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In Say It Loud!, an ambitious VH1 documentary about the musical accomplishments of African-Americans during the past century, LL Cool J talks about his first rush of fame. Stardom struck him full force at age seventeen, when his thrillingly cocky debut album, 1985's Radio, became one of the biggest smashes in commercial rap's early years. Suddenly, he was able to indulge his every fantasy -- and, as he noted with a smile, he had plenty to indulge.
Today, LL, who's 34, has been a celebrity for the same number of years that he was previously mired in obscurity, and unlike most of the rappers who emerged during the mid-'80s, he still has access to lots of folding green -- more than enough to make some pretty fine dreams come true. But whereas he was initially most interested in cars and killer babes, these days he's concentrating on bottom-line desires.
"I'm more into indulging my financial fantasies," he says, chuckling, "like investing in real estate around New York. But other than that, I'm trying to be a little bit more frugal. It's not like it was."
True enough -- and that's one of the main reasons that LL Cool J remains a major rap figure despite working in a genre as seemingly youth-obsessed as the evil computer in the sci-fi fave Logan's Run, which ordered that anyone over age thirty be exterminated. He's survived in large part because the persona he created -- a battle-tested, tough-as-tungsten Superman capable of surprising sensitivity when the mood turns to romance -- has impressive staying power. Jay-Z and Ja Rule are only two of the current hitmakers who borrow heavily from him -- not that LL wants to seem as if he's keeping track.
"I don't try to look for that kind of thing, because that would mean I'm focusing on me, me, me -- like I've stopped growing, and like I'm not allowing myself to be a fan," he says. "If they're influenced by me, they're influenced by me, but I don't care. I listen to what I like and keep it moving. Everything is a new day for me, a new era."
This philosophy has served him well. Rather than simply ride the hip-hop horse until it collapsed from exhaustion, he branched out almost immediately by supplementing his musical salvos with acting gigs, appearing as himself in the 1985 hip-hop cash-in Krush Groove and as a rapper in the 1986 Goldie Hawn football comedy Wildcats. Since he'd received no prior theatrical training, he got through these projects on sheer enthusiasm, but with an eye toward improving.
"I've always tried to craft what I was doing," he says. "It may not have always looked like it, but I was trying. Now I have a teacher, and I work hard at it. I take each role as an individual role and each character as an individual character and build them from the ground up, from scratch. And hopefully, people are able to see that."
Casting directors certainly have. LL's become a TV and feature-film staple, and his range is broad enough to encompass both family- oriented humor (In the House, a sitcom that ran from 1995 to 1999 on NBC and, later, UPN) and blood-spattered drama (in 1999's In Too Deep, he played a drug kingpin modestly nicknamed "God"). And if he's not exactly a Method actor, he's certainly capable of burrowing into the parts he portrays: During the making of director Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, LL, playing a rugged footballer, so roughed up co-star Jamie Foxx that Foxx filed an assault complaint against him. The charge was later dropped.
Next year, LL has two more major films slated for release -- Deliver Us From Eva, a relationship comedy with Gabrielle Union, and Mindhunters, a just-wrapped actioner helmed by director Renny Harlin that co-stars Val Kilmer and Christian Slater.
So serious is Mr. Cool J about movies and TV that he'll be credited under his given name, James Todd Smith, from now on. "I want to separate it and just treat acting with even more respect," he says. "But in my music, I'll always be LL Cool J."
Hip-hop aficionados know that "LL Cool J" stands for "Ladies Love Cool James." But as a child, this native of Bayshore, Long Island, was plain old Todd, just another kid with a screwed-up family, albeit one considerably more screwed up than most. In his 1997 autobiography, I Make My Own Rules, he recounts a childhood marked by nasty events such as his father's shooting of his mother and grandfather (they both recovered), which he witnessed as a four-year-old, and subsequent physical and verbal abuse at the hands of his stepfather.
Given this background, it's no surprise that young Todd displayed more than a few thuggish characteristics. But it was his facility with words, not fists, that paid the highest dividends. He started dabbling in rap before he was out of elementary school, and in 1984, when he was sixteen, he attracted the attention of Rick Rubin, a New York University student with an evolving taste for urban rhymes. Together the two assembled a slammin' single called "I Need a Beat" that pulled in a well-connected supporter, manager Russell Simmons. (Joseph Simmons, Russell's younger brother, is Run of Run-D.M.C., whose introductory platter broke big that year.) Rubin was still living in an NYU dorm when he and Simmons gave birth to Def Jam Records, but thanks to the popularity of Radio, the imprint's inaugural release, he soon had considerably better lodging options.