After years of inactivity and uncertainty, on Aug. 6, LL Cool J will bring back the revered Rock The Bells festival — a one-time hip-hop staple that paid homage to heralded MCs and legacy acts, including Nas, Snoop Dogg, and A Tribe Called Quest. Under his media and e-commerce venture, Rock the Bells, LL Cool J will house a stout lineup featuring himself and Z-Trip, Ice Cube, Rick Ross, Lil Kim, Jadakiss, The Diplomats, Scarface (performing The Fix), Fat Joe & Remy Ma, Trina, Digable Planets, N.O.R.E. along with additional performers at the Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, New York.
“When we launched the channel [Rock The Bells Radio] about four years ago, the support and the response have been so overwhelming,” LL told Billboard on a Zoom call last week. “The energy and the goal has always been to elevate hip-hop culture and classic hip-hop culture and not allow all of these talented artists that we have be pushed to the sidelines just because at the current moment they might not have a song at the top of the Billboard charts. That doesn’t mean that they’re not valuable.”
The mission for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee is simple: give hip-hop luminaries an ideal platform to be celebrated for their longevity. “I found that so many people want this,” he said. “[Fans] want to celebrate the culture, but they want it done in the right way. So the same way that The Stones get treated, Paul McCartney gets treated, and Bob Dylan gets treated, I wanted to see these artists treated that way.”
Billboard chatted with LL Cool J about his forthcoming festival, his upcoming album with Q-Tip, his love for hard-nosed lyricism, and more.
Billboard: You’re not only bringing back the Rock The Bells Festival, but you’re also doing it in your hometown of Queens.
LL Cool J: Yeah. I’m doing it in Queens. It’s only right. I had to take a little for me and rep for Queens. At the same time though, it’s going to be artists from all over the country. There’s a first wave of announcements, then it’s gonna be a second wave of announcements. It’s feeling good. We’re gonna be at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Forest Hills.
Also, congrats on receiving a statue in Queens, as well.
I’m very grateful. To be honest though, when I started off my career, it really was in my mind about, “me, me, me, me.” I was a young boy taking off my shirt, running around and it was about me. Now, for me, even the statue in a lot of ways represents the culture. It’s a matter of it representing the greatness of all of the artists that have put so much work in, not just myself. I think there’s so many great acts, so many great writers, artists, rappers and so many great ones that deserve to be celebrated.
Look, I’m really just out here repping to the fullest now and just looking to elevate the culture in a way that’s never been done before. I really wanna not just make history and create history, but set the tone for history, which is different. It means 3, 4, 5, 600 years from now, there’s people when they read about this or watch these interviews back, they’ll remember how we set the tone and what classic hip-hop is supposed to be so it isn’t forgotten. I don’t want it to be a footnote.
I recently spoke to Q-Tip and he had a high praise for you saying that without LL Cool J, there’s no Rakim, Jay-Z and Drake. Do you feel that rappers today have a bit of Cool J in their DNA?
That may be true but without Melly Mel, [Kool] Moe Dee and a lot of those guys, there wouldn’t be no LL. We all kind of step on the shoulders of giants. That’s just the nature of what we do, but what I will say, for the record, I can’t tell people what it is, but I can tell people what it isn’t. What it isn’t is me and Q-Tip in a time warp. What it isn’t is me and Q-Tip chasing trends. You can use deductive reasoning from there and figure out the rest.
When I saw you post that photo of Michael Jordan on Instagram shooting a free throw with his eyes closed, I kind of knew you wasn’t playing around.
Nah, b. I’m telling you, it’s like strapping up for the playoffs, b. One thing I’ll say, fellas, if you’re doing your albums, be ready. That’s all that I’m telling you. Just be ready.
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You’re 10 years removed from your last project Authentic. How were you able to lock-in and regain your focus for your upcoming album?
In a lot of ways, Authentic was a misstep. You know, I was a couple of years into the television show NCIS Los Angeles. I wasn’t really focused, I wasn’t really tapped into the culture, I wasn’t really paying attention and I kind of went off and made that record in a vacuum. So while there are some moments on there that are worthy of hearing, I don’t think that it definitely represents what I’m capable of. It’s kind of like when Jordan had the ball stolen that year and didn’t make it all the way. It was just one of those projects that wasn’t my best.
You know, I’ve had some moments like that in my career because I’ve always had a tendency to do something great and get so full of myself that I couldn’t get out of my own way. So every time I would do something great, I’d start deviating from my personal formula and what got me there. So it took me about 10 years to kind of let my ego heal a little bit because it was such a disaster commercially because that still matters to me. I know for some artists it doesn’t, but it does to me. Then I had to get back and learn how to ride the back again. The world has changed, the couplets have changed, the vibes have changed and the wordplay has changed. A lot of things have changed since I was standing on Farmers rhyming in cyphers. So you have to focus and pay attention to what’s going on.
I took another few years and really just listened and studied and became a fan again. I allowed myself to fall in love with it again, allowed myself to love some stuff and hate some stuff and have an opinion about some things. Then, I got to work.
Let’s revisit your project 10, as it turns 20 this year. You had hits like “Love You Better,” “Paradise” and “All I Have.”
That was a fun record, I liked that album. The thing with those albums to be quite frank, when I made some of those albums….[pauses]
You can keep it real. This is a safe space.
OK. I wasn’t trying hard. I wasn’t really trying. Obviously, I think Pharrell did a great job and he kind of guided me, but my competitive juices as an MC were not burning on those records. So I was making those records more about the sonics of making a song and hearing a record, etc. I didn’t make those records as a B-Boy trying to really stick my territory and put a flag in the ground.
10 was successful. I think it’s platinum or double platinum. It did well, but at the same time, with the people that knock those records and don’t love those records as much, especially the fellas who get on me, they know what I’m capable of. They’ve heard me in moments where I go crazy and they’re like, “Why don’t you do this for?” It’s like a guy who can dunk, who can go to the paint and who can cross people over, shooting jumpers all day long and never going hard. It makes his fans mad. So I know that I have a lot of dudes out there that have been following me for years, defended me in barbershops and on Twitter, and asked, “When are you going to do something for us?” That had a lot to do with me getting with Q-Tip on the new project.
With that said, 10 was a great project, but again, I wasn’t really thinking as much about the culture like I could have. I’ll give you an example. One thing that I did which was real bad was that I went and shot the video for [“Love You Better”]. I was so caught up working out and getting in shape that I didn’t even call up Pharrell for the video. I forgot! How self-centered can you get? Those are moments where it’s like, “Damn. I didn’t even call this dude for the video.” So he’s mad at me. He’s been mad at me for like 1,000 years. He ain’t gon’ tell me that and he’ll bow and forgive me, but I know he’s kind of mad [laughs]. I really apologized to the guy, I was just caught up in my world. Sometimes, we can have blinders on and have that focus, but that focus has to be the right focus. It’s not enough to be focused, it has to be the focused.
I can tell you’re in a different element now because even when you hosted the IHeart Music Awards last month and performed your medley, you chose harder records like “Mama Said Knock You Out,” “Jack The Ripper” and even your verse on Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear.”
Those kids, their parents, they’ve had them playing “Around The Way Girl.” I needed to introduce them to me as an artist and not me as a commercial product. So I said, “Let’s do ‘Rampage.'” Dudes that like LL, that’s one of their favorite joints — they like it. Dudes like certain songs. Let’s do “Flava In Ya Ear.” It had the controversial beginning. Let’s do “The Boomin’ System” because it represents the real culture. I just didn’t want to get out there and try fitting in. I wasn’t there to try to convince somebody that I was pop, I was there to represent hip-hop. So when people see the Rock & Roll performance or they see Billboard, it’s going to be a whole other animal. So I’d really encourage people to hit that festival in a big way.
Do bars matter in 2022?
More than ever because every Snapchat, every TikTok, Instagram photo or every tweet is words. People love words. You have to be precise with your speech nowadays. Words are more important now than they ever been probably because the whole world is living in a giant transcript. If you’re going to say something, it has to mean something. The songs that I wrote on the new record that’s coming have meaning. It’s coming from a whole other place. I think that it’ll hopefully touch people in a way that they can’t ever imagine. I don’t even think people can imagine or understand what this is.
I’m gonna go a step further and Tip hates when I do this because he likes to facilitate my creative needs in terms of the music but I think he quarterbacked a masterpiece, b. I think what he did, forget me showing up on a record. It’s like he was the director in the movie and I was the actor. He directed a crazy movie, man.
Lastly, when you addressed that viral tweet of some of your crazy music video antics, there was one thing you said that caught my ear and that was, “I always made my own rules.” With this album, were you able to rewrite some of those rules?
Rules gotta evolve. There’s a difference between rules and principles. Gravity is a principle of physics. Those are things that are constants. Constants and norms are different. Normally, its a certain temperature every month but the seasons are constant. In other words what I’m saying is, I definitely wrote some new rules. I’m telling you. All bets are off. If you never liked nothing I ever made, then I encourage you to check this next one out.
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