He’s not just the host of Spike’s incredible Lip Sync Battle and the 2,571st star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a critical character on NCIS: Los Angeles and a two-time Grammy Award winner (and five-time host!). And he’s not just the thousand other adjectives so easily plucked from the bromide bin to describe him, from elder statesman of hip-hop to movie star, author and philanthropist.
No, LL COOL J is so much more than that.
As a group of Viacom employees found out when the man who laughingly estimates that he is booked “20 years out” sliced a bit of time from his schedule to visit our offices in Times Square on a recent Wednesday. In a nearly hour-long conversation with Spike President Kevin Kay, the man who launched off the New York streets more than three decades ago by tracking Rick Rubin to his NYU dorm room with a demo tape riffed in an incisive, passionate, often hilarious and always genuine manner. Watching him banter with Kay and the audience, it’s not hard to imagine how the man who dubbed himself “Ladies Love Cool J” out of “wishful thinking” willed his way to success in so many ways.
Here, just a couple highlights from his conversation. Watch the video to see the rest. It’s well worth your time.
On early hip-hop’s influence on him: “There was something about hearing these young men that was so empowering… It attracted me to the music, it attracted me to the culture. Hip-hop is a funny art form, because to me, what I learned being raised at home, is all of the cockiness, all of the arrogance, all of the showmanship is for the song. So tomorrow, if I made an album, it would be probably the cockiest, most arrogant, craziest thing you’ve ever heard in your life, but then, when you get away from that, my mother taught me how to be human and to be normal, and to respect people and to have manners, wipe my feet on the mat before I walk in and say hello to somebody’s mother like I have some sense. I fell in love with the whole idea of being strong. When you grow up in somewhere like Queens, you just want to matter. I just wanted to matter.”
On surrounding himself with strong women: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is male or female, as long as it catches rats, right? You really care? So I just want smart people around me… I believe pressure makes diamonds, you just want to have great people around you who are focused, who are committed to what they do, who believe in what they’re doing. That’s how I base it. I don’t base it on skin color or sex or religion, or preference.”
On choosing the name “LL COOL J”: “The reality is it’s just wishful thinking. I’m a closet nerd, so what’s the furthest thing I can get away from being a nerd: LL COOL J! So I made it ‘Ladies Love Cool J,’ because I was really hoping that was what it would be. I wasn’t going to make it ‘Ladies hate Cool J.’”
On what kind of music he listens to: “I’m just a big believer in understanding everything that’s going on, so I believe in paying attention. One of the worst things you can do, one of the quickest ways to shorten your career is to stop paying attention to what’s going on, and to start talking about the good old days in terms of your creativity, so I listen to everybody.”
On what he’s afraid of: “Not maximizing my potential. Not executing right. When I say execution, I’m not talking about clinical, I’m talking about having ideas and not going for them. The last thing you want to do is be laying there at the end, when you’re about to check out, with all your dreams standing around saying, ‘Yo, why you taking us with you?’”
On the most important things in life: “At the end of the day, these are the [three] things I’ve come to realize you want: you want to be healthy, you want to have great relationships, and you want to have passive income.”
LL is consistently this thoughtful and wide-ranging and deep in his interviews. Among his many, many interactions with Viacom over the decades is this clip from a VH1 Behind the Music episode, in which he talks about how, as a Mercedes-rabid newly flush rookie rapper, he made the decision to use his first big check to buy his mother a house and car, while making due with a few gold chains and a VCR in his grandmother’s basement.