December 7, 2007

Radio Nexus

LL Cool J’s Radio deserves the proverbial rock critic label of classic mainly from a historical point of view as it provides a concise summary of rap of the Old School variety at a time when Old School was reaching its commercial and artistic peak. Indeed, Radio effectively encapsulates the themes and musical stylings that made Old School so vibrant for a time and provides a chronological and musical bridge between the bubbling popularity of Old School in 1983-84 and the megastardom of 1986, namely with Run DMC’s Raising Hell.

Radio is strong, concise, and consistent statement of its time, an album that was rooted deeply in the urban geography of the boroughs of New York, where rap was essential born and nurtured, yet one that seemed to reach beyond its geographic scope and offer a boldness that went well beyond the simple, provincial bravado spewings that so characterized this period of hip hop.

The strength of the artistic work is due in part with the urgency and hunger of the charismatic voice, that of LL Cool J, a teenage phenom of sorts. The chiselled, taut, and semi-angered vocal delivery (contrasted with the more silky R&B style of later LL Cool J years) cuts through the stern minimalist beats and meshes well with rockier edge of the musical production of Rick Rubin, the another key element in the validity of the album. Indeed, Rubin’s production give Radio an overall artistic seriousness and endurance that outsizes novelty or one-trick pony acts of the time (think Fat Boys, Doug E Fresh) and outpaces most albums from contemporary Old School stalwarts. Put simply, Radio has weight and substance: a hearty beef stew versus the beef broth and tomato soup of many other artists of the time.

The greatness of the album should not be overstated, however. Musically, it is clearly a product of its time. While it does foreshadow some of the sound that would make Run DMC’s Raising Hell a tremendous success, certain musical and thematic elements – namely the Rubin influences – would quickly become obnoxiously cliché and overused. In other words, the artistic foresight of Radio ultimately displayed a small time window. Even within the album, there is a notable gulf between the truly classic tracks and some of the rest. While this is not particularly surprising since rap albums of this time were clearly in a middle development stage, these musical setbacks are not easy to forget or overlook.

Despite its dated elements, Radio does display great historical importance as it marks a clear and coherent nexus between the best that came before it and best that was soon to come. With regards to its Old School foundations, Radio is clearly employs the DJ mode of the scratch as one of its key sonic weapons. As for beats, the album does not hesitate to borrow inspiration from Run DMC classics “Hard Times” and “It’s Like That” in songs like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” (intro and foundation beat) and “You Can’t Dance” (a sped up “It’s Like That” beat). Rubin also seems particularly fond of the rockier elements of DMC first two albums and does not hesitate to use them to a minor degree in Radio and, of course, to a greater degree in his later collaborations with DMC and with The Beastie Boys on tracks like “Brass Monkey”. We see the Old School vibe in the thematic area as well. In numerous tracks, the jocular dis/cut/snap method prevails in several songs. And, “Dear Yvette” provides the humorous, although arguably semi-misogynous track that follows in the footsteps of UTFO’s classic “Roxanne, Roxanne”.

With its Old School roots and identity in tact, Radio effectively branches out and offers several musical statements that would provide a partial blueprint for one of Rick Rubin’s subsequent blockbusters. “Rock the Bells” is an obvious stand-out track thanks in large part to its devastating, arse-shaking polyrhythmic beat – a rhythmic structure that would foreshadow Run DMC’s stunning “Peter Piper” on Raising Hell. The only thing missing from the former track to make almost identical to the latter one is the cowbell rhythm slice, an element that is curiously found in the background of “It’s a Lie”, a track that also seemingly foreshadows another element of DMC’s megahit album. Put simply, “It’s a Lie” sounds a lot like “You Be Illin’” both musically and in terms of the comedic nature of the theme.

So, Radio is reverent and uniquely imaginative and bold at the same time. It is well aware of tradition, yet has a vision for the future. In this way, the oft-used label of “Middle School” for describing LL Cool J is appropriate as early albums like Radio helped cement him as a link between the recent past and fast growing future of rap. Still, I think it is unfair to exclude LL from the Old School moniker, especially when used in highlighting historical importance. Radio is one of the handful of albums that truly approach the classic level – mind you, classic singles abound in the pre 1986 period – and that so precisely summarize the feel and growth of a musical genre that was soon to explode both commercially and artistically. Unfortunately for LL and the artistic longevity of the album, the fast and dynamic changes in the hip hop spectrum, particularly with regards to the development of the album concept, would make LL’s and Radio’s impact on the scene somewhat blunted and short lived.


venerableseed said...

true indeed. In my post I commented about how hip hop in 1985 was like rock and roll before it got cemented into mainstream American culture. Just like there were no rock albums (just singles) before 1963 there were no great hip hop albums until "Run-DMC".

But like you explained, "Radio" was the second great hip hop album. If "Run-DMC" was "Please, Please, Me" then "Radio" was "With the Beatles", I guess. (coincidentally WTB is next week's album here.)

Like you said, Radio's greatness can't be overstated. In that vein, I find it ridiculous that Radio isn't ranked higher on this list. I'm amazed that it even made the list, actually. It's inclusion makes up for "End of the Innocence"...sort of. Hopefully your post will make more people want to listen to Radio.

LenBarker said...

Strong post, eurowags.

TheAngryYoungMan said...

Oh good lord, Seed. You will take any opportunity to bash End of the Innocence, no matter how tangential to the discussion. Leave the poor album alone already. What's it ever done to you?

venerableseed said...

your right AYM, that EOTI was gratuitous. I'm just waiting for the inevitable Rick Rubin-Don Henley collab where Don croons over stripped production and loses his 120-piece dead weight background tracks.

That actually might be good a la that new Robert Plant-Allison Krauss album which I have surprisingly enjoyed. If that album doesn't scream RS's #1 of 2007 I don't know what does.

Eurowags said...

Venerable, for the record, I did say that Radio's greatness "should not be overstated" as it has its fair share of blemishes and warts. That said, I find it one of the better and more cohesive rap albums of the time and, for that reason, it should be included in a list of 500 great albums. Had the list been of 100 or even 200 albums, I would not include it. Rather, an album like Run DMC's debut effort sticks out more in my mind both in terms of quality tracks and as a pioneering work.

venerableseed said...

Other than Run-DMC, Radio doesn't really have much competition in pre-1986 records (Fat Boys, Whodini's Escape, and the Wild Style Soundtrack might be the strongest).

I'm not saying it's dated but I won't be listening to it much in the future despite the fact that I like it. But I'm not listening to With the Beatles everyday either and I can acknowledge that it deserves a top 100 place.

I would place it between 100-200 on merit and context. If it were a list of my favorite 500 albums or all-time best 500 albums it probably wouldn't make my list.