LL Cool J: The Ever Evolving Career Of The G.O.A.T.

By Tiffany Thompson  |  08/26/2008

LL Cool JHe's the ladies love that always needs a beat and can't live without his radio. He's bad, needs love and can "Rock the Bells." This "Phenomenon" called hip-hop, that he helped to create, was "Jingling Baby" during his inception into the game. He can stay relevant to the fellas on "Mamma Said Knock You Out," or on "I Shot Ya," and can cater to the ladies. So "Hey Lover," in "4, 3, 2, 1" he'll be, "doin' it and doin' it and doin' it well." He's the G.O.A.T. that can "Love You Better," take you to "Paradise," and get your "Headsprung."

When LL Cool J started his rap career, the year was 1985. Mike Tyson debuted with a first round KO and the Unabomber was on the loose. Tetris and Nintendo were released, T-Pain was born, and it would take another five years before Soulja Boy would even be conceived. Fast forward to present day where Mike Tyson no longer boxes, the world is more concerned about terror attacks, Xbox puts Nintendo to shame, its almost a must to have T-Pain on your record, and LL is still here.

For James Todd Smith, better known as LL Cool J, his rap career began when his grandfather bought him a DJ system at age 11. From there, something sparked inside of the young rapper and the story begins. To LL, music was an escape from hard times he was facing at a young age. He eventually started to write lyrics to the beats he was creating and began to completely master his craft. Thanks to a chance meeting with one of Def Jam founders, Rick Rubin in '84, LL was introduced to Def Jam. He became one of the first artists signed to the label, and has stayed loyal ever since. After the release of "I Need A Beat," LL left high school to pursue music full time.

Though the times have changed, LL has managed to change with them and stay relevant in an industry where most emcee's careers often don't last more than two albums. LL has managed to put out 13, with very few of them going less than platinum.

With his new album, Exit 13, his last and final in his contract with Def Jam, BallerStatus caught up with the living legend to talk history, music, and the industry.

BallerStatus.com: Tell me about Exit 13, what can we expect off this album?

LL Cool J: I actually made three albums to create this one. I wanted to take my time and do something that I really, really loved, and that I really was a fan of. I think people, hopefully, will appreciate that.

BallerStatus.com: How is it different than anything you've done before?

LL Cool J: Well I think it's very different, at least from the last four or five albums, because you know, its been many years since I turned down movies and turned down all types of different opportunities and all of that to focus only on my music. Also, the last few albums that I have been creating, I was doing those albums while I was doing movies and stuff like that. This is the first time, in many years, that I have focused on the album and the level of production. I mean, the music, even the album cover, even the actual album packaging, is on another level. When you see the album and when you open up, to fold [it] out ... it's incredible. Everything about this project, I paid attention to detail, I think, and made what I think is a really great project.

LL Cool J: BallerStatus.com: Who did you work with on this album?

LL Cool J: There are a lot of different producers. They're all young and hungry. I had two legends involved -- DJ Scratch and Marley Marl. Other than that, a lot of brand new producers. Its ... you just gotta hear it, it's hot. Like "Baby" was produced by the kid Tricky, who is a very talented and successful producer, but he's still new to the game.

BallerStatus.com: Since Exit 13 is the last album for you off of Def Jam, what can we expect from you?

LL Cool J: You know after this, I'm working on Boom Dizzle. Boom Dizzle is a digital distribution network. It's hot, it's for the young kids and the young generation to get on and do their thing, and I think that it'll be a great thing. It;s going to be a great movement for the aspiring artist world wide. So Boom Dizzle is definitely the place, and also I have some of my music featured on there. Def Jam has also been working with me to build the site and it's going to be a great place for the music business in general.

LL Cool J: BallerStatus.com: What's different now in hip-hop, compared to when you first started?

LL Cool J: Well, first let me say that as far as how long I've been doing this, I'm not trying to be old school and bring it back and I'm not trying to be new school. I'm classic, you know? I just wanted to say that because I think it's important the people understand my mind set. As far as what's changed, being classic never changes for me. When I look at the game, obviously there's just more artists from different regions of the world and the fans obviously, or the supporters of the music have access to more music than they've ever had. They can actually make the music and be heard as well. So a lot of things have changed. The [democracy] of distribution online, more people are involved in the game. The major labels don't have the strangle hold on the distribution of music the way they used to.

BallerStatus.com: There are so many new artist coming out, what do you think, content wise and lyrically, of what these new artist are putting out?

LL Cool J: Let me just say this first, I think that we have two different things when we discuss content and the lyrical content of records. The first thing you have to understand is what the person was trying to accomplish. Now why do I say that? I say that to say this: when I created the song "Baby" with The Dream, I wasn't going into the studio trying to create something that was going to stun people lyrically. I was going in to create a piece of music that would be entertaining for people who just wanted to hear something that was light hearted and fun. And why am I saying that? I'm saying that because a lot of the new artists, every new artist that comes out may not be focused on the type of lyrical content and word play and depth that people who were [raised on] hip-hop during the late 90s and early 2000s were. So there's a different mind set. Also, I think what's entertaining to a 12-year-old or 14-year-old is going to be different and entertaining than to somebody who's 26. So it's like, for me, I like the content, I think it's cool for who it's coming from. I judge the content by who it's coming from, you know what I mean (laughs)? So when the kids down south make dance records and they make music where they're having fun and they wanna do like the little party hooks and all that, if that's what they feel, then that's what they are. You know a hundred years ago, when UTFO was doing "Roxanne" and Joeski Love was doing "Pee Wee Herman" and everybody was doing all those songs, no body complained.

BallerStatus.com: Is there anyone in the entire music industry that you'd like to work with?

LL Cool J: I think Dr. Dre and Madonna are the two people who I'd still be interested in working with. It would have to be organic and natural. I wouldn't like do it to be doing it. It would have to make sense. Me and Dre worked together for a minute once, but I wasn't really focused. I had a thousand things going on and so did he. I think Madonna also because I respect her. Her ability to keep moving and keep pushing pop culture ahead, I think she's amazing with that and I respect her a lot for that.

BallerStatus.com: What's on your iPod right now? Who are you listening to?

LL Cool J: I'm only listening to my new music right now 'cause I'm working on my album. So when it comes to new music right now, I'm just listening to regular radio and satellite radio, you know and online, streaming music here and there. I'm not running around with an iPod right now. I'm running around with a bag full of CDs like I'm in the dinosaur age (laughs).

BallerStatus.com: How you feel about being one of hip-hop's pioneers?

LL Cool J: It feels real good. I feel blessed and thankful. I don't want to take this for granted. The incredible thing is -- put it this way: I feel like George Washington would probably feel if he would've lived (laughs). Like, I actually got to experience this and be apart of this for real and enjoy this culture and it's a complete and total blessing. Like, it's an incredible blessing. Especially to be a young human being, you know, I'm old in rap years, but as a human being I'm a young man.

BallerStatus.com: How did you come to that decision that you wanted to leave school to pursue music?

LL Cool J: Man, that decision was like, for me was pretty easy. I loved hip-hop so much when I started, that I used to take my record with me to school and walk around with it, with no books (laughs). Just walking down the hallway with a single, [like] "Yo this is my record," and people wouldn't believe me. They tell me I'm lying. I did one of my first concerts in shop class. I went to shop class. We shut the shop class down and my DJ brought the speakers up there. The shop class was in the back of the school, brought the speakers up there, set the equipment up and did a show for the class and then that day I packed up and never went back. Like, I was just super excited. You know, I was doing shows on the weekends and then it was hard to get up Monday,, then it was hard to get up Tuesdays. Wednesday came and I was still thinking about Tuesday (laughs). But I ended up having to go to a little college out in Cali and just take a couple courses on personal finance, so I could navigate through this gauntlet or maze, whatever you want to call it, of a business. It feels good. It's incredible, it's just a beautiful thing.

BallerStatus.com: Tell me about the moment you knew that being a rapper was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?

LL Cool J: Well there were two moments. But I think the moment that I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was one day I was listening to, at that time, DJ Red Alert was on the radio, he was the first person in New York to play my record. That was when 98.7 Kiss played hip-hop only at night. Hip-hop wasn't played in the day time. Rap music wasn't played in the daytime at all; you had to wait 'til night time to hear rap music. My record was on the Top Eight at Eight, my first record. I was out on the street and it had rained earlier and the street was shining and the moonlight was bouncing off the street and the record was playing. I remember a cat came up to me and as the record was playing, I was standing in the street and he said, "Yo man, that's you." I said "Yeah, yeah, yeah I know," and I was just looking at the street and saying to myself, "I like this. This is me; this is what I'm going to do." I said, you know what, I'm going to take this to the fullest, I'm bout to get 'em so crazy right now. I love it. And that was it.

BallerStatus.com: Walking With A Panther, many people considered you a sell-out at the time. What were you trying to achieve on that album?

LL Cool J: It's funny that how Walking With A Panther, at that time, people said he sold out or he did whatever. Isn't it amazing that how the images that I portrayed on Walking With A Panther set the standard for the entire rap industry today? How me having gold chains and champagne and models and cases of champagne on the back and Benz's on the cover and big diamond rings and all that, now everybody ... that's the first thing they want to see. You know, you think about a majority of the artists, like you look at Walking With A Panther, you think about majority of the artists and that's what they want to be, right there. So that one album, that was considered as a failure, actually opened up a whole category of hip-hop.

Then when I did I'm Bad, they said that "I Need Love," LL's wrong for doing a love song. Now if a rapper doesn't have a love song on the album, it's not even a full album, they're not a well rounded artist if they don't do it. They just say, "Oh, this joint is for the ladies." That's how they clean it up, but the reality is that they all know that they need to have a love song. Every album you can find something like that, all throughout the record. Like, everybody's talking 'bout "What's the G.O.A.T.?" and "LL's not the G.O.A.T" and all of this right? But the reality is I put the G.O.A.T. album out and took the term from Ali, brought it from sports into hip-hop. If I didn't put the term G.O.A.T. in hip-hop, people wouldn't even be using that phrase. It wouldn't even exist. It's actually kind of funny in that way.

BallerStatus.com: Everything has kind of come full circle, back to the 80s where you started everything.

LL Cool J: I mean look, the "Mamma Said Knock You Out" cover, that's 1991, and I got the forty, fifty thousand dollar diamond ring on. That's '91. People think that's new. I did that then. I popped bottles in videos the 80s. I pop bottles now and they tell me I'm trying to be like everybody else. When you think about it, that's why I don't have any problems taking the chances and the risks that I take musically because I know that, ultimately, it's about being a real artist.

BallerStatus.com: You were many firsts for Def Jam. "I Need A Beat" was the first release for Def Jam. Radio was the first album released off of Def Jam. You essentially helped build the label. Do you feel like you were overlooked for that CEO position?

LL Cool J: You know I'm glad you asked me that. Do you think that Madonna wants to work at Warner Brothers? Do you think that Bruce Springsteen wants to work at CBS? Do you think that Michael Jackson wants to work at Epic? Or Prince wanted to work over at his label? So why would LL Cool J want to work at Def Jam? What is this premium that people place on the idea of an artist having a job at a company? Why isn't me being an artist enough? Why do I need to have a job here? What does that prove that I'm cool? Or that I'm smart?

BallerStatus.com: It doesn't really prove anything.

LL Cool J: That's what I'm saying. So the idea of overlooked, are you kidding me? I mean when people say that LL was overlooked for a job, that's like saying I started as an intern here (laughs). Like I've been getting promotions every year and when the CEO job came up, I was overlooked. Are you kidding me? What do I want to work here for? Russell didn't even work here. He started it with me (laughs). He worked here two years ... I think people have to get their minds right about all of that stuff. What Jay-Z wants to do is Jay-Z. He obviously had dreams as a kid of being a rapper/businessman and that's what he wanted to do. LL Cool J wanted to be a rapper. That doesn't mean that LL didn't make money. That doesn't mean that I didn't buy real estate. That doesn't mean that I can't buy a cheeseburger tonight. It just means that's not what I wanted to do. I didn't want to wear a suit and tie. I never dreamed of wearing a suit and tie and going to work.

BallerStatus.com: You're a rapper and that's your job.

LL Cool J: That's my job. My job is to do LL. Like, I'm doing my job. My job is to make albums and movies and music, that is my job. Why would I want to do anything else?

BallerStatus.com: Are there any more albums in the future?

LL Cool J: I don't know what my next move is going to be album wise. I'm not even thinking that. But what I'm not going to do is say that I'm going to retire out of fear of failure. I want to just see what happens. If I'm going to make some more music, I'll make some more music. I'm not going to act like, or tell you I'm going to retire 'cause I'm scared 'cause times are changing. You know it is what it is. I'll see when I get there.