On the surface, "Going Back to Cali," composed by LL Cool J and his producer Rick Rubin, seems to be about the rapper's indecision about going back to California, to which LL sometimes replies, "I don't think so!" in the chorus. Cali is short for California, although it could also be interpreted as the name of a girl. In some parts of the song he namedrops places in LA, the Sunset Strip for example, where he wants to go strip-clubbing ("but I don't wanna pay"). Also, the music video opens with a shot of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium in LA as well as other typically Californian scenes. Near the end of the song, Cali transforms into a woman and he sweetly describes a romantic anecdote with her on the beach. "She's lookin' for a real good time, I said, 'Close your eyes, I got a surprise,' and I ran away with the bottle of wine." After the self-absorbed macho posturing of the previous verses, this tiny glimpse of humanity seems a little out of place.
"Going Back to Cali" begins with a sultry, jazzy sax solo, an unorthodox intro for a hip-hop song. "This was a strange one. I went out of my comfort zone" LL Cool J explained, saying that he never really liked the song.
Rick Rubin came up with the basic concept of this song, since he was doing a lot of traveling between New York and California at the time. According to Rubin, LL was always asking him for concepts, since once the rapper had the basic idea, he could write about anything.
The horns were real musicians, not samples - something very uncommon in hip-hop at the time. Rick Rubin didn't chart out the horn parts - he told the musicians what to play and let them have at it. They ended up incorporating a sax solo into the song.
This single appeared on LL's third album released through Def Jam Records in 1989, Walking With a Panther, although it first featured on the original soundtrack to the movie Less than Zero in 1987. Directed by Marek Kanievska and based on Bret Easton Ellis' first published novel, Less than Zero tells that story of rich, miscreant youths in Los Angeles, starring Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader. Both the soundtrack and Walking with a Panther were produced by Rick Rubin, co-president of Columbia Records and founder of Def Jam Records, with whom LL Cool J signed a 10 album contract when he was 18.
Speaking with Rolling Stone in 2016, Rick Rubin said: "I like that song because it was a different kind of funk. There's a slower beat and a faster beat working together to create a counter beat. It created a new feel."
This song is an original artifact of the now-ancient legacy of "bitches and bling" that has become synonymous with mainstream hip-hop, with lines like, "steering wheel, plushed out, gold-leaf phantom top, and three girls waiting."
The front cover of Walking With a Panther depicts LL Cool J squatting down behind a very real and portly panther, with a distinctly ghetto gold chain around its neck. In an interview with sonicnet.com in 2000, LL Cool J claimed that he was the prototype of this style. "When I was the only guy doing champagne and girls and sports cars, and stuff like that, I was ridiculed for it, and then 8-9 years later, it was the thing to do."
The music video got a lot of airplay on MTV, probably more than any other black rap act to that point. It was directed by Ric Menello, who Rick Rubin had hired for the Beastie Boys videos "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)
" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn
," which were wildly successful on MTV. Menello was a hardcore film buff who had attended NYU film school, where he met Rubin. His work was based on classic TV shows and movies - that first Beastie Boys video was really a homage to The Three Stooges
. For "Going Back to Cali" he drew on the work of European directors like Michelangelo Antonioni, Claude Chabrol, and Federico Fellini. The result was a very artistic work that stands in stark contrast to the booty videos that would come to dominate rap. Talking about the clip in the book I Want My MTV
, Menello said: "The theme was alienation and sterility. It was about hot people looking at each other and not seeing each other. The girls all like LL, but he rejects them."
Rick Rubin's girlfriend at the time, Melissa Melendez, appears in the video - that's her stomach LL runs his hand across. Melendez was a porn star and friends with the director Ric Menello, who says she used to chauffeur him around because he didn't drive.
The backing-track to "Going Back to Cali" was re-sampled by Rick Rubin for the song "Hey Baby (Jump Off)" released by Bow Wow and Omarion, the second single from their collaborative album Face Off in 2007. Exactly a decade before, deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G. used the chorus line ("I'm going back to Cali, Cali, Cali") in his song of the same name (on the album Life After Death), which LL Cool J described a big compliment. "He took it back to the street, more traditional hip-hop. Whereas I did a more dusty, bluesy, alternative version." B.I.G.'s song intro features a boring telephone conversation where one of his crew calls him at the crack of dawn to remind him about his early flight to Los Angeles. Unlike LL Cool J, the charmless B.I.G.'s version is very much about California and doesn't leave much to the imagination, but supposedly neither charm nor imagination is mandatory when you're a badass rapper.
Rick Rubin played a kalimba on this track, which is a tiny percussion instrument also known as a thumb piano. Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire used the instrument a lot and even recorded a track with the group called "Kalimba Story."