanna — 861-9239