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LL Cool J: The AllHipHop Interview

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LL Cool J is a man of many firsts. James Todd Smith was the first artist on the house that Rush and Rick built. Uncle L was also one of the first successful rapper turned actors, and pioneered what is now an industry staple, the chick record.  With 12 albums released, movies, books, clothing, television shows, among other ventures, one has to wonder, what does Hip-Hop really have to offer Mr. Smith?With an industry seemingly changing for the worse by the day, and so much already accomplished, many people wonder what makes the Queens, NY native still pick up that mic. But what people don’t understand is when you’ve been in love with something since you were 16 years old, it’s impossible to let it go. And nothing, no movie, book, clothing deal, or TV show can ever take the place of your first true love. To LL Cool J, the upcoming release of Exit 13 is more than just his 13th album. It’s a love letter to the music that made him great and a declaration to every fan and naysayer, Uncle L is still here.   AllHipHop.com: Your career spans over two decades. While everyone can agree that nobody is perfect, you’ve maintained an almost spotless image over the years. Is that a conscious lifestyle decision or some just damn good PR work?LL Cool J: [laughs] It’s just how I live. I’m not trying to be perfect. I’m not trying to get up on a pedestal and do the pedestal thing. That’s how I live my life. I don’t go around trying not to play myself but I don’t go around trying to either. I’m just doing me. I have a family because I chose to have a family. I never let the culture we’re involved in dictate what I would or wouldn’t do. I ran my career, I didn’t let my career run me.

“I’m not trying to recapture something I did many years ago or imitate anybody today. I’m blazing a path and a trail nobody’s ever blazed before. There’s no artist for me to follow.”

AllHipHop.com: The image we just spoke about make you incredibly marketable. With the industry being in the state it is, why not shift your focus to the film aspect of your career?LL Cool J: It’s what I love to do. That’s one thing about me. A lot of people expect you to do what they think is going to be most lucrative for you.  I really turned down a lot of movies during this period. I turned down like seven or eight movies because I really just wanted to focus on this project. A lot of people want to just count the money and tell me what I should be doing but what people don’t understand is that in life, you have to do what makes your soul feel good. You can’t sell your soul to go after the quick buck. I don’t make decisions based on money I base them on what I love to do. I love Hip-Hop and me doing Hip-Hop doesn’t mean I’m trying to be 19. I’m not confused, I don’t have things twisted. When I put a hat on backwards I’m not trying to recapture something. I know who I am. I’m comfortable with who I am, my age and my status. I love our music and I love creating music. Anytime I can go do a mixtape with a guy like Kay Slay or drop freestyles and have the Internet buzzing that tells me that what I feel and what I have to say is still relevant. When I can go out on [the] Summer Jam stage and get the reception I received that shows me that I’m relevant, so it’s justified. I’m not one of these guys trying to cling on to something I had before. I’m not trying to recapture something I did many years ago or imitate anybody today. I’m blazing a path and a trail nobody’s ever blazed before. There’s no artist for me to follow. And the artists that came after me looked at Russell then looked at me and decided they wanted to be a hybrid of both. My desire was to be an artist. That was what I wanted to do with my career at that point. My desire was to make great music and that’s something I was able to do. I want to show people I still have the ability to do that and I’m going to have fun doing it.

“I know that I introduced the

campaign towards the girls to cats back in ’89. I had the panthers and

the rope chains and the champagne on the album covers. I been doing

this for years since back when me and Jam Master Jay was battling over

who had the biggest chain.”

AllHipHop.com: You are responsible for creating the now obligatory “chick friendly” record. Do you feel that guys give you your proper credit for finding and capitalizing on that particular niche?LL Cool J: I think that people give me credit but let’s just call it what it is, when you’re a guy that a lot of females talk about cats aren’t going to give you but so much credit. We can sit here and pretend that we don’t know that but, the reality is if there wasn’t so much of that female appeal, and it’s definitely a blessing, but the amount of female appeal is definitely what keeps fellas from giving it all the way up. But they listen to them freestyles and they hear them rhymes connecting so they know what it is. I’m okay with that because we all have our paths that we choose. I’m comfortable with that. I know that I introduced the campaign towards the girls to cats back in ’89. I had the panthers and the rope chains and the champagne on the album covers. I been doing this for years since back when me and Jam Master Jay was battling over who had the biggest chain. When you’re in that position you kind of have to take it with a grain of salt. That’s part of the responsibility of being first. It comes with the territory. My thing has always been to focus on making great music and loving that. I never really wanted to go outside of that. Once people realize I’ve been completely satisfied and fulfilled with what I’ve done with my career thus far, I think that they’d have a better idea of who LL is.AllHipHop.com: What are some of the misconceptions you’ve dealt with?LL Cool J: Many people seem to have this picture in their minds that I had all these other things I wanted to do but in reality all I wanted to do was my 10 albums then three after that. I’ve done what I wanted to do. A lot of people were saying, “LL wants a job at Def Jam.” LL Cool J does not want to work at a record company. I don’t know why people think I’d want that. It’s not attractive to me to have to wake up at the crack of dawn to drive into Manhattan at 8:30 in the morning. Most of the people that have to do that everyday don’t want to do it. What makes people think LL wants to work at Def Jam? People got things so twisted then came back around and were saying LL is bitter. I’m a 40 year old multi-millionaire who owns his own catalog, done movies, just made the biggest clothing line deal in the history of Hip-Hop culture so what am I bitter about. People need to realize you don’t need to live your life being compared to other people. And people sometimes feel those same comparisons about me. They think I want to be somebody else when I just want to be LL.AllHipHop.com: They say you have to lose something in order to gain something. With all that you’ve been able to achieve in your career, can you think of anything you lost or any moments that made that you regret being in this industry?LL Cool J: I don’t have any regrets about that. I’ve loved it since I was nine years old. At 12 I was writing, 14 I was making a record and at 16 we started Def Jam. I never regretted being out there. I have been frustrated. I’ve had times when I wanted to quit but that’s a part of being great. You have to live up to those challenges. Michael Jordan got frustrated, he had to play with the flu a couple times but he did it. It’s a part of life. The key is just to believe in yourself. You have to believe in yourself when no one else believes in you.  There’s always going to be people around you to tell you that you can’t do something. When I first started I would tell guys I’m going to be a rap star and they used to tell me I was crazy. The first time I ever rapped in public a girl came up to me and told me I can’t rap. I didn’t let that frustrate me. You can’t expect everybody to be your fan. I love what I do. I love the culture, I love the music and I do it from the heart.

“I’m not going to have to blame anybody because my album is

going to win… You’ll never hear me say I never

made a bad album or a wack record because everybody has to someday. 

Somebody somewhere thought that single or that album was wack homie.”

AllHipHop.com: The age of our favorite MCs is becoming an issue. Most of the younger guys coming into the game feel that at a certain point the torch must be passed. What’s your take on that statement?LL Cool J: One thing that people have to understand in Hip-Hop, the thing we have to be clear about is; because you continue to make rap music it does not mean you are trying to be younger than you are. They have to understand that I will not stop liking rap music because my birthday passed. I know, for some, that might be difficult to believe but a birthday does not mean you can no longer like Hip-Hop. That’s the thing for me. AllHipHop.com: So when guys say Jay-Z has had his time and he needs to fall back and let some of the newer artist have their shine you defend him?LL Cool J: I’ve heard them say that here and there, and I’m not looking to defend Jay on any level but, I don’t see any reason for him to stop making music. These guys just have to understand that you need to prove you’re better. This isn’t sports. I’m not on the court trying to mix it up with the young boys. I’m solidifying a legacy and making great music for people who appreciate LL Cool J. It’s not about guys getting older and trying to capture somebody younger. Just do you. That’s what your focus should be. If you get it in, you spit crazy, then you should just focus on making the hottest records you can. Focus on making the greatest material you can and just really bang cats out. That’s what you should focus on. You should not focus on why guys are 10, 13, 14 albums later, still making music. That’s a waste of time.AllHipHop.com: This album, Exit 13, is you’re 13th. What does that mean to you?LL Cool J: I think that this whole project, the mixtape, the album, the excitement and the energy that comes with them…it’s what I live for. I live for these moments.  I laugh when I see guys say, “Now who’s he going to blame when his album flops.” I’m not going to have to blame anybody because my album is going to win. I’m going to succeed. You’ll never hear me say I never made a bad album or a wack record because everybody has to someday.  Somebody somewhere thought that single or that album was wack homie. But I’m coming from the heart with this music and I’m doing what I got to do. And if you can’t understand that then you need to just click onto another site. Allhiphop.com: What was your process when making the record? I heard you worked with 50 Cent for most of the project?LL Cool J:  I did a whole album with 50, I did an album by myself, then I went and did another album by myself. I decided to use like two or three songs from the album I did with 50, one from the second album I did by myself, and the rest is all new material. 50 definitely inspired and motivated me. Watching him work made me hungry again but, it was also important for me to come out with an LL Cool J album that doesn’t sound like I’m trying to be 50 Cent. I’m not doing that.

“There were a lot of, for lack of a better word, doe-dos out there that were like. ‘LL is going to sign to G-Unit.’ I don’t know what these guys are thinking. Why would I work for 20 years to sign to another artist?”

AllHipHop.com: Now that you mention it, people thought you were signing to G-Unit once word got out you two were working together.LL Cool J:  [laughs] There were a lot of, for lack of a better word, doe-dos out there that were like. “LL is going to sign to G-Unit.” I don’t know what these guys are thinking. Why would I work for 20 years to sign to another artist? I don’t know where the stupidness came from. I don’t think they understand who they’re dealing with and the reason I’m here. I just wanted to make good music. 50 definitely motivated me, pushed me, and inspired me a lot. I go a song on the album with him and a couple songs that we just worked on together. It sounds good man. AllHipHop.com: You’ve been rhyming for over 20 years and have maintained your relevance through constantly adapting to your surroundings musically. Is that part of the creative process or a conscious action? LL Cool J:  Well that all depends on how you look at it. To most people LL is adapting and changing over the years but LL looks at it like he’s leading. I’m not trying to imitate what’s going on today and I’m not trying to recapture yesterday. I’m trying to push the envelope. It doesn’t mean I have or always will succeed in doing that. It’s not easy and when you’re doing something for 20 something years you’re going to make some mistakes. It’s a fallacy to think that you’re never going to make a mistake that’s not a reality when you’re and artist. Everybody does it. With that being said, I just constantly look to the future. I don’t walk around with the 1995 high school championship ring on. I don’t live my life by what LL used to do. Although, in a freestyle I may have to re-educate some cats and set the stage for them so they can understand who I am but I don’t live in the past. That’s the thing that people have to understand with me. When I make music I make it from the heart. I don’t run around trying to fit in. My first record came out in 1984, I’m not following nobody. At this point who am I following? Who is there for me to follow? The guys that people are calling veterans have like 10 or 12 years. I’ve been out twice as long as some of the guys people call veterans. AllHipHop.com: You’re known for having your hand in a bunch of different pots. What else do you have going on outside of music?LL Cool J: I’m doing a lot of stuff man. I have a drama coming out on CBS as a mid-season replacement. The deal is inked and drying as I speak. I have a movie coming out with Meg Ryan. Actually, let me talk about the Sears deal. Most people have been saying, “LL is crazy. Why’s he doing a deal with Sears? He should be with Ed Hardy or Gucci or something like that.” What people fail to realize is I’m not above people. I’m not trying to disassociate myself from regular people. Everybody doesn’t have $10,000 to blow on one pair of jeans and a hoodie. Even though stuff like that sounds fly, there are people out there that work for a living that can’t afford all that. So why not partner with a company that’s trying to put fashion forward designs at affordable prices on the backs of people who don’t have the disposable income to spend at those “upscale” stores? Why wouldn’t I, a guy who is supported by regular people, support that and help make people proud to embrace that? It doesn’t make you any less aspirational to do something that affects your community in a positive way. You can do good and still be very rich and very successful. I always want to maintain my connection with my community. So the decisions I’ve made from making a song called “Around the Way Girl” to this have been based on that idea. I got a digital distribution network called http://www.Boomdizzle.com and that’s crazy because it’s going to give people an opportunity to get out there. Def Jam is working with me on it and it’s really going to be an exciting thing for upcoming artists. I want to help people; I want to see people make it. I’m not trying to hog the game. I want to see other people be successful, make money, and get rich. I’m okay with other people coming in and becoming legends.  AllHipHop.com: Do you feel that other veterans do enough for the up and coming artists new to the game or still trying to get in?LL Cool J: I’ll put it like this, there are two ways people can make it to the top. You can make it creatively or competitively. Competitive people get to the top then kick the ladder down or pull the ladder up so no one else can make it up. Creative people make a ladder and leave it there for others to climb. I think we, as a people, have gotten used to the competitive way where you just worry about you getting up and screw everybody else. I don’t get down like that. People are going to see me succeed in the next couple years and when they witness my success it’s going to be a lot clearer to people that you don’t have to cut everybody’s throat to succeed. You don’t have to position yourself like “I’m better than you” to be successful. Like, I don’t have to distance myself from my neighborhood. I can go to the barbershop and say what’s up to my people. I can still go to my old neighborhood and still be rich. It’s a car drive away. I’m not saying you can’t grow and develop new circles of friends as well. There’s nothing wrong with growth but remember, the taller a tree grows the deeper the roots. If not, that tree is dead. There’s no problem with evolving. We’re going to evolve, we need to evolve. We need Fortune 500 businesses but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon our people to do it.

“People don’t know I owned a piece of Def Jam but I sold it back at a certain point for a certain price. I own my catalog. Before Lyor [Cohen] and them left we did a deal and I got my full catalog. LL Cool J owns his whole body of work.”

AllHipHop.com: While we’re talking about evolution, have you had a chance to sit down with Russell Simmons or Rick Rubin and talk about the current state of Def Jam?LL Cool J: No. not really. The way I look at it is, I was there from the beginning. Everything that you guys are seeing right now represents growth. It’s not like we went wrong or anything. When we started it was me Russell, Rick, and Heidi Smith the secretary ordering sandwiches for lunch with no furniture in the office. So when I look at Def Jam now with hundreds of employees, I’m impressed. That’s not to say that, musically, things can’t be better but that’s ebb and flow. With any label or any situation that will happen. I don’t have a problem with the growth. People don’t know I owned a piece of Def Jam but I sold it back at a certain point for a certain price. I own my catalog. Before Lyor [Cohen] and them left we did a deal and I got my full catalog. LL Cool J owns his whole body of work. Every record. I’m very happy about the growth Def Jam has experienced. Now, do I feel the Hip-Hop side of the music needs more attention, yes. Do I feel like that’s going to change shortly, yes. I think Hip-hop will be served more now that Shakir [Stewart] is up there doing what he does. You’re going to see the Hip-Hop get better. You can see from my project. You’re probably going to be getting calls from people you’ve never spoken to before. People are excited about Hip-Hop. People are excited about my project and I know it’s going to succeed. You now have people up there that are really rooting for the artists. There is no more competition between the executives and the artists. It’s back to artists being artists and executives being executives and we’re all going to have success. AllHipHop.com: When you look back at when you came in and all the doors you’ve opened, who are some of the artists, besides yourself, that make you feel like it was all worth it?LL Cool J: There are too many to name man. Off the top of my head, I think what Lil’ Wayne is doing is great. As an artist and just his overall work ethic is great.  For him to consistently come up with that many verses and mixtapes and then what he did with the album, that’s great. All that speaks to his work ethic and success never rewards the wrong person. I’m happy for him.

“All I know is when it comes to this microphone and this whole MC thing I’m fearless. I been doing this my whole career and I’m built for it.”

AllHipHop.com: You’ve been in your fair share of situation when you had to introduce somebody to the wrong side of a battle rap. If someone challenged you on that level today, at this point in your career, would you entertain them or let it go?LL Cool J: I don’t know what I would do. I’m so unpredictable I don’t know what I would do. I might not say nothing or I might make like 19 records about you. I don’t know. It’s all according to how I feel it. I’m quirky like that. I might ignore something people thought I wouldn’t ignore and then I might feed into something people thought I really wouldn’t or shouldn’t feed into. I really don’t know. All I know is when it comes to this microphone and this whole MC thing I’m fearless. I been doing this my whole career and I’m built for it. But I’m not going after that. Bullies always end up on their back at some point so I’m not going that route. But if anyone feels like they want to underestimate me, it’s whatever turns you on homie. Just know what it is. I enjoy making my music. I really enjoy that so I do what makes my soul feel good. That’s why I’m here 24 almost 25 years later. Since the day you were actually born I’ve been making records. I’ve been doing it because I love what I do. I don’t sell out and that’s why I’m still there. I’ve been very courageous in the decisions I’ve made. Be they popular or unpopular I’ve always stuck to my guns. On “I’m Bad” I said, “When I retire I’ll be worshipped like an old battleship,” and I meant it man. I got to do this man. I need it, I want it.

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