L.L. Cool J
January 14, 1968
Queens, New York, United States
Actor, Rapper, Songwriter
A true hip-hop original, LL Cool J did as much as anybody to bring rap to the mainstream in the '80s. He was born James Todd Smith in the Bay Shore section of Long Island in New York on January 14, 1968. His early life was horrific - his father shot both LL's mother and grandfather, and the young LL was the victim of child abuse. He found solace in rapping while still an adolescent, and by the time he was 16 he had gotten himself a record deal with Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons' then-new Def Jam label. Rechristened LL Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James), he released his debut single, "I Need a Beat," in 1984. The record's sales figures helped to put both LL and the label on the map. As successful as the song was, it hadn't charted, but LL's next two singles, "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and "Rock the Bells" became bona fide hits, and his 1985 debut LP, Radio, crossed over to the pop charts and went Platinum, making him one of hip hop's first real stars. His next album, 1987's Bigger and Deffer blew up even bigger, hitting No. 1 R&B and No. 3 Pop and including the hit "I Need Love," a gentle love song that expanded people's conception of rap's possibilities. The 1989 album Walking With a Panther was similarly successful, but it was 1990's Mama Said Knock You Out that really carved LL's face into hip hop's Mt. Rushmore, becoming the biggest album of his career and birthing the Gold singles "Around the Way Girl" and the title track. In the early '90s, LL inaugurated his acting sideline, which would prove as long lasting as his musical career. During this period he appeared in such films as Barrry Levinson's "Toys" (1993) and "The Hard Way," and in 1995 he began a five-season run as the star of the TV sitcom "In the House" (WB 1995-2000). Later, he starred in the procedural drama "NCIS: Los Angeles" (CBS 2009- ). Throughout his life, LL would continue to rack up hip-hop "firsts," from being the first hip-hop artist to appear on American Bandstand to becoming the first rapper honored at the Kennedy Center, the latter distinction arriving in 2017.