LL Cool J Interview

LL Cool J
Artist:LL Cool J
Next Project:Exit 13 (Sept 9)
Twitter:LL Cool J on Twitter
Website:LL Cool J's Website

There is only one hip hop artist, according to our count, whose solo catalog includes hit records from the last three decades.  This artist has released twelve albums over the past 24 years, in addition to contributing music to countless motion picture soundtracks, and on September 9 will release his thirteenth and final album off the original record deal he signed as a teenager.  His status is legendary; his name is LL Cool J.

As a veteran of the “rap game,” LL transcends industry-longevity.  From his 1984 debut single, “I Need A Beat,” to his current chart-rising collaboration with The-Dream, “Baby,” the Queens native born James Todd Smith has always stayed ahead of the curve.  Unlike many artists whose best work cannot escape the era it in which it was created, Mr. Smith has grown with his listeners and always adapts to an ever-changing musical climate.

In an exclusive interview with DJBooth’s DJZ,” LL steps inside the booth to talk about the evolution of his music over the past 24 years, why he has turned down countless movie offers the last few months, what the return of a parental advisory sticker on his new project means, and if “Exit 13” is really goodbye.

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LL Cool J Interview Transcription

DJ Booth:  What’s goin’ on everybody?  It’s your boy “Z,” doin’ it real big, and joining me inside the DJ Booth is a rap legend, and, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t get the chance to say that every day.  Without any further introduction needed, please welcome a man who I’ve been forced to compete with for years to get the attention of women, LL Cool J – how you doin’?

LL Cool J:  What’s up, baby, what’s happenin’?

DJ Booth:  What’s happenin’ is Exit 13‘s coming.

LL Cool J:  Yeah, without a doubt.

DJ Booth:  LL, you entered the rap game in ‘84.  24 years later, you’re still on your game. If you were to enter the rap game today, here, in 2008, do you see a 24-year career ahead of you?

LL Cool J:  Well, to be honest, I don’t think I could see that then, so I don’t know that I would see it now.  It’s just one of those things.  I probably would do better, if I was 20 right now, startin’.  I’d probably be doin’ even better than I’m doin’.  So I can’t be cocky and say that I can see 24 years into the future, ‘cause I didn’t see that then.  I’m just doin’ what I love, know what I mean?

DJ Booth:  So, safe to say, you have far exceeded your career expectations in rap?

LL Cool J:  Yeah – if you base it on what I was thinkin’ when I started, absolutely.  I always set new goals, but, at the time that I started, absolutely.

DJ Booth:  With thirteen albums released over approximately a quarter of a century, what would you say is your career highlight, what would you say is your career lowlight?

LL Cool J:  I think the highlight is just gettin’ the [backing], actually gettin’ the break.  Rick Rubin callin’ me back, gettin’ a break, us startin’ the label Def Jam, and just gettin’ it going.  I don’t think there’s really been any lowlights.  There’s always gonna be peaks and valleys, when you do something for a long time.  It’s just like sports; nobody wins the championship every year – nobody.  So there’s always gonna be the ups and downs, but I think overall it’s been incredible.

DJ Booth:  There’s been a heck of a lot more ups than downs; you’re absolutely right about that.

LL Cool J:  [laughter] Absolutely, man, I can’t complain.

DJ Booth:  LL, can a new-age listener of hip hop, someone who might not know that you walked with a panther, took 14 Shots to the Dome, and are the G.O.A.T., truly appreciate the work that you’ve produced on this new album, Exit 13?

LL Cool J:  If you really think about the question you’re asking me, I don’t think that the kids that are voting for Baby on 106th and Park right now care about,I Need A Beat, you know what I’m saying?  When the record is spinnin’ all day on MTV, it’s new music, so the new music has to stand up to today’s standards.  Now, the way they view those songs, and the way they view you as an artists is totally different.  If you know the artist’s body of work, you can appreciate the person as an artists a lot more. But in terms of the music, it’s not really about what I did, it’s about what I’m doing.  Like I said, I’m not tryin’ to be old school or new school.  I’m just classic. So everything I do, I just do great music and fun music.  I mean, if you listen to the song Baby, and you’re listening to that with the mindset that LL’s tryin’ to rap as hard as he can and be a lyrical assassin, then you may not appreciate it.  But if you listen to it knowin’ that I wasn’t takin’ it so seriously, and was just havin’ fun as an artist, and just wanted to make a fun, crazy song to get people to dance, then you can appreciate it.  So it’s according to how you want to view what I do.  But I definitely think that today’s generation and the youth are appreciating what I’m doing, ‘cause look at the way my first single’s performin’.

DJ Booth:  Exactly.  LL, would you say, then, that the evolution of your music from the start of your career to now has grown more difficult because you’ve had to adapt to a new sound, a new style, and a new audience?

LL Cool J:  Not at all.  I think it hasn’t grown more difficult at all.  I think that the challenge always comes because you have certain purists in hip hop that only want you to focus on making the most complex songs, or on wordplay, or on certain aspects of the music that we do.  Those people that understand the difference between focusing on wordplay and focusing on concepts, and making records for clubs and parties, they understand what I do very clearly.  So it’s just like back in the day – there was a difference between Around the Way Girl, what that represented at the time, and what a song like Momma Said Knock You Out or Rock The Bells represented at that time, and that hasn’t changed.  It’s just nowadays, because each single is such a big deal now, and every visual [is] such a big deal, that people have a tendency to judge you and base what you do solely on whatever your single is, or whatever the singles are.  We have to split hairs with that.  I think people enjoy and appreciate what I do, without a doubt.  I feel very good about it.

DJ Booth:  You’re right about that.  You were quoted as saying that, with the release of this album, you feel your career will have come full circle.  Can you delve a little bit more into that quote, explain why you feel that way?

LL Cool J:  Well, I think it’s full circle in the sense that this is the first time in many years that I actually threw albums away.  I haven’t thrown albums away to make an album since Mr. Smith.  It’s the first time in many years that I’ve turned down maybe seven or eight movies at this point.  I’ve been gettin’ two or three movie offers every two weeks, and I’ve been turnin’ down the money, turnin’ down all of that stuff, to really focus on tryin’ to make some music that I really, really love.  Even to this point, I’m still replacin’ songs, and swappin’ songs on this album, because I want it to be hot.  So it’s come full circle in that sense, that I have completely committed and dedicated myself to this project, and making sure that this project is a great representation of what I feel is hot musically, at this particular point in time.

DJ Booth:  Okay, let’s backtrack for a second.  With all the success and the money that you’ve earned over the years from your film work, what has been the driving force for the creation of new music, when there really isn’t a guarantee on this side of things?

LL Cool J:  Well, first of all, I didn’t get into hip hop for money.  I think people kind of got that confused.  I think that as time went along, we became a very elitist culture, [that was] all about money, money, money, money, money.  The reality is that I got into this to make great music, and to be heard, and for my voice to be heard by the people – that’s all I really wanted.  As far as financials go, when it comes to hip hop, I think I probably benefit a lot more than maybe some of the newer, or even older artists, because I own my catalog.  Def Jam administers it, but because I own it, I have a different pay grade.  I don’t think people are aware of that, but, that being said, it’s not really about the money.  I’m not making hip hop just for money; I’m doing hip hop because I think it’s cool, and I want to be the best. [laughs]

DJ Booth:  Those are great reasons; certainly not the driving motivation that I think a lot of artists have nowadays.

LL Cool J:  No, I mean, come on, man – it’s like, you’re only a good rapper based on if you made a lot of money rapping.  I could have the best candles in the world, but if they’re never lit and nobody ever sees them how would you know?  So it’s not always the quality.  Like I said in this line on one of my records, one of my freestyles I just did with Marley [Marl], I said, “The quality ain’t always reflected in the sales, if people don’t know you got that good fish scale.”  [laughs]  Know what I mean?  But I feel good, man, about my career, my life, and my music, and I’m really excited about this album. 

DJ Booth:  And with good reason.  We’re gonna go ahead and ask you a few questions from our readers.  We received a lot, and I narrowed it down to two.  First one comes from M. Burmy from Racine, Wisconsin.  He wants to know, what does the return of the parental advisory sticker on this project mean?

LL Cool J:  First of all, there’s two versions of the album.  So, that being said, there will be one album that’ll be totally clean, where I alter the content a bit, and actually replace the vocals with new vocals, as opposed to punchin’ ‘em out and bleeping ‘em out.  The return of the parental advisory sticker is because I didn’t want to have any limitations on what I’m doing.  I’m not gonna try and pretend to be apple pie if I’m not in an apple pie mood, you know what I’m sayin’? I just wanted to make a true and honest record.  The album didn’t go off the deep end, and it’s not some bitter manual on how to use profanity correctly. [laughs] It’s just got some real sh*t in there, and I just let it be real.  And I have two versions, so I’m bein’ responsible, but I wanna make some real music.

DJ Booth:  So LL is gonna remain Wal-Mart friendly?

LL Cool J:  You know what?  I don’t know what you wanna call it, all I know is that I made an album that is truthful and that is honest.  But at the same time, I wanted it to be real and authentic.  And then I have a cleaner version for those who just wanna ride with their kids, and don’t wanna hear nothing.  But I had to do what I do, man.

DJ Booth:  Next question comes from Ryan Kelly, all the way out in the Cook Islands.  He wants to know, what are your expectations, if any, for this project?

LL Cool J:  My expectation for this project is for it to do extremely well.  That’s my expectation and my hope.  I’m not approaching it from a cocky place.  I’m hoping that people will be excited about what they see me doin’.  I’m hopeful that they see me doin’ the mixtapes, and see me droppin’ freestyle after freestyle, and see me working and committing myself to this music, and realize that L must have did something that has him confident enough to turn down eight or nine movies, and go out and focus on music.  So I’m hopeful that people can appreciate it and go for it, know what I’m saying?  I’m not gonna sit here and try to pretend that I expect to have one of those million first weeks or nothing like that, ‘cause I don’t know if that’s likely, but I’m just hopeful that people go out and enjoy the music.

DJ Booth:  Well, your name certainly resonates in the game; it’s gotta work for you.  L, very few of today’s rappers can say that they’ve experienced the countless fashion trends that you’ve seen and experimented with over the years.  So, if there was one style or fad that you could reintroduce, repopulate into today’s culture – it could be the bucket hat, it could be the multicolored warm-up gear, whatever you want – what would you bring back?

LL Cool J:  [laughs]  That’s so funny!  You know, I like the dookie ropes here and there, it’s still cool.  The dookie ropes had some cute moments on them.  But I like to just move forward, man. The retro thing works, but I’m classic and trendy.

DJ Booth:  I don’t think there’s a lot of MCs in the game right now who could just go about their business and wear anything they want, whether it be from 1984, 1994, or 2004, and make it fashionable.  If you wanted to start a trend, you certainly could, my friend.  On September 9th, you will have released your thirteenth and final album from your original Def Jam contract.  Musically, what will be next for LL Cool J?

LL Cool J:  Musically, right now, I’m focusing on boomdizzle.com.  It is a distribution network that will help all of the artists out there – the artists that come to your site, the artists that go all over the world, that are trying to make it.  It’ll get them heard.  And it’s startin’ to explode by leaps and bounds, the beta version is out there now, and I just wanna use my torch to light the torches of these other young artists, and not hog all the spotlight but actually share it, and Boomdizzle is my way of doin’ that.

DJ Booth:  Well, that’s what’s up.  L, give everybody a website, MySpace page, so they can find out more about what’s goin’ on, and, of course, Exit 13.

LL Cool J:  Yeah, they can go to boomdizzle.com, or they can go to my MySpace page and get the information.  Me and Def Jam [are] working hand-in-hand on that, it’s hot.

DJ Booth:  That’s what’s up.  L, thank you so much for joinin’ me inside the DJ Booth.  Best of luck, my man.

LL Cool J:  Thanks, man.  Much love, baby.

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