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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: LL Cool J


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The next interview in our hip-hop history series is with LL Cool J, another early rapper to have commercial success. He's had several platinum recordings and won two Grammys since he made his recording debut in 1984 at the age of 16. His first record was the first release for Def Jam. LL Cool J has also had a career in television, starring in "NCIS: Los Angeles." In 2017, LL Cool J became the first rapper to receive a Kennedy Center honor. And in 2021, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with an award for musical excellence. I spoke with him in 1997 after the publication of his memoir, "I Make My Own Rules." LL Cool J began rapping at the age of 10. And when he was 11, his grandparents bought him two turntables and a mixer so he could make demo tapes at home. His first hit, "I Need A Beat," grew out of one of those home tapes. Let's hear it.


LL COOL J: (Rapping) I need a beat. I need a beat. I need a beat. And it's a Malibu beat, subject of discussion. Malibu beat, subject of discussion. You're motivated, in aid a percussion. There's no glory for this story. It rock in any territory. I syncopate it and designed it well. Beat elevates, the scratch excels. All techniques are a combination of skill that I have for narration.


GROSS: LL Cool J, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LL COOL J: Thank you very much.

GROSS: You were still in high school, I think, when this record came out.

LL COOL J: Yeah, I was 16 years old.

GROSS: So what was it like, you know, going to high school and having a hit record at the same time?

LL COOL J: It was funny because there was a lot of jealousy. A lot of guys tried to pick on me. A lot of people tried to tell me, oh, you're not going to make it. You're lying. That's not your record. You're not telling the truth. I went through a lot of different things. But I felt like I wanted to persevere. I said, you know what? This music is for me. I like it. I enjoy it. I appreciate being able to express myself artistically. And I kept at it. But it was interesting, you know, because I got to a point where I was focusing more on the music than I was on my schoolwork, which, in the long run, didn't benefit me that greatly. You know, it was cool that I concentrated on the music and it was cool that I made a decision to go after it because it did end up being something that I definitely - a good thing in my life.

However, if I would have concentrated in school more, I think a lot of things that happened financially, especially during the middle years so far, like a few years ago, wouldn't have happened if I had concentrated more in school. So it's interesting for kids. You know, they can want to be stars and they can want to be popular and they can want to make music and do all these things. But if you don't get an education, it's not going to benefit you anyway because at the end of the day, you can't trust the people around you to make decisions for you. You have to be able to make the decisions yourself.

GROSS: Well, I think your grandmother gave you an ultimatum when you were in high school - either you stay in school or you get out of the house.

LL COOL J: She did. She did.

GROSS: So you ended up leaving the house, and you say you were homeless for a couple of weeks. And you slept on the trains for a while until...

LL COOL J: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: Didn't you have any money yet?

LL COOL J: No. No, I didn't. Actually, what happened was I recorded my first song. It did OK. And after I stopped doing the shows, I didn't have any income. So I had no money. I remember getting a room in Brooklyn that was $40 a week and struggling to keep it, you know, because it was just so hard to, you know, pay that $40 a week. And we had, you know, a bathroom that everybody in the brownstone shared. But it was real tough. So, no, the finances weren't there. The finances didn't really come until the first album.


LL COOL J: And even then, I didn't know what to do with the money. So it was - you know, it's kind of a strange paradox, you know? I started, you know, doing different things and doing different shows, but because of the people that I was involved with and the people that were involved with my financial and economic life, I didn't - and myself, of course - I didn't benefit, you know, greatly from, you know, the money that was generated.

GROSS: It sounds like early on you spent the money on cars and just really showy, flashy things.

LL COOL J: Yeah, I did. I think that my focus was a little lost. I was kind of caught up in the materialistic aspect of, you know, making music and being an entertainer.

GROSS: Now, tell me how you feel when you look back at old photos of yourself and see a picture of you with that really thick, big, gold chain.

LL COOL J: (Laughter) The really thick, big, gold chain?

GROSS: Yeah.

LL COOL J: You know, it's funny and it's humorous, but it was in style at the time. I mean, you know, it's like John Travolta looking back at that white suit in "Saturday Night Fever."

GROSS: (Laughter) That's true.

LL COOL J: It was bananas. It was ridiculous, you know what I'm saying? But...

GROSS: I feel like if you had come to me and asked, I could have told you it was going to look really dated eventually.


LL COOL J: Yeah. I would have went with the jeans and T-shirt thing. That might have worked back then. But, you know, hey, we live and learn.

GROSS: (Laughter) So tell me how you kind of created your style in terms of your image, your look, early on.

LL COOL J: Well, what it was was it wasn't even me creating my style. It was like, I would go up to Jamaica Avenue, which was the place to shop in Queens, in the area that I lived, and I would buy the clothes that every other teenager bought and every other teenager wore. And I would just happen to be wearing them on TV or wearing them on an album cover. And then when I started generating some money, I was able to buy some of the things that most would consider luxuries at the time - the gold chains, the car, the extras, the new sneakers, you know, the extra hat. And, you know, that's all I did, you know? And then it became - because I was at the forefront of a new music movement or one of the people involved at the beginning, it became, like, a trendsetting fashion thing, but I never planned for it to be like that.

GROSS: You had, like, the first big rap ballad...

LL COOL J: Yeah.

GROSS: ..."I Need Love." What made you think of doing a rap ballad? Rap is, for the most part, a music that's either about, you know, bragging how great you are or how tough you are or how good you are at making love. But there aren't a lot of, like, love ballads within the genre.

LL COOL J: (Laughter) That was funny. I think that for me, I always looked at rap music as a way to express - a vehicle to express my feelings and my emotions. You know, coming from an abusive childhood, rap music was the thing that helped me to feel empowered. It helped me to kind of feel a sense of power and a sense of self-worth that I wasn't feeling at home or wasn't feeling when I wasn't involved with rap music. So this art was an escape for me. "I Need Love" was just another expression of that. I was 17, 18 years old, and I really felt like I needed love. I felt like love was important being - you know, having gone through all the things that I had gone through. And I never looked at it as an opportunity to humble myself. I never looked at it as a chance to do something soft or sensitive. I just looked at it as a way to express my emotions, my sincere emotions on an artistic level. So I did what I really felt inside.

GROSS: You know, in your book, you say that in a way, this record was a risk because you could have looked soft. And I was wondering, gee, well, what about, you know, like, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye and Al Green...

LL COOL J: It's funny.

GROSS: ...All the kind of great aching ballads of soul music and rhythm and blues?

LL COOL J: Yeah. I never felt like - me personally, I never felt like I could look soft. I think that the - at the time, a lot of people around me felt like there was some chance of this record making, you know, me look soft or something like that, But that's something that never really entered my mind. I never really was concerned with that. You know, I had no fear when I did it, and I just put it out there.

GROSS: Well, this is LL Cool J, "I Need Love."


LL COOL J: (Rapping) 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. There I was, giggling about the games that I had played with many hearts. And I'm not saying no names. Then the thought occurred. Teardrops made my eyes blurred 'cause I said to myself, look what you've done to her. I can feel it inside. I can't explain how it feels. All I know was that I'll never dish another raw deal, playing make believe, pretending that I'm true, holding in my laugh as I say that I love you. Saying amor, kissing you on the ear, whispering, I love you, and I'll always be here - although I often reminisce, I can't believe that I found a desire for true love floating around inside my soul because my soul is cold. One half of me deserves to be this way till I'm old. But the other half needs affection and joy and the warmth that is created by a girl and a boy. I need love.

GROSS: LL Cool J recorded in 1997. Coming up, the story behind the catchy bass and guitar groove on the first hit rap record, "Rapper's Delight." That groove was borrowed from Chic's hit disco record "Good Times." We'll hear from Chic's guitarist Nile Rodgers. This is FRESH AIR.


RUN-DMC: (Rapping) Can I get a witness? Yes, you can. New jacks better back up before they get smacked up by the R-U-N D-M-C - that's where it's at, cuz (ph) - known as the tough cats, kicking tough, rough raps in jeans, leather jackets, my Adidas and gangster hats. A lot of flair like the (inaudible) - here we go. I'm tired of brothers trying to front like they don't hear me, though, knowing if it wasn't for me, they wouldn't be able because I'm the man with the hand that rock the cradle. A lot of funk for the chunk - baby, that's a bet. Album No. 7, and we still ain't finished yet. I didn't get old. I got better at the craft - sat back and watched you try to kick it, but you made us laugh. So get back. You already had your chance to dance. You proved you had no waist to fit in this man's pants. Word to God. I'm back for sure. Hollis, Queens getting wrecked, so act like you know. Can you kick it like I kick it when I kick this? Can I get a witness? Yes, you can. Can you kick it like I kick it when I kick this? Can I get a witness? Yes, you can. Can you kick it like I kick it when I kick this? Can I get a witness? Yes, you can. Can you kick it like I kick it when I kick this? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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