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Hip-hop artist and actor LL Cool J made it big with Def Jam Records in the late 1980s and '90s with albums like Mama Said Knock You Out.
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Born James Todd Smith on Long Island, New York, on January 14, 1968, LL Cool J is a nickname that stands for "Ladies Love Cool James." LL Cool J signed to fledgling hip-hop label Def Jam Records in 1984. After a string of hits—included on albums like Bigger and Deffer, Walking with a Panther, Mama Said Knock You Out, 14 Shots to the Dome, Mr. Smith—LL turned to acting, appearing in movies like B.A.P.S., Halloween H2O and Any Given Sunday.
"Once you achieve one goal, you should be looking forward to trying to build onto the next thing, and not just getting comfortable with what you're doing."
Hip-hop artist, author and actor LL Cool J was born James Todd Smith on January 14, 1968, in Bay Shore, Long Island, New York. Growing up in New York City, Smith adopted the stage name LL Cool J, which stands for "Ladies Love Cool James." The outgoing teen signed to Def Jam records in 1984, which was a fledgling rap label at the time, founded by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. LL released the hit "I Need a Beat" soon after, which sold more than 100,000 copies.
The young artist left school to record his debut album, Radio, which was a hugely successful mix of conventional song structure and pop-oriented rap. Music fans responded enthusiastically to the album's singles, "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and "Rock the Bells," and bought more than one million copies of the recording. He appeared as himself in the feature film Krush Groove (1985) around this time, which was a fictionalized version of the early days of Def Jam. The members of RUN D.M.C., Fat Boys, and New Edition also appeared in the film. His first speaking role was a small part in the 1986 high school football comedy, Wildcats.
In his follow-up album, 1987's Bigger and Deffer, LL Cool J showed his softer side with the popular ballad, "I Need Love." The song became a hit on both the rap and pop charts. Two years later, he was back on the charts with his album Walking with a Panther.
It was his fourth album, Mama Said Knock You Out (1990), however, that became his biggest seller to date. Projecting a tougher, more "street" persona, LL Cool J won over new fans with the title track. The single was as popular in middle America as it was in the urban environs of his youth. For the song, LL won his first Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. The album also featured the successful ballad "Around the Way Girl" and the straight-forward rap "The Boomin' System."
After stumbling with 1993's "gangsta" style 14 Shots to the Dome, LL Cool J played up his sexy image with 1995's Mr. Smith. The explicit single "Doin' It" featured a duet with rapper LeShaun. Another hit from the album, the romantic slow jam "Hey Lover" won a Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.
By the late 1990s, LL Cool J had officially crossed over to a career as a legitimate actor. He appeared in the 1997 comedy B.A.P.S., starring Halle Berry and directed by Robert Townsend, and the 1998 horror flick Halloween H2O, with Jamie Lee Curtis. In 1999's Any Given Sunday, LL showed off his acting chops, taking on a supporting role across from such heavy-hitting stars as Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, and Jamie Foxx.
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