Throughout hip hop history, there are a few albums that one can point to as watermark moments. The kind of albums that land on the collective consciousness and deliver a brand new way of thinking. LL Cool J’s 1985 debut album, Radio is most certainly one of them. Released on November 18th via Def Jam, Radio remains a classic from hip hop’s golden age.
It can be expected that back in 1985, during hip hop’s infancy, the means of perfect studio production were not yet at hand. For that reason, Radio is a bare and brutal array of beats. Resting only on drums and bass, with the odd scratching record, the lyrics of LL are what come to the fore on this record. With a mic, in 1985, there was simply nobody better.
The impact of LL Cool J on the hip hop world is immeasurable. Count everybody from Snoop Dogg to Eminem as fans. In fact, Slim Shady is such a fan that he prank-called his hero on LL’s SiriusXM radio show while pretending to be ‘Jason from Miami’. After a couple of minutes, Shady revealed his true identity and then started begging the rapper to hang out with him, even telling LL about how he’s got cable TV in a bid to lure him in.
In a later appearance on the same radio show, Eminem spoke with Cool J again to discuss how much he aspired to be him when he was younger. “I wanted to be like you; I hope that doesn’t sound weird,” Eminem explained. “I absolutely wanted to be like you,” the rapper continued, “I wanted to be like Run-D.M.C. It was something about the energy to just say what you want to say, and you could talk about your life, and you could talk about shit that bothers you. I just gravitated towards it, and I never strayed from the first day that I heard a rap song.”
Shady continued: “It was interesting to watch you and see your range as a writer and see that you could make a love song, you could make a song for the dudes, and your range as a writer was so incredible,” Em continued to tell LL Cool J. “Then, when you didn’t drop an album for a couple of years, rap started advancing a little more. [That is when] you came out and advanced it again. It was so crazy to just watch it because you could do whatever anyone else was doing.”
Those intentions are clearly laid out on Radio as it shows LL Cool J in a pioneering mood, bringing the sounds of the streets that surrounded him into the mainstream radio arena. The album works as a link between two of the other big hitters of the day, including Run-DMC’s self-titled LP and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill; together they are arguably the triumvirate of hip hop’s emergence.
Of course, listening back, it can be easy to pick out rick Rubin’s somewhat paltry production, especially compared to Run-DMC’s effort mentioned above. But, in truth, listening to Radio is a joy for any hip-hophead. As classic as a gold plated chain spinning atop a turntable, there’s good reason for thinking Radio is the reason rap really took off.
Drop the needle on Radio and remind yourself why LL Cool J is a member of hip hop’s Mount Rushmore.