LL Cool J’s become one of the most versatile entertainers in pop culture. The legendary rapper branched into acting decades ago and, with Lip Sync Battle, more recently added producer and TV host to his already-lengthy resume. The NCIS: Los Angeles star’s docuseries with MSNBC, Story of Cool, examines trends, events and pop culture figures that have been deemed arbiters of taste, and LL talked to The Daily Beast about what “cool” really means, how hip-hop has personified it, and why even the “cool” shit has to change.
“So many people have so many different interpretations of what cool is,” LL explains. “And my question is ‘what is cool?’ And why is that cool, why isn’t that cool and who gets to determine what’s cool? You have people who are supposedly purveyors of cool—why? Who determined that? Where did that come from? So let’s explore it, lets dig deep into it, let’s figure it out. I got with them and decided let’s take a deep dive on it and see what it is. And that’s where it came from. What one person says is cool could be the worst thing in the world to someone else. All cool isn’t created equal. It’s a very nuanced topic.”
Hip-hop, in particular, is oftentimes painted as a uniquely ageist genre: rappers over 40 can sometimes be scoffed at, there’s a sense that trends come and go at breakneck speed and the image is undeniably youth-driven. Much has been made about the generation gap between Gen X boom bappers and millennial trap fans, but LL says that time decides what’s great and that everyone has to let it all flourish.
“Nowadays in hip-hop, the guy going against the grain is the guy who wants to be lyrical at a time when everything is about melodies and choruses,” LL maintains. “Cool isn’t necessarily age-specific. The coolest brands in the world are the oldest brands, the ones with longevity—or on the road to longevity. You think about Gucci or Louis Vuitton. But that doesn’t really concern me, it’s all about exploring it. I like the idea of just going as we go. I still trust my own instincts. I don’t allow what’s going on to dictate to me what I think is cool. But I’m also open-minded. I don’t have a problem with the new generation and the new hip-hop. I’m fine with it. But I’m also not gonna be dismissive of the hip-hop I grew up on just to be cool, either.”
“Hip-hop culture and African-American culture have been setting the tone for what’s cool for years—ever since popular culture started in America,” he continues. “African-American culture has always set the tone. The only difference now is that technology allows things to be everywhere at once and quickly. The market penetration is a lot deeper for a lot of these brands and newer acts. Having the access at a time when technology is everywhere, you have a deeper penetration than you would’ve had at the top of the market 25 years ago. It’s given more people more access to more stuff. Guys that are doing what they’re doing should be celebrated. Drake is successful and he has his fans and I think it’s cool. More power to you.”
But he does acknowledge that hip-hop’s cultural imprint is massive today in a way that makes it inescapable.
“Hip-hop is the number one music in the world now—that’s the difference,” he says. “From Run-DMC all the way to Wu-Tang, hip-hop was still growing and growing and growing. Now it’s the number one music. It’s outselling the number one music in the country. It is mainstream music, the number one pop music. It’s not punk rock anymore. When I started, hip-hop was punk rock. Now it’s pop music. Public Enemy was the Sex Pistols, now if you’re No. 1 you’re like N*Sync.”
As his own career proves, the space for rappers to become major influencers has only widened as the years have gone by. LL executive producing this MSNBC series is an indicator of how much control and leverage rappers-turned-moguls have, and recent comments from Diddy regarding Black people in executive positions in the entertainment world resonated because Black creativity often fuels industries that are guided by non-Black interests and perspectives.
“I think that it’s extremely important for the Black voice to be heard—not only in the studio and not only on the set, but also in the boardroom,” LL states directly. “Having a seat at the table is a beautiful thing and it’s necessary. But I think that it’s also important that when we get our seat at the table, that we execute. It’s about the excellence. It’s not just about having the position, it’s about having that position and over-delivering. Working really hard and bringing value and adding value. Don’t give it to me only because I’m Black, give it to me because I’m excellent. I’m bringing you something flavorful and something creative and different levels of my intellect. Even with this series, this is a side I haven’t really shown to the public. People don’t know I’m a bookworm and that I study. People think I’m walking around, looking in the mirror, flexing. They’re surprised at the level of depth that it has. I don’t disagree with Puff at all. But when you get an opportunity to direct a movie like Black Panther—make Black Panther! Don’t play with it. If you get an opportunity to be a great executive, be Magic Johnson! There’s always room for more. But my thing is—deliver. Don’t just be there, excel.”
Having started out in the entertainment industry as a brash teenager, LL Cool J’s trajectory is one from youthful exuberance to maturity and he’s been open about so much of his life—from the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, to a battle with sex addiction and squabbles with his former longtime label Def Jam. He’s not one for regrets or dissecting the man he once was, however—LL knows who LL was and who LL is. He sees it all as just part of the journey.
“As your mind matures and as you experience different things—I might’ve thought going out and buying ten cars was cool [when I was young],” he explains. “But I wasn’t mature enough to know no better! I wouldn’t judge myself like that. I wouldn’t look down on my past and denigrate anything I’ve done in the past. Creatively, I was what I was and I did what I did. We make creative decisions as we go along and you move on. There are obviously different things—you have a family—but I don’t want to judge or critique my past. I think my youth was spent doing the best I could at the time, knowing what I knew. I don’t see a need in trying to rehash it. It was what it was.”
Hip-hop’s huge cultural lens and shifting social mores have made it necessary to take a long look at what the music and culture has been, and examine how much has to change. In the wake of movements like #MeToo and #YouOKSis, there is once again vocal criticism of rap misogyny. Activists took rappers like Snoop Dogg and 2Pac to task in the ‘90s, but now so much of the criticism is coming from within hip-hop culture itself, and with high-profile figures like Russell Simmons accused of serious allegations against women, there’s a sense that a reckoning must occur. And the music is being called into question. LL supports what’s happening, but admits he doesn’t know how to transfer some theoretical examination into actual change.
“I think every artist is going to have to make that incredibly important decision for themselves,” he offers. “I don’t think you can paint it with a broad brush. What are you going to do? How do we do that? How do we look back and rewrite America’s history? It’s a wonderful conversation to have and a worthy conversation to have; but in practice, what are we going to do? Are we going to erase all the music? Do away with all the magazines?
“I do know that all people should be respected. Every human being and every individual should be respected as an individual and as a human being. But other than that, I don’t know what that looks like. Only time can reveal that. It’s such a sensitive topic, I think that people deserve to be respected but I don’t know how you go about implementing that respect, and each individual artist has to decide what that means in terms of what they put out. But what does that mean to film? What does that mean to painting?”
LL pauses. “So many people are suffering and being marginalized and it’s just so wrong. Just in general, I think people deserve better,” he says. “There’s a bigger conversation there. SO many people have so much pain and there are so many systemic reasons. So you’ve got people with a billion dollars doing wrong and poor people doing right; you’ve got people who deserve better and they’re being treated worse. There’s a lot of room for improvement, man. And it goes beyond little man’s rap record that comes out next week. It’s a start! But we gotta get this thing right. I think the Statue of Liberty should have meaning. More than a lady with an arm in the air—it should be welcoming people.”