Before Hollywood got hip to the lucrative cross-generational appeal of hip-hop’s microphone fiends, LL Cool J immortalized his name (“Ladies Love Cool James”) in the 1985 cult classic Krush Groove. The moment that the Kangol-clad Queens-bred MC gave his sonic command to “Box!” because he couldn’t live without his “Radio,” we too became his musical co-dependents-hooked on his pulsating beats and lyrical aggression. Whether LL dropped 16 bars of romance with the sentimental ode “I Need Love” or flexed his muscle with “Mama Said Knock You Out,” the fellas and ladies welcomed his musical dichotomy.
Fast forward 23 years, 13 albums and more than 20 films later and we’re still rocking with the G.O.A.T. His final musical offering from Def Jam, Exit 13, is a return to his lyricist roots of organic rhythm and rhymes. Essence.com rubbed elbows with the legendary rapper to talk about regaining his street cred, why he’ll never compete with The Greatest or go under the knife.
Essence.com: Hats off to your illustrious career which spans for nearly a quarter of a century. What is the significance of the title, Exit 13, your latest and final project with Def Jam?
LL Cool J: Well, it’s my 13th and final record to fulfill my Def Jam contract. I started with the label with a 10-record deal and then again with a three-record deal and this is the third of that deal. But I plan to maintain my relationship with the label because they have my whole catalog and there are still many things left to be done. It’s like Michael Jackson and Motown, Def Jam and I will forever be tied at the hip. It feels good and is an incredible blessing and pretty amazing to still be relevant in this business.
Essence.com: How do you think your new project measures up to your last?
L.L.C.J: Honestly, the last few records I made could have been better and I suppose they were okay for the amount of time I spent on it. But I believe had I taken a little more time, the material would have been more exciting.
Essence.com: Did you receive criticism that your last album was dull or that your street cred had been revoked?
L.L.C.J.: (Laughs) Yeah, there was some criticism that I abandoned a lot of the harder stuff that I did early on in my career like “Rock The Bells,” “I’m Bad” and “The G.O.A.T.” I want hip-hop fans to know that this album is not going to be a bunch of formulaic love songs where I’m trying to serenade the ladies. I’m going in on this album. It’s going to have depth, range as well as musical and topical diversity.
Essence.com: So were you feeling a bit romantic like, I’m in the mood for love…?
L.L.C.J.: (Laughs and sings) …Simply because you’re near me… At that time, that’s where I was mentally so those are the kind of songs I made. Again, this time I reconnected with my roots. I was in the barbershop a lot and just in the mix. I made the type of record that I’m a fan of.
Essence.com: So did you suffer from writer’s block during the creative process?
L.L.C.J.: I spent a lot of time rewriting songs until I felt great about them because my fans need to see that I’m the real deal. You can either make an album that is pure abstract and speaks indirectly of others experiences or you can create from a direct point of view where you’re experiencing things firsthand and that’s what I did. I wanted to give everyone a sample of my lyrical ability by painting the picture.
Essence.com: Is your passion for music as strong as it was in 1985 with the release of ‘Radio’?
L.L.C.J.: I love it so much, but there have been times that my energy wasn’t as intense. Working with 50 Cent really motivated me. He made me hungry just spending time and watching him in the studio come up with ideas for choruses. It really motivated me to start writing from the heart again and just freed my creative flow.
Essence.com: Do you think you’ll ever retire the mic to produce?
L.L.C.J.: I have a music distribution website at boomdizzle.com. It’s a place where artists can take their careers to the next level, live this life and navigate through their music career. I have no desire to hog all of the spotlight. With that being said, I don’t see any reason to stop doing what I do because I’m comfortable with music as long as I love it no matter what age I am.
Essence.com: You’ll also bless your fans with the mix tape,The Return of The G.O.A.T. Is it a pre-cursor to Exit or do you plan to release them simultaneously?
L.L.C.J.: It’s being released prior to my album and I’m doing it with DJ Kay Slay. I think it’s going to show people how serious I am about this album.
Essence.com: You call yourself the G.O.A.T but Muhammad Ali goes by the same moniker. Has The Champ ever expressed that sharing such a prestigious title was a conflict of interest?
L.L.C.J.: I met him in passing but I would never in my wildest dreams disrespect or even think I could compete with the political statements that Muhammad Ali made for our community. That man is the greatest because he took a stand even though they stripped him of his belt so you know at the end of the day, I’m not confused about who The Greatest of All Time is.
Essence.com: Recently it was reported that rapper Lil Wayne offended mixtape deejays by suggesting that they were irrelevant in helping to promote his album. How essential is the mixtape arena in a rapper’s career?
L.L.C.J.: The mixtape game is really important to me because it’s not only grassroots marketing but it’s what I’ve always known. That’s how I started my career before I had a record deal. Back in the day, I was in every house party in Queens and very popular in those circles even rapping in basements.
Essence.com: It’s good that you keep your ear to the streets or else you’d have a serious disconnect. So tell me does your wife Simone ever share her opinions on your songs?
L.L.C.J.: My wife, we’ve been together since 1987, so she always hears my music. I don’t always come directly home and play music for her, but she can hear me getting it in extra heavy downstairs in the studio or when I’m just spitting or locking myself aways to write. She’s told me a few times the songs she doesn’t like. Without a doubt if you asked my wife which were my worst songs of all time she’d say she hated “Big Ol’ Butt” and “Mama Said Knock You Out.” It’s a good thing I didn’t listen to her (Laughs). But it’s understandable because my wife is more conservative than I am.
Essence.com: What has been the biggest adversity you’ve faced in your personal life?
L.L.C.J.: One of the things that people aren’t aware of is that during my Definition album, my wife had to have major surgery on her leg and it was serious. I actually had to decide what was important in my life and where I was going to give my energy. The major challenge for me was balancing my home life with my iconic rapper status and knowing when to just be a dad and a husband. Making sure I did the little things that count like going to my son’s games and holding the camera without thinking about sold-out concerts. Overall, making sure that I was there for my family and that I wasn’t so self-absorbed that I alienated them.
Essence.com: Glad to hear you’re a family man. Is that one of the reasons you launched your new clothing line LL Cool J with Sears?
L.l.C.J.: That’s why I did the Sears deal because I was able to work with my family. My wife, kids and some additional models market the whole brand. Most people asked why I chose to partner with Sears because they felt I’m at a certain level in my career and I should go to a higher-end retailer. But what people should know about me is that I don’t live my life trying to be an elitist. I’m part of the community not above it so I’m going to embrace the real community not my rich friends . When I was growing up we bought clothes from Sears. I know a zillion people who can’t afford $700 jeans but they still want to look and feel good so why wouldn’t I embrace a Sears?
Essence.com: When will the collection be available and how many retailers?
L.L.C.J.: We should be in stores for July to prepare for back-to-school season in September and should be in about 450 stores. We will launch again in about November and eventually be in about 2500 stores. It’s the biggest deal and the first time in hip-hop culture that an artist of my magnitude has done anything like this. It’s a great statement. My family and I really are pleased with the designs which will only get better. With the female collection we were more concerned with getting the fit right than the designs because with women it’s all about the right fit.
Essence.com: You’re a smart man. What is the biggest misconception you think your fans have had about you?
L.L.C.J.: Misconception is that I am unapproachable. I don’t think people know how down to earth I am and how much I really recognize and see people. My feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Essence.com: Alright, expect to be approached by many after this. What is the craziest rumor you’ve heard about yourself?
L.L.C.J: I would say the craziest had to be rumors about me getting plastic surgery and using steroids. I didn’t do either. I heard I had a nose job, chin implants, ribs removed-all kind of craziness. That’s just not something I’m going to do. What do I look like having someone cut me open to put in or remove muscles? C’mon now.
Essence.com: Well, you’re definitely the Black Dick Clarke or either a vampire because you don’t age.
L.L.C.J.: (Laughs) That is hilarious. Now, c’mon I’m not that old! But then again the amount of years I’ve been rapping is equivalent to dog years. I owe it all to my Platinum workout and we also have a diamond workout for women as well. Also my other weapon is that I don’t do drugs. I never have been the get-high man although I might have an occasional drink but that’s it.
Essence.com: What is the one thing you’ve learned about yourself throughout your career that you’re most proud of?
L.L.C.J.: By the grace of God when I’m challenged I can deliver. I’m kind of like the dude who wants to ball in the fourth quarter. Like with this album there’s a resurgence of LL because folks assumed that I was done and I’m far from done.
Essence.com: Most people assume that a lot of rappers lack a true spiritual foundation. How do you maintain your spiritual center?
L.L.C.J.: I’m a Christian and proud of it. I read the bible. I give God all the glory and what I’ve been able to accomplish through Him. My family and I definitely frequent the church but at the same time I’m not overly religious. I pay my tithes but I’m not perfect. I couldn’t do what I do if I were. I still make songs that would not work or be welcomed in the pulpit. I’m doing my best and just trying to do me.
Essence.com: What about the elders who criticize rappers’ misogynistic lyrics and use of racial epithets?
L.L.C.J.: I think a lot of older people finger-point and blame hip-hop culture because they don’t understand the metaphors and symbolism of what it means to kill someone on the mic. In rap music, there are certain nuances that might make it hard for people to understand. The best comparison is when a secular person witnesses someone in church get touched by the Holy Spirit. Instead of saying that, they’ll say that person fainted because they just don’t understand what occurred.
Essence.com: Great analogy, but what happen to the fun days of hip hop?
L.L.C.J.: I have to tell you I think the south should get the credit for bringing back the spirit of fun. For a long time a lot of us got a lil’ too serious about ourselves.
Essence.com: What about the exploitation of women or video vixens?
L.L.C.J.: Females in hip-hop need to stick to their guns. Women have the power to decide whether they want to keep their clothes on and be classy. I think Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys have done a great job of that. It’s also important for people not to judge. You never know what drives someone to do something, so before you start calling these video girls tacky, people need to not be so condescending. Again, at the end of the day if they all stick together and say they don’t want to be portrayed a certain way they have the power to do that.
Essence.com: Have any of your children expressed interest in a music career?
L.L.C.J.: My son has and I tell him all the time that he has a good life and he agrees. I tell my kids not to allow anyone to set the bar for them because of what I have done. I explain and lay hands on them that each one of them should decide what feels good in their hearts and not feel a need to live through me. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t make my eldest son a junior. I wanted him to be his own man. My daughter is off to study in Europe this summer so I’m very proud of my kids. And I hope that they and I will contribute to the betterment of the world.
Credit: Stephen Stickler/Corbis Photos