By Michael Aushenker
Twenty-six years ago, L.L. Cool J was on top of the world.
The first rap act to launch Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings, “Uncle L,” at 20, already had two hit albums and had created a new subgenre, the rap ballad, with his hit, “I Need Love.” He embodied the rapper as rock star in his signature Kangol hat, track suit and gold chains.
So how was it that L.L. Cool J found himself on the Venice boardwalk shooting an artsy black-and-white video for his next single?
Two words: Orson Welles.
‘Touch of Evil’
Released in 1988, “Going Back to Cali” was not your typical rap video. Then again, it wasn’t your typical rap song.
Produced by Rubin, “Cali,” with its slurring pace, slow-motion turntable grinding and horny brass breaks, went against the grain of the epoch’s rap sound. Lyrically the typical Cool J braggadocio, the alluring song (originally on the “Less Than Zero” movie soundtrack) recounts a morality tale of sorts in which “Ladies Love Cool J,” a.k.a. James Todd Smith of Jamaica, Queens, delivers his cynical view of a vacuous Los Angeles while cruising in a black Corvette convertible and encountering Sunset strippers and vapid sunbathers (“Her bikini – small; heels – tall. She said, she liked, the ocean”). Ultimately, the East Coast rapper rejects Southern California’s trappings, sniffing, “Going back to Cali? … Hmm. I don’t think so.”
The bulk of the “Cali” video shows Cool J cruising in said Corvette around Venice, intercut with Beatnik-type Caucasian women dancing mechanically. At one point, the rapper, shot in profile with a southbound view of Pacific at Windward, stands amid the archways which today preface Mao’s Chinese Kitchen. Another quick shot — less than a second long — shows the pride of Queens’ Farmers Boulevard standing flush against a Speedway street sign. Cut to a sax player jamming in a Venice alleyway before Cool J drives off into the Ocean Front Walk horizon.
“I seem to recall Rick Rubin saying that the concept was his, not L.L.’s.,” said Bill Adler, then Def Jam’s publicity chief. “It reflects Rick’s ambivalence at a moment when he was deciding whether to move from New York to L.A: ‘I’m goin’ back to Cali … I don’t think so.’”
Director Richard “Ric” Menello shot the video in atmospheric black and white.
“I did the prep work on the video with Ric going through his storyboards and helping him order the shots,” recalled Menello’s cousin, Vinny Giordano, who ran Def Pictures, Def Jam’s motion picture arm, for Rubin and Simmons. Giordano was not in Los Angeles for the shoot, but he communicated with his cousin the entire time.
The reason the “Cali” video is divided between Venice and the Griffith Observatory is because two of Menello’s favorite films were Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (1958) and Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel without a Cause” (1954).
“Touch of Evil” opens with one of the most famous single takes in cinematic history; a carefully choreographed, three-minute-and-20-second tracking shot through Venice Beach (doubling for a Mexican border town). Welles had shot eastward along Windward at Ocean Front Walk, and so, on a bright December day in 1987, Menello intended to follow his hero’s footsteps.
Back in the Day
In today’s postmodern, genre-mashing music scene, it’s easy to forget how segregated music and music fans were during the Reagan administration, when the Tipper Gore-led Parents Music Resource Center doubled-down on profanity in rap and metal.
Rubin’s radical vision to graft hard rock elements onto rap finally broke the color barrier when the music he produced for Run-DMC (one of whose members is Simmons’ brother) and for “Licensed to Ill,” the debut album which made white rap stars out of the Beastie Boys, catapulted rap into America’s suburbs. “Licensed” became the first-ever rap album to top Billboard’s charts.
Rubin had started Def Jam out of his dorm room in the early 1980s while he and Adam Dubin were New York University cinema students. Rubin lived in Weinstein Hall, where Menello, a decade out of NYU Film School, worked at the dormitory’s front security desk. Rubin and Dubin — and non-NYU students Simmons and the Beastie Boys — enjoyed interacting with Menello, a gregarious aspiring filmmaker as knowledgeable about Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Chabrol as he was about Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
Thanks to Menello, Giordano landed his post at Def Pictures, where he became one of the producers of the failed 1988 Run-DMC vehicle, “Tougher than Leather.” He initially turned Rubin and Menello down. However, they “kept calling me, driving me nuts,” Giordano explained. Since Rubin offered to hire Menello if Giordano kick-started Def Pictures, Giordano intended to pull “a hit and run: do the job and get back out!” History had other plans.
After the first single off “Licensed to Ill” hit radio, MTV wanted a video.
“If Rick Rubin had not been making ‘Tougher than Leather’ and wasn’t up to his eyeballs,” Dubin said, “I think he would’ve directed the video. So Rubin gave Menello the assignment — and only $40,000 — to shoot the video for “(You Gotta) Fight for your Right (to Party).”
“Menello was too nervous to do it himself,” Dubin continued, “so he asks me. He couldn’t produce the video, he couldn’t get it done.”
With the Beasties’ blessing, Menello and Dubin set off to build a comedic, mayhem-filled video featuring a party-crashing Beastie Boys.
“Let’s make it like the party at ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’” Dubin said they decided. “Ric said, ‘Come over, we’ll watch the movie, we’ll eat, and then we’ll write the gags.’”
At Menello’s family home in Brooklyn where he still lived, Menello’s mom, Lucille, very much the quintessential Italian mother, made “enough food on the table for an army,” Dubin said. “Surely there must be other people coming over.”
Several helpings later, Menello, who spent his disposable income on laserdiscs, pulled out Blake Edwards’ 1961 classic.
“As we’re writing all the gags, we’re also storyboarding it out on 5” x 7” cards,” Dubin said.
The video, which packed the Manhattan apartment of photographer Sunny Bak (now a Venice resident) with Beasties friends and associates, was shot across Thanksgiving Weekend of 1986 during a break from filming “Tougher.”
In January 1987, with a $65,000 budget and way more executives on set, Dubin and Menello filmed a follow-up for “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” at famed Manhattan hip-hop club The World. The pair makes cameos in the glam metal spoof, with heavy-set Menello playing the concert-promoter foil while Dubin is the guy in the gorilla suit walking off with hot women.
“I’m always indebted to Rick and Ric and the Beastie Boys for letting me be a part of their world at one key juncture,” Dubin said.
Confident enough to direct solo, Menello helmed rap videos for MC Lyte and Slick Rick as well as “Going Back to Cali.”
“That’s him on his own,” Dubin said of “Cali.” “He’s trying to be Welles, who he could also do a flawless imitation of.”
Giordano added, “I remember I was the one who dealt with the problems when the mother of the underage girl dancing on the top of the [Venice Beach] phone booth had her lawyer contact us to have the shots removed from the video. So I had to delicately find a solution to that [situation].”
“I had a strong feeling of how L.L. should look in the video,” Rubin told NPR in 2011. “This was at a time when rappers all wore a lot of gold jewelry. And I was very insistent that L.L. not wear any jewelry.”
Cool J complained to Simmons, who instructed him to obey Rubin.
“I tried to explain to him,” Rubin told NPR, “like ‘the reason you don’t want to wear jewelry is because everyone’s wearing jewelry. And it’s much more interesting when everybody’s wearing jewelry for you not to.’ And he was like, ‘How are people going to know I’m successful if I’m not wearing jewelry?’ And I said, ‘Because you’re so successful, you don’t need jewelry!’”
In a 2012 article in Entertainment Weekly, L.L. Cool J recalled making the video.
“I went out of my comfort zone,” he told the magazine. “It’s funny, because Rick Rubin always hated ‘I Need Love,’ and there was a time when I hated ‘Going Back to Cali.’ It ended up being something really special, but it took me a minute.”
Following its video’s release, the quirky “Going Back to Cali” (no relation to an identically titled 1997 Notorious B.I.G. song) peaked at No. 31 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1988.
“The video is a wonderful match for the song,” Def Jam’s Adler said. “There’s never been anything quite like them, before or since.”
After Menello’s father died in the mid-1990s, Menello and his mother relocated to New Jersey until her 2007 death, when he returned to Brooklyn. In Ditmas Park, “he knew everybody,” Dubin said. “We walked down the street. There’d be hardcore African-American guys. They’d be like, ‘What’s up, Ric?’”
In recent years, Menello got closer to his dream of becoming a feature filmmaker as the screenwriting partner of filmmaker James Gray on “Two Lovers” (2008) and “The Immigrant” (2013), both starring Joaquin Phoenix.
On March 1, Menello, 60, died of a heart attack.
Giordano has set up a tribute website to his cousin at ricmenello.com.
“He had time for people,” Dubin remembered. “He would read screenplays for people. He did exactly what he did at the front desk of that dorm.”
Last September, Eminem paid tribute to the “Cali” video in his video for “Berzerk,” the first single off his new album, by having Rubin recreate his card-game cameo from the “Cali” video.
Turning 46 this month, Cool J, now star of CBS’s highly rated “NCIS: L.A.” and living in Studio City, has come a long way from that Venice Beach shoot after finding success in Hollywood.
Going back to Cali? Hmm … I do think so.