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When Todd Smith was 11, his grandfather called him up to his attic in St. Albans, Queens, to give him a gift that would change his life: two turntables, two speakers, a mixer, and a microphone. This was 1979: Smith—who later rechristened himself LL Cool J—was into The Sugarhill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa, and Zulu Nation, the rudiments of hip-hop. Between his new tools and a restless imagination, he discovered his course. “I’m on the move. It’s 1765—no one knows that I escaped the plantation and built a spaceship and flew here. I can write that. Know what I mean?” he recalled in his 1998 memoir, I Make My Own Rules. “Through words, I could go wherever I thought to go.” Smith went on to become a pioneering figure in hip-hop, one of the first artists to reframe the word-heavy vamps of early rap—where tracks could run for 10, 12, even 15 minutes—as pop music, steering hip-hop toward the mainstream at a time when it was still considered underground music. But more than an MC, LL was rap’s first pop star, conquering R&B (“I Need Love,” “Doin’ It,” “Around the Way Girl”), hosting the Grammys, working in film and television, becoming the kind of multi-faceted household name that set the precedent for artists like Drake, Will Smith, and Eminem. After mailing around his demo tape in the early ’80s, Smith landed at a then-new label run out of an NYU dorm, called Def Jam, and released his first single, “I Need a Beat,” when he was 16. (The beat had been made on Def Jam cofounder Rick Rubin’s drum machine by another teenage rapper, Adam Horovitz, a.k.a. Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys. Alongside T La Rock & Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours,” LL's and the Beastie Boys’ debuts were Def Jam’s firsts releases.) His star grew quickly: His first album, 1985’s Radio, helped crystallize the boxy, minimalistic sound of early rap, selling more than a half-million copies in its first six months—a presence that, alongside Run-DMC’s King of Rock, pushed rap into the mainstream. He broke ground again in 1987 with “I Need Love,” one of the first instances of rap being cross-pollinated with the vulnerability of R&B—a move that also helped cement him as hip-hop’s first real sex symbol. By 1990’s Mama Said Knock You Out, he’d become a pop-cultural icon; he was 22. His run continued, producing a series of albums—including 1995’s Mr. Smith, 2000’s G.O.A.T., and 2004’s The DEFinition—that kept pace with the stylistic times while continuing to develop his persona: smooth, confident, easygoing but never without a swaggering edge. Alongside fellow pioneers the Beasties, he helped prove that rappers weren’t just figures of a cultural zeitgeist but artists capable of forging long-term careers. In 2017, he became the first rapper in history to receive Kennedy Center Honors.

Bay Shore, NY, United States
January 14, 1968
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