Respect Me
Twenty years ago, Lil Kim changed the game with her debut album, Hard Core. Now she reflects on the project that made her a superstar.
Words: Georgette Cline
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Unswervingly committed, dedicated, intense. By the dictionary definition, Lil Kim lives up to everything that the word “hard core” stands for, including the sexually explicit nature, which is why the word was a fitting choice to title her debut album, Hard Core. When the much anticipated LP dropped via Big Beat Records/Atlantic on Nov. 12, 1996, the Brooklyn native was just a teenager in high school with big rap dreams, but her coquettish way with words made Kim seem well beyond her years.

Coming up under the tutelage of The Notorious B.I.G., Kimberly Jones delivered her lyrics straight, no chaser, on the album just like her mentor taught her. She was raw, sexually provocative and gangsta to the core, breaking barriers for women entertainers everywhere.

Kim reminded everyone it was ladies night, every night. She took sex talk to a new level on the Jay Z-assisted banger “Big Momma Thang” (“I used to be scared of the dick, now I throw lips to the shit/Handle it like a real bitch”), took famous dudes to bed on “Dreams” (“Babyface can pay the rent and cook me five meals/But momma got the whip appeal”) and warned that she shouldn’t be messed with on “Fuck You” (“Ain’t scared to bust my pistol, sippin’ hard on Cristal”). Remember, she had no time for fake ones.

With a production team including Jermaine Dupri, Stretch Armstrong and Stevie J, among others, and the likes of Biggie, Diddy and Junior M.A.F.I.A. as featured guests, the supporting cast on Hard Core helped its leading lady shine. The classic album earned her a double platinum accolade, proving Kim could hold her own against her male counterparts.

Twenty years after the release of Hard Core, rap’s Queen Bee is still here, reigning supreme. Lil Kim takes a look back at the making of her debut album and how it catapulted her from local Brooklyn rapper to a global hip-hop icon.

XXL: How does it feel to celebrate this anniversary in your career right now?

Lil Kim: God is good and I just thank my fans because without my fans, I have nothing in my industry. I just thank God that they always crave Lil Kim, and not just my fans, but new fans as years go on. It’s a blessing. Everyone, even now to this day, looks to me as motivation, even with my new stuff. A lot of women like to recreate my pictures, not just from when I just came out, but also now I’ve seen people recreate the new pictures I took for Hip Hop Honors and that’s just dope.

What was your main goal going into the album since it was your debut project?

I didn’t really ever have a goal. I loved music and in my mind, I was just displaying my art. I was only 16, 17 years old working on my first song and album. So I didn’t really have a goal. I was just doing what I love and displaying my talent, and working on music. I never had any idea that my first album would do as good as it did. I had no idea of what went on in the business side. I was just a little kid just trying to enjoy my teenage life. If you would’ve asked me if I knew I was going to be a millionaire by a certain age, I never would’ve thought that. I never even knew I was going to be as famous as I was, as famous as I am now.

You really are a pioneer in bringing sexual lyrics to the forefront as a woman in hip-hop. Why was that important for you?

I guess because when I first started rapping, I always had sexy in my raps, and Biggie thought it was so different and amazing. He used to just watch me rap and like he said before, he never thought my lyrics was so crazy, but he felt like the energy I brought when I did do a dope punchline or dope metaphor, he thought it was just spectacular, out of this world for a female to be doing, because females didn’t normally rap the way I rapped. He just felt like with me being around him and the influence, he knew that I would get better and I would get bigger. It just started happening right before our eyes.

The sexy part was just me. Everyone felt like I should be me. I guess when they met me, by their words, they felt like that was the dope part about me. I was very fly already and super sexy as a young girl. They were also worried about me being so young and sexy and over-the-top provocative. They kind of marketed me as an older girl, even though I wasn’t. They just did not want me to change who I was, because everything I did was super sexy, and they were just like, That was dope, because it had never been done in the hard core, gangsta hip-hop music that I was making.

Is there someone who inspired you to embrace your sexuality?

I honestly never knew. My mom, to me, was super sexy when she was young and vibrant and I always thought she was fly. I just tried to mimic my mother. My mother had mink coats and all of that when I was a little, little girl. My mother was so fly, she would buy me my own Gucci bags, but the ones that I wanted to wear to school was the ones that she had. So, I would sneak and wear her stuff to school. She would know though because I would leave something in there. I always liked older stuff. I would watch and try to hang out with the older girls and they loved me. They would take me places where I shouldn’t be able to get into, little house parties and little clubs, and they would sneak me into the back door. I would just see everything. I think that had a big part to do with it because I would see how the older girls and guys partied and everything was super sexual.

The cover of Hard Core is classic. Why did you want to showcase yourself with such sex appeal?

I didn’t plan it. By nature, I was a very good model. I knew how to pose. I don’t know where it comes from. Even my daughter, she does things where I’m like, Where is she getting this from? I think it’s like naturally in our family. She just poses and not trying, it just comes out so sexy. I be like, Oh no, my little baby. This is good and bad at the same time. I think the girls in our family, we naturally move sexy, pose sexy. When I did the Hard Core photo shoot, I was just posing to do them. It wasn’t like I’m just going to pose and squat and show my kitty cat; that was not on my mind at all. For me, it was just being a model and posing in a cute, sexy way.

When it came time for us to get the pictures back, I wasn’t even a part of that process. I was just a little girl and I didn’t have no control at all. Biggie actually took my whole photo package and went through it because Biggie saw me as one of the sexiest girls he’s ever met. He didn’t even give anybody a chance to go through the pictures. He took them and just sat in the corner and went through all of them. He stood up to get ready to smoke his blunt, and was like, “This is the one right here.” He threw the negatives on the table and pointed to the one with my legs open and said, “That’s the one right there,” and walked away and went to smoke his blunt. That’s the one everyone went with. I had no control. I didn’t even get to see all of the prints as he saw them. They basically did everything for me.

What was a major discussion that you had with Biggie that gave you inspiration throughout the recording process?

I just remember him being there. He was there every step of the way. That was my influence and motivation. When he couldn’t be there, I just basically used his inspiration of what he would do when he was here. I had to think of him when I was writing, like, What is he going to like? Or would he like this? I always wanted him to be there, so when he wasn’t there I would be like, Oh no, where is Biggie? Because after I finish writing, he would be there and I could ask him, “How does this sound?” When he wasn’t there, I didn’t know what to do.

He used to tell me, “You don’t need me there all the time. You’re nice, you got it, you know what you’re doing. If it was when I first met you, when you was sharpening your pencil and you was a little rusty, that’s different. But, now you’ve grown and blossomed so much that you don’t need me around all the time to make sure your shit is hot, to make sure it sound good. You got it in your gut, you got it.” I remember when I was writing for “Player’s Anthem,” I wasn’t even supposed to be on that song for Junior M.A.F.I.A. They just put the beat on and I was just writing to it. None of the boys could finish their raps, so Clark Kent was like, “Kim, I know you got something. Go in the booth.” I went in the booth, I spit that same exact verse and they kept it. The other person that was supposed to be on there ended up not being on there.

What is your favorite collaboration on Hard Core?

The Jay Z record [“Big Momma Thang”]. Jay Z was so down for our team, no matter when we called him, he was down and he was always there.

How did “Big Momma Thang” come about?

It was actually a diss record and then it was a couple things they wanted to change but couldn’t clear. A situation had happened at the time, so we put Jay Z on it because the second verse was crazy. The record had leaked before the album came out, and then when a record leaked, it wasn’t really a good thing. It wasn’t a bad thing because the world would go crazy, but it wasn’t a good thing as far as financial sales for the record company.

What other songs on the record do you feel stand out?

I have four favorite songs. “Drugs,” was my No. 1 favorite song until I recorded “Queen Bitch,” and then that became my No. 1 favorite song and also “Big Momma Thang.” I used to like the song “Fuck You,” because I liked the combination of the whole song and the way it went. I liked “Not Tonight” with Jermaine Dupri but I like uptempo songs that make you move fast. That song was a little slow, but it was cool and I liked the words.

How important was it for you to keep it real and to put what was going on in your life at the time into your lyrics?

For me, it was majorly important because that’s just how I rapped. A lot of things I rapped about was super real. That’s why I think we were so loved coming up, Bad Boy, Junior M.A.F.I.A., all of us, because a lot of our stuff was about our everyday life and what we went through.

Any memorable experiences during the recording of Hard Core?

I do remember being pregnant at the end of that album, where I couldn’t really finish some of the songs and that’s how Lil’ Cease ended up on “Crush on You.” He wasn’t supposed to be on that record, but I was sick and I had to go away and clear my head because I was pregnant. I wanted to finish the album because that’s what I wanted. I really wanted to display my talent to the world.

You did a reissue with “Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)” featuring Angie Martinez, Da Brat, Missy Elliott and Left Eye. Why did you want to get everyone together?

That was actually Un’s idea, Lance Rivera [Former CEO/President of Undeas Records]. He always loved the “Ladies’ Night” thing. He had this idea where he thought we should have Angie Martinez on it because she was ruling the radio at the time and she wanted to rap. We loved the whole idea of lady empowerment. I just wanted all my favorite artists on it. TLC, Missy, Da Brat. That song landed us MTV nominations and Grammy nominations. So we did something right. I can tell you some funny stories about that video. We were all drunk by the time it came for us to shoot our first scene. Angie Martinez started throwing up over the side of the boat. So when you see the boat scene and Angie looking fly, trust me it wasn’t always like that. It was really funny. For the scuba diving scene where we all under the water with the flippers, that was actually us. They had to teach us how to scuba dive the day before. It was scary as shit.

What did you learn about yourself when Hard Core dropped?

I guess I learned that I was a megastar. Before that, my confidence and my talent wasn’t fully there. I learned a lot about the business side but that still wasn’t my focus. I was young, I was an artist. I was just trying to live my teenage life.

See Photos From Lil' Kim's Hard Core Album

Check out more from XXL’s Fall 2016 issue including our Gucci Mane cover story interview, Young Thug's cover story interview, Ghostface Killah discussing the making of his Ironman album, Young M.A in Show & Prove, the trials and tribulations of Rich Homie Quan, Train of Thought with Beanie Sigel, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie's Show & Prove, vintage-inspired rap tees and must-have embroidered jackets.

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