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Behind The Mic: The story of LL Cool J monster hit 'Rock the Bells'

LL Cool J’s ‘Rock The Bells’ is the sound of somebody refusing to back down. Released in 1989, this ode to classic hip hop is one of the most astonishing offerings from J’s Rick Rubin-produced debut album Radio. For many, the track typifies everything great about the golden age of hip-hop. The pounding backbeat, the impressive lyrical display, the innovative use of samples: everything in this track is designed to hit you like a punch in the gullet.

Despite the title, ‘Rock The Bells’, doesn’t contain the famous breakbeat bells from Bob James’ ‘Take Me to the Mardi Gras’, a track that was sampled by so many crews at this time, including Run-DMC (‘Peter Piper’) and Eric B and Rakim (‘Don’t Sweat the Technique’). That being said, J’s original mix did actually include a hefty dose of cowbell, which the rapper initially used to evoke the sound of Crash Crew’s 1984 Sugar Hill release ‘Breaking Bells’.

Besides being dedicated to New York’s early hip hop crews, ‘Rock The Bells’ is also a declaration of intent. The first few lines say it all: “LL Cool J is hard as hell / Battle anybody I don’t care who you tell / I excel, they all fail / Gonna crack shells, Double-L must rock the bells”. Cool J has his eyes on the crown, and ‘Rock The Bells’ is his attempt to take it.

Explaining how ‘Rock The Bells’ came together, Cool J once said: “This came from hearing old-school rappers and old records in the street, mixtapes. It was a phrase that was creeping around.” To ‘rock the bells’ literally means to spread the word. Believing that he had the power to make records ten times more hit-worthy than anyone else on the scene, J fought for a record deal tooth and nail, finally landing a signing with Def Jem in ’84, which led to the release of his first 12″ ‘I Need a Beat’, and, after much trial and error, ‘Rock The Bells’ in 1985.

The first version of ‘Rock The Bells’ was released as a 12″ and had a runtime of seven minutes. But despite all of Rubin’s efforts, J wasn’t pleased with the result: “I didn’t love the original version we recorded, so I pestered Rick Rubin until we redid it. He wasn’t busy, he had time. [Laughs] Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys played a tape for him, and I went and met him in his dorm room.”

Together, the pair reworked the track, replacing the original breakbeat with an 808 drum machine, which formed the basis of the song. On top of this, they placed guitar stabs sampled from ACDC’s ‘Flick The Switch’ and some synth from Cerrone’s ‘Rocket In My Pocket’. The resulting track hit harder than anything Cool J had heard before and peaked at Number 17 on the Hip Hop chart, ushering in a chapter for the genre at the same time.