To many, he goes by the name of Special Agent Sam Hanna on the popular action series, NCIS: Los Angeles, but to true hip-hop fans around the world, he will forever be LL Cool J, the godfather of pop rap and one of the genres first teen icons. He captured the younger generation of hip-hops fans with his b-boy attitude and helped to put the Russel Simmons and Rick Rubin on the map.
From phenomenal lyrical kung-fu to romantic ballads that drove the girls crazy, he’s one rapper that seemed to never go out of style with a career that has spanned more than 2 decades and continues to grow. Although he isn’t mentioned in rap conversations today, it’s still worth taking a look back at one of the artists that helped to pave the way for new school hip-hop to take the world by storm. This is Hip-Hop of The 80s.
LL Cool J
Back in those glory days, it was hip-hop groups that stole the attention of the mainstream media in the form of old school acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and hip-hop pioneers like Run-D.M.C., but there was one solo performer that stood out from the crowd and helped to usher in what is widely considered to be the Golden Age of Hip-Hop. LL Cool J, born James Todd Smith, hails from Queens in New York City and began rapping at the age of 9. His grandfather was a jazz saxophonist and supplied a young LL with all the basic equipment to help get his musical ambitions off the ground, including turntables, an audio mixer and an amplifier.
Although we have better tools available today, you can still get started with a setup just as simple and that’s exactly what Mr Smith did. He produced and mixed his own demo tapes in his grandparents’ house before sending them off to various record labels around the city, including the newly formed and independent label, Def Jam Recordings. A young James originally went by the name J-Ski but, in order to distance himself from the ever growing cocaine culture, he changed it to LL Cool J, an abbreviation that stood for Ladies Love Cool J.
His partnership with Def Jam would catapult him into the pages of hip-hop history and solidify the label as the home of emerging hip-hop and a make them a force to be reckoned with in the music industry.
In 1984, 16-year-old LL Cool J made his contract with def Jam official with the release of his first single, I Need a Beat. It was an instant b-boy classic and marked the start of LL’s legendary career. It was a year later that producer Rick Rubin would team up with the teen titan to release the platinum-selling debut album, Radio. Rubin infamously credited himself on the back cover using the line ‘REDUCED BY RICK RUBIN’ as a reference to his unique style that would become a trademark in the world of hip-hop.
LL Cool J would next team up with producer DJ Pooh and the L.A. posse to release his second and biggest selling album to date, the 1987 smash hit, Bigger and Deffer. It justified the abbreviation in his name with the epic rap ballad I Need Love and threw him completely into the mainstream spotlight. He then rode that wave of success straight into the studio as he, along with Dwayne Simon and various other producers, crafted his third album, Walking With a Panther, which was written as a celebration of LL’s new found fame and success.
Although it did well commercially, it failed to receive praise from the hip-hop community at the time. The numerous love ballads and depictions of an affluent lifestyle failed to resonate with an urban audience in the same way that acts like N.W.A did and ultimately didn’t gain as much respect as the hardcore sound emerging from the west coast. LL was still the street-loving b-boy at heart and so hit back at the criticism with his fourth studio album in 1990 called Mama Said Knock You Out (my personal favourite).
The double platinum selling album earned LL Cool J his first Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1992. It would take three years for a follow-up to be released, after a brief stint in acting, but 14 Shots To The Dome failed to repeat the feat of success that came before and was labelled a disappointment with LL attempting to fit in with the west coast scene. He would then land a starring role in the TV sitcom, In The House before coming out with his fifth album, Mr Smith in 1995.
It spawned many hits as well as a second Grammy Award for the rapper with the single, Hey Lover and LL would chase it with his first ‘greatest hits’ package until his 1997 album, Phenomenon.
Where Is He Today?
The late nineties marked the rise of LL Cool J’s acting career but at the same time, his music seemed to reach its pinnacle. Throughout the 2000s, he would remain a fixture on Def Jam’s roster and continue to release new material (five more albums with them to be exact) but none would be as impactful or receive the same amount of praise, and sales, as his earlier work. Starring roles in blockbuster movies like Deep Blue Sea and the Al-Pacino classic, Any Given Sunday would seemingly overshadow his musical achievements as his acting talent gained more and more recognition.
LL’s music may have taken a backseat but there is no denying the mark that he has left on the culture and the music industry as a whole. His career continues to thrive and he still plans to release new music but we should never forget the young Kangol-wearing dynamo that helped to shape the world. The once self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) just might earn that title after all.
Do you have any insights you would like to add? Are you a fan of LL Cool J? Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.
Ryan C. Voller, Recording Artist – Producer – Lead Contributor for HowToMakeHip-Hop.com