Box. All it took was a simple three-letter word to jumpstart the illustrious career of a hip-hop legend. LL Cool J was unknown when he made a cameo in the 1985 film “Krush Groove” but it wouldn’t be long before the rap world began buzzing about the 16-year old boy in the baby-blue Kangol.
In the flick, which was based off the formative years of seminal hip-hop record label Def Jam, LL walked into an office to showcase his talents for label brass and top talent Run-DMC. After he was denied an audition, the Hollis, Queens MC simply said, “Box,” signaling his entourage to cue the oversized boombox and start the music. It was then that LL began rapping his debut single “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” an ode to the ghetto blasters that ruled the 1980s.
Fast forward 27 years and that cocky kid in the baby-blue bucket hat has conquered every avenue in music, set new benchmarks in Hollywood and is now hosting the 54th Annual Grammy Awards . But LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) isn’t the first hip-hop artist to host the Grammys. Queen Latifah had the honor before him, but the Grammys didn’t officially start recognizing hip-hop as a legitimate genre until 1989, when DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” won for the untelevised Best Rap Performance.
Hip-hop has certainly come a long way. “When we first started the music, they didn’t even play it on the radio in the daytime,” LL told MTV News in October when he walked the carpet at the 2011 BET Hip Hop Awards , acknowledging the network for dedicating an entire show to rap music. “Hip-hop was two hours at night or an hour at night on the weekends, and that was it. So to go from an hour or two hours at night to entire award shows and whole generations of people whose lives have been changed just because they’re involved with the music, that’s a big thing.”
Just as hip-hop has grown, so has Smith. Back in the 1980s, when he first started his career, many considered rap to only be a passing fad. (MCs who clocked more than three albums in their discographies were thought to be anomalies.) LL has put out 14 albums if you include his two greatest hits LPs, 1996’s All World and 2009’s All World 2. There was his classic 1985 debut Radio and his critically acclaimed 1990 album Mama Said Knock You Out, which spawned the Grammy Award-winning single of the same name. In the mid-1990s, he once again proved his dominance with Mr. Smith and took his hit-making skills into the new millennium with his 2002 single “Luv U Better” off of his 10 album.
If Uncle L’s music accolades aren’t enough, his strides in Hollywood have surely made him not just a hip-hop icon, but a permanent fixture in American pop culture. He started in “Krush Groove” with a brief cameo playing himself, but quickly followed up with an appearance in Goldie Hawn’s “Wildcats” the next year. Since then, he has starred in major motion pictures like “Deep Blue Sea” with Samuel L. Jackson, “Any Given Sunday” alongside Al Pacino and “S.W.A.T.” with Colin Farrell. LL also held it down in his own television series, “In the House,” and now stars as Special Agent Sam Hanna in the police drama “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
It’s been quite a ride for LL Cool J, and when music fans watch him Sunday night at the Grammys, they will surely see a well-accomplished musician, actor and business man, while those who have followed since day one will see that 16-year-old kid in the baby-blue Kangol and say, “Wow, he’s come a long way.”
Chaos! Profanity! Wardrobe malfunctions! Don’t miss our Grammy red-carpet live stream this Sunday, February 12, for a full three hours of mayhem, starting at 5 p.m. ET on MTV.com. And the fun doesn’t end Sunday: MTV News has you covered for all the Grammy red-carpet fashion, Grammy winners and Grammy news until the hangover wears off!