LL Cool J — Radio: A 35th Anniversary Retrospective
35 years ago, a teenager from Farmers Blvd. in Queens pulled Excalibur from The Rock and earned the title of The Prince Of Rap.
Young James Todd Smith — yes, the future LL Cool J — was so enamored with Rap music growing up that he’d play his favorite songs on the radio, record his own demos on over $2000 worth of equipment his grandfather bought him to keep him out of trouble on the streets of Farmers Blvd. 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 teenager 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.”
Co-produced by Rick Rubin and Ad Rock (but Rubin listed himself as sole producer and Adam Horovitz as a co-writer), “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 35th 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 small but crucial role in what would become the unofficial Def Jam biopic, Krush Groove. Russell Simmons previously turned down roles with the films Beat Street and 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 young emcee made himself available on set, LL’s own persistence on set ultimately led to the filmmakers agreeing to put him in the movie, appearing as an extra in several scenes at the Disco Fever. For those who don’t recall, his iconic scene finds LL Cool J barging into a back room after Nayobe just performed for the Krush Groove artists and staff amid being told that auditions were 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 had everyone immediately bobbing their heads.
It was his star turn.
Before that, the industry and streets just regarded him as the dude on “I Need A Beat.” The single for “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” had been out 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 due to the fact “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” was the second song on the Krush Groove OST.
“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 15th, 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 not too long afterwards, 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 rhymes. What came next was a ballad fueled by a beat that’s both melodic and hard called, “I Can Give You More,” which was produced 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. 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. LL 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 largely due to it being purchased either as a Christmas gift over the holiday season or bought with Christmas money. The overall quality of Radio helped to propel it onto the Billboard Top Pop 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. In the January 31st, 1986 issue of Black Radio Exclusive Magazine, “I Cant Live Without My Radio” was chosen as the Hottest 12" In The Northeast by the staff. It had achieved the impressive feat of entering the rotation on both of New York’s most influential Black radio stations, WBLS 107.5 FM and WRKS KISS FM 98.7, rare for a Rap single.
On February 7th, 1986, Black Radio Exclusive published a profile on LL Cool J, written by Michael Martinez. It detailed his rise to Rap superstardom and disclosed he was sent on a twenty venue promotional tour across the United States that would’ve finished with at least three dates in London at the time of its printing. 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 on February 14th, 1986. Although his song opened the film, he performs it halfway through the film and the cast even performs a version during the closing credits with Goldie Hawn, the song inexplicably doesn’t appear on the film’s soundtrack. LL would cross over nonetheless.
Radio sat at #6 on the Hot Black Albums chart for three consecutive weeks, trailing behind New Edition, Stevie Wonder, Atlantic Starr, Whitney Houston, and Sade. At the time, the only other rap albums were The Boogie Boys City Life, Kurtis Blow America, The Fat Boys The Fat Boys Are Back, and Run DMC King Of Rock on the Top Black Albums chart alongside it. “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” managed to crack the Top 30 Airplay list for Black radio, a rare feat for a Rap single back in 1985, considering the genre often was relegated to only being played at night if at all. The overwhelming support from young people buying the 12" and requesting the song to be played on the radio constantly resulted in it moving up the charts until it even entered the prestigious Power list in Black Radio Exclusive, propelling it into the Top 20 of their Top 50 Albums list.
On March 1st, 1986 LL’s performance on American Bandstand 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 on March 22nd, 1986, LL appeared on Soul Train performing for an enthusiastic audience that rapped along with him word for word. 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, it was abundantly clear LL Cool J was a legitimate superstar.
Radio continued to gain steam throughout the Spring largely due to the fact “Rock The Bells” debuted on the Hot Black Singles chart on March 8th, 1986. In two weeks time, it shot up thirty spots. On March 29th, 1986, “Rock The Bells” jumped another ten spots to #40 on the Hot Black Singles chart, it was picked as a Breakout single on both the Hot Dance/Disco 12" Single Sales and Club Play charts. In short, LL Cool J had not only a sales smash and another potential radio hit, he was also getting played in the club along with Prince, Janet Jackson, SOS Band, and Colonel Abrams. On April 12th, 1986, Nelson George had high praise of “Rock The Bells” in his The Rhythm & The Blues column in Billboard, going as far as imploring fans to go buy the 12" if they haven’t yet. He also announced that Radio had gone Gold before it was officially accredited on April 14th, 1986. In the following issue of Billboard, Def Jam took out a full page ad declaring Radio had gone Gold.
LL Cool J, fresh off the success of Radio, was chosen to speak at the Music Business Symposium at the Ambassador Hotel on May 4th, 1986 in Los Angeles. He was asked to to participate in a panel titled The Role Of Music And Media In Shaping Culture to represent the growing phenomenon of Rap music and Hip-Hop culture’s influence on America’s youth. Next, LL 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 thrust 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 immediately 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 forty seven straight weeks between December 28th, 1985 and November 22nd, 1986 on the Top Black Album charts and was on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart from January 11th, 1986 to October 4th, 1986. Typically, that 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.
Seminal and classic 1986 Rap albums that rose the crest of Radio’s crossover success include Boogie Boys Survival Of The Freshest, UTFO Skeezer Pleezer, Whodini Back In Black, Fat Boys Big & Beautiful, Run DMC Raising Hell, Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew Oh My God!, Stetsasonic On Fire, The Skinny Boys Weightless, Just-Ice Back To The Old School, Egyptian Lover One Track Mind, Steady B Bring The Beat Back, Beastie Boys Licensed To Ill, and Salt N’ Pepa Hot, Cool & Vicious. This was the first year on record both fans and Rap journalists could debate about their top 10 albums of the year.
Fast forward to 2021, 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 King should be, as well as a recent inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. 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 35+ 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 over 40 year history of the Rap music industry.
In short, Rap music, the genre that we all know and love couldn’t live without LL Cool J’s Radio.