LL Cool J has been making music for more than 25 years. Through it all, he says, he's tried his best to remain authentic.
"The last thing that I want to do is be a hack," says the rapper and actor, born James Todd Smith. "Someone who is adapting to whatever the current trend is, and manipulating the public into being on board with me even though, from an artistic standpoint, I'm not doing anything."
Authentic is the name of LL Cool J's new album. It's his first in five years, as well as his first since splitting from Def Jam, the label that launched his recording career.
Authentic bursts at the seams with guest artists, including Chuck D, Eddie Van Halen, and Earth, Wind and Fire. It also comes hot on the heels of his controversial collaboration with country singer Brad Paisley, "Accidental Racist."
"Music is like a Rorschach test: People hear what they want to hear," LL says. "With that being said, when it comes to that particular song, the only thing that really surprised me is that, me being in the public eye for so long, and people knowing my history and my background, for people to suggest that I was trivializing slavery," he says, chuckling hard enough to lose his breath for a moment. "That was pretty shocking."
LL Cool J spoke with weekends on All Things Considered host Arun Rath. To hear more of their conversation, including LL's story of hearing himself on the radio for the first time, click the audio link.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
And if you're just joining us, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATH SOUL")
LL COOL J: (Rapping) It's LL season. Let's rock.
RATH: This song is called "Bath Soul," and it's from LL Cool J's new album, "Authentic." It's the rapper's first album in five years and his first since splitting from Def Jam Records. It also comes hot on the heels of his controversial collaboration with country singer Brad Paisley, "Accidental Racist."
"Authentic" is bursting at the seams with featured guest artists, including Chuck D., Eddie Van Halen and Earth, Wind & Fire, to name just a few. LL Cool J - it stands for Ladies Love Cool James, in case you didn't know - was born James Todd Smith and grew up in Long Island and in Queens. He's been making music for over 25 years. And through it all, he says, his process has never changed.
J: The last thing I want to do is be a hack and be someone who is adapting to whatever the current trend is and manipulating the public into being on board with me, even though from an artistic standpoint I'm not doing anything. You know, that process for me hasn't changed. I've always done what I felt, you know, inspired to do from the heart, at least the majority of the time.
RATH: I want to talk about - I think my favorite cut on the new album is "Bartender Please." Now...
RATH: ...you got Snoop Dogg on that and Travis Barker. But, for me, the sound is kind of defined by the bass god Bootsy Collins.
RATH: What was it like working with him?
J: Man, working with Bootsy. First of all, yeah, baba.
J: Yeah, baba.
J: I mean, he sounds younger than me on the phone. And, yo, it was so amazing to work with him and just, you know, the way he laid it down for me. You know, he put so much energy into the track. He changed things. He gave me ideas. I mean, it was a very collaborative process. You know, ultimately, I think we came with a song that I think is a lot of fun and, you know, is going to play in a lot of parties, a lot of clubs, a lot of barbeques.
RATH: It's got a real party feel.
J: Yeah. It's just a fun, energetic, party song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARTENDER PLEASE")
LL COOL J, BOOTSY COLLINS AND SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Forget your swag, forget your swag, feel me, got money I don't care about that. I don't care about that. Feel me. Feel me. Keep them ordinary chicks away. Get out my face. Feel me. Feel me. Bring another hundred bottles to me. Bartender please. Yeah, baba. Feel me. Feel me.
RATH: This album, "Authentic," this is the first one, I believe, that's not on Def Jam Records. Now, it's just sort of weird for me to hear LL Cool J not on Def Jam. What happened?
J: My contract was up. We had a great relationship. I own my catalog, you know, had a lot of fun doing the music, had a lot of fun doing what I did there. And, you know, they didn't approach me. I didn't approach them. I just kind of, you know, went on about my business and five years later decided it was time to make an album.
And I just felt like I wanted to put it out independently where I would have no creative restrictions, no artistic restrictions and just make the music that I really wanted to make. You know, I think people can sense that it came from the soul as opposed to something cerebral that's kind of like plotted out, you know?
RATH: So it's interesting to me. You said you own your own catalog. You started out at 17. How were you on top of things enough to own your own music and not get taken advantage of?
J: Well, it didn't start off that way. But by the grace of God, I was - me and my team were able to put together a deal where I was able to get my catalog back. And that's something that I don't take lightly because I know there are thousands, if not millions, of musicians who came before me who absolutely didn't get that opportunity to be able to say something like that. And I'm just so grateful, you know, that I'm in that position.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA SAID KNOCK YOU OUT")
J: (Rapping) I'm gonna knock you out. Mama said knock you out. I'm gonna knock you out. Mama said knock you out. I'm gonna knock you out. Mama said knock you out. I'm gonna knock you out. Mama said knock you out.
RATH: So when you're not making your own music, what are you listening to? What's authentic sounding for you?
J: You know, I listen to all kinds of music, man. I listen to everything from the things you would expect, like, you know, all types of hip-hop, old school hip-hop, some new to all the way to Jimi Hendrix, from Bob Marley to Marvin Gaye, from Rick James to Michael Jackson to - from Quincy Jones to Miles Davis, from the Smothers Brothers to, you know, Van Halen. I mean, I listen to everything. I love music, you know, and I love art.
You know, like, if I could just, like, sit in the Louvre Museum in Paris and just listen to music and look at paintings all day - I wish I had a studio in the Louvre, you know what I'm saying? Like, I love art. I love creating, you know what I'm saying?
RATH: We're speaking with LL Cool J. His new album is called "Authentic."
RATH: Two words: "Accidental Racist."
J: Hmm. Yeah.
RATH: For those who don't know, this is the song you did with country singer Brad Paisley. It tells the story of a black guy and a white guy who agree to sort of look past surface appearances. And you caught a lot of flak for what was your handling of the topic, and then you've had some time to digest all of it - all the stuff that's come at you. What do you take away from the controversy?
J: I think the takeaway - there's a few takeaways. First, let me just qualify my remarks by saying that, you know, music is like a Rorschach test, you know, and people hear what they want to hear. You know, with that being said, when it comes to that particular song, the only thing that really surprised me is that, you know, me being in the public eye for so long and people knowing my history and my background, for people to suggest that I was trivializing slavery was...
RATH: I think the laugh says it all, right?
J: Sounds pretty - that was pretty shocking.
J: You talk about a stretch.
RATH: So we'll go on the record now and say you do not consider slavery trivial.
J: Yeah. Slavery is absolutely not trivial. What we were basically saying is don't judge a book by its cover. And what I was saying is that in life, you know, it's not about being bitter. It's about getting better. And I was not out here, you know, saying that, you know, we should be flying Confederate flags all over America. That's not what I was trying to suggest.
What I was suggesting, though, was that for some kids in the South, they wear that flag as a badge of honor just representing the South, and they don't even understand the rape, the tortures, the murders and the lynchings and the different things that took place and what that flag represented under those circumstances.
So, you know, I just believe that as a nation, ultimately, we're going to have to heal and get past our differences. And it got lost in translation, I think, for some.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACCIDENTAL RACIST")
J: (Rapping) Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood what the world is really like when you're living in the hood. Just because my pants are sagging doesn't mean I'm up to no good. You should try to get to know me. I really wish you would. Now my chains are gold but I'm still misunderstood. I wasn't there when Sherman's March turned the South into firewood. I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could. Feel like a newfangled Django dodging invisible white hoods.
RATH: First big single off your debut album was "I Can't Live Without My Radio." Do you remember the first time you heard your own music on the radio?
J: Oh, man. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was on Farmers Boulevard in Queens. It was nighttime, and it had maybe rained early in the evening, so the ground was real shiny. And the moonlight was shining and shimmering the street. You could see, like, the red and green and yellow hues from the streetlights.
And I was just listening to the music, and it was like every molecule in my body was traveling with the moonlight as I listened to it. And this guy came up to me, and he said: Hey - he said: Yo, that's you on the radio. And I remember saying, yeah, yeah, I like that. You know what I mean?
RATH: That's amazing. Almost 30 years ago and you are describing it like it was just yesterday.
J: Yeah, man. It's a feeling I wish every person could have. It must be how a woman feels when she looks in the face of a child for the first time when it's born or something. I don't know. It's unbelievable.
RATH: Yeah. That's the rapper and actor LL Cool J. His new album is "Authentic."
J: It's "Authentic," and it's definitely something that, you know, and I especially want to talk not only to the people that are listening that are hip-hop fans, because I know a lot of you out there are hip-hop fans, but some of you are hearing me right now never thought they would take a shot on hip-hop because it would look funny if, you know, in your car next to your penny loafers and khaki pants you had a LL Cool J album. I would encourage you to get this one. And go get it because it's worth it. It's hot.
RATH: All right. That's the rapper and actor LL Cool J. His new album, again, is "Authentic." LL Cool J, that was a treat. Thank you so much.
J: Thank you, man. Thank you for having me too. It's a big deal to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT MY RADIO")
J: (Rapping) My stereo's thumpin' like a savage beast. The level on my power meter will not decrease. Suckas get mad, 'cause the girlies scream and I'm still gettin' paid while you look at me mean. I'm the leader of the show, keepin' you on the go. But I know I can't live without my radio. I'm the leader of the show, keepin' you on the go and I know I can't live without my radio. Don't touch that dial, I'll be upset...
RATH: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Click on programs and then scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a funky night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.