L.L. Cool J (Contemporary Musicians)
In the turbulent climate of rap music, careers are often brief moments of success crested atop long stretches of obscurity. For L.L. Cool J, this is not so, as he has both helped lay down the groundwork for rap during the genre's early days as well as refining and reinventing it for two decades. A veteran in a field with few veterans, Cool J has broken numerous commercial records, as well as artistic barriers by appealing to so-called "crossover" audiences and building a thriving acting career. The winner of two Grammy awards, the rapper sees his longevity as only just beginning. "I hate when people say 'still'," he was quoted on the Def Jam website. "Imagine asking a doctor, 'Yo man, you still a doctor?' It's not like I'm fighting to stay above water, I'm swimming and I got a shark fin going at 100 miles per hour."
Growing up in the tough neighborhood of St. Alban's in Queens, New York, immediately provided Cool J, born James Todd Smith in 1968, with the tenacity and experience that has shaped many rappers. However, unlike many of his "gangsta" contemporaries, Cool J later celebrated the strength gained from his youth, but not affiliations with gangs. "I did everything you could possibly name in the street," Cool J told Vibe magazine. "I really came from that realness. I have that Queens experience on my mind, and it'll never leave me. The things I've been through the gunshots fired at me because me and my friend put blanks inside snowballs and threw them on people's windshields. We was nuts to a certain extent, but for the most part, I'm glad I did everything I did because it helped mold me as a person."
Def Jam Took Notice
Not only did the streets provide Cool J with life lessons, they also became the medium in which he became engaged in rapping, at a very young age. Experimenting from age nine, Cool J was fronting local rap crews at 11 years old, and in less than two years was tinkering with recording equipment. After his grandfather bought him a two-track recorder in lieu of a dirtbike, the precocious Cool J cut his first demo tapes when only thirteen, and soon began mailing them out. When the tapes captured the attention of producers Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, founders of the budding label Def Jam, Cool J was almost immediately locked on a track for stardom.
In 1984, a time when rap music was only just gaining credibility with mass audiences, Def Jam was a gutsy venture to begin with. However, by releasing then 16 year old Cool J's "I Need A Beat" as their maiden single, Rubin and Simmons were taking a true risk. Their conviction of Cool J's talents were founded, and the single took off in popularity. A year later, Cool J recorded his debut album Radio for Def Jam, also their first long player, to wide acclaim. Called "the most engaging and original rap album of the year" by Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau, the album was a showcase of bass-driven favorites such as "Rock The Bells" as well as tender ballads, justifying his full moniker, Ladies Love Cool James. The album went platinum, as did many of Cool J's full-length releases that followed.
Already a recording star, Cool J quickly proved to be a powerful live presence as well. He was invited to perform in the rap film Krush Groove, to deliver a version of his song "I Can't Live Without My Radio." Within the next several years, Cool J would figure prominently in several major rap tours under the Def Jam bannerhe Raising Hell Tour of 1986, featuring Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, and the Def Jam Tour a year after, whose roster included Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, and Whodini. "See L.L. live," urged L.A. Times critic Robert Hilburn, "and it's easy to understand why he is emerging as a legitimate culture hero. His confidence and way with rhymes suggest a young Mohammed Ali, but some of his stage antics are reminiscent of Prince," he continued. With his low brimmed floppy cap and massive gold chains, Cool J's image neatly summed up all that was "old school" rap.
With the release of his second album in 1987, Bigger and Deffer, Cool J scored with audiences across the board, helping to broaden the audience for rap. The album's single "I Need Love" became the first rap song to top Billboard magazine's R&B chart, and proved that rap could embrace romantic modes, even while Spin magazine called Bigger and Deffer "arguably the heaviest rock 'n' roll record ever released on a major label". As the album joined Radio in platinum territory, Cool J's track "Going Back To Cali" for the film Less Than Zero help push that movie's soundtrack to gold sales.
Gave Back to Society
By the end of the 1980s, Cool J began to show a genuine commitment to social issues. In November of 1988, he performed in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast as a benefit to a local hospital, and consequently was crowned honorary Chief Kwasi Achi-Brou by the elder council of the nearby village Gran-Bassan. In addition to later appearing in a set of drug awareness public service announcements for television, Cool J was approached by then First Lady Nancy Reagan to headline an anti-drug benefit concert at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. Just as the general public was developing uneasiness over a link between rap music, gang violence, and narcotic addiction, Cool J stood firm on the issue. "Kids come to my show to have fun, not to hear how bad the world is," he was quoted in the Def Jam homepage. "I don't promote violence and I don't promote drugs, simple as that."
Cool J continued to release platinum selling albums, as well as amassing awards and nominations for his recordings. Although the massive 18 track Walking With A Panther, released in 1989, was perhaps Cool J's low point among critics, it was still a commercial smash, and harbored at least one truly impressive single, "I'm That Type Of Guy." However, the 1990 follow up, Mama Said Knock You Out, was almost immediately accepted as Cool J's best album yet, through which he "reclaim[ed] his persona as the most articulated of homeboys, above uncluttered funk riffs assembled by the producer Marley Marl," as New York Times columnist Jon Pareles assessed. Indeed, while the album contained some of Cool J's smoothest compositions, such as the memorable "Around The Way Girl," yet another single which peaked on multiple charts, it was the bass thumping, confident drive of "The Boomin' System" and the album's title cut which gave Mama Said Knock You Out its appeal. As Cool J stated in an America Online interview, the title song was "a testament to the fact that no matter how rough times get and no matter how tough times get, you should never give up because that was the entire premise of that song. I was at a rough time in my life and I was inspired by my grandmother to get out there and knock them out!"
The onset of the 1990s saw Cool J explore the media of film and television, both as a musician and as an actor. On the big screen, he turned in an impressive performance as an undercover cop in the drama The Hard Way in 1991, which led to a part in director Barry Levinson's 1992 film Toys. For MTV, Cool J took part in two groundbreaking specials, both in 1991. In May, he performed acoustic versions of songs such as "Mama Said Knock You Out" and "Jingling Baby" for the popular series Unplugged, becoming the first rap artist to appear on the show. Shortly thereafter, he appeared in the music network's History of Rap documentary, discussing classic rap acts like Afrika Bambaata and The Sugarhill Gang, as rap began to get the recognition it deserved as a cultural phenomenon. In addition, Cool J even was given his own television series, In The House. First shown on the NBC network in 1995, it was moved to the UPN network before ending its run in 1998.
Style Changed with the Times
By the 1990s, rap had undergone a myriad of changes and upheavals, branching into countless factions and styles, and Cool J's next several albums proved that he was able to retain his vitality throughout. His 1993 album 14 Shots To The Dome was memorable, and provided the rapper with yet another platinum-seller. Mr. Smith, released in 1995, rated as one of the artist's most successful fusions of hard-edged attitude and laid back eroticism. As Rolling Stone critic Cheo H. Coker noted, Mr. Smith did not always "deliver the haymaker punches of Mama Said Knock You Out, but it has enough force to prove that the king from Queens is no punk." The sexually charged singles "Doin' It" and "Hey Lover" scored among the album's highlights.
A year later, the retrospective album All World Greatest Hits hit record stores. This album spanned a decade of Cool J's career, and in the process, ten years in the history of rap music. The year 1997 saw the release of Cool J's Phenomenon, which was followed by a three-year break from the recording studio while the rapper focused on his film acting career. During this time he appeared in the films Halloween: H20 (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), Any Given Sunday (1999), In Too Deep, (1999), and Charlie's Angels (2000). Returning to the studio while continuing to act, Cool J released G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest Hits of All Time in 2000. This album quickly climbed to the top of the music charts. Cool J returned to the silver screen in Kingdom Come (2001), Roller Ball (2002), and Deliver Us from Eva (2003).
Continuing to juggle his careers in music and in film, he released 10 in 2002. A single from this album, "Luv U Better," became one of the star rapper's biggest hits. Cool J re-signed his contract with Def Jam in 2003, continuing his relationship of more than two decades with the groundbreaking label. Russell Simmons, producer and founder of Def Jam, made a statement to the media following the signing: "L.L. Cool J is a shining example of the longevity and power of hiphop. In fact, he is the embodiment of hip-hop. He is one of the architects of the Def Jam culture. I am privileged to work with a man who is both a pioneer and a legend."
Never one to rest on his laurels, Cool J has continued to expand his career and musical style, and at the same time to remain a devoted father. As he told Vibe magazine, "I keep it all in perspective. At the end of the day, I'm not doin' this just to see how many women I can get or how many gold chains I can wear. I'm doin' this so my family can sleep comfortable at night. That's why I break my neck where most people think I wouldn't have to."
Radio, Def Jam, 1985.
Bigger and Deffer, Def Jam, 1987.
Walking With A Panther, Def Jam, 1989.
Mama Said Knock You Out, Def Jam, 1990.
14 Shots To The Dome, Def Jam, 1993
Mr. Smith, Def Jam, 1995
Walking with a Panther, Def Jam, 1995
All World Greatest Hits, Def Jam, 1996
Mr. Smith, Def Jam, 1995
Phenomenon, Def Jam, 1997
G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time, Def Jam, 2000
10, Def Jam, 2002
Daily Variety, July 10, 2003, p. 18.
Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1987, p. C58.
New York Times, November 18, 1990, sec. 2, p.32.
Rolling Stone, February 8, 1996, pp. 49-50.
Vibe, March 1997.
haun Frentner and Michael Belfiore