The Inside Story Of LL Cool J’s Iconic ‘Walking With A Panther’ Album Cover
Photographer Ricardo Betancourt looks back on shooting one of hip-hops's most dangerous covers.
The audacious cover of LL Cool J’s Walking With A Panther instantly elevated the 1989 album to iconic status. Flagrantly throwing off the usual success symbols of cars, cash, and models, for his third studio project on Def Jam, the Hollis, Queens-raised James Todd Smith decided instead to pose in his signature bucket hat alongside an attitude-laden panther rocking a heavyweight gold chain. It’s an image that’s now etched in the annals of golden era hip-hop iconography.
Musically, Walking With A Panther plays out in a fashion that’s become LL’s calling card: The majority of tracks are powered by the MC’s supremely cocksure brags—complete with the flexible boast "I'm so bad I can suck on my own dick,” which he drops on the funky guitar-infused "Clap Your Hands”—while a selection of rap ballads feature LL switching into a hushed style of delivery (here represented by "You're My Heart," "One Shot At Love" and “Two Different Worlds”). The project is also notable for LL himself taking charge of production duties, along with select behind-the-boards assists from The Bomb Squad on a couple of cuts, plus Rick Rubin commandeering the super tough, stripped-down "Going Back To Cali”. Walking With A Panther was a commercial success upon its release, topping the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart—and it’s a feat that was undoubtedly aided by the album’s daring and eye-catching cover.
The photograph used to introduce Walking With A Panther to the world was taken by Ricardo Betancourt, who moved to New York City in 1980 and began shooting album covers three years later. According to Betancourt, he snagged the gig after Def Jam head honcho Russell Simmons was struck by the work he’d produced for crossover Latin music star Ruben Blades's Y Seis Del Solar album. When Simmons called Betancourt, he admitted they'd attempted to shoot a cover for Walking With A Panther in Los Angeles, but weren’t convinced by the image.
“The problem they had was the panther they used in LA was sedated and they thought she looked too much like a stuffed animal," says Betancourt from his home in Barcelona, where he lives now. "I remember Russell asked me, "Can you get a live panther?" I said, “Of course, we can get anything!” So we actually got two panthers for the shoot: A young, nine-month-old panther, and an older panther who was more aggressive."
Unused outtake of the 'Walking With a Panther' album cover—provided by Ricardo Betancourt
After scouting a cobblestoned alleyway situated close to the West Side Highway and 12th Street in Manhattan, Betancourt began to organize the logistics of the cover shoot: A 15-feet high fence was required to secure the location, along with two policemen packing "high-powered guns" as part of the insurance requirements. During the research phase, Betancourt was warned the panthers would be fine once they'd sniffed and checked out the area, but the one thing that could potentially set them off would be a bout of lightning.
Betancourt recalls LL Cool J showing up to the shoot in his Mercedes Benz convertible, with cases of champagne he wanted in the shot, and three girls (one of whom was Russell Simmons's girlfriend at the time). Betancourt used these props during a warm-up session, but felt the image was "too loaded." Gradually, he subtracted the Benz, the champagne, and the girls from the set "so we could concentrate more on the interaction of the animal and get the big similarity on eye contact between LL and the panther." (An image featuring the three girls clutching bottles of champagne eventually made its way to the record's back cover.) Betancourt chose to arm himself with a Hasselblad camera and a 35mm wide-angle lens because he wanted to follow Hungarian war photojournalist Robert Capa's maxim that if you come away from a shoot without a strong image, it's because you weren't close enough. Proximity to the panther would be key. Although Betancourt says, “I wasn't worried about working with the panthers—to be honest, I was more worried about the policemen with the guns 'cause if the panther goes crazy and jumps on somebody, they're going to have to shoot her, and I didn't know if those policemen had any experience doing that.”
When the two panthers were brought onto the set, Betancourt remembers the younger wild cat quickly emerging as the cover star: "Her temperament was better. There was something very wild in the behavior of the older panther, but the younger panther was more playful—even though she scratched my assistant at the time and ripped his jeans in a playful way!" Heeding the advice about panthers not being particularly enamored with lightning, Betancourt made sure to get the big cats used to his strobe lights and flashes so they wouldn’t feel provoked when they popped off.
“I wasn't worried about working with the panthers—to be honest, I was more worried about the policemen with the guns"
While Betancourt and LL Cool J set about capturing images for the album cover, they were flanked by a couple of panther trainers restraining the wild cats with two leather leashes. These harnesses were digitally erased from the photos in post-production, making it appear as if LL was casually hanging right next to a fearsome big cat. Betancourt recalls being wary about the idea to place one of LL's signature heavy gold rope chains around the neck of the panther, but it transpired a fake gold chain had been sourced for the image. The panther tolerated the jewelry without issue.
The photograph that emerged as the Walking With A Panther cover is lit in a way that makes the brick buildings and cobblestone street surrounding LL seem to glisten. This effect came about after it started to drizzle with rain during the shoot. ”The cobblestones got shiny and look better when they're wet,” says Betancourt, adding that while the panthers were not pleased with the water, at least lightning—and potential chaos—never broke out.
Looking back on his time with LL Cool J, Betancourt recalls the rapper was a breeze to work with. “He projected a very shy, kinda relaxed guy image and everyone I talk to after said his temperament was always very cool,” he says. “LL has a self-preservation thing inside of him, like he's not a guy to go and destroy himself with drugs. I think that comes from when he used to live with his grandmother in Queens and I think she had kinda a leash on him.”
Digging into the core appeal of the striking image Betancourt, LL and the panther made together, the photographer says it's all about the eyes: "Both LL and the panther have this connection, it's directed into the lens and that intensity makes the picture. We were close enough to get the image." Reflecting on the album cover’s impact and legacy, he adds, “When LL makes eye contact, and the panther makes eye contact, it's double the power. That's why that image has so much power 30 years later."