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Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Photo: Janette Beckman
I only got twenty minutes to kick it with LL, but who’s complaining? It’s safe to say he appreciated getting a quick break from answering questions about his favorite flavor of ice cream and how many stomach crunches he does every morning. In many ways he’s the blueprint that everyone from Biggie to 50 has followed – hard street records for the fiends mixed with pop tunes for the broads. He’s also responsible for some of the greatest songs ever…but you knew that already, right? You can catch my feature with L’s mentor Silver Fox in the new Hip-Hop Connection if you want the whole story.
Robbie: You sound pretty invigorated on the new tape with Kayslay.
LL Cool J: I had a lotta fun doin’ that. We’re just getting’ it in. The last couple of projects, with me doin’ TV and movies, I think it really took away from the music. My heart was a hundred percent in but my focus wasn’t, so this go round I moved all the movies and the TV to the side just to really focus on trying to make some hot music, and I made the mix-tape to just get it started. I might make another one! I’m enjoying that, though.
You used to be in a group called The Extravagant 3 with Dr. Butcher and Royal Rich when you were in high school. Can you tell me a bit about those days?
Absolutely. Me, Royal Rich and Drew were a very real group. We might’ve been a group for two, three years – maybe four – I’m not sure but it was a long time. We had a lotta routines…I think we all got better as artists, Drew got better as a rapper and a DJ, Rich got better as a rapper. Rich’s brother played the keyboards – his name was Professor KB. He used to make the music and everything. We were young kids trying to make it in hip-hop, without a doubt. I still have a lotta respect for Drew and Rich and his brother. Those were some good times, it was fun.
Drew was saying you would have twenty garbage bags of rhymes at the crib. You must have had quite an appetite for writing.
I definitely did. When I get like that…I’m like that right now. I’m driving the people around me in the record company crazy, ‘cos I keep makin’ new songs but they wanna lock it in and master it and be able to say they finished – but I keep workin’! When I’m in the zone, man, I just love writing! I love creating songs, I love creating concepts, I love the whole idea of trying to make great music. I don’t take it seriously, I have a lotta fun with it. I found a picture of me recently with a whole bunch of rhyme books on a ironing board, and I’m like seventeen or fifteen – something like that – sittin’ there with a pen, writing. It’s crazy.
Did you really get introduced to Rick Rubin through Silver Fox from Fantasy Three?
Silver Fox is basically the guy from Fantasy Three who taught me – I knew how to rap, but he really taught me about flows and cadences and really kinda took me under his wing for a whole summer, and taught me how to really rap! Really kinda brought me in that zone. Most rap artists wouldn’t admit something like that, but for me I don’t care – ‘cos I’m better than them. He taught me how to rap the whole summer before I made a record. I also got with Rich and ‘em around that time. I don’t remember exactly how we met, because I used to hang out everywhere, man. With everybody. Biz Markie would be in my basement one day, I’d be rappin’ with Kool G Rap the next day, I’d be with Hurby Luv Bug the next week – I was just everywhere.
G Rap also said Silver Fox was one of the greatest to ever do it, but he only made a few records so a lot of people don’t really understand his legacy and how important he was in Queens.
Silver Fox is actually from Harlem, but he definitely represented in New York. Let me tell you something – he had the great, incredible voice, incredible skills. The skills was hot, I’m tellin’ you. Definitely a very talented guy, man. For real.
T La Rock was saying he met you at a nightclub when you’d just heard ‘He’s Incredible’.
He was another one that was extremely talented – Special K‘s brother. I actually bought his record ‘cos that was the first record under Def Jam productions, before it became a label, and I bought his record and sent my demo into Rick Rubin. Ad Rock and the Beastie Boys heard it and that’s how I got my break. I just thought the way he put words together and the size of his vocabulary was very impressive.
I spoke to Mikey D and he’s been saying, ‘LL borrowed my image’. Do you have any comments on that?
LL what? [shouting] What did you just say?!
He told me that you borrowed his whole image with the Kangols and that you used to have a Jerri Curl back in the day and then you took his fashion sense.
[howls with laughter] So the rumours are true? Mike is the only guy in Queens, New York who was wearin’ Kangol and Pumas at that time? And gold chains? Oh, OK. That’s interesting. I think Mike believes that.
He does seem to.
Yeah. I believe that he believes that.
There was also a great story about how a lot of jealous guys used to try and test you after you put a record out, and then a few years later some guy at the front of the Latin Quarter was talking crap to you and you handed your jewels to E-Love and served this guy in front of the whole line. Do you remember that?
I actually remember that happening on The Coliseum on Jamaica Avenue. I had my share of fights. But before I go any further, let me just say something – I’m very impressed by these questions, man. Because I can’t even believe you know all of this history like this. Like ‘cos this isn’t normal ‘LL history’ – this isn’t Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin – this is before that! I just wanna let you know that for you to bring up Drew, The Extravagant 3 and Mikey D – and Silver Fox – is incredible. I just wanna let you know that. Yeah, I had a lot of fights early on because I was havin’ appeal, and I think goin’ to school with your record under your arm might be a bit antagonizing [laughs], but when you’re sixteen you don’t know that. You’re just proud of what you’ve accomplished but the guys getting’ a little jealous or whatever. But that’s the neighbourhood I was raised in, so it was just part of it. I wasn’t like having shoot-outs everyday. It was pretty basic, no real tough guy stuff, but I definitely had to handle that thing there.
Was that a case where you had to take up boxing or martial arts?
It’s funny you say that – I took up both, actually. I took martial arts my whole life, I always worked out and I always loved boxing, so it kinda fell in that zone. Like if you look at my second album cover, I’m hittin’ a heavy bag. That was always part of my personality.
You had that whole thing with Kool Moe Dee but I imagine in the early days you would have been running in the same circles as him and Melle Mel?
What most people don’t realize is they are significantly older than me, so I was really a little kid when they were teenagers. We’re not really in the same age range. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but they’re maybe seven, eight years older, ten years older. At that age it makes a big difference. But growin’ up, I definitely used to go up to the shows. Like when I was eight years old my mother took me to my first hip-hop show, at The Armory in Harlem, when the guys were performing and stuff. Bein’ in their circles – yeah, there definitely were some tight moments. I remember one time Silver Fox took me to the studio while Moe Dee and them were recording, and Kool Moe Dee kicked me out the studio!
Before you had a record out?
Yeah, before I had records. I was at the studio rapping. You know how you try to come up? Silver Fox told me to rhyme and I guess he [Moe Dee] didn’t appreciate my ‘presentation’. [laughs]
It seemed like a sign of desperation when Moe Dee had his solo record, almost lie he was trying to stay relevant by taking shots at you. Is that how you felt at the time?
A little bit. I felt a little bit like that. But I learned a lot of valuable lessons like that. That’s why I don’t ever do that. You just have to face facts that’s there’s always gonna be a ‘new guy’. And there being a ‘new guy’, you gotta just respect it and just let it be what it is. So that’s why I don’t take shots at people – not in that sense. Not unless they’re legitimate.
Unless someone provokes you first.
Right, right. If it’s not legitimate, I’m not gonna take a take a shot at you because I heard you cashed a big cheque and I want in! That’s ridiculous.
Did you ever have any other battles on stage or anything?
Nah, nothing real major. I kinda always liked to handle myself on the records. Before that I think it was deterrent, because people hear you right then and there rhyming, so they know what you are. I didn’t have a lotta that. I had a few battle here are there, but I always won.
‘To Da Break Of Dawn’ was probably the most complete package as far as knocking everyone off?
At that time, based on the words and the zeitgeist of that time, based on where peoples minds were at, those records were appropriate. Because as a culture, hip-hop – all of us, we’re always evolving, so it’s very hard to compare records from a certain era with another era. You have to let it be what it is, because there’s a general mood that the record caters to a lot of times.
When you did the Mama Said Knock You sessions, was that a stage where you were hitting the clubs a lot to get that energy?
Yeah, me and Marley stayed in the clubs. We were in the clubs a lot during that process. A lot. I was in the clubs on Mr. Smith too, when I made the ‘Doin’ It’ records and all that. But yeah, I like to live the culture and live the lifestyle when I make the music. Like this new album, I’ve been really livin’ the lifestyle. It’s cool.
There’s a lot of talk about ghostwriters but there’s also the aspect of collaborating with people. Certain Run-DMC records sounded like you were involved. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, here and there. I wrote ‘Can You Rock It Like This’, and then after that Run kinda had a general feel for what we were doin’ and we worked on stuff together. The ‘Peter Piper’ beat was originally gonna be the beat for ‘Rock The Bells’ but Rick Rubin gave it Run and them, because I guess Jam-Master Jay had the same idea as me at the time – may he rest in peace. You can see what I mean, if you think about it.
There’s also this guy who claims he worked on ‘Rock The Bells’ with you?
What it was is this dude sued me and said he was me. He said he was me, and all the voices on the recordings was him and my first album he said was him, and we made it in the basement and it wasn’t really me and I was Milli Vanilli-ing him. And I remember sitting in the court, in the depositions, saying to the lawyer and them, ‘What are y’all gonna say when the second album comes out? Who is it gonna be then?’ [chuckles] It was crazy. His lawyer ended-up getting disbarred! A little trivia for ya – not a lawyer no more. Wild.
If LL never existed, who would be the best MC to ever do it?
Wow. To be totally transparent with you, I think that there’s so many great guys and so many of them can stake claim to that for many different reasons. I can tell you I respect a lot of guys – I respect, may he rest in peace, Biggie and Pac. I respect Rakim and I respect Jay-Z and Big Daddy Kane. There’s a lotta artists out there I respect. I respect 50 Cent, I respect Kanye.
What is it about Queens that sets it apart?
I think that Queens is kinda a place where it’s slightly more middle-class and people just had time to really focus on the music maybe? But I don’t know, man. I don’t think it’s nothin’ in the water! I just think that you had a lotta people who saw a lotta other people can do it and it motivated them to do it. When I’m a little kid and I see Run-DMC ride by in their cars, that motivates me. Then when kids see LL ride by in his cars, that motivates the rest of the guys, and then when they see Tribe ride by that motivate someone else, and then 50 sees them ride by…it’s a thing where a lotta people were just inspired.
Is there anyone that you haven’t made a record with that you wanted to work with?
Nobody in particular. I don’t think that me and Dr. Dre ever got to work together the way we could, because of focus or what-have-you, because the time when we did work together I was workin’ on my TV show and had a zillion other things goin’ on, so I wasn’t really focused.
What’s the one song you’d like to be remembered for?
Which song you mean? Nah, my whole body of work.
LL Cool J - ‘Live Freestyle Over ‘It’s Yours’ (1985)
LL Cool J - ‘I Need A Beat (Original)’
What an effin’ record! They should’ve put this version on ‘Radio’.
LL Cool J - ‘Rock The Bells (Original)’
The version that got Run all aggy. The verdict? Both mixes of this shit win.
LL Cool J - ‘Cheesy Rat Blues’
The best song about falling-off ever. Also the first time I heard this break (and still my favorite use of it).
LL Cool J feat. Grandmaster Caz - ‘Ringtone Murder’
Newest Latest status.
‘I’m Bad’ video:
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