Q&A: LL Cool J on the 30th Anniversary of ‘Radio’

LL Cool J
Terence Patrick for Variety

Thirty years ago, a teenage Queens rapper named LL Cool J joined forces with an enterprising NYU student named Rick Rubin: The result was “Radio,” the first full-length album released by the nascent Def Jam label, launching LL as hip-hop’s first mainstream heartthrob pop star.

What did you think when you first heard some of the beats Rick was making for you on “Radio”?

You know, with a lot of those beats I was actually telling Rick what to play. I’d go, (beat-boxes), like for ‘Rock the Bells’ and a few others. And some other times he would just completely surprise me, like with ‘I Need a Beat’ or ‘I Can’t Live Without My Radio.’ It was a real collaborative time. Sometimes we would do a rough demo, then he’d go back and mess with things and play it back for me over the phone, and I’d just be going crazy. His production ideas, he was just taking things to a whole new level.

At that point, Rick’s only real production credit was (T La Rock’s) “It’s Yours,” right?

Buying that record was what started everything for me. It was on the Partytime Records label, but it was a Def Jam production, and right on the back of the record it had Rick Rubin’s phone number. I still remember the number. So I sent my demo in to Rick’s dorm.

How much did you have to adjust your style to Rick’s?

None at all. I just did what I did. I think the adjustments came later, when you start realizing that you have to simplify things. My style started off pretty complex: I would use more high-brow words, I was reading dictionaries for fun, driving people bananas. But I had to simplify it for people to really understand where I was coming from.

I do feel like your vocal delivery got a bit more relaxed on the next few records, a bit more casual. On “Radio,” both your vocals and the beats are just booming the whole time.

Well, I don’t know if I agree with that. I could show you every record where I had real aggressive songs. Maybe it just came across that way because of what the hits were. ‘Mama Said Knock You Out,’ that was three or four albums later, and that was way more aggressive than anything on the first record. That’s part of what I love, I love aggressive music. But radio was so different at that time, that the labels started catering more to my ballads after ‘I Need Love.’ I had the harder records still, but they were servicing more of the softer, ‘Around the Way Girl’ side of things.

Was there any nervousness associated with releasing a song like “I Need Love” on your second record?

Nah, at least not from me. What’s funny about it, Rick and I had, not exactly a falling out, but a total disagreement about that song. He was like, ‘Man, if you’re so confident about it, why don’t you put it out first?’ Back then, people really had this idea that if you were from the ’hood making rap records that you’ve gotta do nothing but edgy stuff. People are a little more comfortable now with the idea of a rapper being a creative artist, but back then, they didn’t look at us like that. It was like, ‘If you’re not drinking Olde English and screaming, what are you even doing? How dare you talk about some sensitive stuff?’

Critics refer to “Radio” as being the first cohesive hip-hop album that was structured and packaged like a traditional rock LP. Was that a conscious idea at the time?

Definitely, that was definitely the idea to make a full album with some diversity, different vibes, different styles, doing something that people can feel. My thing has always been not to see how profound I can be, or to make my songs sound like an audiobook. I’m not making literature; the idea was to make something you could feel. You think about someone like James Brown, he was never about songwriting per se, it was about vibe, and what the music makes you feel. So that’s what ‘Radio’ was about.

What do you make of these reports that, after the success of “Straight Outta Compton,” Universal is considering making a film about the early days of Def Jam?

I don’t even know if I’m that interested in it, to be honest. Because…I don’t really get that excited about the idea of making a movie about myself. It doesn’t really turn me on that much.

Plus, they already made “Krush Groove” anyway, and you were in that one.

Yeah, exactly! And don’t get me wrong – don’t throw me under the bus if you hear me talking (differently) about it a year and a half from now. ‘You just told me you weren’t interested…’ But so much crazy stuff happened back then… I just don’t know if I’m into it now.

Speaking of “Krush Groove,” not to mention the fact that you recently did your 150th episode of “NCIS,” it’s interesting to think about the way your career was entwined with film really from the beginning, with that movie coming out the same year as “Radio,” and then later getting “Going Back to Cali” into “Less Than Zero.”

I always loved acting, I love film and TV, entertainment in general. I’m a big believer in not limiting yourself. Even before records, me and my man Pierre, we used to make our own little karate movies at home. I’d be on a boulder moving in slow-motion, doing kung-fu moves, and he’d play the film in reverse. I always felt it, so it was pretty natural. What’s important is to be hungry and humble. I was basically an extra in ‘Krush Groove,’ and if you go back and do a real audit on that movie, you’ll see me doing some of the most ridiculous stuff I’ve ever done in my life.

Looking at your first five years in music, so much happened in hip-hop between “Radio” and “Mama Said Knock You Out”: You had Public Enemy, Rakim, N.W.A, the Beastie Boys – how did you respond to that sense of constant change?

It was great. It’s like a basketball player responds to other players joining the league. It’s just more people to play against. What’s the problem?

But how did you approach staying relevant while retaining a core identity?

There’s a tension, sure. But the difference with hip-hop is that, relatively speaking, it’s still a very young genre. Especially compared to jazz, rock and roll, country. So the tension comes in when people start asking if it’s possible to grow up and mature and be an adult and still do hip-hop. So many guys are, like, nervous about the idea of doing it. A lot of guys who worry, if I’m not doing a song that 14-year-olds like, then somehow it’s not relevant. I don’t think that’s true.

Is hop-hop getting more comfortable with letting its artists age?

Society as a whole has always had an issue with that. Even when you look at some of the big rock stars, the Mick Jaggers, the Bonos, etc., they get it too, but it’s hard to argue with 75,000 people waving their hands in the air. But when you get down to brass tacks, (hip-hop) is definitely a culture where either you have to be really young or really rich. Those are the two metrics. One of those two works. But anywhere in between those two and it becomes a little weird. If you’re 39 and just doing okay financially, in hip-hop that’s the kiss of death. And I don’t know why that is. It’s weird.

Is your next record still going to be “G.O.A.T. 2”?

I’m thinking about that. I don’t know what it’s gonna be. But the only thing that’ll stop me from making music is me. No one’s got a gun to my head. There’s nothing stopping me from making music and working with the producers I want to work with. So if I don’t, it’ll only be my fault. I’ll make something, and if you think it’s cool, then great, and if not, at least I gave it the…what’s that phrase? The Boy Scout…? No. The try?

The old college try?

Yeah, that’s it. At least I gave it the old college try. That’s a good album title, actually. LL Cool J: ‘The Old College Try.’

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