Rap artist LL Cool J relied on music to escape a tough childhood, and after a quarter-century career in hip-hop, he is expanding into other pursuits and going One on One with NY1’s Budd Mishkin.
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In a business known for short careers, hip-hop artist LL Cool J has been around for almost 25 years.
"When I see guys like [rappers] the Beastie [Boys] or Run [DMC], it just makes me appreciative,” he says. “It makes me grateful that I was able to have that experience, and I'm still able to have the experience I'm having now."
Now, the LL Cool J experience also involves clothing. He has always had the fashion bug and currently has a line with Sears. He also has a digital music distribution network called Boomdizzle.
He says he hasn't closed the door on acting in television or in the movies. But LL Cool J claims that the work which brought him international fame is now more behind him than in front of him.
"I don't want to do just the same old LL put an album out and go for that,” he says. “You know, ‘Momma Said Knock You Out’ was what it was and I appreciate that but I have to allow myself to grow."
Interviewed at Chung King Studios in TriBeCa, where he's done a lot of his recording, LL Cool J wore shades to, as he puts it, "create the shades vibe," and sported a knit cap. He apparently owns thousands of hats, and is almost never caught in public without one.
But he almost lost his hat years ago while visiting the home of comedian Bill Cosby.
"He was like, ‘Take off your hat, and I was like, ‘Huh?’ He was like, ‘Take off your hat.’ I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” says LL Cool J. “He was like, ‘Yes,’ so I had to take off my hat and sit there and eat. I'm sweating, because I just didn't want to have my hat off but I didn't want to be rude to Bill Cosby. And he just looked at me and said, ‘Put your hat back on.’"
People in his old neighborhood of St. Albans, Queens are accustomed to seeing LL Cool J every summer, when he runs his annual “Jump and Ball Tournament” for kids. But in the early years of his success, the rapper was not accustomed to the star treatment.
"I'm in the neighborhood and this guy's staring at me. Now remember, this is Queens. [I say,] ‘Who are you looking at?’” he says. “Like, guys who aren't tough guys in Queens ask, ‘What are you looking at?’ Now I learned to say, ‘What's up, man? Hey.” And while they're still staring at me like I'm a moron, it's not because they're mad at me. Maybe they are surprised to see me because I look like a poster when I walk in a room."
In the old days in the neighborhood, the young rapper was named as James Todd Smith. But he chose “LL Cool J” for a stage name, meaning “Ladies Love Cool James.”
He's usually had the reputation for creating music that is romantic and sexy without devolving into the misogyny for which some rap and hip hop artists are criticized.
"The one thing I've always wanted to do is make sure that it's mutual between me and the young lady and that I'm not dogging her, degrading her, or berating her in some crazy way, at least for the majority of my music," says LL Cool J.
Rap and hip hop have often gone hand-in-hand with an aura of toughness. But LL Cool J says he's no tough guy.
"I can be uptown hanging with some of the toughest guys in the world on December 24 at 11:30 p.m. and be trying, doing everything I can to find a car to get back to Queens so I can meet my grandmother at midnight mass,” he says.
LL Cool J’s conversation is literary, peppered with references to Winston Churchill, and authors Ayn Rand and Malcolm Gladwell. The rapper says when he's away from the music and the acting and the fashion design and the business deals, one of his favorite places is a bookstore.
"My life is so crazy that it's fun for me to actually just go and look, you know, in the self help section, just trying to figure it out. You know what I mean?” he says.
LL Cool J has played concerts all over the world, but his biggest gig in terms of attendance may have been his first. In 1979, his church choir sang in Shea Stadium for Pope John Paul II.
Later that day, a poster for the event came in handy.
"I was mad about something, and I was about 14 years old. I punched the panel into my room wall and I used the pope thing to cover it,” says LL Cool J. “Because I knew my grandmother would never want to take that down, you know.”
But the hip-hop star’s childhood had more than its share of trouble. His mother and father had a violent relationship, culminating one night when his father shot and wounded his mother and his grandfather. LL Cool J, then aged four, witnessed the event.
"I walked in the kitchen and bullets are whizzing past me. My grandfather tells me to go back, he's sitting on the floor bleeding and bent over and everything's not good, you know,” remembers LL Cool J. “He told me, ‘Go back, go back,’ so I look. I went around the other way, went and got some towels out of the linen closet and brought him towels."
Amazingly, charges were never filed, and perhaps more amazingly, years later the mother arranged for the father and son to reunite in California.
"It wasn't about whether or not my father shot my mother. It was about does this boy need his father. Again, you know being big, being magnanimous,” he says. “You know, seeing beyond the normal average way of looking at things - anger resentment, separation. Instead, she brought us together."
The rapper later wrote about the incident in his 1998 memoir, "I Make My Own Rules." In the book he also alleges that after his father left, his mother's new boyfriend routinely beat him. To escape, LL Cool J turned to music.
"You could either go out in the street and, you know, express your anger on some little old lady or some guy down the block because he's wearing a different-colored shirt, or you could stare at the turn table and the needle on the vinyl and imagine what it's like on the other side," he says. “And that's what I did. I lived there religiously. It was like a temple."
After seeing a guy bopping to hip hop in junior high, LL Cool J caught the bug and started writing and making tapes.
"People say, ‘Oh I listened to LL when he was in college.’ You were in college, you know what I'm saying? Like, I was in ninth grade. So I was like a maniac," he says.
LL Cool J sent a tape to Rick Rubin, then a young producer who was an NYU student, and they met after several phone calls.
"I went down to meet him, and he came downstairs and I was still looking for him,” says LL Cool J. “I said, ‘You're Rick?’ He was like, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I thought you was black.’ He said, “Cool.’”
They then met with Russell Simmons and Def Jam Records was born.
But LL Cool J's grandmother, who later appeared in the video for "Mama Said Knock You Out," did not approve of her grandson’s leaving school to record music, and kicked him out of her house.
LL Cool J says for one two-week stretch, he spent his days on the subway, but did not act like a typical panhandler.
"I'm going up to people like, ‘You heard “I Need A Beat,” right? You heard [U.F.T.O. song] “Roxanne Roxanne?” Which one do you like better?’ You know, I'm doing market research on the train when I'm supposed to be depressed and homeless,” says LL Cool J. “A little black kid in a Kangol. [Riders] can't wait for that."
His recording career took off in his early twenties, as he fathered two children with his girlfriend.
"I had fears. You know, that was crazy for me, having kids at that time. I wasn't, you know, ready for that, not mentally," he says.
LL Cool J married his girlfriend in 1995 and they are now the parents of four.
Since then, LL Cool J has enjoyed success in music, movies, television and the fashion world, while maintaining a "nice guy" image.
In the late 1990s, he befriended a young man from Bosnia who had lost both of his arms and part of a leg in a land mine accident.
And the rapper has always had a strong connection to his old neighborhood of St. Albans.
"I just love leaving big footprints on the earth and giving and sharing,” he says. “I mean that's the whole point. Why live an insignificant life? It's pointless."