LL Cool J: Heavyweight

LL Cool J throws a perfect combination of raw rap and pure pop

LL Cool J
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc
LL Cool J during the MTV Video Music Awards.
By |

It looks like a rap concert and it sounds like a rap concert, but it sure doesn't feel like a rap concert. There are plenty of hard guys in the house and the bass is pumping loud, but for once security isn't a real concern. Of course, the U.S. Air Force Academy isn't your usual rap venue, and Colorado Springs isn't exactly the capital of the hip-hop nation. But L.L. Cool J is headlining this "Postfinals Blowout'' at Arnold Hall, and as is happening across the country, he's finding rap fans in the least likely places. A closer look at Colorado Springs, though, reveals that picking out rap fans isn't as easy as it used to be. Look at the endless parade of blond teenage girls flocking to L.L. at the mall or in his hotel lobby and squealing in delight. Turn on the radio and you hear Monie Love rapping "It's a Shame (My Sister).'' Flip on the TV and there's a McDonald's ad featuring two home-boys proclaiming a new burger "100 percent def.''

Hip-hop is apparently here to stay in the middle of America, and L.L. Cool J is the signal of its ultimate arrival. As Mama Said Knock You Out, his fourth platinum album, closes in on its second million units sold, he has become the first rapper simultaneously in heavy rotation on MTV and booming out of Jeeps nationwide. The bouncy "Around the Way Girl'' flirted with the pop Top Ten, and the album's thunderous title song, with a big push from MTV, went almost as high. But the strapping twenty-three-year-old with the omnipresent hat, born James Todd Smith in Queens, New York, is nowhere near satisfied. "I'm working on a platinum career, not a platinum album,'' he says. "I'm going to do this in a way that's never been done before.''

Ambition? You want ambition? Try "I'm working real hard, striving to be a legend.'' How about "When you make good music, hopefully the whole world will accept it. That's what I'm trying to do.'' Sure, it's cocky, but this is L.L., who at sixteen years old was the first rapper signed to the fledgling Def Jam Records label. L.L., whose first album, Radio, sold a million copies before he turned eighteen. "I Need Love,'' from his second album, Bigger and Deffer, was the first rap single to top the R&B charts. Though we've never seen the top of his head, he was once named one of the Ten Sexiest Men in Rock & Roll by Playgirl magazine.

L.L. Cool J is something rap has never seen before – a genuine pop superstar. From the beginning, L.L.'s name has stood for "Ladies Love Cool James,'' and it's true now more than ever. It hasn't been easy, but with Mama Said Knock You Out, L.L. has proved that he can be a sex symbol and still be funky.

"The sex-symbol thing isn't something I'm trying to promote,'' says L.L. "You can see in the ["Mama Said''] video, I'm sweating, spit's coming out, so it's obviously not what I'm trying to do.'' That might sound reasonable until you look at the girls at the Colorado Springs concert (evenly mixed, black and white, civilian and cadet), shrieking at his every thrust and grind. Their male counterparts, meanwhile, pump their fists and rap along with every line – not just on the new hits but on a medley of songs from Radio. L.L. knows that he has a lot at stake these days. He has a lot of audiences and a lot of expectations to juggle if he's going to become the star he wants to be. His real priority, echoed constantly by his entourage – especially his father, Jimmy Nunya, who is now comanaging L.L. – is to bridge the lingering gap between rap and more traditional R&B, perhaps pulling in some of the pop audience along the way. "I don't want to make anything that alienates anyone,'' he says. "I want everyone to be able to get into what I'm doing. But I'm not trying to compromise. I'm not trying to be white, and I'm not trying to be black. I'm just being L.L., just being me.''

An important part of L.L.'s agenda is demonstrating that he has grown up, that he's not just the archetypal B-boy in the Kangol cap and sneakers anymore. He stays away from political material because, he says, "I like my music to relieve pressure and get rid of life's tensions. I don't want to give people problems.'' He's determined, however, to bring "positive messages'' to his young fans; that's why "The Power of God'' is the final track on Mama Said, why he's participating in KRS-One's Human Education Against Lies project. "One thing I'm not is the guy with a bottle of Olde English and a pen and a pad,'' he says. "I want to be remembered as more than just the little black guy from Queens with a mike who never did anything. That's a terrible way to get remembered.'' But about a year ago that's just the way L.L. seemed destined to be memorialized. His third album, Walking With a Panther, had gone platinum and spawned several hit singles, most notably the slinky "I'm That Type of Guy.'' The rap community, though, began to voice its displeasure. At a time of growing social concern in hip-hop lyrics, a star who posed with gold rings and chains and champagne on his album cover – especially one with enormous crossover success – was widely perceived as a sellout.

In September of 1989, L.L. appeared at a voting-registration rally in Harlem alongside such rappers as Chuck D, Doug E. Fresh and MC Lyte. He went onstage and was immediately, resoundingly booed. "I wasn't ignorant to the fact that those vibes were in the air,'' he says now, "but I still wanted to show my support.'' At the time, it looked like L.L. Cool J had been officially pronounced dead by the hip-hop community.

"I think people were searching for weakness [on Panther],'' L.L. says. "It was a timing thing; it was my time to get it in the back. Every great champion at some point gets back on the ropes or takes something some people consider to be a fall. You just got to keep on doing what you're doing and work it out.'' Though he says that he felt no pressure to update his sound or his image after the disastrous rally, he soon changed his hat (from the trademark Kangol to a transitional white leather cap before settling on the now-familiar floppy top hat) and started showing more of his breathtaking upper body. He began crafting an identity he eventually named "Uncle L - the Future of the Funk.'' L.L. says these superficial changes weren't conscious alterations. He points to the pink sweater and Docksides he's wearing in Colorado and says, "If you took a picture of me right now, people would say I changed my image. But it's just the difference between L.L. Cool J in high school and L.L. now. I just changed naturally; it was a natural progression.''

Perhaps the most significant change after Panther was L.L.'s decision to bring noted New York DJ Marley Marl on board to produce the swinging, horn-driven "To da Break of Dawn,'' first featured in the soundtrack to the movie House Party. More than anything else, Marley's contributions helped L.L. win back respectability on the street. "Marley was definitely a great acquisition, a great move,'' says L.L. "And 'Jingling Baby' is absolutely what turned things around.'' That saucy single was the hit rap song of summer 1990; JINGLING BABY T-shirts started turning up on New York City streets. The B side to that playful lechery was "Illegal Search,'' L.L.'s account of being harassed by the police. It's his most outspoken lyric to date and served as one more aid to restoring his tarnished credibility.

With the door open for his acceptance on all fronts, he and Marley set to work on Mama Said Knock You Out and let the undeniable hooks and simple grooves of the singles set the pace. Simplicity has really always been L.L.'s strength. Production wizard Rick Rubin (who signed L.L. to Def Jam in 1985) knew it when he designed the crunching, sparse sound of Radio; his credit on the album reads "Reduced by Rick Rubin.'' Though such later recordings as "Going Back to Cali'' challenged rap conventions and broke new ground, it's easy to see how they turned off some of L.L.'s original fans. L.L. says that, finally, with Mama Said, "me and the people have come to an understanding that when a record of mine plays on a radio station that they're not accustomed to listening to, that doesn't mean I'm giving anything up.''

Six months after its release, Mama Said was still in the Top Twenty. Counting the previously released tracks, it has already produced five hit singles, including the recently released "6 Minutes of Pleasure.'' L.L. contributed a small, well-received role as a cop to the forgettable Michael J. Fox-James Woods movie The Hard Way. He says that he has no plans to pursue an acting career but will make more films if the right part ("no negative stereotypes'') comes along. Rumors have him in the recording studio with Michael Jackson.

It's on MTV, though, that L.L. truly seems inescapable; on top of constant video play, he has turned up on station IDs and even on the call-in show Rockline. He is also scheduled to perform at this year's MTV Awards celebration. Most interesting, though, was a ferocious performance on MTV's Unplugged backed by an acoustic band, a set so compelling it may have pointed the way to the real future of the funk. (Most recently, L.L. was on the road with a full band, including a horn section, for this summer's Budweiser Superfest tour, where he shared the stage with the likes of Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Digital Underground and Bell Biv DeVoe.) "MTV definitely did me some justice,'' L.L. says. "Radio now has to play the song because the kids want to hear it.''

L.L. Cool J is six years into a career and getting bigger every day. No other rapper can make that claim. But for L.L., this is still just a start. "You know what I want?'' L.L. asks over hot chocolate in Colorado Springs. "I want the media, MTV, radio stations, everybody to give me a clear lane so that I can do this. I guarantee you that in five years I will have accomplished an incredible feat. I'll make sure the kids get a positive message; I'll never promote anything that's negative. I want to show people what I'm capable of and what this music is capable of. But for me to show you how I can dunk, you got to give me the ball and let me get there. So I can do this triple-reverse double-somersault dunk instead of just slamming it in your face.''

His voice is getting louder, more excited. "I just need more radio play, I need more interviews, I need more everything. And I need more time, more albums, more records. How many albums do the Rolling Stones have for them to be selling out Shea Stadium now? For Keith Richards to be fifty [actually forty-seven] and up there playing for a stadium – that's a career. What I'm doing now is still real small.'' L.L. pauses. "But I'm going to get there. I'm going to be fortysomething and doing this, and it's going to be amazing.'' Later that day, L.L. is late for a radio interview, but there's important work to be done. He's getting his beard stubble trimmed and his eyebrows and sideburns shaped, and he's not going out until he looks right. "Okay, the length looks cool,'' he tells his barber. "Now just make that angle a tiny bit sharper.'' After half an hour, the barber says that L.L. is so demanding that he reminds him of the gangsters who used to come into his Harlem shop back in the day. L.L. takes the clippers and finishes his own eyebrows, and the barber laughs, remembering the time Vanilla Ice tried to do the same thing and almost sliced a whole brow off. "Yeah, well, you know him,'' L.L. says. "You don't know me.''

This story is from the October 3rd, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 614: October 3, 1991