Every musical genre needs a ground zero. It may not be its exact point of origin, but it’s the time and place at which all of the possibilities and future branches seem to coalesce, with the following decades left to add footnotes. Rock and roll has Sun Studio in Memphis. Punk rock has CBGB. And for hip-hop, though the genre might have its official birthplace at Kool Herc’s 1520 Sedgwick Ave., its commercial watershed can be traced to the NYU dorm room of Rick Rubin, where in 1984 the enterprising young producer, his business partner Russell Simmons and a teenage Queens rapper named LL Cool J fully launched Def Jam Recordings.
Following the 1985 release of the Platinum-selling “Radio,” LL’s debut and Def Jam’s first full-length pressing, Rubin would go on to produce for acts as varied as Slayer, the Beastie Boys, the Dixie Chicks, Metallica and Adele. Simmons would develop a vast, multifaceted empire that established the gold standard for hip-hop entrepreneurship. And LL would release seven more Platinum albums, star in several films and long-running TV shows, win a pair of Grammys and will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Jan. 21.
Now 48, LL still remembers Rubin’s old phone number and the address of his college dorm room. He got them from the back cover of T La Rock’s “It’s Yours,” the Rubin-produced 1984 single, which was the first recording to sonically capture the rough-edged, beat-heavy primacy of NYC street rap onto record. “Radio” went one step further, stripping hip-hop of the last vestiges of its disco roots. With nothing but a beat and LL’s inimitably charismatic delivery, it launched the 17-year-old as the genre’s first crossover sex symbol and bona fide pop star, his Kangol hat becoming just as distinctive a fashion accessory as Run-DMC’s Adidas.
If LL’s name no longer provokes the sort of immediate reverence that rap nerds hold for his Golden Age contemporaries like N.W.A, Eric B & Rakim, or onetime labelmates the Beastie Boys, it’s possibly just because his career has extended long enough for him to be taken for granted. Even considering his longevity, it’s remarkable how many landmarks LL can claim for his genre. He took part in one of hip-hop’s highest-profile battles, with Kool Moe Dee. He staged hip-hop’s first comeback act with 1990’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.” His track titles have been referenced in song by everyone from Jay Z to Mos Def, the Notorious B.I.G. and Sonic Youth, and he gave Rock the Bells, long hip-hop’s premier annual festival, its name. For a genre in which debut records often serve as de facto greatest hits albums, LL’s ability to transcend the decades is much easier said than done.
“There’s a tension, sure,” LL says of hip-hop’s youthful obsession. “The difference with hip-hop is that, relatively speaking, it’s still a very young genre, especially compared to jazz, rock and roll, country. So the tension comes in when people start asking if it’s possible to grow up and mature and be an adult and still do hip-hop. So many guys are nervous about the idea of doing it. A lot of guys who worry, if I’m not doing a song that 14-year-olds like, then somehow it’s not relevant. I don’t think that’s true. The music is growing, the industry is maturing, and you have to be like fine wine and just keep doing it from the heart.”
In concert with his pin-up good looks, LL was also the first rapper to breach the pop charts with a full-on love song, 1987’s brazenly sentimental “I Need Love” off his second album. The heartstrings-rending rap ballad has become such a staple of the genre that there’s essentially an entire Grammy category dedicated to it, but at the time it was about as daring a move as a subculture known for bluster and machismo could countenance.
Source: Variety | Andrew Barker