LL Cool J Reflects on His Musical Career: 'Hip-Hop Needs to Be Served on a Silver Platter' (Exclusive)

ET sat down with the rapper-actor for an intimate reflection of his longstanding career.

It's been over 30 years since LL Cool J stepped onto the scene and the hip-hop pioneer isn't going anywhere. ET spoke with the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who looked back at his legacy as one of the earliest rappers to achieve commercial success and reflected on what's to come with his new music and acting career.

LL Cool J recalled being a fan of the genre and other rappers from a tender age. "I was already rapping at that time because [if] you're a fan, you rapping and stuff, but [I was] maybe about 10, 11 or 12 [when] I started writing," he shares.

The rapper credited his upbringing in New York City for his famed style, telling ET how his neighbors fostered children from different boroughs who would share their cassette tapes with him.

"So I was eight, nine years old, listening to [the Cold Crush Brothers], all this stuff. Guys would hear me hearing and because they like my voice they're like, 'Rap that part!' And I'd start rapping," he recalls, adding that he would also request tapes from his grandmother for him to rap along to. "It was just an amazing time, was like magic."

LL Cool J spent the majority of his childhood in Queens with his mother and grandparents, whom the rapper contributes much of his humility and determination to. 

"My grandmother was a trip, you know? I was taught humility is a superpower, basically," he says, reflecting on the lessons he grew up with, growing up middle-class and Catholic in the '90s. 

"If a task is once begun, never leave it till it's done. Be thy labor great or small. Do it well or not at all. That's the mantra I grew up with," the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors recipient shares. "I pass that on to my kids. It was that and my mother telling me you could do anything you put your mind to. My mother would say, 'Todd, you're a handsome boy. Girls don't like dummies, though. And you could do anything you put your mind to.' I just lucked up and had women that believed in me and wanted to tell me things that could make my dreams possible. They wanted to instill in me something that could help me go to new heights. You need the right type of fuel, you got to put the right fuel in your kids. You got to put a battery in their back, make them believe."

The rapper explains that, unlike acting, hip-hop has been a part of his life since he could remember. "I came to them and I was hip-hop," he asserts. "The difference between the acting for me and the hip-hop is that I was a MC from day one. The acting thing developed because I had the talent and the ability to do it -- they're different. But at the end of the day, art doesn't care whether it happened, inspiration happened instantaneously, or you worked 100 years to do it. Ultimately, it's the end result. But that being said, I just really believed in [hip-hop]."

He continues, "When I was exposed to hip-hop, that was the first time that I heard young Black kids in the city sound powerful. I never heard that before. All you ever see is people bent over with handcuffs on, getting put in a police car. That's it. There are no movies and if there are movies, it's pimp movies or something like that. That's part of our lives too. But there's more to us. I heard these poets [and] that was the first time I heard it."

"...It made me feel like, 'Wow, I can I can do something powerful. If they can make me feel different, I can make the world feel different," he shares.

LL Cool J was snapped up by Def Jam Recordings in 1984, with his first single, "I Need a Beat," and debut album, Radio, dropping a year later. "It was amazing. I just remember getting my contract and being like, 'Ma, they're gonna let me do 10 albums,'" he shares. "I was so happy, [it] could have been 100. I was locked in."

The rapper likens hearing his song on the radio for the first time to "hitting the lotto," adding that it felt like eating after being hungry for so long. 

Back then, the rapper wasn't thinking about what he wanted to leave behind as a legacy, he was thinking of how to build his presence. "I didn't have that kind of forethought. I just wanted to hear myself on the radio because growing up in the hood, or an inner city, you feel invisible, you feel like your voices aren't heard," he says. "Man down the block gets killed, nobody cares. They don't talk about it in the newspaper...That's how it feels. So you walk around and you feel invisible. I just wanted to be heard." 

But that wasn't the only motivator. "After that, I just wanted to be the best," he adds. "Because at that time, hip-hop was about being the best. So I just wanted to be the best. It was that simple."

Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

It was when he got older that LL Cool J began to think about his work in a different way and changed his scope. "As you mature and evolve, you start realizing, it was all about me and I [was] thinking about me. Now, I can look this way and say, 'Make it about somebody else,'" he says reflectively. "Now I can help other people. So the guys that I might have been competitive with back in the days, now I'm looking at [them] like, 'How can I help you?'"

That mindset led the rapper to creating his own businesses in the music industry, including the company Rock the Bells. Initially a record label to produce music, Rock the Bells is now a global lifestyle brand media company that "focuses on content, commerce and experiences that honor the culture and the core elements of hip-hop." Even with all his other work, the rapper is dedicated to spreading the word of hip-hop and ensuring the genre receives the respect it deserves.

Recently, LL Cool J joined a star-studded showcase during the 2023 GRAMMY Awards to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. The rapper introduced the magnificent tribute before The Roots' Black Thought offered powerful words. Then, the performances commenced, and it was incredibly epic. From Run-D.M.C., Rakim and Public Enemy's Chuck D and Flavor Flav to Ice T, Queen Latifah, Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man and Too $hort, they all took part in a hip-hop medley showcasing their best hits. 

Performers also included Big Boi, Spliff Star, De La Soul, DJ Drama, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Missy Elliott, Future, GloRilla, Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster Mele Mel & Scorpio/Ethiopian King, Ice-T, Lil Baby, Lil Wayne, The Lox, Rahiem, Salt-N-Pepa and Spinderella and Scarface.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Questlove served as producer and musical director for the epic segment, with music provided by The Roots, and narration by Black Thought.

"Multi-generational. Fifty years. From the Bronx to TikTok, to the whole world. We love you, baby," LL Cool J said to wrap the incredible tribute to hip-hop that night. "We started in the Bronx and ever since then it's gone everywhere -- to the five boroughs, to the West Coast, to the heartland, overseas, to Europe, to Africa, to Asia, TikTok. What else is next?!"

Reminiscing on the special night, the rapper says it "felt amazing" to be part of the star-studded tribute. "I've been saying for the last few years, since we started Rock the Bells, that hip-hop has been served in a greasy brown paper bag for too long and it needs to be served on a silver platter," he says. "And at the GRAMMYs tribute, we served it on a silver platter. It felt amazing to be able to have Quest[love] curate this thing and for us to see Grandmaster Flash and Melly Mel on the same stage with Glorilla and Lil Baby. With PE in there, Run-D.M.C. and Nelly and Big Boi -- it just felt amazing to see the breadth of it and be presented at a high level. It was amazing."

And the rapper promises that the night's showcase is just the beginning when it comes to celebrations for the genre's big anniversary. "There'll be more to come. It's to be continued," he vows.

New music is also on the way, which LL Cool J has been promising for a few years now. The upcoming album, which is executive produced by rapper-producer Q-Tip, has been a long time coming.

"It's really solid. It's my first album I'm putting out through Def Jam, through Universal. I haven't done that in many, many years. I think Q-Tip did a phenomenal job. I'm not going to talk about my vocals or the songwriting and all that, I have to let the world judge that, but... objectively the work that Q-Tip did on the record and the music is crazy," LL Cool J previously told ET, hinting that there are "a lot of collabs on there."

No release date has been set yet, but he promised it will arrive "this year." "It's definitely '23... it's coming," he said.

Now, the rapper says the album is finished but admits that he hasn't chosen his lead single yet. "I'm close on that. But the album is done, the album is complete. We just sequencing it now. It's mixed," he shares. 

And what's to come after that? He's not making any predictions. "I'm gonna let God take care of all that. I'm just gonna do what I'm led to do," the rapper says when asked what he's building his legacy to be. "I'm just gonna do what I'm led to do and inspired to do... It's like, your spirit has a string and it's being pulled. And a lot of people try to break that string or do everything but what that string is pulling them [to do]. I'm just gonna go with that string pull."