LL Cool J is known as one of the most impactful hip-hop artists of the 1980s. Along with figures such as KRS-One, Kool G Rap, and Rakim, the Queens rapper (real name James Smith) set a precedent for artists of the 1990s. Although the musician most definitely had his heyday during the 1980s, that’s not to say he didn’t have a career after. In fact, he had quite a lot of hits during the ’90s. Moreover, as a respected figure within the culture, Smith collaborated with some of the best artists of that decade. LL’s musical endeavours with these icons led to multiple hits for him and even made some history.
In 1997 for his seventh album, Phenomenon, LL Cool J teamed up with Diddy. In a quest to recreate the success of his sixth project, Mr Smith, which was certified double platinum, LL had the music mogul executively produce the album. With Diddy at the helm, the Queens rapper was hopeful he would be able to maintain his status as a platinum-selling artist heading into the new millennium. The project’s lead single was the title track ‘Phenomenon’. The track did poorly in the US, failing to enter the top 40 and peaking at 55. However, it did much better in the UK, where it entered the top 10 peaking at number nine.
The album’s second single was a posse cut entitled ‘4, 3, 2, 1’ and it featured the heavyweights of the late ’90s on it. For the track, Smith recruited Method Man, Redman, and DMX. Produced by Erick Sermon of EPMD, the cut was a New York classic. It had an official remix released which included the MCs Canibus and Master P from New Orleans. Furthermore, for the beat Sermon sampled LL Cool J’s 1985 classic ‘Rock the Bells’, which was an anthem when it was released.
The track is infamous as it was the song that sparked LL Cool J’s beef with Canibus. The feud between the two MCs arose due to a rap that Canibus (real name Germaine Williams) wrote, which LL Cool J found disrespectful. Pertaining to a tattoo Smith had, Williams’ original rap for the track included the line, “L, is that a mic on your arm? Let me borrow that.” Despite LL’s perception of the rap, Canibus has since said it was meant as a compliment.
As a result of his initial feelings, Smith omitted Williams from the record and changed his own verse to a diss verse that sees him rap, “The symbol on my arm is off limits to challengers / You hold the rusty sword, I swing the Excalibur.”
You can watch the legendary performance Method Man, Redman, DMX and LL gave at the Apollo Theatre in the video below.