Playing It Cool
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.
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.
"When you're making it, there's no way in the world you can tell what it'll be like," he says. "You can be in this movie thinking that you've made a legendary masterpiece, and when you see it, it will suck major face, you know what I'm saying?"
An example? Without hesitation, he mentions 2002's Rollerball, a remake of a James Caan techno thriller that thrilled absolutely no one other than LL's accountant; the rapper was reportedly paid $1,000,000 to skate alongside fellow partners-in-disaster Chris Klein and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
"When we filmed it, I promise that if you could have been in my body, you would have been like, 'Yo, this is it!'" he says. "And it wasn't it. So there's no way of knowing. To me, they always feel good, because I love performing. They just don't always turn out." He's hoping for better from Deliver Us From Eva, but he doesn't issue any guarantees. "I've heard good things about it, but I haven't seen it yet. And it's a romantic comedy -- those are really difficult films to make right."
He has far fewer doubts about his upcoming tour. In the early '90s, he hit the road with a full band of the sort he used on a fascinating episode of MTV Unplugged, but during an appearance at Denver's Paramount Theatre, the configuration didn't work, simply because the musicians couldn't keep up with LL's tongue. It's good news, then, that for his first sizable jaunt in five years, he'll be backed primarily by a DJ. "He'll be doing it real basic, so there's nothing between me and the audience," the main man says.
As for why he's even bothering with live performances at this juncture, his explanation is simple. "I've been doing films and doing so many other things that I almost feel that I've neglected my music supporters out there. So I want to go out and let them see me. I want to touch the people. I want to touch them up close. I want people to get a chance to see me in person and to really feel me. And it's great for me, too. I love the energy of the crowd, the fact that they're so excited, that they came to have fun. That's their purpose for being there, and it's a beautiful feeling."
Granted, the audiences are a bit different these days. "When I started out, it was a crowd full of teenagers. But now there are some people bringing their kids. It's like little kids and teenagers to adults, which is really trippy. But it makes sense."
Indeed, LL's a family man, too, with a wife and four kids between the ages of two and twelve -- and he's bringing his oldest son on the road with him. Once upon a time, talking publicly about such matters would have endangered his image among rap fans, but the rules are changing, and he's part of the reason. If there's a master plan at work, however, he doesn't let on. Doing so wouldn't be Cool.
"I'm just being L, just doing my music," he says. "I don't go home and, like, put cookies and milk in front of my Grammys. I don't sacrifice to the Grammy gods. I just do what I do. The past is the past, you know?"
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.