100 Best Albums of the Eighties
LL Cool J, 'Radio'
LL Cool J (Born James Todd Smith) was seventeen years old when he recorded this early rap masterpiece. Rhymes such as "They hear me, they fear me/My funky poetry/I'm improving the conditions of the rap industry" proved prophetic — Radio went platinum, ushering in rap's blockbuster era and heralding the arrival of a superb rapper.
The liner notes say, "Reduced by Rick Rubin," and simplicity was the key to Radio. "We were going to bring it down, break it down, reduce it to its most minimal form — like real low," says LL
But its minimalism wasn't what made Radio a rap landmark. Before 1984, most rappers had simply recited continuous rhymes over four minutes of groove. Rubin arranged raps like pop songs, with verses, choruses and bridges. So that LL's rhymes could fit into this new format, Rubin says, "I would say, 'You've got twelve lines, and you've got to do it in eight.' And LL would rewrite it so it worked in eight. It was just making rap more like songs."
LL Cool J stands for "Ladies Love Cool James"; he became one of rap's first heartthrobs, partly because of his dimpled good looks and macho swagger, but also because Radio includes two of the earliest rap ballads, the cuddly "I Want You" and "I Can Give You More."
One of Radio's most powerful tracks is "Rock the Bells." Oddly enough, the track has no bells on it. LL was set to record the track using a cowbell break from a song called "Mardi Gras," until Run-D.M.C. used the identical best on its "Peter Piper." As LL puts it, "I got housed." Rubin suggested using a percussion break from the go-go great Trouble Funk instead, and LL turned in a ferocious performance; the moment when he yells, "Rock the bells!" and the go-go beat kicks in is one of the most dramatic in rap.
The album's opener, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," became a B-boy anthem. Now that LL has reached the advanced age of twenty-two, he says he is still unable to live without his radio. "But now it's in my car — know what I mean?"