“LL Cool J is hard as HELL/Battle anybody I don’t care who you TELL!” Those words were recited by a then 17-year-old LL Cool J on a song called “Rock The Bells” in 1985. The lyrics would go down as some of the greatest opening lines in rap history. By the time Rick Rubin’s unforgettably rough and raw beat kicks in on the song, LL Cool J takes you on a furious lyrical tirade in a way the world had never really heard before. Although LL had already put out a handful of records prior to “Rock The Bells,” this is the song that really proved the self-proclaimed GOAT rapper was a phenomenon. “Rock The Bells” isn’t just one of LL’s best songs, it’s one of the best rap songs ever.
What’s important to understand about “Rock The Bells” is that there’s was really no precedent for it. The early days of hip-hop, from the late ’70s to the mid-80s, were great but rap was still an emerging genre, so kids like LL didn’t really have a proper template for their careers. While he was still a teenager, LL not only embarked on what would become one of hip-hop’s most illustrious careers but he also helped define what we expect from every rapper that came after him. When rap fans think of the golden age of the ’80s hip-hop, they often cite GOATs like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and KRS-One—and yet in most cases, LL precedes all of them. Sadly, many younger rap fans might know LL more for things like acting and hosting the Grammys these days, but none of that should take away from his status as a legendary rapper.
To document this classic record, Complex Magazine talked to everyone from LL Cool J to Rick Rubin but also Russell Simmons, LL’s DJ Cut Creator, DMC of Run-D.M.C., former Def Jam Publicist Bill Adler, as well as journalists like Bonz Malone and Karen Hunter. Together, they all provide a look into how this song was made, the impact it had on the streets, and why LL Cool J is who he is.