By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Right now, Def Jam is churning out hits at a giddy rate (the company was involved with four of the top ten entries on the July 20 Billboard rap singles chart), and Rubin and Simmons are big music-biz kahunas. The founder of American Records, Rubin has worked with performers as disparate as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slayer, Tom Petty and Johnny Cash, while Simmons oversees Def Jam's growing empire as the outfit's chairman and is also behind numerous mega-lucrative clothing and fashion firms, chiefly Phat Farm. But the pair owes much of its good fortune to LL Cool J. Def Jam Music Group: Ten Year Anniversary, a four-CD boxed set put out in 1995, begins with "I Can't Live Without My Radio," the monstrous lead single from Radio, and features more blasts by him than by any other signee in Def Jam's opening decade. The roll call of Coolness includes the lethally boastful "Jack the Ripper," the infectious, slyly insinuating "Going Back to Cali" and the rousing "I'm Bad," plus "I Need Love," the first true hip-hop ballad, a tune so solid that it held up even when folkie Luka Bloom covered it on acoustic guitar.
Slick Rick, Method Man, Redman, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys: On Anniversary, all of them are overshadowed by the man ladies love, and that's as it should be. Def Jam is the house that LL Cool J built.
The affiliation between LL and Def Jam will continue later this year with Ten, a CD so christened because it's the tenth recording in a ten-album contract. But whether the pairing will extend into the future is uncertain, since LL has talked about forming his own label. "It remains to be seen what will happen," he says. "I'm leaving that open. I'm just going to really work on making this record the best I can, and doing some good music and getting out here and doing everything I can to make it a success. I'll think about everything else later."
At the beginning of 1991's "Mama Said Knock You Out," arguably his greatest song, LL declared, "Don't call it a comeback/I've been here for years." But musically, at least, he could use a return to form. None of his albums can be accurately described as failures, but his last unalloyed sales smash was 1995's Mr. Smith. That disc's successor, 1997's scattershot Phenomenon, sold reasonably well but not spectacularly, and 2000's G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time was critically dismissed as a forced, self-conscious effort to re-establish street credibility that was overloaded with cameos by DMX, Snoop Dogg, Prodigy, Xzibit, Funkmaster Flex and more, more, more.
Much of the buzz about Ten revolves around other collaborators: production by the Neptunes, warbling courtesy of promising R&B songbird Tweet, and even a possible duet with swoon-inducing crooner Usher. But LL makes it clear that fans aren't going to get another G.O.A.T.
"This one is the exact opposite of the last one," he says. "It's a total opposite album. My last album was much more abrasive, aggressive, with a lot of guest stars and a lot of profanity. It was, like, a wild, reckless album. But I didn't want to repeat myself with a whole bunch of guest stars. Not to slight any of the guys who appeared on the last one -- you know, I appreciated it. But I definitely wanted to make a pure LL record this time.
"To me, this is a feel-good record. It's got some slower songs on it, it's got some harder-edged songs on it. But overall, it's clean; there's no profanity. Somebody twenty can listen to it and love it, somebody fourteen can listen to it and love it, somebody five can listen to it and love it. Everybody can listen to it together -- but it's not corny, it's not diluted, you know? It's just an LL Cool J album."
At least to this point, he hasn't created a cinematic equivalent: an LL Cool J movie. He's actively attempting to develop his own productions, with one of the prospects floating around being a remake of the '70s low-budget classic Dolemite, a loopy twist on the action-hero myth perpetrated by obscenity-spewing comic Rudy Ray Moore. In a recent interview ("Dolemite Makes Right," April 25), Moore said, "That was something that was in the air, oh, eight or ten months ago. The company, from what I can understand, backed out after that, but a couple weeks ago they put it back on the drawing board, and they asked me about helping them do it. But right now, it looks sort of shady."
Rudy Ray was right. "I thought it would be cool to do it, because it would be a chance to take a character that was cool and funny and do an update, do some new things with him," LL maintains. "But that's so far away from even being close to happening that it's not even really worth talking about."
Like most actors for hire, then, LL finds himself at the mercy of elements beyond his control -- principally, the script and what the filmmakers in question do with it. He has the luxury of being selective when it comes to parts, but that doesn't ensure that he'll be pleased with the finished product.