LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat” and “Dangerous/I Want You.”

In retrospect, it seems like LL Cool J may have been born to rap. He was a very suggestible 11-year-old when the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” became a world-wide hit in 1979. By his own reckoning (as recounted in Def Jam: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label), it was only a year later that his fate was sealed:

One day in junior high, there was this lone kid, wearing a knapsack, walking about twenty or thirty feet in front of me. It was just the two of us in the hallway. He was kind of diddy boppin’ and singing his version of the children’s song “This Old Man”—“This DJ, he gets down, mixing records while they go round.” I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear the echo in the hallway. It was as if he was in another dimension, in slow motion, like a dream. But the way he did it, I was, like, “I wanna do that right now!” After that, I was writing, writing, writing. At fourteen, I started sending out demo tapes.

The lad was 16 years old in the spring of 1984 when he sent a demo to Rick Rubin, whose Def Jam label was then enjoying a local hit with “It’s Yours.” Rick never spent much time listening to the tapes coming in over the transom, but the Beastie Boys’s Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz—who hung out a lot in Rick’s NYU dorm room in those days—plucked LL’s demo out of a box, dug it, and played it for Rick. Rick agreed it was great. LL’s “I Need a Beat,” DJ 001, was cut in September of 1984 and released in November.

LL’s first bio takes its cue from his first record, which is largely autobiographical. The bio provides the reader with at least two complementary angles on L. The same artiste who admires “all the rappers with force” makes sure to credit his mother as his inspiration.

“I Need a Beat” kicked up some dust right away. To start, it was the peg for the first music business story ever published about Def Jam, providing Russell with a platform to make a short but potent declaration of serious intent. As a piece of reporting, however, the Billboard story shown here leaves something to be desired. They misspelled LL Cool J, and they claimed that Run-DMC, like LL and the Beastie Boys, were on Def Jam’s roster. Not true. Run-DMC recorded for Profile and would continue to do so.

The November 1984 issue of Phillip “Love Man” Edward’s Million Dollar Record Review doesn’t actually review the record, but LL’s first release does appear at the very bottom of this chart of Top 40 12-inch hits, behind much bigger hits by Ashford & Simpson, Kurtis Blow, the Fat Boys, Chaka Khan, Prince, Madonna, and others.

The four-page tip sheet—which sketches out the then-known regional universe of record distributors, record stores, radio stations and radio deejays then paying attention to rap (including Downtown Records, the go-to spot for hard-to-find hip-hop break beats)—also boasts both a promo for the Love Man’s radio show, and a small ad for “I Need a Beat.” How early in the label’s history is this moment? Early enough for its name to be misspelled Deth Jam.

The first review of “I Need a Beat” appeared on November 30, 1984 in Dance Music Report, a bi-weekly trade magazine aimed mostly at nightclub and radio deejays. DMR was published by Tom Silverman, who was also the founder and proprietor of Tommy Boy Records. The anonymous writer of the review gives props first to Russell Simmons, then to Rick Rubin, and finally to LL, who delivers “hardcore rap at its most insistent.”

A few weeks later, Black Radio Exclusive, another trade mag, chimed in, noting LL’s sonic resemblance to Run-DMC.

Late in April of ’85, LL played a live gig, one of his first. It was a benefit for Ethiopia, sponsored by Hunter College’s Journalism Club, on which “LL Kook Jay” shared the bill with the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe and a comic named Lamont Haskins (One wonders if that misspelling was purely accidental). Ken Olsen, writing a review for Hunter College’s student newspaper The Hunter Envoy of May 13, doesn’t bother to describe LL’s performance, but he does report that “the Journalism Club was…able to raise over a thousand dollars for Ethiopia.” And the review is accompanied by a photo (uncaptioned) of LL.

The brainchild of a young black entrepreneur out of New Jersey named Vincent Carroll, The Hip Hop Hit List plausibly claimed that it was “the first chart ever that caters only to RAP music.” The tipsheet had the field to itself between 1984 and 1988, when it stopped publishing.

On June 10, 1985, the HHHL featured young Mr. LL Cool Jay on its cover, along with Cut Creator, L’s deejay.

Inside was a quarter-page ad for the new single, “Dangerous/I Want You,” a/k/a/ DJ 005, a recording cut by L and Rick the previous February. Listening to it today, “I Want You” may not sound remarkable, but at the time a rap love song was literally unheard of. For LL, however, it was as natural as breathing. He loved Melle Mel and he loved Michael Jackson, and he’s alternately made tough and tender records his entire career.

Up from number six the in the previous week’s listings, “Dangerous” occupies the number two spot on that issue’s chart of The Top 30 Raps of the World. (Two other Def Jam releases also made it onto the Hip Hop Hit List’s list that week: Jimmy Spicer’s “This Is It” at number 12 and Russell Rush’s “Cold Chillin’ In the Spot” at number 26.)

In addition to its charts, The HHHL devoted a full page to an interview with LL, in which he is characteristically both boastful and modest:

Q: How do you deal with everyday fame?

A: I’m a normal person. I don’t get a limo just because I can afford it. I jump on the 3-A, the bus, subway. I’m real normal.

John Leland tackled DJ005 in his August ’85 column for Spin. Recognizing the uniqueness of “I Want You,” he writes that LL was attempting “to go New Edition/Force M.D. flyboy – but on his terms: no music, no singing.” His conclusion? “Wish him luck; the competition is certainly slicker.” Two years later, in the summer of ’87, another of LL’s rap love songs, “I Need Love,” shot to number one on Billboard’s Hot Black Singles chart.

Hear Rick and Russell reminisce about LL’s first records.

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