LL Cool J's 'Radio' Turns 30, Allow Us To Celebrate Its Legend
Young James Todd Smith—yes, the future LL Cool J—was so enamored with rap music that he’d play his favorite songs on the radio, record his own demos on equipment his grandfather bought him and then go to stores looking through all of the rap record labels searching for their addresses. When he found them, he would write them down then send the labels his demo tapes. One of his favorite records was called “It’s Yours” by T La Rock on the Def Jam/Partytime label. After researching the label, the man known as LL Cool J sent Def Jam his demo tape, which landed in the New York University dorm room of Rick Rubin.
Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys was there. He heard the tape and quickly brought it to the attention of Rick Rubin. The latter set up a meeting with the then-16-year-old MC, where he was impressed by his stature as a lyricist and presented him to a less-than-enthused Russell “Rush” Simmons. “Who’s this smiling kid in front of me? Is this his tape? He sounds too much like Grandmaster Caz and T La Rock!” bellowed the chief architect of Def Jam. No matter though, as Rick Rubin convinced him they needed to put out a lead single with him. Keep in mind, the year was 1984 and that 12” single was called “I Need A Beat.”
Produced by Rick Rubin, “I Need A Beat” would go on to sell in excess of 100,000 units and it made serious noise within the hip-hop world. The record not only established LL Cool J as an up and coming talent in the game, but it ultimately secured Def Jam a distribution deal with Columbia Records after the release of another single in the form of “I Want You” b/w “Dangerous.” As soon as the ink was dry on the Columbia deal, LL Cool J officially signed with Def Jam Recordings and work immediately began on making the Hollis, Queens native’s debut LP. Radio would be crucial to not only the future of Def Jam Recordings being that it was the label’s first full-length album, but rap music as a genre period.
As Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons placed all their trust in a young 16, going on 17-year-old kid from Queens, LL Cool J was the hope for Def Jam and Hip-Hop culture, who needed a charismatic new breakout superstar to bring the nascent genre to a new plateau. Today marks the 30th anniversary of LL Cool J’s Radio album, now a recognized rap classic, whereon LL Cool J’s brash and confident lyrics, coupled with his effortless delivery belied talent that rarely belonged to an adult. LL Cool J wasn’t satisfied with just hanging back and letting things happen. After getting himself into the door at Def Jam, he got a bigger role in what would become the unofficial Def Jam biopic, Krush Groove. Russell Simmons previously turned down roles with the films Beat Street or Rappin’ to instead team with George Jackson, Doug McHenry and director Michael Schultz to highlight his Rush Artist Management roster.
While LL Cool J and Rick Rubin were busy working on his album, filming for Krush Groove began in April 1985. The “hard as nails” rapper made himself available on set, appearing as an extra in several scenes at the Disco Fever. LL’s own persistence on set ultimately led to the filmmakers agreeing to put him in the movie. For those who don’t recall, the scene finds LL Cool J barging into an auditioning room amid being told that the occasion was over. Jam Master Jay reaches for his gun as LL utters his one memorable line: “BOX!” and then he launches into “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” which was a huge look for LL’s career.
It was his star turn.
Before that, the industry and streets regarded him as just the dude on “I Need A Beat.” The single for “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” had been out for about three weeks by the time Krush Groove opened in theaters on October 25th, 1985. There’s one point in the film when Russell, played by a young Blair Underwood, and Rick Rubin went to a bank to secure a loan for the label to print more records and they adapted Uncle L’s lines from “I Need A Beat” to explain to the loan officer what rap was. LL wasn’t one of the Krush Groove All-Stars and he didn’t get much screen time in the film, but he was still established as a future star nonetheless.
“I Can’t Live Without My Radio” dominated the airwaves in and outside of New York City, as it was blasted out of so many radio speakers in 1985. It even entered the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart and peaked at #15. The buzz created by LL’s new single coupled with his appearance in Krush Groove and the press behind it came to a head with the release of Def Jam’s first ever LP. Radio was released on November 18th, 1985 and it became a steady burner as there were only a few full-length rap albums being released at the time. At that time, the only rappers or rap groups with multiple albums out included Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Whodini and The Fat Boys. Rap was still a single based genre at the time Radio came out and its success weighed heavily in the transition into the first Golden Era.
Radio was epic and iconic through and through. From the cover art that doesn’t even have the album’s title written on it to the album’s opening with “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” — it was everything that you wanted in rap music and more at the time. The album’s second selection, “You Can’t Dance” was a humorous diss track to those with two left feet, making nice usage of the breakdancing staple “Apache” break. Following that track up with LL Cool J’s ode to a girl named “Yvette” (whose reputation is suffering due to her sexual history) played well to those looking for a deeper story in their rap tales. What came next was a ballad fueled by a beat that’s both melodic and hard called, “I Can Give You More,” which was “reduced” by Rick Rubin. That track led into the exquisitely executed DJ track, “Dangerous,” wherein LL Cool J, Cut Creator and Rick Rubin delivered a thumping lyrical masterpiece. To this day, I don’t understand why it didn’t become a lead single as opposed to just a B-side.
Side A ends with an unnamed hidden track that was later named “El Shabazz” which was released the following year as the B-side of “Rock The Bells.” It was almost impossible to front on LL Cool J after Radio touched down on the game. The sequencing of these tracks and the wide range of themes, topics and the versatility showed by LL Cool J really resonated with hip-hop listeners. Uncle L, also known as the “Future of the Funk,” didn’t compromise his lyricism or simplify his flow to sound more old school. He maintained his same deft delivery regardless of the kind of subject matter he rapped about on a particular song. He wasn’t a one trick pony doing repetitive braggadocious battle rhymes song after song after song.
Produced, or better yet, “reduced” by Rick Rubin, the NYU alum did an incredible job of varying things up while keeping them palatable to both B-Boys and B-Girls alike. “Rock The Bells” and the Jazzy Jay remix of “I Need A Beat” gave way to LL Cool J’s answer to Run-DMC’s “You Talk Too Much” off King Of Rock, known as “That’s A Lie.” The cut features Russell Simmons telling tall tales as LL Cool J shuts him down repeatedly until the track ends. The album continues with the kinetic “You’ll Rock” and closes with a rap ballad called “I Want You.” Both songs would get released as singles later on down the line during the album’s run. At the time, putting two rap ballads on an album simply wasn’t done. LL Cool J and Rick Rubin were rewriting the rules and creating the new rap album standard simultaneously with Radio.
After weeks of Radio gaining more and more traction through word of mouth for over a month, the project finally entered Billboard’s Top Black Albums chart on December 28th, 1985. The overall quality of Radio helped to propel it onto the Billboard Top 200 Album charts two weeks later. Radio really began to pick up in sales as 1986 rolled around and hip-hop and rap culture began to explode. Little did either party know that they were in the midst of the birth of what is now widely regarded as the Golden Era of hip-hop. LL Cool J’s profile was raised by his onscreen performance of the signature song “Football Rap (Sport Of Kings)” in the film Wildcats that opened in February 1986.
At the top of March, LL performed on American Bandstand, which raised his crossover potential even more. Dick Clark declared on the show that Radio had gone Gold a full six weeks before it was announced by the RIAA. Add to the mix, three weeks later when LL appeared on Soul Train. It took over three months for the man known as Ladies Love Cool James to finally get a TV spot after his album had been steadily selling in stores. Despite how long it took for him to get in front of Don Cornelius, Radio continued to gain steam throughout Spring 1986.
LL Cool J, fresh off the success of Radio, was tapped to join Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell Tour,” which ran from May 28th to September 15th, 1986. LL’s natural charisma and his energetic live show gained him even more fans as the tour progressed throughout the country. During the Long Beach Arena show on August 17, 1986, controversy broke out in the form of a gang fight which further thrusted LL’s name into the national spotlight. Whenever the discussion turned to rap music and whether or not it actually promoted violence, LL Cool J’s Radio was scrutinized due to his role on the tour. Needless to say, rappers that perform love songs tend to avoid getting tagged as malcontents out to poison the minds of young America.
When it was all said and done, Radio spent between December 28th, 1985 to November 22nd, 1986 on the Top Black Album charts and was on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart from January 11th, 1986 to October 4th, 1986. Typically, the Billboard Top 200 chart was extremely hard for a rap album to stay on for so long (the Top Black Album chart only went up to 75 during those years), but Radio had real staying power. It would become the first album in a triumvirate of releases produced by Rick Rubin that would help to officially usher in the Golden Era of rap. Radio's time on the charts seems an even more mind-blowing feat when you consider that LL Cool J didn’t even make a music video until 1987, as “I’m Bad” was his first one.
Fast forward to 2015, where LL Cool J is still a household name around the world. He is internationally known like Rob Base and is universally loved as a Zulu should be. Everyone from small children to grandmothers recognize LL Cool J today, but back in 1985 he was just a 17-year-old high school dropout who took a giant leap of faith. When LL began his recording career, rap wasn’t even considered a legitimate genre of music by people within the music industry. To this date, Radio is one of the seminal classic bodies of work that continues to be listened to and studied by heavy students of the game 30 years after the fact. This album not only began LL Cool J’s career, it launched Rick Rubin’s career as a sought after producer of classic albums while simultaneously kickstarting Def Jam’s run as the most successful label in the 36-plus year history of Hip-Hop culture.
In short, rap music, the game that we all know and love couldn’t live without LL Cool J’s Radio.