What comprises a legend? Some would say it’s commitment. That one’s chance at leaving a legacy hinges on the dedication to their craft and diligence in perfecting it Others say it’s heart. That one’s passion drives them to do whatever necessary to guide them to that supreme success. Lastly, there are those that insist legends are a player a higher powers divine plan that God’s will determines destiny. According to LL Cool J, it has been all three.
These days, most artists are lucky to get a second single, let alone drop another album. In spite of it all, James Todd Smith has defied the odds releasing the 11th installment of his recording career, aptly titled Todd Smith. The album is chock-full of cameo appearances from the likes of Mary J. Blige, Mary Mary, Ne-Yo, Freeway, Juelz Santana and Teairra Mari. Here, the self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time, takes a moment to reflect on his career and the choices, Hip-Hops evolution, and God’s role in the continuing saga of Mr. Smith.
AllHipHop.com: Youre one of the longest running recording artist in Hip-Hop and thats a fact.
LL Cool J: You know what, Im just a… God has blessed me. Thats the first thing I think that, you know, recognizing a blessing is very important. Having that ability to know that youre blessed, and knowing that God has his hand on you. When God puts his hand on something, nobody can move it, you know. So beyond that, I really dont have the answer. I dont know how Im able to do what Im doing. I dont have the answers. If I did, Id be ten times what [I am]. What I can say, just in terms of just my part in the deal so to speak, has been just to love what Im doing, to believe in what Im doing – to work hard and not be lazy, to not feel like I know it all and to not be afraid to take risks, to not be afraid to look foolish and look stupid. I dont have a fear of criticism.
AllHipHop.com: Understood, can you expand on that?
LL Cool J: Like in Hip-Hop, things that are weak – or perceived to be weak, can be strong, and the things that are perceived to be strong, can be weak. For example, lets take something like a love song. You know when I first started doing love songs, it was perceived differently by the male audience, [within] the Hip-Hop audience. [You were] Just soft or youre emotional, whatever you want to call it. But I think that the reality is when youre willing to expose whats going on inside of you, and youre willing to put your emotions out there, its actually strong. So I think it takes a lot of courage to do different things.
AllHipHop.com: So when you started rhyming, did you see an end in sight at all?
LL Cool J: No, I never seen anything that had a limit to it. I kind of feel like when you started something and you start talking about, Im only gonna be rhyming this long, and Im only gonna do it that long, what youre really saying is youre gonna stop before you fall. This is not to slight any one [but] thats really fear talking.
AllHipHop.com: What would you consider one of those mistakes that you made?
LL Cool J: I mean I make jillions of mistakes. Ive spent money. Ive you know wasted money.
AllHipHop.com: Music wise. Any records that you think were a mistake? Or that people didnt get, that you put out there with one kind of idea and the people didnt get?
LL Cool J: No, my art, I dont have any regrets with my art. I dont see any mistakes in my art. You know, everybodys not gonna like everything. Theres nothing that you can do about that. And you have to understand that. And everybodys not gonna be your fan. And thats okay. Its like artists that paint paintings, you know, you just paint. Its no regret. You know what Im saying? You just paint.
AllHipHop.com: Do you find it easier to create, you know your masterpieces and what not in this climate where you are in your career right now or do you think it was easier when there was no pressure?
LL Cool J: Theres no pressure now. There was, theres never any pressure.
AllHipHop.com: Never, theres never any pressure?
LL Cool J: No. Theres no pressure. What is the pressure?
AllHipHop.com: Well, pressure to succeed. Pressure to, you know produce for the label, pressure to keep career flow.
LL Cool J: See, I understand what youre saying. You know, I just kinda get in the zone, and operate from that place. I dont have pressure to produce for a label. What Im supposed to do is have faith, [and] make the best product I can. I make the best music I can from the heart, and then go out and do all I can to support it. And leave it at that. If so, what pressure? I mean I dont, you know —
AllHipHop.com: In a percentage, how much of your recording career at this point is love and how much of it is money?
LL Cool J: Hundred percent love.
LL Cool J: Absolutely. You have to love something to be with it for a long time. Look at marriages: you cant be with somebody for money forever. No matter how much you try, at some point, its gonna just wear thin on you. Its just gonna be difficult. The money thing is the effect. But the cause is love. You cannot tell me that Michael Jordan got as good as he got at basketball for money. You cant tell me that Kobe [Bryant] got that good for money. Like, its no way you can get that good. Tiger Woods, you cant get that good at something without loving it. But the money will come because thats the beauty of Gods system. Now remember, I didnt say [nice guys finish last]. You can be a nice guy, but nice guys finish last when theyre stupid – not because theyre nice guys.
AllHipHop.com: Because theyre idiots.
LL Cool J: Right. Nice guys finish last when theyre stupid. So I didnt say be dumb. I didnt say dont do the best deal you can. I didnt say dont ask for as much money or create and generate as much revenue as you can for your life and your family. I said love what you do.
AllHipHop.com: What do you like and what do you not like about the game right now, in Hip-Hops current state?
LL Cool J: What I dont like is the fact that it seems like we cant figure out anything for our women to do but strip for us. You know, thats no disrespect to young ladies that are going through that, because you never know why a woman does what she does, or man. So you cant judge people. But at the same time, we can lift our girls up. You know, the music can lift them up. It wouldnt hurt us. It wouldnt hurt anybody to lift them up, and to embrace them, and you know give them some love, because you got to remember that. You know its kinda like you know were catering to the weakness in all of us.
LL Cool J: But you know, at the same time, I respect a lot of young artists. I think that theyre talented. I think that theres a lot of great music out there. I think that there are a lot of people out there that are impressive for various reasons – whether its their music, or what their accomplishments are, or their business acumen.
AllHipHop.com: So sell me and the readers this new album
LL Cool J: I wanted the Todd Smith record to just be a record that was displaying even more of me, the inside of me that [only] my family gets to see everyday. The side of me that grew up next door to you. The guy who loves gardens, the guy who loves his family, to be really, really honest and put together some music thats gonna unify the community, and keep the theme. The theme of the record consistent and constantly bringing people together with the music. All different types of you know musicians and artists, different genres. But primarily you know Hip-Hop and R&B.
AllHipHop.com: With this album, what are you trying to say?
LL Cool J: The theme on this record is unity, just unifying. Or touching on a subject that could possible tear people apart, but if you can address them and find healing, theyll bring you together. The Hip-Hop community and the Black community- we need to be closer. Theres a need for more unity and the need for togetherness.
AllHipHop.com: What do you think is tearing us apart?
LL Cool J: I think that materialism is tearing us apart to a certain extent, because the materialism turns everything into a dog-eat-dog situation. It makes everybody like at the beginning of the hockey game, everybody going for the puck, ridiculous, with no regard for anything else thats going on around them. Its not the money, remember money is neutral. Its nebulous.
AllHipHop.com: You recently launched your clothing line, Todd Smith. You seem to be a master of all trades
LL Cool J: No, you know what, its a couple of things. First of all, I try to balance it and I do try to balance everything. But you know theres certain spiritual principles at work. Like, you know I pay my tithe, you know tithing is when you give ten percent of what comes into your life economically to your local church. I take ten percent or more of my money, and give it to God and I make sure that I support His Kingdom. Thats why if you really look at my career, it seems like timing is impeccable. But its not because Im so smart, and because Im able to really map it out like that, its because God has blessed me.
AllHipHop.com: I just finished reading Raising Hell: The Autobiography of Run-D.M.C., And it talks a lot about the intense rivalry that you and Run had or supposedly had. Is this true and can you speak on it?
LL Cool J: Oh yeah, yeah. Me and Run definitely well, it wasnt much of a rivalry really, because when we were on tour, they were just beating me up every night. It really wasnt that much of a rivalry. I guess I was seeing the results of what he was feeling, because they were whooping me out every night. But one thing [about] going on tour, Run-D.M.C. taught me was how to perform. They taught me how to stand up against such a mega-group, every night. Its like to be on tour with them every night for years, its kinda like, its almost like a boxer who spars with two people in the ring at the same time, all the time. So then when you get out there against one, its much easier, you know. But yeah we had I remember the first time I met Run, you know I said yeah Im LL. I made, I Need A Beat. Run said, No, you didnt. Say the words. And I rapped it for him, and he went and asked Russell [Simmons].You know, one of the great guys, I have a lot of respect for him and DMC. May Jam Master Jay rest in peace, completely and totally, that was ridiculous. But as a group, I have the utmost respect. I mean, I learned a lot from them. You know, I studied them, you know, and I just think theyre a great group.
AllHipHop.com: Is it true that Peter Piper was originally Rock the Bells, the —
LL Cool J: — Yeah, yeah, yeah. Peter Piper was gonna be Rock the Bells and you know, but, you know Run lifted me. You know, it makes sense dont it? The Bells, I was going through it, you know Rick [Rubin], I guess he felt like you know he had to do it to his little man [LL], like theyre all sick as a dog cause it was my idea, you know, sick. But you know in Jam Master Jays defense, he probably loved the Mardi Gras track too, because we all grew up on it, especially from that generation. We grew up with that music was the [Bob James] Mardi Gras beat. So you know, it is what it is. You know, maybe I do [Rock the Bells] anyways.
AllHipHop.com: In the late 90s, you had a few freestyles on a Kay Slay Street Sweeper mixtape, where you talked about a notorious drug dealer Alpo and you rhyme Italian. You remember that?
LL Cool J: Yeah, yeah. At the time, like when I did the albums like Walking With A Panther, when I had all the big Cool J diamond rings and minks, and girls with champagne, Hip-Hop didnt embrace it then. But that was the street. Thats what Alpo and them were doing. Thats when my man Chuck and them were doing and you know thats what [convicted drug-dealers] AZ and Rich [Porter] and all of those guys from 132th [Street in Harlem], these are all the guys that I grew up around, and thats what they were doing, and I was doing it, I was bringing that street culture and that urban inner city New York thing to music. But they werent ready for it. See, what Im saying, like it wasnt until Jay-Z and Puffy and them did it, ten years later – then people were really ready for all of that.
For more on LL Cool J’s James Todd Smith album, click here.