9 minute read

L.L. Cool J Biography

Selected discography


Rap musician, actor

L. L. Cool J, photograph. © Ron Sachs/Corbis

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 helped lay down the groundwork for rap during the genre's early days and refine and reinvent it for over a decade. 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 establishing himself as an actor. A working dynamo, the rapper sees his longevity as only just beginning. "I hate when people say 'still'," he was quoted on the Def Jam Web site. "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."

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 the approval of many sectors. 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 all of Cool J's full-length releases from that point on.

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 banner–the 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 Los Angeles 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 barriers of rap listeners. 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.

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 pervasive 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!"

At a Glance …

Born James Todd Smith, on January 14, 1968, in St. Alban's, Queens, NY; married Simone, 1995; children: three.

Career: Singer, 1984–; actor, 1991–.

Awards: Village Voice Album of the Year Award, 1990; Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year in New York Music Awards, 1991; Grammy Award for Mama Said Knock You Out, 1991; Grammy Award nomination for DEFinition, 2005.

Addresses: Record Label—Def Jam Records, 652 Broadway, New York, NY, 10012.

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, and was the first rap artist to do so. 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 took a leading support role on the television series, In The House, first shown on the NBC network in 1995, then switched to the UPN network, where it ran until 1999.

Rap had undergone a myriad of changes and upheavals, branching into countless factions and styles, by the 1990s 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," with the highly sexual singles "Doin' It" and "Hey Lover" among the highlights. A year later, the retrospective album All World Greatest Hits hit record stores, which spanned a decade of Cool J's career, and in the process, ten years in the history of rap music.

Another decade later, Cool J continued to produce platinum-selling albums. Reminiscing about his music career, Cool J told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that "I don't have a favorite [album]. I feel as good about my music now as I did then." He enjoyed a great deal of success with his 2002 album 10, which included his hit song "Love U Better," and with his 2004 album DEFinition, which earned him a Grammy nomination in 2005. When asked about his longevity in the music business, Cool J explained to the St. Louis Post Dispatch that he would not consider retirement "as long as I feel motivated and as long as I feel like I have something to say—as long as I can make a contribution to the language of hip-hop."

Reluctant to pick a favorite between music and acting, Cool J concentrated as much on his acting career as he did on his music at the start of the new millennium. He told the St. Louis Post Disptach that he loved "diving into different lives and exploring various emotions. It's pretty amazing." Although he had appeared in more than a dozen films since his debut in 1991, including Any Given Sunday in 1999, Charlie's Angels in 2000, and S.W.A.T. in 2003, Cool J landed his first complex, leading role in the police drama, Edison, released in 2005. He told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that "I got to do the kind of work I've always dreamt of doing with the depth of this character." With his dual careers steaming ahead full throttle, Cool J added a new one: clothing design. His "James Todd Smith" clothing line appeared in malls in 2004. Indeed, after more than two decades in the limelight, Cool J seemed far from stepping off the stage.

Selected discography

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.

All World Greatest Hits, Def Jam, 1996.

Phenomenon, 1997.

G.O.A.T., 2000.

10, 2002.

The DEFinition, 2004.



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.

St. Louis Dispatch, September 16, 2004; September 23, 2004.

Vibe, March 1997.


"LL Cool J," Def Jam Records, www.defjam.com/llcoolj/home.las (January 31, 2005).

"LL Cool J," MTV.com, www.mtv.com/bands/az/ll_cool_j/artist.jhtml (January 31, 2005).

—Shaun Frentner and Sara Pendergast

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