A Q&A With LL Cool J
Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.Career longevity has eluded many rappers. Many rock, R&B and country stars maintain their hitmaking status for 20-plus years, but that rarely happens in hip-hop.
Unless you are LL Cool J.
Born James Todd Smith, LL Cool J (an acronym for "Ladies Love Cool James") began his career in 1985, at the ripe age of 16, with the Def Jam release "Radio." One of the label's first artists, he has since released classics like "Bigger and Deffer" and "Mama Said Knock You Out."
After establishing himself as a force in hip-hop, LL became one of the first rappers to take on Hollywood. He starred in such films as "Any Given Sunday," "S.W.A.T." and "Deliver Us From Eva," as well as his own TV series, "In the House."
The Grammy Award-winning rapper returns Aug. 31 with his 11th album, "The DEFinition," on Def Jam/IDJMG. The album, his first since 2002, features production from Timbaland, N.O. Joe and Dame Grease, among others. Lead single "Headsprung" is No. 16 in its ninth week on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart.
"The beauty of LL's career is he has never had to have a comeback ... he has never left," Island Def Jam Music Group chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid says. "After 20 years he is physically, mentally and spiritually in the greatest space of his entire career. To add to that, he also has an amazing new album with hit after hit. We expect nothing less than stellar success from the 'crown jewel' of Def Jam."
Q: What is the key to sustaining a career in hip-hop for as long as you have?
A: I'm not trying to keep up or adapt. I'm allowing myself to grow, evolve and create new music. Through the grace of God, I am a crusader. I'm not trying to maintain, because there is no one to keep up with; it's about creating. If I were a painter, as long as I could look out at different landscapes and different things in the world, I could continue to paint new paintings.
I'm an artist in the truest sense-from the heart. I'm not trying to keep up with anyone. That's a myth. Obviously, you have to work with the best people to make the best records, but it's not about trying to keep up or hanging on. I'm trying to push the envelope by creating new music, movements and points of view. Even in the landscape of what's out there now, I feel like "Headsprung" is new.
Q: You were one of the first MCs to diversify into film, TV and endorsements. Why was that important to you?
A: I don't want to be in a position where I have to depend on one thing. I want to be able to express myself as an artist in a lot of different ways and be able to do a lot of different things. I just don't want to limit myself.
Q: Many artists have also become entrepreneurs in the fashion and/or music worlds. Have you had any involvement in those realms?
A: As far as clothes are concerned, I own a piece of FUBU. After Karl Kani, that was one of the first [hip-hop] clothing lines, at that time, to bang out. Obviously, I've moved on since then. We're all still friends, but I don't endorse the brand anymore.
I do have my own clothing line, James Todd Smith. I am in the process of looking over three or four different distribution deals, and I will be putting that out soon. I'm sitting here talking to you with a James Todd Smith shirt on.
I also have a film production company, and I have acquired [the film rights to] a book. I am going to produce a film and create jobs for other young actors. So many actors feel like rappers and musicians are taking their jobs, so I want to produce movies and create jobs for them.
I am definitely in the process of diversifying, but I wanted to get myself on track musically first, and make sure that I was focused in that area. Now I'm in the process of spreading it out, and I'm going to be doing a few more things to create more jobs for more people. I want to create opportunities for people.
Q: What can we expect next from your acting career?
A: I just wrapped a movie with Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Justin Timberlake called "Edison." It's a thriller and will probably be out next year.
Q: What is your favorite LL Cool J album?
A: I'm still in the moment. I love my new album so much I can't even tell you. It's like, if you heard "Radio" and "Bigger and Deffer" before "Mama Said Knock You Out" came out and you were asking me that, I would be telling you about this album called "Mama Said Knock You Out" but you probably wouldn't be hearing me, because you [wouldn't] know what I know about this record.
I love "The DEFinition," and that's what I feel good about. I try to let each album stand alone. As an artist, album-by-album, you can't judge them, because all you can put into it is what you know and who you are at that time. So it's not fair to judge one album [against] another, because every time [I record an album], I have grown a little more.
Q: Is there a specific concept for the new album?
A: I wanted to make a party record. Something that was real flavorful and new, that would be hot in the clubs. Something that was a lot of fun to listen to and people could enjoy any time. That was the kind of album I wanted to make.
When I got with Timbaland, us working together really set the tone for everything. He [produced] the majority of the record, and we went from there.
Q: What was the inspiration for "Headsprung"?
A: As a track, it has an exciting energy that just feels really right. When we were in the studio, Timbaland came in and we had the beat playing ... and we decided to get our "heads" sprung.
As far as it being the first single, I wanted to come with something different. I didn't want to come with a ballad or a love song. I really wanted to approach this from the party point of view and really switch it up.
There was a minute there, when the record first came out, that a lot of people didn't even know it was me. The whole point was to do something new -- and we accomplished that.
Excerpted from the Aug. 7, 2004, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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