Before an interview officially begins, I always engage in small talk. "How's your day been?" "What's the weather like in Los Angeles?" "Did you watch LeBron torch the Pistons last night?" The goal is simple: make the interview subject feel comfortable. If the interview feels more like a conversation between good friends and less like an informal interrogation, the interview subject is more likely to open up. The more open he or she is, the better their answers will be. And the better the answers, the more enjoyable the interview—both for me and our readers.
On August 14, 2008, three weeks before the release of his twelfth and final album on Def Jam, I called LL Cool J for our scheduled interview. Knowing Exit 13 was his first album in two years, I opened our conversation by welcoming him back. "I never left, baby," LL responded in debonair fashion before issuing his signature slaphappy giggle.
"Oh shit," I thought. If LL thinks that I think he was gone, this interview is going to be terrible. Immediately, I pivoted to my go-to list of small talk questions. "How's your day been so far?" I asked. "Good good, man. Let's do this, baby."
Ahhhhhhh. The dreaded "I don't have time for your small talk, Mr. Interviewer. Please ask me the questions you wrote down, I have seven more of these before the day ends" response. On this day, there would be no small talk. We needed to jump right in.
Over the course of 30 minutes, we spoke about his future in music, his approach to netting new fans who aren't familiar with his legendary catalog, why money never motivated his desire to create and the return of dookie rope chains.
Our interview, edited for content, clarity, and length, follows.
DJBooth: You entered the rap game in ‘84. 24 years later, you’re still writing rhymes. If you were to enter the rap game today, 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?
So, safe to say, you have far exceeded your career expectations in rap?
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.
With 13 albums released over approximately a quarter of a century, what would you say is your career highlight? What is your career lowlight?
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.
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 your latest work?
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 & 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 artist is totally different. If you know the artist’s body of work, you can appreciate the person as an artist a lot more. But in terms of the music, it’s not really about what I did, it’s about what I’m doing. 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’.
Has your evolution as an MC become more difficult because you’ve had to adapt to a new sound, a new style, and a new audience?
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.
You were quoted in another interview as saying that, with the release of this album, you feel your career will have come full circle. Can you delve into that quote, explain why you feel that way?
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. 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.
With all the money that you’ve earned over the years from your film work, what has been the driving force behind your decision to continue to create new music?
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]
Those are great reasons; I'm not sure how many artists in hip-hop can say the same thing.
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.” [LLaughs] 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.
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?
[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.