5 Reasons Why L.L. Cool J Should Be Included In Conversations About Lyrical M.C.’s

JayQuan 2014

It is impossible to properly discuss the greatest of all time or most lyrical M.C. without considering where the art form was before the M.C. in question entered the game,where it was after and how he or she changed the game.I rarely take part in discussions about who is the best, because civilians (a term I use to refer to those who are very surface level in their knowledge of Hip Hop) usually use record sales, number of albums released, popularity and how much money the M.C. in question appears to have as criteria for greatness. For those who recognize poetic value, cadence, breath control, cleverness and vocabulary as necessary attributes for a great M.C.; you know that L.L. is great , not just because he is “still in the game”, appears to be rich , is an actor or released more albums than any solo M.C. from any era.

Using the above mentioned criteria we understand why Rakim, Mele Mel, Kool G. Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, M.C. Lyte, Grandmaster Caz and Nas are all greats in the game. Each one of those Emcees took what existed before and greatly improved upon it. A few of them raised the bar high enough that the game was changed forever. In the spirit of recognizing where the game was before a prospective G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) entered – it’s important to understand the lineage that birthed James Todd Smith.

L.L. is an obvious and admitted student of Kool Moe Dee & The Treacherous 3, T La Rock, Grandmaster Mele Mel, Spoonie Gee and Grandmaster Caz. With the exception of Spoonie Gee (L.L. got the charisma and playboy image from Spoonie) all of those who L.L. studied were next level wordsmiths. These guys were beyond the typical throw your hands in the air/braggadocio standards of the day. When Kool Moe Dee remarked on the liner notes of his self titled debut album “special thanks to L.L. Cool J, T La Rock & Rakim for breaking my style of rap through” that wasn’t just ego. If you listen to It’s Yours by Tla Rock & Special K, Gotta Rock & Turn it Up by Kool Moe Dee & The Treacherous 3 and T La Rocks He’s Incredible EP – you will bear witness that L.L. belongs to a certain fraternity of M.C. I called it the “thesaurus style” – not because the lyricists were necessarily using a thesaurus, but the style caused many younger M.C.’s (myself included) to seek out that book so that we could also be “commentating illustrating description giving adjective experts”.

Reason 1 – L.L.’s Def Jam debut single – I Need A Beat

Again consider how most cats are flowing in 1984. Then listen to L.L. “tom tom/snare/hat/bass & cymbal, like that of a cat on the mic im nimble”. Or “I syncopated and devised it well/the beat elevates/the scratch excels/all techniques are a combination of skills that I have for narration”.

It isn’t about the use of big words. It’s about poetically telling a story using multisyllabic phrasing, cadence and other poetic techniques. Remember we are M.C.’s and it all starts with words. Out of the gate L.L. showed a mastery of words & delivery and a hint of a growl that we would witness much greater later.

Reason 2 -  Rock The Bells (Original Version)

For 7 minutes and 11 seconds L shows his ass. Every line is a stinger. A lotta cats say that L.L. isn’t a battle M.C. and I beg to differ. “Vocally pulsating I initiate top rating, you must respond to my bells there’s no waiting”.. “Exterminating crews with my manuscript, and the best thing you wrote was a bunch of bullshit”…… “I illuminate over any number on the richter/my throat contracts like a boa constrictor”….”ambassador- the thane of Cawdor dialect so def it’ll rip up the floor”….”on the microphone you will never recoup – when im finish wit’ cha boy you’ll be suckin’ on soup”….you get the picture, and there are still so many incredible lines.

Reason 3 - The 1st Soul Train Awards

For the first ever Soul Train awards L.L. was commissioned to write a rhyme explaining the process of nomination. Im Bad (the 1st single to his 2nd lp) hadn’t been released yet, but he rhymes over the instrumental. “Im L.L. Cool J and im 6ft tall, cold bouncin’ the ball up against the wall”….. “Price Waterhouse put the ballots in, so you can’t get mad if you don’t win”. The relevance of this performance was that he crafted a very detailed rhyme that covered the entire process, and he was able to command a crowd that still wasn’t accepting of rap as an art form. Rap records had only been in existence for 7 years or so, and rap was still very much the bastard child of Black music in many people’s eyes.

Reason 4- His determination to make a successful Hip Hop love song

I Need Love is probably my least favorite song by L.L. To the casual fan it was probably a groundbreaking idea, but it was his 3rd attempt. In1985 his 2nd single was I Want You/Dangerous. I Want You spoke to me as he rhymed about “seeing her in between class/one glimpse of ya eyes and my heart beats fast”. The same cat with the gold chain, boombox and Kangol wants to “sit in the living room/eat donuts and milk listen to a pop tune”. That’s fly – a b boy serenade so to speak. Later that year the B side to I Can’t Live Without My Radio was another B Boy love tune titled I Can Give You More. Pleading with a female “please be his ex and be my bride”. Again these songs spoke to me as a 15 year old with raging hormones and the same shit that L was going through. Rick Rubin’s use of basically a drum machine (a little piano line was added to I Can Give You More) made these boom box ready (especially I Want You).

Reason 5 – The Bigger And Deffer Lp

People either love or hate L.L.’s second lp. When it was out I never knew a person who disliked it, but since then I have run into several who didn’t care for it. But LYRICALLY this era belonged to Todd. When you add The Original Rock The Bells and Jack The Ripper, that fact can’t be questioned. Slick Ricky D is the undisputed greatest story telling M.C. But the Do Wop is the best story ever told about a cat’s day (shout out to Ice Cube’s Today Was A Good Day). From his 9:30 Saturday morning shower to him “stepping on stage to hear the girlies scream” L.L. is in rare form here. “Her name was Rene’ her face was ok, but she had the kinda body that made Jay wanna play”…..Pick any song on the lp with the exception of I Need Love, and the lyrics are in abundance. “ To rappers im a nightmare/on Elmstreet hellified hotter than heat/that’s why the others can’t eat/ ‘cus im a carnivore and I can eat much more than a fat man” L growls on 357 Breakdown. “Hoping and prayin’ one day id get on a roll, so I’d have Fila in the summer and a mink when it’s cold” is one of the many jems on Go Cut Creator Go. Sometimes cats are at their zenith and the planets are just aligned perfectly, and this is the time period that made Black Beat Magazine proclaim L the “Hemingway of Hip Hop”. Say what you want about his cockiness, or whatever off stage drama he may have had; LYRICALLY L.L. should be mentioned in the same breath as Rakim, Kane, KRS One, Kool G. Rap, Nas and the others who automatically pop up in conversations about the G.O.A.T.

Honorable Mentions:

L.L. always had some comedic and/or metaphoric songs on each of his first few lps: You Can’t Dance, That’s A Lie, My Rhyme Ain’t Done, Milky Cereal. As I listen to his discography (the first 5 lps actually), dude was creative and very versatile. Despite rhyming over top of his own voice at the Fresh Fest (because he didn’t have instrumentals for some songs- thank God for Jorun Bombay) he displayed incredible breath control in his live performance as well, making him one of the more well-rounded M.C.’s. Rap still hasn’t mastered the live show and the standouts from cats that I’ve witnessed personally are: Doug E Fresh , L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy, KRS One, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 to name a few. It was refreshing sitting with my wife listening to classic L.L. She asked “I wonder if kids today will be able to enjoy current music in 30 years the way that we are enjoying this”? Who knows – I seriously doubt it, but skills certainly endure.

*I was moved to write this because L.L. really made a huge impression on me as a young man/M.C. People have proclaimed for years that the reason L.L. is so dope is because he has 13 or more albums, or because he is a sex symbol, or he is still getting paid etc. While those are all admirable achievements I maintain that if L never made another album after Mama Said Knock You Out – he would still deserve to be mentioned in the highest echelons of the genre. He carved his place before the 90’s even hit as far as im concerned.

The clip below is from '85, A dope freestyle that I had on tape back then. Some of the rhymes eventually became Im Bad & The Original Rock The Bells.