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11th Annual John Varvatos Stuart House Benefit - Inside

By signing his first record deal with Def Jam Records at 16 years old, LL Cool J has been famous for his entire adult life. And during that time he has seen some things. The journey from the corners of his native Queens, New York to Hollywood has been filled with highs and lows. But along the way he has maintained a love for the art form that made him a household name and the object of the ladies’ obsession: hip-hop. Breaking into the game with his classic debut album Radio in 1985, he went on to collect a string of platinum albums.

The iconic MC has gone from Grammy winner to Grammy host and along the way created a catalog that has spanned nearly 30 years. And when he wasn’t dropping smooth joints to steal your girl, he moved into acting and built a second career that has seen him at the top of the marquee more than once.

Now after leaving the historic label that he helped build, LL is independent and on the verge of releasing his 15th studio project, G.O.A.T. 2. Leaning toward the hardcore side of things with  his new work, LL is focused on music that's about dope beats and bars this trip. While taking a break on the set of his CBS series NCIS: Los Angeles, he spoke with XXL about his new album, his continued love of music, what makes a great performance and how he used to make Russell Simmons give him steaks by the pair. —G. Valentino Ball

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On his new album, G.O.A.T. 2

LL Cool J: The concept behind the album was to give upcoming artists an opportunity to shine and to put myself in the position where I have to spit bars with some of the hardest rhymers in the game. It's people I really respect lyrically; people I think are amazing on the mic. Loaded Lux is on the album along with Murder Mook, Raekwon, Uncle Murda, Maino, Mavado and J. Cole. It’s a lot of different people that I think got bars. I also have some big dogs on the album like T.I. I have Fred The Godson on the album.

"I wanted to really embrace where I’m from and embrace my community, embrace my hood and give these guys a platform and an opportunity to shine while I do my thing. Plus, they inspire me."


I wanted to really embrace where I’m from and embrace my community, embrace my hood and give these guys a platform and an opportunity to shine while I do my thing. Plus, they inspire me. They inspire me to want to have some fun and get busy. Show me what I do. For me it just makes the whole project more exciting. We just doing music for the culture.

I have science project albums where I get in a vacuum and do whatever I want to, creatively. It’s the equivalent of doing an impressionist painting. Either you love it or you hate it. Then sometimes I do something more culturally relevant and clear and easy to understand which would be more like a Rembrandt. That’s what I did with this album.

This album is more culturally clear and defined. It’s for the street. 85 percent of the album is for people who like hard hip-hop. It’s not one of my love albums. It’s not a softer album. It’s an album for the gutter. It’s an album for people who like bars and beats. But it's current and its relevant to now. I always tell people, "Sometimes you gotta take your 1995 high school ring off." It ain’t for then. It’s for now. It don’t sound like then, it sounds like now. Yes, it’s a harder edged, more aggressive album, without question.

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On his early days at Def Jam, his legacy and longevity

LL Cool J: I remember when I signed my first contract, I was excited that it was for 10 albums. I always looked at that as a great opportunity. I haven’t really counted the albums in quite a while. But I’m just grateful. Sometimes the stars line up and you get an opportunity to do what you love. It worked out this way for me. Things didn’t have to be this way. Things could have been in a different direction. I just happened to make this thing happen and I’m very grateful.

"It’s amazing. But the most important part of it was doing what you love and making an impact on the world. And being a part of something great, it’s amazing. That’s something that no one can take away."


It was all of us just trying to have some fun and just doing what we love. Russell was just running me around in the clubs. We would see Madonna and the Danceteria. It was just like the birth of something great. We were all just really, really focused.

I remember tracking Russell trying to find out where he was going to eat that night so I could always show up and get me some free food for me and my man. [Laughs] I would always show up and order two steaks and take one to go. I would get two steaks and my man would get two steaks. Russell would be walking me around the party saying to people, "This is LL and he’s going to make a fortune. He’s going to be a star." He would be pumping it up. I didn’t know what to think. I was just following his lead.

It’s amazing. But the most important part of it was doing what you love and making an impact on the world. And being a part of something great, it’s amazing. That’s something that no one can take away. No matter how they word it or try to present it, at the end of the day, We were a part of building something magical. And that’s a hell of a feeling.

I am humbled by it. I do think back on it with fond memories of it. It’s nice to be able to continue with times changing and eras changing and different things happening. To be able to put a video online and get so many views on a new song. It feels real good to do what I love and not have to stop. That’s a blessing, because everyone doesn’t get that opportunity.

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On success and authenticity

LL Cool J: I am grateful and it did take off fast. That’s a blessing. A lot of times you have to chalk things up as a blessing. You can’t take but so much credit. We live in an era where everyone wants to market their genius. They want to pretend that’s it’s all because of their brilliant minds. But sometimes you just get lucky, you get a blessing. The stars line up and things work out for you and you get the support of the people.

“You might have people in their late 20s who think I’ve never seen the block before. They might think I’ve never experienced anything but stardom. Those are the people that are important to me."


At the end of the day it’s the support of the people and the fact that they appreciate my work. Whether it's above par, subpar, if it’s the best thing I’ve done or the worst thing I’ve done, it’s an ongoing relationship and they respect it and they give me love. It’s that everyday dude on the block, that everyday dude at the barbershop, that everyday girl in the hair salon, those are the people I create for. Those are the ones I care the most about. I’m just glad they have been embracing me all these years.

I just want to continue to give them the best in all facets of my career; not just music but anything else that I’m involved in. I try to make sure I do it to the best of my ability. You can’t please everyone all the time. But at the end of the day, people know your heart and your sincerity. People recognize and know when you’re real. And when you’re real, you can laugh. Real doesn’t mean putting out some stereotypical role or stereotypical vibe. Real just means being authentic in your spirit and true about who you are. And being grounded as a human being; not letting the celebrity and the glitz and the glamour and the money separate you from the everyday people.

You might have people in their late 20s who think I’ve never seen the block before. They might think I’ve never experienced anything but stardom. Those are the people that are important to me to know that I am a real person. I did come from Queens. My family did come from Barbados and we are grounded. There’s real love for what I do and the people who appreciate what I do.

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Belmont Stakes 2014

On continuing to make music after outside success

LL Cool J: I love music! I love it. See, this is the thing that trips me out about our hip-hop culture, and it also speaks to how young the culture is. For some reason a lot of us think that hip-hop is something that we want to use to get out and we want to do other things. I didn’t get into hip-hop music to use it or to exploit it to my advantage and leave. Although I was able to be successful, I do it because I love it. And when you love something you continue to do it. Picasso was doing some of his greatest work at a later age. Artists don’t change. James Cameron is directing films. If you love something you continue to do it. There’s no reason for me to walk away.

“With the music, I do it for love. It’s not about money. It’s not about me showing a working dude that I have more money than him."


I’m not a pop artist. I’m not a guy who doesn’t write his own music and trying to be a teen idol for your entire life. I’m a real artist who’s doing the music from his soul. Sometimes it’s commercially successful. Sometimes it’s not. I don’t think art has an expiration date. I don’t think true creativity should be based on time. I think it needs to be based on what you do. Whether you connect with the mainstream or if you get on the cover of People magazine because of your pop music, those are questions that get answered. That’s commercial. Those things happen by accident.

A thousand years ago when I made “I Need Love” I didn’t know that was going to be commercially viable. When I did “Mama Said Knock You Out” it wasn’t even as commercially viable. It's more famous now than it was when I made it. When I made “Doin’ It” the radio stations said it was too dirty to play. Now it's PG. Things grow and they escalate.

So with the music, I do it for love. It’s not about money. It’s not about me showing a working dude that I have more money than him. This isn’t to alpha males bumping their chests together trying to say who’s better than them when it comes to social status. We only bumping chests when it comes to the creativity and the bars. There’s no stopping it. It ends when I end. There’s no retiring. This is not sports. [Laughs]

I respect all the new artists. I respect everything they doing. I’m not complaining about nothing that nobody is doing. They need to understand that as long as they can do what they want to do, they should understand that LL is going to do what he wants to do. Don’t try to change the rules for me. [Laughs]

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On misconceptions about his albums

LL Cool J: If I did an all love song album and it was the best album in the world someone would say I should have made a hard album. If you make a hard record than you will have someone will say, "Naw LL needs to stay in his lane. He needs to do the love records.” [Laughs] You gotta do what you love and right now what I am inspired to do is give them that hard-body music.

That being said, my music has always been balanced. It’s just that the singles that came out made a huge impression on the world. Some of the love songs I made were crafted in such a way that they had a huge impact. So because of that, “I Need Love” is more noticed than “Rock The Bells.” Or a “Hey Lover” is more noticed than an "Ill Bomb." I could go record for record and show you the balance, but it’s just the way people can perceive it. But this time I just wanted to make something for the people who wanted some hard music.

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NCAA March Madness Music Festival - Show Day 2

On what makes a great performance

LL Cool J: For me I think every performance is different because of the nature of the artist. You have some artists who can sit behind a piano and blow you away. So its not one particular thing. It’s something in an artist’s soul. It’s something about their energy; something about the way they get down that just makes you love it.

Like, Jimi Hendrix was just unbelievable live. I can’t tell you why. Like, Ice Cube is great on stage. DMX is great on stage. KRS-One is unbelievable. It’s just about the artist. Michael Jackson was unbelievable on stage. But you don’t have to dance like MJ to be great. Beyonce is great. When she’s on stage she just owns it. I think it’s just a personal and spiritual thing. It's just what we do. I wish I had the answer. I would double up on it. [Laughs]

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