1985's RADIO introduced the world to an MC who had been making noise for a year before, with a few strong singles and a strategically timed motion picture debut performance.
'85 was a good year for rap records. The "drum machine era" was going strong, Run-D.M.C. and The Fat Boys had just released their sophomore albums King Of Rock and The Fat Boys Are Back, respectively, and the motion picture and soundtrack Krush Groove was released that year. LL COOL J was still considered an underground artist at this time, having released his debut single "I Need A Beat" the previous year, which drew comparisons to cerebral MC's like T La Rock and Kool Moe Dee. 1985 also brought us LL's sophomore single "I Want You"/"Dangerous," which further solidified him as one to watch for witty wordplay and high energy delivery. The fact that a drum heavy rap ballad with no singing finally existed was a first, and one that would later become a standard on full length rap albums. LL even started "I Want You" with the spoken intro "Look, girl, I'm not gonna sing, 'cus I just don't do that."
LL's third single "I Can't Live Without My Radio" was the one that put him where he deserved to be. A great majority of the public had no idea what LL looked like, and as hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when not every rap song had a video. In fact the majority did not. Without question the most talked about scene on Krush Groove was LL's short, but extremely effective performance of the first verse of his latest release. In an audition scene, the late Jam Master Jay, D.M.C. and Dr Jeckyll (the late Andre Harrell) & Mr. Hyde tell a young and energetic LL that auditions are over for that day. L yells for his "Box!" and proceeds with the performance, which would become Hip-Hop "water cooler talk" for weeks to come.
In an episode of THE FOUNDATION podcast, Alonzo Brown aka Mr. Hyde explained to JayQuan: “Russell Simmons putting LL in Krush Groove the way that he did was very much intentional. It speaks to Russell’s genius. LL didn’t have a video for any of his previous singles and his cameo in that movie was his video, and the album was right behind it. It worked much more effectively than a video would have.” “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” placed LL into the living rooms of America via programs such as Soul Train and American Bandstand.
“I Can’t Live Without My Radio” spoke directly to LL’s fan base. “Wearing light blue Puma’s, a whole lotta gold” he yelled on the song. What LL wore and talked about was the same as many inner-city youth. He was a reflection of his audience, which was a stated goal of Russell Simmons concerning his growing stable of artists. To create artists who identified with their prospective fanbases. The B. side of “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” was “I Can Give You More.” This was LL’s second rap ballad, and though his most successful rap ballad would occur on his next album Bigger And Deffer, the seeds were planted with “I Want You” and “I Can Give You More.”
Radio was released on November 18th, 1985. The album cover was brilliant, a close up of L’s JVC RC-M90 boom box. Again, this imagery appealed to a generation that carried boom boxes, with many carrying the very box that was displayed on the cover. The back cover of Radio contained two images of LL opposite of each other wearing the brand new, now iconic first Nike Air Jordan's which were released to the public that year. In this era we purchased music without hearing it first. Our purchases were often based on the record cover, the record label that released the album, or the names of the producers associated with the album in question. The visual's alone on Radio told the buyer that this would be a banger.
“You Can’t Dance” and “That’s A Lie” served as comic relief and many of L's subsequent albums would contain similar songs. “You Can’t Dance” is musically a throwback to the days before rap records, with hits interpolation of “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band, which has been famously dubbed “The B Boy Anthem." Lyrically, it’s a hilarious story about that person who should be “Kicked in the teeth when they put their dancing shoes on.” “That’s A Lie” is the tale of the kid that we all grew up with who “Lied about the lies that he lied about” and rarely told the truth.
“You’ll Rock” is a song for the head nodders and lovers of lyrics alike. With its Rick Rubin trademark 808 boom and superior drum machine programming, it’s one of L’s lesser talked-about joints, but easily one of the best displays of his witty lyricism and incredible breath control. “Dangerous” which originally appeared on his sophomore single with “I Want You” is an ode to his D.J. Cut Creator. Again L’s witty word play was evident early on proclaiming that Cut Creator “Cuts like a blade, he could squeeze a dry sponge and make Kool Aid.”
Another early innovation on Radio is the usage of the skit. At the end of the A Side on the “El Shabazz” routine, L speaks directly to the listener, instructing them to “Turn the record over to the other side, because the other side is better.” Never before had a rap album spoke directly to the listener, much less giving them instructions about the album. The interactive skit was born here almost a decade before A Tribe Called Quest made it a major element on Midnight Marauders.
"Dear Yvette" was a literal warning letter to the neighborhood promiscuous girl in the vein of U.T.F.O.'s "Roxanne, Roxanne," and The Bad Boys and The Glamour Girls "Veronica." Over a dope 808 beat, LL points out Yvette's missteps, even spawning an answer record by Philly's Yvette Money, as was the case with the "gender war" rap records of the time.
“Rock the Bells” is not only one of COOL J’s most popular songs, spawning a festival and media company as its namesake – it’s one of L’s best lyrical displays and one of his best vocal performances as well. At times it’s an ode to Cut Creator, (“You Know at my show who’s on the wheels, he’ll drive the cross fader like a cut mobile"); at other times, "Rock The Bells” serves as a warning to COOL J’s competitors (“LL COOL J is hard as hell, battle anybody, I don’t care who you tell.”) DJ’s like Cash Money and hordes of others have burned through multiple copies of Radio and the “Rock The Bells” single, as it’s one of the most popular rap records to build scratch & cut routines around.
RADIO properly introduced LL COOL J to those who didn’t catch his early singles, and it defined an era as well. And as it is with any classic the replay value is extremely high. If LL is the GOAT, RADIO is exhibit A and positive proof of the claim.