L.l. Cool J Raps to the Beat of His Box, While His Lp Does Better Than Dow Jones Stocks
updated 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST
So, it seems, do thousands of fans of rap music, which sets raw street poetry to a booming beat. At 18, Cool J—the initial comes from his real name, James Todd Smith—has sold 600,000 copies of his debut album, Radio. He first rapped his way to national attention last year with a picture-stealing cameo in Krush Groove, a movie based on the career of Rick Rubin, a former New York University student who, with friend Russell Simmons, started a successful record company, Def Jam, in his dorm room two years ago.
Things are going so well, in fact, for L.L. that he says he has only one complaint: He can't catch a cab in New York. Six-foot-two and amiable, he says he likes to think it's his clothes and not the color of his skin that deters cabbies. "The way I dress makes some people think I'm on the attack," he says. His wardrobe, which he sports "onstage, on the streets and in the suites," consists of pristine white sneakers without laces, a satiny blue warm-up suit, a Sphinx pendant and several solid-gold chains, and a cloth Kangol hat that looks like something a London bobby would wear to the beach. "Cabbies see me and they won't stop," L.L. complains. "But I grew up dressing like this. I don't see anything wrong with it. My mother loves me, and she sees me dressed like this every day. A white boy my age could put this suit on and people would think he's coming from the gym. But when I put it on, people think, 'Uh oh, hoodlum, hoodlum.' Well, I ain't gonna change how I dress just to catch a cab. Besides," he adds with a cocky grin, "they'll still be driving that hack when I cruise by in my Benz."
L.L. doesn't yet own a car, even though, he says, he's "already in Porsche money." Nor does he have any plans to move from the middle-class neighborhood of Hollis, Queens—about 10 miles from midtown Manhattan—where he lives in his grandmother's tidy, two-story brick house. It is there that he made his first tapes, using $2,000 worth of recording equipment his grandparents bought him when he was 11, so he wouldn't insist on getting a dirt bike like the other kids on the block. And it is there, on the living room wall upstairs from his basement bedroom, that he plans to hang the gold record he'll get for reaching the half-million sales mark. "I don't want to move to Hollywood," says L.L., who toured L.A. while working on the title song for Goldie Hawn's movie Wildcats. "I don't want to lose touch with real life and real people, like my grandmother."
His grandmother, Ellen Griffith, who calls him Todd, says that L.L. made enough racket during his basement-tape period to "nearly drive me out of the house." Although she is immensely proud of his success, she has yet to see him perform live. "The first time I ever heard him really get down was on Dick Clark's show, American Bandstand," says Griffith, who helped her daughter, Ondrea Smith, raise Todd. "Now me, I like the old ones like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. But I think Todd is doggone good. I didn't know he was going to tear his shirt off, though. He suddenly unzipped his jacket—and did those girls scream and carry on!"
L.L. credits his late grandfather, Eugene, an amateur tenor sax and guitar player, with "turning me on to music and performance." Griffith says that "Ondrea and Eugene and I always tried to keep Todd busy. He sang in the church choir; he studied karate; he played football and Little League baseball. He got good grades in school. We tried to keep him occupied. We didn't want him to become a street kid." When rap music bloomed on New York street corners in the late '70s, L.L., barely 10, was enraptured. He started creating his own songs almost immediately. "It was something I seemed to get on to real quick," he says. "I was real good at making up rhymes and scenes." At 13 he began making demo tapes and sending them to record companies. One tape found its way to Rubin, who joined with Simmons (now L.L.'s manager) to release the precocious rapper's first single, I Need a Beat, in 1984.
Like most of his musical peers, L.L. tries to convey an impression of spontaneous rhyming when he performs onstage. In reality, he spends long hours writing and honing the bulk of his performance material. "I write all my songs down by hand," he says. "Each song starts with a word, like any other sentence, and becomes a manuscript. I've always got something in my brain, a heartache, a burden, something. Rap's all I care about, rapping and making records."
Which is why L.L., when he isn't writing rap music, often can be found listening to rap music at friends' houses or on the streets of Queens. He is never far from the tools of his trade: two 110-watt, double-cassette recorder radios, which provide, in addition to a throbbing backbeat, advance notice of his imminent arrival. As he sings in I Can't Live Without My Radio, "Don't mean to offend other citizens/ But I push my volume way past 10."