Yes, yes, y’all.
I’ve been a member of the board of directors of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for over ten years. You might imagine that that’s a position that grants me considerable juice, but when it comes to the HOF’s most important decisions — who exactly ends up enshrined in the hall — the directors are allowed to cast a single vote, the same as any other member.
Normally that’s enough for me. This year is different. I’m writing not in my official capacity, but as someone who’s been down with hip-hop since the Eighties. I thought it was important to make the case in public for one of this year’s nominees, my colleague LL Cool J, with whom I worked for years. Mr. James Smith has been eligible for induction since 2010 and he’s been nominated for inclusion six times. But he’s never been voted in. And I think that that failure speaks to the limitations of too many of the HOF’s voters.
How the heck has LL Cool J been overlooked? He was a phenomenal and ground-breaking rapper from the very beginning, as deeply steeped in rock as he was in the soul, funk, and rap that preceded him. He was only 17 years old in 1985 when he recorded “Rock the Bells,” which included the following couplet: “This ain’t the glory days with Bruce Springsteen/I’m not a virgin so I know I’ll make Madonna scream.” It was also in 1985 that he appeared in the movies for the first time, a potent little cameo about which Questlove has said, “LL’s 45-second performance in ‘Krush Groove’ is one of the most important entrances in music history.” His testosterone-maddened battle raps have included “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” (1985), “Jack the Ripper” (1987), and “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1991). The stylish aggression built into these songs influenced no less a figure than Michael Jackson, who cut “Bad” after meeting LL in person…and after L himself cut “I’m Bad” in 1986.
LL’s love songs may have been even more influential and popular. When “I Need Love” went to number one on Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles chart in 1987, it was the first rap recording ever to reach that summit. His good looks and blazing charisma made him one of the first rappers whose videos were played on MTV at a time when very few performers of color were allowed on the channel. He was, as Queen Latifah once noted, “rap’s first sex symbol.”
Even more broadly, LL spearheaded the global ascendancy of rap. As one of the founders of the modern age of rap touring, he traveled the world, inspiring local rappers in any number of countries to make their own recordings in their native tongues. I saw the evidence in person as it first happened, and I continue to see it these days during visits to India, Vietnam, and Africa. There’s no doubt that rap is the number one musical form in the world, which is another way of saying it is the new rock & roll.
Truthfully, this is old news, but I think that many of the HOF’s members are struggling to accept it. How else to explain that only six rap acts have been voted into the hall to date? But I think one of the bigger problems is the HOF’s ongoing debate about what exactly constitutes rock & roll — even if we temporarily pull performers of color out of the equation. How much sense does it really make to say that Bill Haley & the Comets and Pink Floyd flew under the same flag…except that each of them both pledged allegiance to it?
Then again, it’s crucial to remember that rock & roll isn’t only a musical idiom, it’s a cultural force. More to the point, the consensus among HOF voters is that rock & roll is a disruptive, counter-cultural force. It’s that kind of thinking that helps to explain just which rappers have made it in: Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, NWA, and 2Pac. All of them were troublemakers and most of them at least flirted with “conscious rap.” By contrast, think of Kurtis Blow, an exact contemporary of Flash & the Five, who’s never even been nominated. Or De La Soul, who emerged at the same time as Public Enemy and NWA, who have also never been nominated.
Ultimately, I think LL’s problem might be that he’s made it all look too easy. Sure, he generated his fair share of beefs with other rappers back in the day, which helped him to persuasively compare himself to Muhammad Ali in “Mama Said Knock You Out.” But all of that was a long time ago. These days LL seems to skate. He’s smiley, calm, and charming, someone who’s been utterly at ease hosting the Grammy Awards telecast over the years.
And speaking of the Grammys, Mr. Cool J could have been forgiven if he’d taken a cue from Little Richard prior to this moment. Tapped to give an award on the Grammy’s telecast in 1988, Richard opened the envelope and said, “And the Best New Artist is…me! Y’all ain’t never given me no Grammys and I am the architect of rock & roll!” The stunned crowd jumped up and gave the great man a standing ovation.
Anyway, however mysterious LL Cool J might be to HOF voters, his Hall of Fame stature within the world of hip-hop — to the extent that you can still separate it from the world of rock — has been, yep, rock solid for decades. In 2019 Dr. Dre (who was ushered into the HOF as a member of NWA) told LL: “You’ve been one of my inspirations for a very long time.” Snoop Dogg (who’s been eligible since 2019 but has yet to be nominated) has also chimed in: “LL Cool J is one of the rappers I studied and learned from — line for line, bar for bar.”
And it’s only right to leave the last word to DMC, who was inducted into the HOF as a member of Run-DMC in 2009, and was not influenced by, but an influence to, LL. When LL received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017 — he was their first hip-hop honoree — DMC was one of the artists tapped to salute him from the stage. His rhymes included a gem that went a little something like this: “The ladies love him, he’s a sexy man/There is no def without his jam.” That sounds like rock & roll to me…and there’s no question that LL Cool J should be voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Lyor Cohen is a label veteran who worked with LL Cool J, Run D.M.C. and others at Def Jam in the 1980s, then ran the recorded-music business at Warner Music until 2012 and later founded indie venture 300 Entertainment in 2014. He joined YouTube as global head of music in 2016.