First off—is he James, Todd or LL?
“LL is my performing name, the one that I use publicly. Privately, a lot of people call me Todd. It’s never been James,” says LL Cool J, the rapper and TV star who was born James Todd Smith in Bay Shore.
It’s not strictly true that he was never James. A few of his schoolteachers insisted on James, so some old friends and classmates know him by that name. And when it came time to pick a new stage name for his rap career—he wasn’t happy with J-Ski, his first attempt—he came up with Ladies Love Cool James, which he soon shortened to LL Cool J. He was only 14 and hanging out at his mother’s house in North Babylon when he started concocting the moniker one day.
Back then, the hyperbole of his invention was more aspiration than description. But that was in 1982, when he was a troubled kid and a precocious musician, already composing rhymes and singing in front of audiences wherever he could.
Now, more than just the ladies love Cool James. For the past year, he’s been playing Special Agent Sam Hanna, one of the two main stars of NCIS: Los Angeles, a top-rated CBS crime drama that draws huge audiences every Tuesday night. Still a rapper, he’s also an entrepreneur with various enterprises in the music and clothing worlds, an author, a philanthropist and a successful family man with four children, a house in Manhasset and another home in Los Angeles. On the West Coast, he’s busy five days a week right now wearing biceps-revealing t-shirts and vigorously pursuing bad guys as an undercover surveillance expert, saving America from dark forces as he tapes the new season of his hit TV show.
He had some trepidation about joining the spin-off of the popular NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service). “I had never watched the show prior to hearing about the spin-off idea, so I went back and watched it, watched a marathon of the show, over and over and over again. And I realized that I could relate to it, that the show is fun and full of wit and humor.” He feared that it was strictly a military show, which he didn’t want to do, though his grandfather had been in the Army and his father in the Navy. He was relieved to find that NCIS is far from grim. “I like the banter. I think the stories are really cool and the chemistry is really great.”
The same chemistry is working on his show, in which Chris O’Donnell plays his partner and Oscar-winner Linda Hunt is their operations manager.
“It’s one of those luck of the draw things. We happen to really get along well. We vibe with each other. Chris O’Donnell and I really get along well. Everybody is down to earth. It’s about the work and making sure we’re as entertaining as we can be. It’s about having as much fun as we can. We take it seriously, but we’re having fun.” He even wrote a song about his love for the show, available on iTunes, called “NCIS: No Crew Is Superior.”
Several years ago, he decided to improve his physique after a period when he let himself get a little pudgy. He described the process in his 2007 book, LL Cool J’s Platinum Workout. Losing weight and defining his muscles were acts of determination, a trait he says he inherited from his mother and his grandparents, who were very work-oriented. Did his trim torso help him get this new TV role? “Anytime you improve yourself, it can only help, in every area of your life.”
He already had a hefty acting resume, starting with his 1985 appearance in Krush Groove, a rap film. His other movies include The Hard Way in 1991, in which he played a New York City police detective; Toys in 1992, in which he played Robin Williams’ cousin (and when he started taking acting lessons: “You can’t go far without the science,” he explains); and Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday in 1999, with Al Pacino, in which he portrayed a football player. From 1995 to 1999, he starred in his own TV sitcom, In the House, and he’s guest-starred on other shows since then, including the offbeat drama House and the edgy Emmy winning comedy 30 Rock. He’s got range.
In making the move from rap to acting, Cool J joins others such as Ice T, Mos Def and Queen Latifah. What is it with this mass migration? Is there something about rap that leads directly to the silver screen?
He’s thought about it. “There’s a certain amount of drama associated with rap music. When you write a song, you have to bring the character to life,” he says, on the phone from LA. What he means by the character, he says, is the character who is singing the song, and makes an analogy to Bruce Springsteen singing “Glory Days” or “Born in the USA.” (Picking a rocker instead of a rapper for the analogy seems to be an intuitive bow to what he guesses—correctly—is closer to his interviewer’s musical sensibilities.)
“You think about the jeans and the flag, the things that he was wearing. That was the character that was singing the song that everyday guy. There’s a certain connection between the artist and the song. It doesn’t mean you research the character or use Stanislavski in order to become the character in the song. There’s a connection between you and the essence of the song that has to be there for people to really get it. For certain people, that talent, or that ability, that is transferable.”
And was it for him? “Yeah,” he says, with a modest shrug in his voice. “I just never believed in limiting myself. I enjoy it.”
When he was born in 1968 in Southside Hospital, no one could have predicted that little James Todd would become a star. As he recounts in his 1997 autobiography, I Make My Own Rules, and in some of his songs, he was born with a damaged right arm to a tireless and determined mother (who made sure his weak arm got strong) and an abusive father. His parents met while both worked as nurses’ assistants at Pilgrim State Hospital and married in Wyandanch.
When young Todd was four, his mother left his father and moved with Todd to her parents’ house in St. Albans, Queens. That became his haven—after one major interruption. His father came after them with a shotgun, injuring his mother and grandfather and almost killing him.
He still had one more ordeal to endure—a boyfriend of his mother’s who beat him regularly and often kept him confined at home while his mother worked two jobs. He visited his grandparents in Queens on weekends, getting some respite. That was during his grade school years and into middle school. His mother ended the relationship after she finally caught on to how brutal her son’s life had become, and that the man was cheating on her.
By then, Todd was already a tough-guy kid, carrying knives and even guns to school, both on Long Island and in Queens. “I couldn’t fight back in my house; I was defenseless there,” he wrote in his book. “But on the streets I wasn’t going to let anybody else beat me, not without a good fight.”
During junior high, he lived and went to school exclusively in Queens. All along, to balance the bad parts of his life, he had his grandparents, involvement in several sports teams and a few kind mentors, including neighbors and a coach—and he sang in the St. Bonaventure choir in Queens, including singing with them for Pope John Paul II at Shea Stadium in 1979.
His grandfather became his father figure. “Without a doubt,” he says on the phone. “He was a hardworking guy. He came from Barbados, and he had a slight accent.” He was also a lover of jazz who played saxophone in a jazz band. “He had a tremendous impact on me, because he instilled a love of music into me,” Cool J says. “He showed me how much joy people get from music. He encouraged me to explore music.”
When he was 11, his grandfather gave him a very special gift, a DJ set that included two turntables, two speakers, a mixer and a microphone. “I think he did it to keep me out of trouble, to keep me in the house and to help me do what I seemed to be passionate about.”
He had already been “making rhymes” with his North Babylon friend Kenny since he was 9, he says. “There was a lot of underground music going around at that time, that was circulating throughout the neighborhood in Queens and Long Island. I just really enjoyed it. I appreciated it. I got into it and started creating my own. I would rap other people’s songs and then at 11 or 12, I would come up with my own.”
At 13, he performed at his first gig, a block party. At 16, after sending out demo tapes unsuccessfully to many labels, he finally got New York University student Rick Rubin to listen. Rubin took him to his partner Russell Simmons, and soon his song, “I Need a Beat,” helped launch their Def Jam Recordings.
While he was recording the song, he called his grandmother to play her some of it, he says. “She said it needed more bass. I often shared my music, as it was being created, with my family.”
His first album, in 1985, was Radio, and it went platinum, helped in part by being more pop oriented than many other rap albums. Two years later, he released Bigger and Deffer, which included his song “I Need Love,” considered one of the greatest rap songs of all time. (“When I’m alone in my room sometimes I stare at the wall/ and in the back of my mind I hear my conscience call/ Telling me I need a girl who’s as sweet as a dove/ for the first time in my life, I see I need love”) That was followed by Walking with a Panther and nine more albums, nearly all of which went gold or platinum.
In his most recent album, 2008’s Exit 13, there are songs about getting older: “When I walk in the room/ Young boys look at me strange/ As if I am a relic/ From some long forgotten game,” he sings in “It’s Time for War,” one of the songs in that album. “When I’m under attack/ I might be down for a moment/ But I always come back.”
He described in his autobiography needing to find his voice when he started out as a rapper. Has that voice changed over the years? “You either change and grow or you become extinct. Of course I’ve grown. Your voice will change, but the principles you live by, charity and love and trying to do the right thing—I’m not perfect, but I try to do the right thing—that hasn’t changed.”
Along with his family and his music, his other source of strength, it seems, is his faith. “I’m very spiritual. I’m not dogmatic, but I do believe in tithing. I do believe in charity. And I do go to church.”
For a guy who never finished high school, he has an amazing facility with words. “It was a natural inclination or ability,” he says. “It was definitely a natural thing there.”
He reads a lot, too, mostly nonfiction books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Outliers: The Story of Success or inspirational ones like Rhonda Byrne’s The Power and Raymond Holliwell’s Working With the Law.
When he was young, he listened to a wide variety of music at home, including jazz and the Beatles, and he sang in the church choir, which gave him a different musical background from most rappers. “I don’t know if that influenced my rapping, but when you’re an artist, everything that you observe and everything that you come in contact with influences your art.”
And art it is, he insists. Asked if he sees himself more as a singer or an actor these days, he answers, “I see myself as an artist.” Anything else? “I’m a businessman.”
In that department, he has a low-cost clothing line at Sears, called LL Cool J, started in 2008. But that may soon change. “I’m trying to wind it down. I love the idea of giving people affordable clothing, but it limits me creatively, I want to give people all different kinds of designs and flavors and creative ideas. As a person who loves clothes, it’s really difficult to do that when you can’t go above a certain level with price,” he says. “If I had the ability to charge more, I could give better quality. I really respect Sears as an American brand, an iconic brand. But I need more freedom to boost the quality of my clothing. Wherever I go to next, I will definitely leave the price open ended, so that I can charge as little as I want or as much as I want.”
He’s also helping his wife Simone launch her Simone I. Smith jewelry line, he says, but his main enterprise is Boomdizzle, an innovative online community and music distribution site.
“Boomdizzle is more than a label,” he says. “Mentoring is a big part of it. We have thousands of young artists from all over the world uploading their music, sharing their music, and soon they’ll be able to remix and rerecord digital content on the site. It’s a pretty unique and interesting bridge into the future of the music business. The music business is changing—the opportunity is increasing but the organization is diminishing. We let young artists do what they want to do.” Why did he set it up this way? “I was a young artist once. I think it’s about paying it forward.”
It is meant to be for profit, though, and he plans to use it to distribute his own music on it, too. On the purely giving side, he’s involved with the American Red Cross and recently was honored at a Hamptons fundraiser for the Suffolk County chapter. He also has his own charity project, which he calls Jump & Ball. It’s an annual month-long event in St. Albans, Queens, that includes a basketball tournament, karate, dance and other activities. His voice gets very animated when he talks about it.
“At some point I would love to do it on Long Island, maybe in Wyandanch. It basically just gives the kids the opportunity to play basketball, and there’s a Double Dutch tournament, and DJs and huge trophies, during the whole month of August. I have the tournament every year, and it’s been really, really, really exciting. It’s fun for the kids. A lot of corporations get involved.” Basketball wasn’t his game, though, when he was in school. “It’s about love of the community, not the sport,” he says. “I was more a football player growing up.”
His community now is Manhasset, where he’s owned a house for 14 years and where his children, aged 10 to 20, attended public school. He still owns his grandparents’ house in St. Albans, too. Though he’s had to relocate to Hollywood for the TV show, he longs for Long Island.
“Every now and then on the weekends, I’ll shoot back. I do come home. I relax and enjoy my time on Long Island. There’s nothing like being on the East Coast and New York. That’s home for me. I get off the plane and I feel great.”
Not the next Denzel, I’m the first LL
I remember where I came from, hot since day one
—LL Cool J, “New York, New York,” 2008