Featured Playlist

Essential Albums

Artist Playlists

Appears On

More To Hear


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

Select a country or region

Africa, Middle East, and India

Asia Pacific


Latin America and the Caribbean

The United States and Canada