LL Cool J Does JLo in "All I Have"
LL's Career in Short
Since his auspicious emergence in 1985, LL Cool J has catapulted from over night hip-hop sensation to bonafide cross-cultural phenomenon. A seasoned entertainer at the mature age of 33, his lengthy list of accomplishments boggle the mind: two-time Grammy Award winning rapper, star of a hit television series, feature film actor, trusted advertising pitchman, author, company chairman, humanitarian and devoted husband and father. Indeed, as LL swaggered confidently into this millennium some fans must wonder: What unexplored challenges remain for the undisputed king of hip-hop? It's a reasonable enough question, one to which LL replies, "plenty." Still restless and hungry after 16 years in the spotlight, the rapper wants to elevate his game to even loftier levels. "I haven't achieved everything I want, and I definitely want a lot more, " the hip-hop legend admits. "To be honest, I feel like I'm at the beginning again. There's a desire to improve what I've built thus far and make it better."
LL's insatiable ambition is admirable, especially considering his already mythic status in contemporary culture. With over 20 million albums sold worldwide he's one of the top 2 most successful hip-hop artist in history, yet his fame often threatens to overshadow his artistic achievements. His vision and commitment to excellence have resulted in a series of historic firsts. He was the first rap artist to release a single and album on the now legendary Def Jam Records Label. He was the first hip-hop artist to amass eight consecutive platinum-plus selling albums and seven gold singles. In 1991 he made history by becoming the first rap artist to go acoustic on "MTV Unplugged." Now with his music and acting careers firmly on track finds himself poised on the precipice of multimedia superstardom. His secound to last album entitled Phenomenon, is another masterful synthesis of accessible rhythm and sublime rhyme. Featuring contributions by rap and pop luminaries such as Sean "Puffy" Combs, Babyface, The Trackmasters, Kirk Franklin & The Family, Busta Rhymes, Redman and Method Man, LeShawn, The Lost Boyz, Tamia, Prestige, L.E.S., Derek Angeletti, Big Ron and Steve J., Phenomenon is LL's most introspective and forthright recording yet.
For his part, LL attributes his longevity to one simple fact: "I've always been true to what I was feeling emotionally and artistically," he says. "I don't like violence. I've seen violence, seen people I love be the victims of violence and there's nothing cool about it. It plainly just doesn't interest me." LL had always made it a point to use his celebrity status to draw attention to organizations that focus on and aid his community at large. In 1992 LL founded Camp Cool J Foundation, a non-profit organization which provides free year round camping, educational cultural and recreational programs that address the concerns of young people across the country. The camp, managed by Youth Enterprises & Associated, give many children who have never left the city a chance to have fun in a stress-free environment, enjoying nature, improving their academic skills and just being kids. Through a host of programs, the foundation is constantly providing services to address issues that confront the lives of our youth such as AIDS, drugs and violence. Last year, Camp Cool J's "Political Power for Youth" programs help register over 512,000 voters with Rock The Vote.
Childhood through Stardom
Born in St. Albans, NY, LL earliest memories are of music - the jazz albums his grandfather would play, the r&b and rap tracks he heard on the syndicated television dance show, "Soul Train." Burning with the need to create rhymes, he was rapping by the time he was 9 years-old. Before long the boy who was born James Todd Smith had concocted a memorable stage name for himself: LL Cool J, an acronym for "Ladies Love Cool James." At 13, after his grandfather bought him music equipment instead of the dirtbike he wanted, LL began producing homemade demos and went in search of a major recording deal. A then-fledgling label named Def Jam Records was the only company to respond. From the very outset of his career LL made history. At age 16, he was the first Def Jam artist to release a single, ("I Need A Beat," 1984). That same year he made his professional debut performance at Manhattan Center High School. "they pushed the lunch room tables together and me and my DJ, Cut Creator, started playing," LL recalls. "As soon as it was over there were girls screaming and asking for autographs. Right then and there I said 'this is what I want to do'." In 1985, LL's Radio album was released to worldwide critical acclaim (Village Voice critic Robert Christgau as "the most engaging and original rap album of the year"). Later that same year LL delivered a stunning cameo performance of "I Can't Live Without My Radio" in the movie, "Krush Groove." Come the summer of '86, LL was touring as part of Run-DMC's "Raising Hell" tour, in the company of the Beastie Boys, Kurtis Blow and Whodini. Subsequent recordings only added fuel to the LL's fiery career. His 1987 sophomore album, Bigger and Deffer, resulted in the chart-topping single "I Need Love," and was hailed in Spin magazine as "arguably the heaviest rock 'n' roll record ever released on a major label." LL's 1989 album Walking with a Panther featured the hit, "Going Back to Cali," which was also featured in the critically acclaimed Gen-X drama, "Less Than Zero." The following year LL teamed with producer Marley Marl to collaborate on LL's next album, Mama Said Knock You Out. The record featured the #1 Rap, Top % R&B, and top 10 pop crossover smash "Around The Way Girl," as well as the hugely popular title track which won LL the Grammy Award for "Best Rap Solo." The album would ultimately spend over a year on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, and more than 70 weeks on the Top Black Albums chart.1993 saw the release of 14 Shots to the Dome, which eventually became LL's fifth consecutive platinum album. Coupled with this album released LL becomes the first rap artist to be featured on an MTV Rockumentary, an honor to any artist of any musical format. LL Picked up his second Grammy award in 1996 in the "Best Solo Rap Performance" for his platinum single "Hey Lover." This song featuring the vocal stylings of the legendary R&B group Boyz II Men, was one of the biggest hits for LL entering Billboards's Hot 100's chart at #3 and catapulting his sixth album Mr. Smith well beyond double platinum. "I really worked hard on that album, " LL states. " I really approached it with humility and tried to surround myself with people who were honest and would help take my music to the next zone. It's the most honest album I've ever made, and it was really a team effort." LL views "Phenomenon" as a musical companion to his official autobiography, I Make My Own Rules (St. Martin's Press/Ilion Books). Released in Summer 1997, the book tells the harrowing story of LL's early life and career. Despite the violence and despair that marred his youth, LL would use music as a redeeming force in his life. "My dream was simply to have the freedom to express myself," he writes. And he did. At the age 16, his first album went platinum for sales exceeding one million copies. "The book is a testimony to my growth and development as a human being," LL says. "It's a way to show people how to go through negativity and come out on top if you just focus, concentrate and believe in spirituality. A lot of the songs on my album apply to chapters in the book, so there's an inter-relationship to the book and the album. Despite this burgeoning fame, LL has remained true to the musical genre he help pioneer. In fact, he has used his popularity to help thrust hip-hop culture into the mainstream. LL is the former star of "In The House," the hit NBC turned UPN television series in which he played Marion Hill, a sidelined football player turned landlord and holistic rehabilitation center co-owner. The series first premiered as a mid-season replacement in April, 1995 and ended after four season yet still continues to sindicated in all of America's major markets. When he landed the role, LL insisted that the producers forgo the dumb jock stereo type in favor of creating principled, spiritual character. It was a role that mirrors LL's real-life persona. A dedicated family man, he lives both in New York and Los Angeles with his wife, Simone, and their four children. "I think it's important for manliness, " he says. "In the House" marks the culmination of a brief but accomplished acting career. His first official movie appearance was the film "Krush Grove, which won rave reviews for his cameo appearance. LL made his acting role debut as an undercover cop in the feature film, "The Hard Way," which starred Michael J. Fox and James Woods. He also had a supporting role in Barry Levinson's film "Toys," which starred Robin Williams. LL acquired a starring role in 1995's "Out of Sync," as well as the Showtime original release "Right to Remain Silent" (featuring Robert Loggia). In addition to appearing in the recent "Any Given Sunday" starring Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz and Jamie Fox, LL also has a major part in the soon to be released "Kingdom Come" which also stars Whoopi Goldberg and Vivica Fox. First's + Success
Lately, LL has added the role of pitchman to his expansive resume. In 1996 he was featured in a commercial for Major League Baseball and was the official spokesperson for which he delivers rapid-fire rhymes extolling the popular apparel chain, Gap. He recently filmed ads for Coca-Cola and the Fubu clothing line. That LL has achieved such tremendous success without alienating his rap fan base is testament to his broad appeal. Hip-hop fans are a discriminating lot who demand authenticity in their heroes, as evidence by the growing number of one-hit-wonder rap acts. Yet over a decade after his arrival, LL's stature in the hip-hop community is strong as ever. And while opinions vary as to how LL has maintained his credibility, no one disputes his integrity. Unlike many rappers who boast of their "gangsta" affiliations, LL has steadfastly refused to glorify violence or misogyny I his music. To the contrary, he has pioneered a soulful brand of hip-hop which melds inner-city macho with gentlemanly, old world charm and love. His 1987 hit "I Need Love" was first hip-hop ballad.
In 1989 his classic Christmas party video "Jingling Baby" was recorded in his hometown of Hollis. The Hollis Park Gardens home at 88-34 195th Place used to shoot the video is a virtual hip-hop shrine and attracts visitors from all over the world (see figure above). Even Rev. Run of Run DMC lives only several blocks away. LL Cool J's 1990 single "Around the Way Girl" was a soulful serenade in praise of black women. These songs demonstrate LL's astounding ability to express tenderness without comprising his masculinity. Woman are attracted to his Adonislike features and seductive rhymes, while males recognize him as one of the fellas. LL Cool J won 15 New York Music Awards, 10 Soul Train Awards, a Billboard Music Award and was nominated for "Favorite Album" at the 1992 American Music Awards. Other awards given to LL include: the Patrick Lippard Award by Rock The Vote, an NAACP Image Favorite Hero" award from NARAS. Perhaps one of his most distinguished honors was being selected to perform at both Presidential Inaugural celebrations as well as the 50th Birthday celebration for President Clinton. In addition to the previous honors bestowed upon LL, he has been selected as the recipient of the 1997 MTV Video Vanguard Award which honors lifetime achievement in music videos. LL is the first rap artist to win the coveted award. Previous winners include The Beatles, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Guns N' Roses, Tom Petty Peter Gabriel and R.E.M. Thanks to his extensive travels, LL has become something of a hip-hop ambassador. He has traveled to Africa's Ivory Coast where he was one of the first rappers to perform a concert in the capitol city of Abidjan. He was crowned Chief Kwasi Achi-brou by the village elders of Grand Bassan after he helped with the establishment of a local hospital. In addition to Africa, 3 years ago LL visited and performed for the Prince of Saudi HRH Prince Khalid. LL says that, "I was extremely honored to perform for the prince, it was one of the most exciting moments of my recording career." Many performers would be content having succeeded in the music, acting and literary fields, but LL continues to seek new challenges. Indeed, though LL Cool J has set the standard by which all other rappers will be measured, he is bedeviled by his own insistent drive. Ask him his future plans and he rattles off a long list of goals: "I'm in the process of launching my new label, P.O.G. Records, Ilion Books is in motion as well as my footwear line, Najee. I want to reach more people with my music, I would like to do action films, and I'd like to go international with my camp and help young people achieve their goals all over the world." Such grandiose talk might seem like wishful thinking had it come from a lesser talent. But as his accomplishments attest, LL Cool J has consistently turned his dreams into reality.
Hollis to Hollywood
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