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LL Cool J’s Radio and the genesis of Def Jam

Permanent Records is a close look at the records that matter most.

LL Cool J’s inaugural album Radio didn’t just launch the career of a rapper who became one of the most visible media personalities on the planet—it changed the sound and course of rap music. The album legitimized the efforts of producer Rick Rubin and his partner Russell Simmons at the inception of Def Jam Recordings, a label that started in an NYU dorm room and would come to dominate the rap game for years. It would be hard to imagine any of that happening if not for the success, both critical and commercial, of Radio.


In 1984, James Todd Smith, a.k.a. LL Cool J—Ladies Love Cool James—was just another 16-year-old from Long Island with dreams of rap superstardom. At Christmas five years earlier, instead of the dirt bike he wanted, he received two turntables, a mixer, speakers, and a microphone. He had been making beats and writing rhymes ever since. He’d sent countless demo tapes to independent labels and underground producers around New York City to no response. One day he picked up a 12-inch copy of the T La Rock and Jazzy J song “It’s Yours” and took down the information of a guy named Rick Rubin who was listed on the back cover.

Luckily for LL, and perhaps regrettably for Rubin at the time, the producer had included his personal phone number on the single, and the aspiring young MC dialed it nearly every day to ask whether Rubin had heard his tape. Finally, at the urging of the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock, Rubin threw the tape on and was impressed enough to invite the rapper down to NYU where the two men cooked up a song called “Catch This Break.” As soon as the tape finished rolling, they took it over to Rubin’s partner, Simmons, who found it run-of-the-mill. Simmons said, “That’s just like the Treacherous Three and everybody else!” as LL recalls in his 1997 autobiography, I Make My Own Rules. Yet Rubin wasn’t deterred. He booked time in a professional studio and invited LL, along with a DJ, to flesh out the rapper’s song “I Need A Beat.” This time around, Simmons was impressed and signed LL as one of the first artists on the fledgling Def Jam label.

“I Need A Beat” was the first official single released by Def Jam (single #DJ001m) and proved to be a slow-rolling success for the label, eventually shifting more than 100,000 units. The song is about the art of rapping itself, delivered over a sparsely layered, repetitive drum machine beat and a series of live scratches. More than the instrumentation around him, the dynamism of LL Cool J’s fiery rapping style propels the track. The impact lay not so much in what he said—“I’m in the center of a musical scorcher / To some citizens it’s a form of torture / They hear me, they fear me, they hear me, they fear me / I’m improvin’ the conditions of the rap industry”—as in how he said it, with more fierce conviction and charisma than anyone had heard from a rap artist. Just five years after The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” signaled the beginning of rap as a legitimate art form, LL Cool J gave the nascent genre a bombastic energy.

The success of “I Need A Beat” and the Beastie Boys’ “Rock Hard” led Def Jam to a distribution deal with Columbia Records. Rubin, LL, and a DJ who went by the name Cut Creator started work on the rapper’s first full-length release. LL dropped out of high school to give the venture his full attention, holing up with his collaborators in Chinatown’s Chung King Studios. He laid down the rhymes and ideas he’d penned for a wide variety of gritty boom-bap drum beats and nasty instrumental flourishes that Rubin and Cut Creator dialed up for him.


There’s a reason why the producer gets the credit “Reduced by Rick Rubin” on the back of Radio. With the possible exception of the “I Need A Beat” remix, most of the songs on this record feature a single drumbeat and one or two other musical elements to keep things interesting. On “Dear Yvette,” it’s the multi-tracked vocal hook. On “I Can Give You More,” it’s the tinkling notes of a single piano. And most notably, on “Rock The Bells” and “You’ll Rock,” it’s the album’s instantly identifiable record scratching. While it’s arguable that the minimalist sound of Radio came about more out of necessity than choice, its less-is-more attitude became a critical element of Rubin’s aesthetic as time wore on. Years later, Kanye West asked Rubin to help him strip his album Yeezus of elements that the rapper felt had become superfluous.

Nobody in rap benefited more than LL Cool J from this specific design. As evidenced by his latter-day career as a television/film star and award show host, he has a charisma that can’t be denied, and as a rapper, he’s a force of nature. Without excessive production to hamper his flow, he takes control of the spotlight with a burning intensity, searing every word into your eardrum as the beat goes rocking on. And what’s more, the themes he explores across Radio’s 11 tracks were relatable to the teenage artist’s equally young fans, who were thirsty to buy into someone just like them.

“I Want You,” “I Can Give You More,” and “Dear Yvette” deal with the same basic idea that pop artists have been mining since before Elvis shook his hips to “That’s All Right” in the 1950s. As every generation discovers, that intrinsic longing for attention, love, or basic affection is as ingrained in our DNA as the need for food and water. On those three tracks, LL tapped into that urge in a genuine way but also with a sheen of bravado that made it palatable for his like-minded, tough-talking teenage acolytes. It’s okay to say, “Please be his ex and be my bride / Don’t blame it on yourself, sweet thing, you tried,” if you rap it out with the right bluster.


And then there are the songs “Dangerous” and “Rock The Bells,” blatant expressions of braggadocio self-aggrandizement that, more than anything else, are just fun to rap along with. On the former, he reps the bonafides of Cut Creator with lines like, “Demolishin’ DJ’s in under a second / I’ll quote an old phrase from my last record / The beat elevates, the scratch excels.” On the latter, he reminds the listener that he’s not an MC to be trifled with: “The king of crowd rockers is finally back / My voice is your choice as the hottest wax / True as a wizard, just a blizzard, I ain’t taken no crap / I’m rhymin’ and designin’ with your girl in my lap.”

The rollout for Radio was extensive, fueled by the release of five tracks—almost half the record—as singles. The first, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” released on October 6, 1985, made the deepest impact, both on the charts and in the culture at large. It’s a fun song about the simple joys of music. The way the rapper flicks off the song’s title at the end of each stanza with a don’t-give-a-fuck ruggedness is exhilarating. To gain exposure, LL logged an appearance rapping the song in the Def Jam origin film Krush Groove, which hit theaters three weeks after the single first appeared. His cameo was eventually used as a music video that MTV pushed into heavy rotation, propelling the song to triple-platinum status. Almost overnight, a 16-year-old kid was the most recognized rapper on the planet.


When Radio was finally released on November 18, 1985, its success shocked the record industry. Half a million copies sold in a mere five-month period. Four years later, it hit platinum. LL Cool J was a star, and Def Jam was one of the hottest labels in the world. A year later, Rubin would apply a similar production approach to Def Jam’s other marquee act, Beastie Boys, on the trio’s debut album, Licensed To Ill. It would eclipse the success of Radio several million times over. LL responded in turn on summer of 1987 with Bigger & Deffer, the biggest selling album of his career. For Def Jam, it was the start of an unparalleled roll through the recording industry. They would shepherd the careers of Slayer, Public Enemy, and Slick Rick through the late 1980s—in addition to Jay Z, Kanye West, and nearly every other big name in rap in the years beyond.

After his arrival on the scene, LL Cool J’s profile only increased, but as a musical artist, you can make the argument that he never exceeded the heights he reached on Radio. His 1990 album, Mama Said Knock You Out, is the only real contender, but it’s no match for the youthful enthusiasm that the rapper exhibits on his debut. By combining vivid urban street tales with swagger-filled declarations about his self-made rebel persona, LL provided the blueprint for the next decade of MCs looking to come up in his outsize wake. Radio also set the table for a singular and gritty tone of rap music that influential producers like RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, Easy Mo Bee, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock would seek to emulate. It changed the course of rap music and helped shape the sound and style of the entire genre for years to come.


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