LL Cool J still raps, breaks new ground
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Hip-hop legend LL Cool J is at a point in his career where he never has to rap again.
At 45, he's a senior in the youth-oriented rap game, and he's more than left his mark on the music industry. He's headlining the Kings of the Mic tour, which brings together classic hip-hop acts, including Roosevelt's Public Enemy, Amityville native De La Soul, and Ice Cube. The tour comes to Roseland Ballroom Thursday.
Seminal albums such as "Radio" (1985), "Bigger and Deffer" (1987) and "Mama Said Knock You Out" (1990) and hits "I Need Love," "Rock the Bells," "Doin' It," "I'm Bad" and "The Boomin' System" made him a pioneer before he settled into a comfortable role on TV's "NCIS: Los Angeles." But LL Cool J says he will never rest on his laurels or be irrelevant in music.
"It's not about whether you ever have to put out anything else again," he says. "It's like a painter saying he doesn't have to paint anymore because he sold so many copies of his work. That does the art a disservice." Instead, the rapper says he'd rather be out there breaking new ground -- "coming up with new and exciting ideas. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't." LL Cool J, who hasn't released an album since "Exit 13" in 2008, returns with the new "Authentic," which features collaborations with Brad Paisley, Eddie Van Halen, Charlie Wilson, Snoop Dogg, Seal, Earth, Wind & Fire, Chuck D., Travis Barker, Monica and more.
"What I wanted to do was spread my wings a bit and work with some of the people I truly respect -- delve into different genres of music," the Bay Shore native says. "And I wanted to show that hip-hop is capable of being so much more."
Hosting the Grammys in recent years has stoked his interest in working with other artists, especially ones outside hip-hop. "I wanted to reflect where I am at this point in my life," he says.
Most surprising of all of LL Cool J's collaborations is his work with Paisley. The rapper and the country star got together on each other's albums: Paisley appears on "Live for You" from "Authentic," while LL Cool J appears on the controversial "Accidental Racist" from Paisley's new "Wheelhouse." "We were talking about ideas for a song for his album and decided to just do something that would have a positive impact on society in the long run," the rapper says.
"Accidental Racist" attempted to spark discussion about racism but generally was regarded as ill-conceived and even knuckle-headed by music fans and critics alike.
"The song wasn't perfect, but it was a necessary conversation," says LL Cool J, who wasn't expecting all the negative reaction to the song. "I'm surprised that people who know my background, who know who I am, would assume I would trivialize slavery. That's a stretch. I can't believe they were saying that. But people hear what they want to hear -- see what they want to see."
Despite the controversy, he says "Accidental Racist" was a success.
"You can't name another song more important than that in the last 20 years," he says. "What song can you think of that touched more people, negatively or positively? You can't."
LL Cool J says the title of his new album was going to be "Authentic Hip-Hop," but as he got more and more into the project he realized "what I was doing wasn't the proper moniker for the album. Authentic hip-hop is a totally different thing. It turned out I ended up focusing on myself as a musician and artist. And when you make music from the heart and soul, it's all authentic.
"I just called everybody up and basically said, 'Let's go on the road,' " he says. "They were all into it. It's a really exciting show, and all the artists are still at the top of their game. They're bringing the heat."