Before he became one of Rap’s first major stars and the force behind seven platinum records, James Todd Smith was a 16-year-old making demo tapes in his grandparents’ home in St. Albans, Queens, New York City, and sending them to everyone he knew. One of the recipients was producer Rick Rubin, then a student at New York University and co-founder, with promoter Russell Simmons, of the fledgling Def Jam label. The result was 1984’s “I Need A Beat,” Def Jam’s first 12-inch single and the debut of the teenaged Smith, who christened himself LL Cool J (short for “Ladies Love Cool James”).
“I Need A Beat” sold 100,000 copies, establishing LL as an artist to be reckoned with. His 1985 debut, Radio — the first full-length Def Jam release — furthered the “hardcore Rap” style pioneered by Run-DMC. Punctuated by LL’s brash, braggadocious delivery on “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and the seminal single “Rock the Bells,” the album also featured Rick Rubin’s stark, minimalist soundscape of drum-machine beats and samples. That same year, LL appeared briefly in the film Krush Groove, his signature red Kangol hat soon becoming a popular fashion statement as Radio moved toward million-selling territory.
He followed with 1987’s Bigger and Deffer, which featured the atypically romantic Rap ballad “I Need Love.” The song was a hit, but it prompted some Rap artists to question whether LL had gone “soft.” (LL fired back at one critic, Kool Moe Dee, in “Jack the Ripper”: “How ya like me now? I’m gettin’ busier / I’m double-platinum, I’m watchin’ you get dizzier.”) Walking with a Panther was another chart success, though it likewise drew criticism for decidedly non-hardcore ballads like “One Shot at Love.” On his fourth album, 1992’s Mama Said Knock You Out, LL answered his critics with rhymes that sounded hard-edged and confident, winning a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance for the title song. His next record, 14 Shots to the Dome in 1993, was another hard-hitting effort that showed the influence of Gangsta Rap; the subsequent Mr. Smith (1995) was a radical shift, though – a ballad-heavy outing that went platinum and landed LL a second Grammy, for the song “Hey Lover.”
By 1992, LL had broken through as an actor, thanks to his star turn in the hit film Toys. In 1995, NBC cast him in his own sitcom, “In the House,” which ran for five seasons. He’s appeared in numerous films, and in 2009 joined the cast of the TV military police drama “NCIS: Los Angeles,” which has run for five seasons.
Despite the growing focus on acting, LL Cool J continued making new music. He recorded 12 albums for Def Jam — a relationship that spanned more than two decades and concluded with 2008’s Exit 13. His latest album, Authentic (2013), features guest appearances by Chuck D, Bootsy Collins, Snoop Dogg, Eddie Van Halen, and others.