LL Cool J ~ Radio (1985)

Posted on September 9, 2012

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This is the album that gave birth to an empire. Well, actually, its impact is two-pronged. Not only did this album launch the storied label Def Jam Records, it introduced a teenager that became the most accomplished soloist in rap music history: Ladies Love Cool James.

Though he was only 17 when his first album dropped, LL Cool J had paid his share of dues in the game. Born in Bayshore, Long Island, and raised in St. Albans, Queens, LL Cool J (James Todd Smith) had been studying his craft since adolescence. Beginning in the early 1980’s, LL moved confidently toward his life calling: forming The Extravagant 3 with friends Royal Rich and Dr. Butcher for a time; learning rhyme techniques from Harlem emcee Silver Fox (of the Fantasy Three); and producing homemade demo tapes on equipment purchased for him by his grandparents. By 1983, LL had taken to gathering record label info from every rap release he could find, and submitting demos to each of them in hopes of landing a deal. In 1984, after being rejected by every label he solicited, LL took one last chance; on Def Jam Records, an upstart imprint operated from a dorm room at New York University, that L learned was connected with one of his favorite rappers: Bronx legend T La Rock. King Ad-Rock (of the Beastie Boys), an associate of Def Jam founder / NYU student Rick Rubin, fished LL’s demo from a box of tapes, listened to it, and, after being impressed by what he heard, played the tape for Rubin. Rubin reached out to the young phenom soon thereafter; and the rest, as they say, is history, with LL Cool J becoming Def Jam’s flagship artist in ’84, dropping a classic single later that year (“I Need A Beat”), and following it with a fantastic album in 1985: his full-length debut Radio.

With Radio, LL Cool J had one shot to make a lasting impression, and he didn’t waste it. The head-pounding opener, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” still shakes the floor, even after a quarter century. Over the course of five and a half minutes, LL goes toe-to-toe with a thundering drum line from Rick Rubin; describing the impact his boombox has on him and people around him, and creating one of the tightest songs in his catalog along the way. Over the course of the album’s eleven tracks, LL exhibits a versatility that would serve him well in later years. On “You Can’t Dance”, LL uses a basic, stop-start flow to clown a rhythmless scrub, while Rick Rubin borrows liberal pieces of the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” for beat support. “Dear Yvette” is an administering of tough love to a promiscuous female, who develops a dubious rep among the men in LL’s neighborhood. Both LL and Rick Rubin rise to the occasion on the off-kilter “I Can Give You More”, a cut where Cool J crushes on the next man’s girl, and Rick brilliantly contrasts L’s narrative, with tumultuous drum kicks and an eerie, four-note piano melody. And “Dangerous” is a B-Boy stomper that could split cinder blocks, where L swaggers over an Earth-moving instrumental from Rick, and touts both his own pedigree, and the mixing skills of his DJ Cut Creator.

The second half of Radio maintains the album’s momentum; and LL Cool J continues to spread the floor lyrically, with Rick Rubin moving in perfect stride. “Rock The Bells”, the album’s timeless second single, finds LL, Rick, and Cut Creator connecting like live wires. As L spits nimble, cocksure verbs, he works in concert with Cut Creator’s piercing scratches, and their contributions are underpinned by a dense Rick Rubin track that blends festive percussion with deep bass and 808 drums. “I Need A Beat (Remix)”, a reworking of LL’s debut single, showcases his young genius, with the 16-year-old Cool J flipping brilliant metaphors through an echo chamber, atop a dissonant, bottom-heavy instrumental from Mr. Rubin. “That’s A Lie” resembles “You Can’t Dance” in both tone and execution, with L using the same rhyme cadence to put a liar on blast; and Rick Rubin’s partner at Def Jam, future rap mogul Russell Simmons, making a humorous cameo, playing the pathological hustler that LL castigates. “You’ll Rock” is a true-school gem, where LL wields his microphone like a blunt object, navigates Rick Rubin’s jarring synth groove with authority, and flaunts a deftness with words that would make T La Rock proud. And Radio comes to a close with “I Want You”, an earnest cut that finds a teenage LL admiring a college-aged hottie from afar, over a percolating Rick Rubin track that’ll rattle your windows.

Throughout Radio, LL Cool J displays the traits that would make him an all-time great. L’s fleet-footed wordplay offered ample support for the chip on his shoulder. His ability to carry myriad subject lines, from straight braggadocio to love jones numbers, made him an immediate standout among his contemporaries. And, though LL Cool J was a mere teenager, you couldn’t tell from his rhyming apparatus, with lines that were laced with worldly references, full of similes, and replete with multi-syllabic phrases. And Rick Rubin, the mastermind behind the boards, provides an invaluable assist to his young progeny, with rugged, turbulent instrumentals that complement LL perfectly, and give him ample space to display his skills.

In the 25-plus years since its release, Radio hasn’t aged a day, and its impact on the rap world has been almost immeasurable. The album sold more than 500,000 copies in its first six months of release; an astonishing feat for a rap release in the mid 1980’s, and it was ultimately certified platinum. The album turned Def Jam Records from a minuscule imprint into a fully functioning record label; that would become the most respected brand in Hip Hop. In the years that followed, many of the principals behind this album have achieved immortality. LL Cool J became a multimedia phenomenon; delivering several platinum-selling albums, authoring best-selling books, and starring in both hit films (S.W.A.T.) and television shows (NCIS Los Angeles). Rick Rubin would leave Def Jam in 1988; moving to the West Coast, founding American Recordings, and becoming one of rock’s most respected producers, helming albums for acts as diverse as AC/DC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Johnny Cash. And Russell Simmons would become the Hip Hop equivalent of entertainment magnate David Geffen; forming a multi-million dollar conglomerate called Rush Communications, and drafting a business blueprint for every rap impresario that followed him. Though LL, Rick, and Russell have since moved on to greener pastures, Radio remains one of their finest moments. After this release, Hip Hop would never be the same again; and that’s a good thing.

To listen to Radio, click here.

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