Ever since he had his first hit single at age 16, L.L. Cool J has been one of rap's brightest artists, propelled by both his willingness to stay street and his desire to be a pop icon. L.L.'s parents divorced when he was four, and he was raised by his grandparents in Queens. He began rapping when he was nine; his grandfather bought him a DJ system when he was 11. He made tapes in his basement, which he sent to record companies, including Def Jam, then being formed by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. In 1984 "I Need a Beat" became Def Jam's first release; it sold 100,000 copies, and L.L. dropped out of high school.
Radio (#6 R&B, 1985) was the first Def Jam album. The platinum disc was considered groundbreaking for L.L.'s arrangement of raps into song structures, with verses and choruses. The album included the anthem "I Can't Live Without My Radio" (#15 R&B, 1985), which L.L. performed during his cameo in the movie Krush Groove. Bigger and Deffer (#3, 1987), produced by L.L. and the L.A. Posse, lived up to its title, going double platinum with the singles "I Need Love" (#14 pop, #1 R&B, 1987) and "I'm Bad" (#4 R&B, 1987). The former, a ballad, clinched L.L.'s image as a heartthrob. His name stands for Ladies Love Cool James; Playgirl magazine named him one of the 10 sexiest men in rock.
In 1988 L.L. had a minor hit with "Going Back to Cali" (#31 pop, #12 R&B) from the Less Than Zero soundtrack. He headlined a Def Jam tour and played a Just Say No Foundation antidrug concert at Radio City Music Hall. Some rap fans felt L.L. sold out on Walking With a Panther (#6 pop, #1 R&B, 1989), which yielded the single "I'm That Type of Guy" (#15 pop, #7 R&B, 1989). He was booed at an Apollo show; L.L. himself has said he was out of touch with the rap constituency at that time.
He came back swinging with the Grammy-winning Mama Said Knock You Out (#16 pop, #2 R&B, 1990), a tough, compelling album coproduced with Marley Marl that is L.L.'s biggest-selling record to date. L.L.'s comeback was kicked off by "The Boomin' System" (#48 pop, #6 R&B, 1990), followed by "Around the Way Girl" (#9, 1990) and "Mama Said Knock You Out" (#17 pop, #12 R&B, 1991). In May 1991 he was the first rap artist to perform on MTV's Unplugged. On 14 Shots to the Dome (#5 pop, #1 R&B, 1993), L.L. seemed confused about his strategy again; he stuck with the past by working with Marl but tried to update his credibility with some gangsta poses. None of the album's four singles made it into the Top 20.
Aiming for an impact outside the rap world, L.L. appeared in the films The Hard Way (1991) and Toys (1992) and performed at the 1993 presidential inauguration. In addition, concerned with children's welfare, he taped a radio commercial for a "Stay in School" literacy campaign and founded the Camp Cool J Foundation and Youth Enterprises, a program for urban youth.
In 1995 L.L. starred in In the House, a network-TV sitcom that ran for three seasons. He also recorded Mr. Smith (#20 pop, #4 R&B), a multiplatinum album that produced three Top 10 singles. "Hey Lover" (#3 pop, #3 R&B, 1995), which featured the group Boyz II Men on backing vocals, won the MC a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1996. Phenomenon (#7 pop, #4 R&B, 1997), a semiconfessional album, yielded three more hit singles; the record was released in conjunction with the publication of the L.L.'s autobiography, I Make My Own Rules. Since then the rapper has focused on acting, appearing in several feature films, notably Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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