If you ask LL Cool J, there is no “worst part” of being successful. “I think the worst part of life would be not going after your dreams and living a life of quiet desperation,” he tells Rolling Stone.
The rapper, actor, and entrepreneur, born James Todd Smith, went after his dreams as a teenager when he convinced Rick Rubin to put out his first single, “I Need a Beat,” in 1984. He went on to become Def Jam’s first superstar solo artist and has scored a slew of gold and platinum hits like “Going Back to Cali,” “Mama Said Knock You Out,” “Around the Way Girl,” and “Doin’ It.” In recent years, he stoked controversy with his Brad Paisley duet “Accidental Racist.”
He later added acting to his C.V., appearing in the movies Deep Blue Sea and Halloween H20, among others, and he currently stars in NCIS: Los Angeles and hosts Lip Sync Battle. Additionally, he programs his own SiriusXM channel, Rock the Bells, and hosts its Influence of Hip Hop show. He’s won two Grammys (and hosted the Grammys five times), as well as MTV VMAs, NAACP Image Awards, and Soul Train Music Awards.
In 2000, he put out an album called G.O.A.T.: The Greatest of All Time, officially bringing the phrase into the English vernacular. But in an interview this summer, LL Cool J was humble when reflecting on everything he’s learned about living a full life.
What do you wish somebody told you about the music business before you got into it?
To be honest, I don’t know if I would’ve believed anybody giving me advice. I got into the music industry at 16 years old. That’s different from somebody who gets into it in their late twenties. I had people telling me a thousand things, but I didn’t listen to none of that shit.
Your first big check was for $50,000. What was the first expensive thing you bought?
I got my mother a car, and I got some sneakers, a gold chain, and a VCR in my room. I bought my mother a house with, I think, the second check.
It sounds like you were a good kid.
Look, I was raised by some good people. That instilled certain values in me. It was funny, because I remember all I ever said to the accountant was, “I want a Benz.” Then when I got the money, I bought my mother a car.
What is the most indulgent purchase you ever made?
I remember riding down the street in Baltimore one day and saw a BMW and went straight in and bought it the same day and drove it off the lot. It was impulsive, like going to get gum.
What are the most important rules you live by?
I treat people the way I want to be treated. And I don’t let anybody come between me and what I’m trying to accomplish. You know, put your oxygen mask on first then help the person next to you.
Who are your heroes and why?
There’s just so many heroic people and heroic parts of people’s lives. I look at John D. Rockefeller and what Michael Jordon was able to accomplish in his life. I look at Bruce Lee and Moses, OK? I think Muhammad Ali and Cornelius Vanderbilt are great heroes. There’s a lot of great people.
Why is Muhammad Ali a great hero?
The fact that he was willing to stick to his guns, regardless of the consequences. If the entire world says, “one plus one is five,” that doesn’t mean it’s correct and that’s the kind of society we live in now. We live in a society now where people are pressured into changing their minds because they want to fit in. I think that shit is weak.
You’re from Queens and Long Island. What’s the most New York thing about you?
You can’t get past that New York hustle. It’s that idea of turning an idea into something you can actually touch. The other thing is I’m not super-duper sensitive to everything that someone else said. Like, I have enough belief in myself as a black man to not be overly sensitive to everything that’s said on a racial side. In New York, people are always making some kind of racial, politically incorrect joke. If you grow up in that type of environment, you’re not as sensitive to some of that. In New York, people just talk crazy.
What did you learn from doing “Accidental Racist” with Brad Paisley?
I learned that not everybody’s going to get what you’re saying. You know, fuck it. I’m not apologizing for it. I believe in what I said. If somebody is crazy enough to think I was suggesting we do some tap-dance, Amos ‘n’ Andy shit, then that’s on them.
You got a lot of heat for saying, “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains” in the song. What did people get wrong about what you were saying?
I was looking at things from a very dispassionate, intellectual, and efficient way. You can’t have a logical conversation with people that are in their feelings. I was saying, “If you don’t let your past hold your future hostage, you can have a better chance of being successful in the future.” I was trying to humanize the black man to this racist and saying, “Yo, he’s a human being that you’re talking about and if you can get past that, maybe you would look at it differently.” And then the other side of what I was talking about was unconscious bias, where you’re not aware that you have a bias.
I thought the point of the song was that people need to communicate.
Without a doubt, man. Our song was about the cause, and the effect would be a conversation. But you have a lot of people who wanted to act like unconscious bias didn’t exist. It hit the third rail of some people’s emotions in a way that they couldn’t think logically about it.
Rick Rubin produced your first records. What did you learn from working with him?
Not to be overly attached to things. To take your time with the process, be confident, experiment, be open minded, look at things from a different point of view and in a new way. Just constantly be purposefully innovative and be on a mission to be unafraid creatively. He’s a very wise soul and the ultimate music fan.
You’re famous for your battle raps. What did you learn from taking on Kool Moe Dee and Canibus?
Sometimes you’ve got to defend your ground and sometimes it’s a waste of time, so you’ve got to pick your battles wisely. You can’t be so overly sensitive that you’re battling every five minutes, but at the same time you’ve got to defend your ground. It goes with the territory.
As you’ve gotten older, have you ever regretted calling Kool Moe Dee an “old-school sucker punk” or MC Hammer “my old gym teacher”?
No, not at all, because that is how I felt in the moment, and I was using the information I had at the time. And as you know, it’s not what somebody calls you, it’s how you respond to it. So if somebody wanted to turn around say that to me now, I’d definitely wait to respond. But that’s how I felt, period. No regrets.
You had a rough childhood. Your father shot your mother and grandfather. They survived and your mom started a relationship with another man who beat you. What did those experiences teach you about fatherhood?
They taught me that your kids should always feel safe and that you can do anything you put your mind to. Without challenges, you can’t change. Those things set me up to be successful in a lot of ways because it showed me how to be calm under pressure. It taught me how not to let rough times ruin my hopes and dreams for the future. I think I’ve instilled that in my kids.
What did those experiences teach you about forgiveness?
It goes back to what we were saying about “Accidental Racist.” You can’t let your past hold your future hostage. If I woke up every day thinking about getting beaten or seeing what happened to my mother, I could trap myself in a negative world. A lot of people use those childhood traumas — those historical traumas — to justify their position. They let themselves fall into a victim mindset unintentionally and that can lead to failure in the future.
In your memoir from 1997, you wrote that you got 16 hours of sleep. First off, is that true. Second, got any tips?
I wrote that a long time ago. That was when I was only living a musician’s life. I’d be going so hard for a day or two and then fall asleep and just sleep and sleep and sleep. I really did have marathon sleep sessions. Now I’m a lot busier, so I don’t get the same amount of sleep. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite. I try to get up earlier than I used to because I’ve got to be productive.
Your song “I Need Love” was one of the first rap ballads. Where did you get the gall to do something like that?
It’s funny because there are two sides to that song. … It’s a very vulnerable song. The majority of men don’t want to be that vulnerable. But at the same time, it’s what I was feeling at the time, as a young boy. And it’s true that for many people that they need love. Now whether or not they wish to be vulnerable is a whole ‘nother conversation, but I was willing to go there and experiment. I hummed that piano line and had my engineer play it.
In “Around the Way Girl,” you rapped that you wanted a girl with a bad attitude. Why would anyone want that?
It’s nice to have a challenge. Let’s be real for a second. When you’re a teenager and running around with nothing to do, living that life, a bad attitude works. But when you’re busting your ass 90,000 hours a day and coming home from work tired as hell, you don’t want a bad attitude. So that’s part of life and evolution. If you live a real cool life, in terms of temperature of your life, then you’re going to be OK with having a girl with a little hotter attitude. But if the temperature of your life is all the way trumped up and your supervisor’s on your neck, you’re not going to be in the mood for the bad attitude. So it all depends on where you’re at in your life. When I crated that piece of art, the temperature of my life was cool, so I was open for the challenge. Everybody out there, get a person that matches the right temperature for your life.
You titled your 2000 album G.O.A.T. and now people use that acronym for Greatest of All Time everywhere. How do you know when to call yourself the G.O.A.T.?
You got to believe in yourself and speak it into existence. Everybody ain’t going to agree, but I’ll tell you what I did. Muhammad Ali said he was the “Greatest of All Time.” I took that and made the acronym G.O.A.T. and put it out there in the world and look how it’s changed popular culture. I know people like to pretend they don’t know that my G.O.A.T. album is when that term was introduced — they throw it around with no regard to who created it — but at the end of the days, I made an album and stamped myself with that and turned around and made that the title of excellence for our entire country. While it’s debatable whether or not people believe I am the G.O.A.T., they are so impacted by that term that they call Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, LeBron, and Biggie the G.O.A.T. all because I made that album. I look at that as a victory.