LL Cool J: Nice Guys Finish First

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 power’s 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-Hop’s evolution, and God’s role in the continuing saga of Mr. Smith.

AllHipHop.com: You’re one of the longest running recording artist in Hip-Hop and that’s a fact.

LL Cool J: You know what, I’m just a… God has blessed me. That’s the first thing I think that, you know, recognizing a blessing is very important. Having that ability to know that you’re 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 don’t have the answer. I don’t know how I’m able to do what I’m doing. I don’t have the answers. If I did, I’d 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 I’m doing, to believe in what I’m 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 don’t 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, let’s 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 you’re emotional, whatever you want to call it. But I think that the reality is when you’re willing to expose what’s going on inside of you, and you’re willing to put your emotions out there, it’s 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, “I’m only gonna be rhyming this long,” and “I’m only gonna do it that long,” what you’re really saying is you’re gonna stop before you fall. This is not to slight any one [but] that’s 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. I’ve spent money. I’ve you know wasted money.

AllHipHop.com: Music wise. Any records that you think were a mistake? Or that people didn’t get, that you put out there with one kind of idea and the people didn’t get?

LL Cool J: No, my art, I don’t have any regrets with my art. I don’t see any mistakes in my art. You know, everybody’s not gonna like everything. There’s nothing that you can do about that. And you have to understand that. And everybody’s not gonna be your fan. And that’s okay. It’s like artists that paint paintings, you know, you just paint. It’s no regret. You know what I’m 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: There’s no pressure now. There was, there’s never any pressure.

AllHipHop.com: Never, there’s never any pressure?

LL Cool J: No. There’s 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 you’re saying. You know, I just kinda get in the zone, and operate from that place. I don’t have pressure to produce for a label. What I’m 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 don’t, 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.

AllHipHop.com: Really?

LL Cool J: Absolutely. You have to love something to be with it for a long time. Look at marriages: you can’t be with somebody for money forever. No matter how much you try, at some point, it’s gonna just wear thin on you. It’s 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 can’t tell me that Kobe [Bryant] got that good for money. Like, it’s no way you can get that good. Tiger Woods, you can’t get that good at something without loving it. But the money will come because that’s the beauty of God’s system. Now remember, I didn’t say [nice guys finish last]. You can be a nice guy, but nice guys finish last when they’re stupid – not because they’re nice guys.

AllHipHop.com: Because they’re idiots.

LL Cool J: Right. Nice guys finish last when they’re stupid. So I didn’t say be dumb. I didn’t say don’t do the best deal you can. I didn’t say don’t 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-Hop’s current state?

LL Cool J: What I don’t like is the fact that it seems like we can’t figure out anything for our women to do but strip for us. You know, that’s 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 can’t judge people. But at the same time, we can lift our girls up. You know, the music can lift them up. It wouldn’t hurt us. It wouldn’t 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 it’s kinda like you know we’re catering to the weakness in all of us.

AllHipHop.com: Right.

LL Cool J: But you know, at the same time, I respect a lot of young artists. I think that they’re talented. I think that there’s 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 it’s 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 that’s 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, they’ll bring you together. The Hip-Hop community and the Black community- we need to be closer. There’s 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 that’s going on around them. It’s not the money, remember money is neutral. It’s 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, it’s a couple of things. First of all, I try to balance it and I do try to balance everything. But you know there’s 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. That’s why if you really look at my career, it seems like timing is impeccable. But it’s not because I’m so smart, and because I’m able to really map it out like that, it’s 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 wasn’t much of a rivalry really, because when we were on tour, they were just beating me up every night. It really wasn’t 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. It’s like to be on tour with them every night for years, it’s kinda like, it’s 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, it’s much easier, you know. But yeah we had… I remember the first time I met Run, you know I said yeah “I’m LL. I made, “I Need A Beat.” Run said, “No, you didn’t. 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 they’re 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 don’t 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 they’re all sick as a dog cause it was my idea, you know, sick. But you know in Jam Master Jay’s 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 didn’t embrace it then. But that was the street. That’s what Alpo and them were doing. That’s when my man Chuck and them were doing and you know that’s 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 that’s 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 weren’t ready for it. See, what I’m saying, like it wasn’t 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.

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