Meadows Festival 2017: Gorillaz, LL Cool J, Future & More Provide The Surprises [Recap]
Meadows Festival 2017: Gorillaz, LL Cool J, Future & More Provide The Surprises [Recap]
Photo Credit: Victoria Ford of Sneakshot for Okayplayer

The Okayplayer Interview: LL Cool J Talks Dr. Dre, G.O.A.T. Status & Honesty

[caption id="attachment_121670" align="aligncenter" width="715"]Meadows Festival 2017: Gorillaz, LL Cool J, Future & More Provide The Surprises [Recap]Photo Credit: Victoria Ford of Sneakshot for Okayplayer]

These days, there are people who know LL Cool J for everything but the hard-hitting rhymes that founded a legendary rap career. Between television duties and starring in film roles, he always keeps a busy schedule on deck: he hosted the Grammys for the fifth time a few weeks ago, plus hosts and produces the musical reality series “Lip Sync Battle” and plays a special agent on NCIS: Los Angeles. This past Thursday, the man known as James Todd Smith, used his Facebook page to release a video that showed him dropping an ill bomb over a piercing, rattling unreleased Dr. Dre beat for a freestyle meant for the almost-billionaire’s Beats 1 radio show, The Pharmacy. The ladies might still love Mr. “Doin’ It,” “Hey Lover” Smith for being a true lyrical pleasure, but he has also become a true crossover star in Hollywood.

Yet, no one can ever forget Uncle L’s signature sound and style. Fueled by a brawny, aggressive flow that held its weight over stripped-production by Rick Rubin — this king from Hollis, Queens created timeless tracks like “Rock The Bells,” “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and “4, 3, 2, 1.” As one of the first building blocks for Def Jam Recordings, LL Cool still carries just as much clout while heading into his 30th year in music. In the new video, LL sounded sharp, witty and focused, which he says is an indication of the direction for his next album. This marks his second offering after fulfilling his long contract with Def Jam. After getting the poppy tunes on 2013’s Authentic out his system, the “Future of the Funk” is raring and ready to rip mics again. “If I call myself the G.O.A.T., I’ve gotta be able to back it up, right,” he said, on a phone call with Okayplayer.

“I know the rules.”


Okayplayer: This Dr. Dre freestyle seemed to come from out of nowhere. What prompted this?

LL Cool J: My man DJ Pooh called me up, and told me to come by the studio to hang out with Dr. Dre and DJ Premier. It wasn’t planned or anything. Pooh had asked me to do a drop, and I was like, “A drop? If we’re going to do that, you might as well let me spit something.” Dre was like, “Oh, word?” And he got the titanium laptop, came back and put that joint on. That was all she wrote, man. I just grabbed a pencil, a piece of paper and knocked it out. In 15, 20 minutes, that’s what it was. I always have a lot of fun working with Dre. We always got along, and I love hip-hop. I did this just because I can. Just to show people I can rhyme. Sometimes it’s just about the culture. It’s just about bars, rhymes and beats with no strings attached.

OKP: You came up in an era where pride and being better than the next guy meant everything.

LL: Absolutely. You know what’s funny about that? Some things just don’t change. It’s like gravity. [Laughs] Gravity in 2016 is just like it was in 1997. Stylistically, obviously there are some rappers that are more singing, and some that are more entertaining, and some that want to do more pop. But for me, the purity of just crazy beats and rhymes is the cloth I’m cut from. A lot of people obviously know me because I pioneered the female-friendly music, and I think a lot of the new generation only know about that aspect of my career. But what they don’t know, is the original cloth that I’m cut from is just beats and rhymes, you know what I’m saying? Just an opportunity to remind them. I think that’s necessary.

I think hip-hop needs me to put out a special project, and kind of just set a little bit of a template for guys. Give them something to aspire to, quite frankly. I think I need to do that. I want to do something special, and I plan on doing that and putting that out there.

OKP: So you’re working on a new album now?

LL: I’m definitely in the process of digging in the crates, so to speak. I’m sifting through MP3s as we speak, baby. And I’m going to put something out there that’ll be really special. It’s going to change a lot in hip-hop when my next project comes. There are some really, really talented artists out there in hip-hop culture. And there are [also] some guys who are getting 50-point credit for 20-point games. There are some guys out there who are really, really special and it’s obvious. They’re spitting, and they can hold their own with the best of them. And then I think there are other guys out there that really and truly are just overrated. But, you know, the only way for me to prove that is to give you something to A-B it against. Anybody can say that. It’s easy to say that, it’s easy to type that. But it’s another thing to actually put a project out that puts things into perspective. I want to put together a body of work that can put that into perspective. I can show you better than I can tell you. … I have to make a contribution to the culture in this era that you can look at and compare it to. That’s what hip-hop is about, right? If I call myself the G.O.A.T., I’ve gotta be able to back it up, right? I know the rules.

OKP: Beef isn’t around much anymore, but you’re definitely battle-tested. What’s your favorite beef ever, as a fan?

LL: As a fan? [Laughs] Oh, man. I loved them all. They’re all funny for different reasons. I can take you back to the [Kool] Moe Dee v. Busy Bee Starski beef, all the way up to current beef like Drake and [Meek] Mill, to everything in between. I’m from Queens, but KRS and Shan was a lot of fun. Wasn’t necessarily a great look for Queens, but that was a hell of a beef. That goddamn “Bridge Is Over” record was serious. That was a lot of fun. But I thought the “Back 2 Back” joint was nice too, where Drake and Meek were going back and forth, that was fun. Listen man, that’s what it’s about. That’s the cool thing about hip-hop that people have to understand, that’s different from football and basketball. You don’t pull a hammy rapping. [Laughs] You can do this shit forever. I ain’t gotta be able to jump from the halfcourt line. All I gotta do is be able to stick. If I’m paying attention, I should be getting better.

OKP: You were part of the formation of Def Jam where it built up into a powerhouse. But these days, major labels are less and less prominent. Do you think fans are missing anything with the lack of major labels, or do you like this new system where artists can go viral independently?

LL: I like this new system. I like the idea that you could be sitting on your couch, and if you put out something hot, people are going to see it. [Laughs] What’s better than that? That’s how talent shines. Now don’t get me wrong, labels definitely have a place, they can help you take a project to the next level, I don’t care how viral you are. But there’s something special, whether you’re going to upload it to Soundcloud, or to Facebook, or to Instagram, or Snapchat, or whatever platform you decide to use. There is something special about, for the lack of a better word, democratization of access. But the other thing it does is it clogs and clouds the game a little bit. Because there are some really talented people, but there are some other people flooding it with a bunch of nonsense. And it’s terrible. Imagine the NBA, but they let all the fans play. [Laughs] Steph Curry is still nice, but then he’s passing to the old lady from Montana.

It’s good and bad. It’s good in the sense that everyone has access, which I think is a good thing. I think that all people should have access, and be able to get out there and have their voices heard as artists. But it does make it a little more difficult because you have to sift through so much stuff. … I think there’s a way to have the best of both worlds, but I do enjoy this new process.

OKP: Your last album Authentic was your first without Def Jam, so you know that new system a little bit now. What was that process like for you?

LL: I go through phases as an artist where sometimes I get real experimental. Sometimes I get really creative, and my last album was me doing something artistic. It wasn’t really about beats and rhymes and the culture. It was more about me being creative and experimenting. It truly was an experiment. It didn’t hit the mark, it wasn’t a commercial success, but I think 100 years from now it’ll mean something and be special to my great-grandkids, and it’ll be great. In terms of moving forward, my next project has to be special and be about the culture. It can’t be me experimenting, on my artistic shit. It has to be the real, what I came up on and what I love. It has to be bars and beats, no frills.

I don’t have an issue with not being on a label, but when you’re not on a label, the pressure is that much greater. The music has to be really great, you have to make some really special shit. Good ain’t good enough. Nowadays, people are so honest. You’re never going to get 100 percent rating on anything, because there’s always going to be a troll that doesn’t like something because that’s their job. But we all know when it really works online, and it feels right, and when the overwhelming vibe is right. You can’t play games with it, because the world tells the truth. You’re going to get the instant feedback. That’s the one thing as an artist I appreciate, but you do have to step your game up.

OKP: You have over a dozen albums now. Is there one album you’ve made that you think didn’t get the props that it deserved?

LL: Oh, that’s interesting. I think one album that I made that had some cool records on it was that Todd Smith album. There’s a record on there called “I Changed” that I thought was really interesting, and it had a few joints on it that were special. It just came out at a weird time, had single selection, kind of whatever promo; things happen. But sometimes, when you’re at this level, and you’re at the level that I’m at, the unfortunate thing is that people don’t really respect good from you. Good for anybody else is good. But good for me is like, “That’s just good. But that’s LL, so it’s supposed to be good. It should be great.” The reality is, I don’t get credit for good records. I’ll never get credit for another good record for the rest of my career. If I want credit, I have to be great.

Let’s take it for acting. Let’s look at a guy like Robert De Niro. Who’s going to give Robert De Niro credit for being good in a movie? He has to be great, right? A mid-level player on a basketball team will get credit for being good, but [Michael] Jordan doesn’t get credit for having a good game. What credit is LeBron [James] going to get if he drops 22? But that’s a good game! To get a 20-point game in the NBA? That’s what I mean by it. When I talk about the level that I’m on, it’s coming from a sincere recognition of where I’m at. I’m stating just the actual facts. I’m not arrogant, I’m not acting like I’m above people, I’m just recognizing where I’m at on the level in terms of my career, when I look at my career and the things that I”ve done, and what it takes for people to be impressed by me. It takes more of me to impress people. But that’s my job, that’s the position I put myself in.

OKP: This far into your career, how do you even find new things to talk about?

LL: It comes from love and inspiration. As long as you keep living life, you always see things. You’ve never ran out of conversation. How old are you?

OKP: I’m 30.

LL: You’re a grown man. When you were 21, you were talking. Now you’re 30, and you’re talking. We don’t run out of conversations. You don't run out of things to talk about, you just have to care enough to pay attention. I’ve never tried to be the super celebrity dude that’s super fancy in terms of my spirit. I pay attention to people, I still see the world, I still listen to all the music that’s out there. I listen to everything from Peewee Longway, to “Summer Sixteen” by Drake, to Rick Ross’ last album, all the way back up to Paul McCartney, to Def Leppard, to Leonard Cohen. I listen to everything. I’m always going to find inspiration, it just has to come from your spirit and your love. I’m grateful that I’m able to have this conversation with you all these years later because I’m aware of the responsibility that comes with that, but also the blessing that that is. I don’t take it for granted, any of it.

OKP: You’ve hosted the Grammys five times. The awards have an odd relationship with hip-hop, but this year, they really seemed to get a lot right. What has it been like to be a part of the Grammys, and what do you think changed between last year and this year to what looked like having a better pulse of the culture?

LL: I’ve had great conversations with Ken Ehrlich, Neil Portnow and Jack Sussman. I’ve tried to be an advocate for hip-hop culture all along. You don’t want to be a pain in the ass, but you try to be an advocate too. I think they’re just recognizing it and respecting it. Sometimes, things take time. They don’t always happen overnight. What people have to always be cognizant of is that major organizations like the Grammys, and NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), and those type of organizations, it takes time for them to turn that big aircraft carrier. It’s not a Porsche, you don’t just whip it and make a quick u-turn. It takes time for them to get the culture right.

But they did it on many levels. They did it by letting Kendrick [Lamar] be as free as he wanted to be, and go all out. They did it by giving Run-DMC the Lifetime Achievement award, they did it by letting me host five times in a row. I think these guys are extending themselves in a great way. I love hip-hop culture, but the Grammys is not a hip-hop show. The Grammys is a music show. If you’re a country, blues, heavy metal, rock, salsa, classical, or jazz musician, how would you feel? We always look at it through the primrose glasses of our own culture and perspective in our genre, but I think the Grammys have been pretty good to hip-hop. Is there room for improvement, yes. But I think they’ve done a reasonably good job. They have a passing grade, for sure. I know everybody wants to see five rappers in a row, but that’s not what it is.

It’s not the BET Awards or the Hip Hop Awards, it’s the Grammys. I have big respect for the Grammys organization and the way they’ve done it, and I think the ratings show that it’s been good. Of course it goes up and down over the years, but overall, 20 to 30 million people watching it every year, social media has been huge, people have been engaged and they seem to be enjoying the show. The trolling and the hating, for the most part, has been pretty minimal. So I feel good about the Grammys, it’s a great show. People don’t know how much of a creative genius Ken Ehrlich is. You know how there’s always some executive that bleeds through, and the culture knows about them? I think more people should know about Ken Ehrlich.

OKP: You have a successful Hollywood career, and you’ve been in it for so long that it almost feels that you’ve been doing it for as long as you’ve been doing music. There’s a generation of kids that knows you more for film and TV than for music.

LL: I love it. It’s the ultimate opportunity. These are the moments I live for, baby. [Laughs] Now I get to make music, and I don’t have any baggage, I can do whatever I want to do.

I’ve been put on this Earth to entertain people, man. I want to entertain them in as many areas as I’m inspired to do that in. You never limit yourself. Michael Jackson told me that one day while we were on a plane together, we were just kicking it. I was talking to him and one of the things he told me was, “You never limit yourself.” Doing a lot of things is cool, but the key is to do a lot of things you’re honestly into from the heart because then they don’t undermine other stuff. When you start jumping in and out of shit and you’re not inspired to do it, that’s different.

I’m doing Lip Sync Battle and I’m laughing my ass off; I’d be laughing on the corner anyway. I’m doing the Grammys, and I love music. I’m doing NCIS Los Angeles, and I always wanted to be a Bruce Lee dude and bust through windows and walls, blow cars up and shoot guns and shit, and just play Batman and Robin like a kid back in the days. It’s like being a little kid, jumping over refrigerator boxes and shit. …When you flip the script, that’s why I can get back in the lab and jump on the mic and it’s all love. Because I’m being honest.


William E. Ketchum III covers entertainment, pop culture, race and politics for the likes of The Guardian, NPR, Billboard and more. Follow him (and us!) on Twitter at .