Back in 1985, before Marshall Mathers had dreamed up the concept of Slim Shady, before N.W.A. had blown the roof off gangsta rap with Straight Outta Compton, before Q-Tip had status and a pager, a brash 17-year-old named James Todd Smith burst onto the hip-hop scene with a hit single (“I Can’t Live Without My Radio”), a fistful of hard-hitting rhymes and a swagger that belied his Queens, N.Y., roots.
Fast-forward 17 years. Now an elder statesman in the hip-hop community with nine albums and a promising acting career that has landed him film roles in Halloween H2O (1998), Any Given Sunday (1999) and this year’s remake of Rollerball, Smith — better known as LL Cool J — is back and busier than ever. With two new movies in the works (Deliver Us From Eva, a romantic comedy, and Mindhunters, a thriller in which LL stars alongside Val Kilmer), a new album (Ten) and a summer tour, the self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time” has lost none of his swagger or his creative drive. But even his laundry list of professional commitments can’t keep the hip-hop pioneer from indulging his passion for sport.
LL, an admitted boxing enthusiast, was cheering from ringside at the June 8 bout between Mike Tyson and heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis at the Pyramid in Memphis, Tenn. “It was more lopsided than I expected,” he explains. “I’d like to see it again. I’d like to see Tyson with a little rage in his eyes.” But would the man who once stepped into the ring and issued a stern challenge to his critics with 1990’s Mama Said Knock You Out ever care to add “professional pugilist” to his résumé?
“I’ve spent time in the ring,” he acknowledges. “But I’m not on a professional or even an amateur level. I’m more of a novice. I would hate for people to be writing about how LL got knocked out. You lose a lot of cool points laying on your back with your head split open.”
Instead, LL prefers to earn his cool points in the recording studio and on the silver screen. Now, for the first time in years, he’s taking his act on the road to show off his newest material and greatest hits.
“I want to touch the people,” he says. “I haven’t performed on the road in about five years, and I was so excited to get out there that I didn’t even wait for my record. My record is called Ten, because it’s my 10th record, and it doesn’t come out until September. It’s a clean, mellow record — a lot of positive energy, nothing negative. It’s not diluted or corny. In my opinion, it’s my best record since (1995’s) Mr. Smith, and it’s a much better record than my last, (2000’s) G.O.A.T.: Greatest of All Time.”
And while Ten promises a return to his stirring earlier records, while he supports it with a summer-long preview tour his heart may be somewhere else.
“An ideal summer for me would be to take my family to Venice, Italy, and chill out, doin’ all parts of Italy. The perfect sound track, while I’m riding out there all over Europe in my yacht, takin’ in the sun? It would have to be a mix of hip-hop, trance and old soul records. It would have to everything from The Chronic by Dr. Dre to ‘Purple Haze’ and Jimi Hendrix’s greatest hits to Rick James and a cross-section of Spandau Ballet and ‘Lady in Red.’ And throw in the new Papa Roach record and the old Papa Roach record.”
Answering critics who have questioned the depth of his commitment to music and film, LL insists that his heart remains equally devoted to both crafts, citing his overflowing dance card as proof.
“I love the music and I love acting. I love performing. I’m doing two movies right now and I’m heading out on tour. That should be an indication that my heart lies in both. I don’t have to choose between them. By prioritizing, planning and structuring my life in a way that makes sense, I can do whatever I like. When a project feels right, that’s what I do.”
Either way, it’s hard work being LL Cool J, pleasant summer fantasies and the occasional high-profile sporting event aside. There isn’t a whole lot of time for Mr. Smith to enjoy the success of his burgeoning multimedia empire. If the hectic schedule and frenetic lifestyle would reduce most folks to burn-outs, it doesn’t seem to faze the ladies’ love.
“Keep God in mind, stay focused, stay positive and don’t give up your dreams. Care about yourself, care about your family. Work hard at what you do. It’s intense work, and you can’t just show up on the set late with vodka on your breath, thinking it’s OK.”
And do the ladies still love Cool James?
“You’d have to interview some ladies to find out,” he says. “But from LL Cool J — I hope so.”
LL Cool J will perform at the Hot Wheels Cool Nights Festival at the Phoenix Plaza Amphitheater in Pontiac on Saturday, June 29. Call 248-334-4600 for information. E-mail Rossiter Drake at [email protected]