Rick Rubin Shares Memories Of His First Time Ever Recording With LL Cool J

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LL Cool J’s career is greatly owed to Rick Rubin, at least his discovery. And perhaps Rick Rubin’s own success is largely owed to the gravitas of LL Cool J. The breakthrough Def Jam Records artist would be one of the earliest label acts, on the fledgling imprint launched by Rubin and Russell Simmons.

On 1985’s Radio, LL would work with Rick (and DJ Jazzy Jay) on an album that would set the dichotomy of his career—hardcore Hip-Hop complemented with softer, sensitive songs for the ladies. With that blueprint etched in platinum, it has been the vehicle that would eventually deliver the teenager from Queens, New York to act in film and television, and host the most recent Grammy Awards.

The stage was set for that album by the pair’s work on LL Cool J’s single, “I Need A Beat.” “It was a beat that I programmed at the dorm room on a DX drum machine. I think that was the first one that we ever recorded with LL,” Rubin said. The veteran producer also spoke about how different LL was both from other artists and from the larger than life persona he now portrays. “Back then, I would say LL was kind of a nerdy 16-year-old kid. He was really smart, well read. He came to the dorm room and was very motivated. He’s one of the more hardworking artists I’ve worked with, even from then. And I felt like he really kept to himself. He was friendly with the other artists, but I felt like he was a little bit of a loner type guy. He was in his head a lot. It was different than so many artists that were much more outgoing.”

After the debut run, LL would take his sound to the West Coast to work with DJ Pooh and the LA Posse on Bigger And Deffer. On 1989’s Walking With A Panther, the pair would reunite one final time—in a very big way. Speaking with Rolling Stone, Rick Rubin annotated 10 of his biggest productions. Along joints by Run-D.M.C., T La Rock, and Beastie Boys, the Long Island, New Yorker spoke about 1988’s “Going Back To Cali”:

“‘Going Back to Cali’ was more of a personal story for me, because I had been spending time in California and going back and forth,” explained Rubin who had founded Def American Records, his entirely own imprint. He said he fed LL Cool J with a concept at the MC’s request. “I think that was the last record we made together. He’s still super solid and has a super work ethic.”

“I like that song because it was a different kind of funk. There’s a slower beat and a faster beat working together to create a counter beat. It created a new feel. I played kalimba on it, too.”

Continuing, Rick pointed out, “I don’t know what the inspiration for the horns was, but that was the first time we used them. Maybe it’s because we would scratch in horn stabs often and thought it would be interesting to do them ourselves. That part was all improvised. I would just say what to play and the musicians would play them. We had a horn solo in it, too, which is an odd choice because it’s typically not something I like.”

The iconic producer shed some interesting light on the artful, black-and-white music video. “I can’t think of the song without thinking about the video. It’s was such a quintessential moment in time in our lives. And it was directed by a man named Ric Menello, who was the guy who ran the front desk at the dorm. He was a film-buff friend of ours.”