LL Cool J - Biography
By Paul Glanting
In 1984, nobody would have believed that a young man from Queens, New York could have a career as a rapper that was anything more than a quick gimmick. And, they certainly wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face if told that nearly three decades later, that young rapper would still be as ubiquitous as ever. However, LL Cool J has been just that. "Ladies Love Cool James" brought amorous sensitivity that was fused with street-savvy rhymes to Hip Hop. Not only has LL Cool J endured the fickle landscape of Hip Hop, his subversion of a simple radio is largely responsible for one of the most romanticized motifs in Hip Hop.
Springing from a childhood perhaps more agreeable than many of his lyrical-peers, James Todd Smith spent his early days as a boy scout, delivering papers and pouring his soul into a microphone in the church choir. Shedding his church robe for a little more vanity, Smith began to write lyrics under the alias Ladies Love Cool James, better known as LL Cool J. After liberally sending homemade demos-tapes to labels, LL Cool caught the attention of a producer named Rick Rubin, who had started a record label in his college dorm room, which he called Def Jam Records. And, at the ripe age of sixteen LL Cool J secured a deal with Def Jam, which would become a mammoth force within Hip Hop's rise to the mainstream.
The label released LL’s first single “I Need A Beat” which was monstrously popular. Def Jam has gone on to be probably the most prolific Hip Hop label in the genre’s history; “I Need A Beat” would help establish Def Jam as a legitimate record label. "I Need A Beat" would also be featured on LL Cool J’s debut Radio (Def Jam-1985), the very first full-length album released on Def Jam. Label-head, Rick Rubin provided most of the production for LL's debut, which consisted of minimal scratching and drum-machine loops. With a cover that depicted a close-up of a boombox, or affectionately called a "ghetto-blaster", Radio was symbolic of Hip Hop’s golden age, featuring LL Cool J boasting of his lyrical dominance. LL Cool J’s lyrical dexterity shines on “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”, the iconic tribute to the device that powered the block parties where LL had first cut his teeth. Hip Hop’s reputation had built itself based on machismo powered competition. In that regard, Radio was also a breakthrough, as it yielded “I Can Give You More”, often regarded as Hip Hop’s first love song. The reach of Radio was indeed far-stretching, as LL Cool J became the first rap artist to appear on American Bandstand and was one of just a few Hip Hop artists to tour extensively at venues larger than nightclubs. LL Cool J’s Radio along with Run DMC’s Raising Hell (Profile-1986) and The Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill (Def Jam-1986) was pivotal in bringing rap music to the mainstream.
LL Cool J then released Bigger And Deffer (Def Jam-1987) which expanded on LL’s mixture of romance and brag-heavy lyrics. As Hip Hop was quickly ascending to prominence, LL Cool J was widely known as one of its most lyrically gifted. His sophomore album featured another breakout single in “I’m Bad” as well as what is perhaps Hip Hop’s most treasured love song in “I Need Love.” Another common theme in Hip Hop's Golden Age was the MCs nod of respect to the DJ. LL Cool J continued this tradition on "Go Cut Creator."
As the sun began to set on the eighties, Hip Hop’s popularity was soon largely claimed by artists based on the West Coast. However, contrasting the plentiful violence manifested by the West Coast, LL Cool J’s third album Walking with a Panther (Def Jam-1989) was still packed with the Queens-born rapper’s amorous rhymes on songs such as “One Shot At Love” and “You’re My Heart.” Aside from it’s danceable ballads, perhaps the most popular single fromWalking with a Panther was the jovial celebration of the Golden State’s sunshine and glamour “Going Back to Cali.” Meanwhile, LL Cool J was taken back to his rap-battle days when another New York rapper named Kool Moe Dee, had been consistently making claims that LL Cool J had stolen his lyrical style. On Walking with a Panther’s song “Jack the Ripper” LL tears into Kool Moe Dee, by calling him washed up and irrelevant. This feud would go back and fourth several times and would go down as one of Hip Hop’s most storied rivalries. While the West Coast nabbed the lion’s share of Hip Hop’s record sales, Walking with a Panther was a immensely commercially successful. However, many critics felt that LL Cool J’s plethora of love-songs were excessive attempts at commercial viability.
Perhaps wrought from the criticisms of Walking with a Panther that accused LL Cool J of being too soft, LL Cool J began to express his bent for grittier urban themes on his fourth album Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam-1990). Aside from typical LL Cool J crooning, his delivery turned aggressive and thumped themes ranging from police brutality to spirituality. Catalyzed by it’s instantly recognizable demand “Don’t call it a comeback...!” the abrasive title track was also a hit and would restore LL Cool J to Hip Hop prominence. "Mama Said Knock You Out" would also lead to LL’s performance on MTV’s Unplugged showcase, making him the first rapper to appear on the show.
LL Cool J capitalized on his success as a household name and appeared in several Hollywood films including Toys alongside Robin Williams and The Hard Way. When he returned to his music, he continued to delve deeper into nurturing his hardcore image with his fifth album 14 Shots to the Dome (Def Jam-1993). This would be LL’s first complete avoidance of commercial Hip Hop and many fans were repelled by its lack of radio-friendliness. Furthermore 14 Shots to the Dome would go down as a critical and commercial flop.
Two years later, the rap-veteran got on the rebound with the multi-platnium Mr. Smith (Def Jam-1995). Mr. Smith could be called a return to form for LL Cool J. Songs like the Boyz II Men-assisted “Hey Lover” and “Doin It” hear the rapper once again producing the hot-and-bothered anthems that made him famous.
The production of LL Cool J’s next album Phenomenon (Def Jam-1997) was overseen by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, perhaps the most lucrative Hip Hip producer of the time. While not as successful as his “resurgent” album Mr. Smith, Phenomenon gained notoriety for another high-profile lyrical dispute which broke out between LL Cool J and one of the album’s guests Canibus. On the track “4, 3, 2,1” Cool James rapped alongside Method Man, Redman, DMX as well as Canibus. On Canibus’ verse, he figuratively asks to borrow the microphone on LL’s arm (referring to a microphone, which is tattooed on LL Cool J’s bicep). Cool J perceived Canibus’ remark to be disrespectful, to which he responded on his own verse. LL subsequently asked Canibus to remove the line, which LL felt was a slight to him, to which Canibus complied. However, the lyrical legend LL did not remove the jab he took at Canibus within his verse. An angry Canibus released a retort “Second Round K.O.” This rivalry would carry over to LL’s next album G.O.A.T. (Def Jam-2000) on the song “Back Where I Belong” which would be LL Cool J’s final jab in the dispute.
G.O.A.T., an acronym for Greatest Of All Time, was LL Cool J’s autonomous celebration of his longevity in Hip Hop. While LL was no stranger to commercial success, G.O.A.T. would be LL’s first album to peak at number one on the Billboard charts. Joining the seasoned rapper on the album, were other Hip Hop icons like Snoop Dogg, Mobb Deep, DMX, Method Man and many others.
Prolonging the revelry regarding his lengthy prominence, LL Cool J released the appropriately titled 10 (Def Jam-2002), commemorating LL’s tenth album (though one of them was a greatest hits compilation All World: The Greatest Hits (Def Jam-1996) ).
If his previous tow albums were tributes to his own success, perhaps his eleventh release dubbed The DEFinition (Def Jam-2004) can be called LL Cool J’s homage to the label that he grew up with. A significant aspect of LL Cool J’s career was his ability to change his sound with the times. This dynamic can be heard on The DEFinition, which efficiently recruited innovative Hip Hop producer Timbaland for six of the The DEFinition’s eleven tracks.
2006 saw the release of Todd Smith (Def Jam-2006) and he announced that the album following it would be his final. Though Todd Smith would reach Gold-status, LL Cool J’s twelfth album was censured by critics.
Another guest-heavy album, LL Cool J’s Exit 13 (Def Jam-2008) garnered mixed reviews but the mere feat of possessing a career that has lasted more than twenty years is noteworthy.
LL Cool J has had a career which has spanned over two decades, a longevity which is virtually unheard of in the rapidly changing landscape of Hip Hop. A true icon of Hip Hop’s golden age, LL Cool J is a true innovator of lyrical warriors and lovers alike.