Along with rappers-turned-actors like Will “Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince” Smith, LL Cool J helped lay the blueprint for how to transition from hip-hop to film and television. Thirty years before he was solving crimes on NCIS: Los Angeles and hosting award shows like the Grammys, LL Cool J was a 17-year-old with a gold-certified album. The linchpin in a landmark record label’s early roster and a wakeup call to the entire industry, LL Cool J has clearly cemented his legendary status. And it all began with Radio, his debut album.
Everything you need to know about: LL Cool J’s debut album, Radio, which was released this month in 1985.
Pretest: What do DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Eazy-E have in common when it comes to this album?*
Background research: There’s a theory in the entertainment industry. For a guy to have success, two things need to happen: Other guys must want to be him, and girls must want to be with him. James Todd Smith, aka LL Cool J, a cocky and handsome teenager from Queens, N.Y., burst onto the hip-hop scene in 1985 and was the first rapper to get undying respect from the hard-core b-boys—while making hip-hop’s b-girls swoon. (It’s almost impossible to think of another figure in hip-hop who was as highly respected for his rap game and who had the ability to claim true heartthrob status.)
Why Radio matters: While Sugar Hill Records lays claim to being the first hip-hop record label, Def Jam Recordings would become the first to do more than novelty records and actually become a powerhouse force in the hip-hop community. And LL’s debut was Def Jam’s first full-length album release. The label, launched in producer Rick Rubin’s New York University dorm room (he would soon be joined by Russell Simmons), had minor success with a few early-1980s singles. But after a member of the Beastie Boys found LL’s demo in Rubin’s dorm room, Def Jam—and hip-hop—would never be the same. LL’s unapologetically aggressive stance and simplistic but powerful wordplay would turn hip-hop on its ear.
The essential three-song playlist: Not gonna listen to the whole album? That’s really unacceptable. But if you insist, just don’t miss “Rock the Bells,” “Dear Yvette” and the seminal lead single for the album, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” a tribute to boom boxes.
But is this album really essential for you to know? Absolutely. Without the runaway success of LL’s first album, there might never have been a Def Jam, which means no Run-DMC, no Public Enemy, no Jay Z, no DMX … the list goes on and on, right up to current Def Jam artists like Big Sean and Rihanna. The album itself, beyond making history, is also a perfect primer on early hip-hop. Rubin’s minimalist approach to production, merged with LL’s hyperkinetic flow, would become a blueprint for decades of hip-hop to come.
Report card: For sheer history-making legacy alone, Radio is far and away an A-plus. Sonically, it earns high marks as well, but LL would go on to do better. Unlike some rappers whose debut albums would signal their greatest work (think Nas’ Illmatic or Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures of Slick Rick), 17-year-old LL had only just begun in 1985. His next three albums would continue to be lined with straight A’s.
In related news: While the quality of his musical output declined after 1990’s Mama Said Knock You Out, LL Cool J remains one of the few rap artists from the early days of the genre who have been able to remain relevant for three decades. After bit parts and cameos in movies, he began starring on both the big and small screens in the ’90s and has been the star of CBS’ NCIS: Los Angeles since 2009.
* Both DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Eazy-E sampled “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” on their own singles.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.