Twenty eight years ago on this day (November 18, 1985), LL Cool J released his debut album “Radio” on Def Jam Recordings.
It serves as the label’s first full-length album release. Recording sessions for the album took place during 1984 to 1985 at Chung King House of Metal in New York City. The album was primarily produced by Rick Rubin, who provided a sparse and minimal production style. Radio also features a sound that is punctuated by DJ scratching, mostly brief samples, and emphasis of the downbeat. LL Cool J’s b-boy lyricism conveys themes of inner city culture, teenage promiscuity, and braggadocio raps.
The album experienced a significant amount of commercial success and sales for a hip hop record at the time, earning U.S. Billboard chart success and selling over 500,000 copies within its first five months of release. On April 19, 1989, Radio was certified platinum in sales by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), following sales in excess of one million copies in the United States. Initial criticism of the album was generally positive, as LL Cool J’s lyricism and Rick Rubin’s production were praised by several music critics. It has since been recognized by critics as LL Cool J’s greatest work.
Reflecting the new school and ghettoblaster subculture in the U.S. during the mid-1980s, Radio belongs to a pivotal moment in the history and culture of hip hop. Its success contributed to the displacement of the old school with the new school form and to the genre’s mainstream success during the period. Its success also served as a career breakthrough for LL Cool J and Rick Rubin. Radio has been recognized by music writers as one of the first cohesive and commercially successful hip hop albums.
Background: In March 1984, when NYU student Rick Rubin and promoter-managerRussell Simmons founded the then-independent Def Jam label, 16 year–old St. Albans, Queens native James Todd Smith was creating demo tapes in his grandparents’ home. His grandfather, a jazz saxophonist, purchased him $ 2,000 worth of stereo equipment, including two turntables, an audio mixer and an amplifier. Smith later discussed his childhood background and rapping, stating that “By the time I got that equipment, I was already a rapper. In this neighborhood, the kids grow up in rap. It’s like speaking Spanish if you grow up in an all-Spanish house. I got into it when I was about 9, and since then all I wanted was to make a record and hear it on the radio.” By using the mixing table he had received from his grandfather, Smith produced and mixed his own demos and sent them to various record companies throughout New York City, including Simmons’ and Rubin’s own Def Jam Recordings.
Under his new stage name, LL Cool J (an acronym for Ladies Love Cool James), Smith was signed by Def Jam, which led to the release of his first official record, the 12-inch single “I Need a Beat” (1984). The single was a hard-hitting, streetwise b-boy song with spare beats and ballistic rhymes. Smith later discussed his search for a label, stating “I sent my demo to many different companies, but it was Def Jam where I found my home.” That same year, Smith made his professional debut concert performance at Manhattan Center High School. In a later interview, LL Cool J recalled the experience, stating “They pushed the lunch room tables together and me and my DJ, Cut Creator, started playing. … As soon as it was over there were girls screaming and asking for autographs. Right then and there I said ‘This is what I want to do’.” LL’s debut single sold over 100,000 copies and helped establish both Def Jam as a label and Smith as a rapper. The commercial success of “I Need a Beat”, along with the Beastie Boys’s single “Rock Hard” (1984), helped lead Def Jam to a distribution deal with Columbia Records the following year.
Recording: LL Cool J dropped out of Andrew Jackson High School in Queens to record his first studio album, also the first LP to be issued by Def Jam. Recording sessions for the album took place at Chung King Studios in Manhattan’s Chinatown under Rubin’s direction throughout 1984 and 1985. Notable from the personnel line-up was LL’s DJ Jay Philpot, better known as “Cut Creator”. A Queens native and former trombonist, Philpot met LL at a block party and they began performing together. The audio mastering was handled by engineer Herb Powers at 130 West 42nd Street in the Frankford Wayne Mastering Labs and the album was set for release as Radio in November 1985, containing a dedication in the liner notes from LL Cool J to his mother and his grandparents. Upon release, six of the album’s tracks had already or would later be released as singles. The album’s release had been anticipated by many rap fans following LL Cool J’s appearance in the hip hop movie Krush Groove, which was based on the beginnings of the Def Jam label and featured the single “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” from Radio.
Music: The album’s production, handled entirely by Rick Rubin with a remix by DJ Jazzy Jay, has been noted by critics and music writers for Rubin’s minimalist style and stripped-down aggressiveness. Steve Huey of Allmusic described the production for Radio as “bare-bones” and “skeletal”, while calling the instrumentation “basically just a cranked-up beatbox.” The sound of Radio is mostly punctuated by DJ scratching and features occasional brief samples, which emphasize a downbeat.In summing up the musical style of Radio, Huey stated “The result is rap at its most skeletal, with a hard-hitting, street-level aggression that perfectly matches LL’s cocksure teenage energy.”
The lyrical themes regarding the culture and the way of life of inner city youth that surface in Radio, including the growing and popular b-boy attitude (“I Can’t Live Without My Radio”, “Rock the Bells”) and teenage promiscuity (“Dear Yvette”), along with LL’s “teenage energy”, as described by writer Nelson George, helped appeal to a younger music audience and were essential in the album’s commercial success. LL Cool J’s lyricism on Radio is highlighted by clever disses, playful boasts and braggadocio raps. Columnist Stephen Holden of The New York Times described LL Cool J as “a brawny young giant with the animal magnetism and amiable self-assurance of the young Muhammad Ali.” “I Want You” and “I Can Give You More” have been recognized by listeners of hip hop as the first hip-hop ballads, and have been cited likewise by several music writers and critics.
Author of the 1985 book Fresh: Hip Hop Don’t Stop, writer Nelson George further elaborated on the appeal of Radio to listeners at the time, describing LL Cool J as a “minimalist homeboy who knows his beats”, and stating “You can call it rap, hip hop or street, but it really is a way of hearing music—and partying hard—that expresses the experiences and attitudes of a great many inner city kids. L.L. Cool J is one of the best young talkologists around, because he speaks directly to and about his generation over large beats that recall Run-D.M.C., Trouble Funk, James Brown, and funky little bits of AC/DC and Yes … This teenage music is built around beats, but not just any old beats. It is all about a beat with style, with personality, and L.L. Cool J has plenty of both.”
Commercial performance: Released November 18, 1985, on Def Jam Recordings in the United States, Radio earned a significant amount of commercial success and sales for a hip hop record at the time. Shortly after its release, the album sold over 500,000 copies in its first five months, eventually selling over 1 million copies by 1988, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Radio peaked at number 6 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and at number 46 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. It entered the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart on December 28, 1985, and remained there for forty-seven weeks, while also entering the Pop Albums chart on January 11, 1986. Radio remained on the chart for thirty-eight weeks. By 1989, the album had earned platinum status from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), after earning a gold certification in the United States on April 14, 1986, with sales exceeding one million copies. – Wikipedia
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Click here to download “Radio” on iTunes.