LL Cool J is teasing the crowd at last September’s Meadows Music and Arts Festival in the parking lot at Citi Field.
In jeans and a white T-shirt, his black baseball cap turned backward, LL is dressed like most of those coming to see him. But there’s no doubt he’s the star.
“I know most of y’all never been to an LL Cool J show,” he says, a broad smile breaking out across his face. “You’re like, ‘He host the Grammys this year. He got ‘Lip Sync Battle.’ What he know about hip-hop?”
Of course, LL Cool J doesn’t just know hip-hop. He is hip-hop. One of the pioneers of the genre, he was the first major solo hip-hop star, with hits like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “I Need Love.”
And on Sunday, Dec. 3, the Bay Shore native and Manhasset resident will become the first hip-hop artist to ever be saluted at the Kennedy Center Honors, the first to receive the nation’s highest award for performers — seen as the American equivalent to British knighthood or France’s Legion of Honor.
“To be the first rap artist honored by the Kennedy Center is beyond anything I could have imagined,” LL said in a statement. “I dedicate this honor to the hip-hop artists who came before me and those who came after me. This simply proves that dreams don’t have deadlines. God is great.”
LL Cool J’s appearance at The Meadows was only one of a handful of concerts he had this year. He’s too wrapped up with his other jobs — especially co-starring in “NCIS: Los Angeles” and hosting Spike TV’s “Lip Sync Battle” — to perform as much as he would like.
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But the idea of playing in Queens, where he spent much of his childhood living with his grandparents in St. Albans, and playing so close to Long Island, where he was born, was too important to him to pass up — even though he had to perform early in the day so he could return to Los Angeles to present an award at the Emmys the next day.
Though James Todd Smith was born to James and Ondrea Smith in Bay Shore in 1968, his LL Cool J persona wouldn’t come along until 1982 in North Babylon, when he and his mother were living on Lakeway Drive. Music had become an outlet for him during his troubled childhood and his grandfather, Eugene Griffith, had bought him two turntables, a mixer and a microphone when he was 11, at the suggestion of his grandmother, Ellen.
He was already singing in the choir at St. Bonaventure Church in Jamaica, Queens, even singing “Ave Maria” with the choir at Shea Stadium for Pope John Paul II in 1979.
And at 14, he was starting to write songs and perform, so he needed a name, initially going with J-Ski before moving to Cool J. A friend he was hanging out with on Merrick Boulevard suggested LL Cool J, short for “Ladies Love Cool James,” and that stuck.
“I never got into rap for the cars, the clothes, or the women,” LL explained in his autobiography, “I Make My Own Rules.” “I got into rap for the power. I wanted to be heard. I wanted to make a record and hear it on the radio. It was just that simple.”
LL Cool J says he believes in the power of hip-hop and he is careful to see his success in that context.
“Everything I do in my career, I try to represent hip-hop culture and carry the torch for hip-hop culture,” he told Ellen DeGeneres after hearing about being honored by the Kennedy Center. “This is a beautiful thing and I’m glad I could kick the door down for the rest of the guys and girls. We’re going to have some fun.”
Though LL doesn’t like to talk much about his accomplishments, his friends and contemporaries are happy to pick up the slack.
“LL is the Elvis of hip-hop,” says Public Enemy’s Chuck D. “There is no comparison, but a lot of people don’t get the magnitude of what he accomplished in the ’80s. They think he started with ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.’ . . . They have no idea how many houses he has brought down.”
Chuck says that before LL, hip-hop was dominated by groups, because groups could better hold an audience’s interest. However, LL was so charismatic in his live show and in his videos that he could thrill a crowd all by himself. “He was the first MC to have both women and guys in the crowd,” says the Roosevelt native and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who believed that LL should have been the first solo rapper inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Tupac Shakur became the first this year, but LL is a nominee for induction next year and will learn whether he was selected next week.) “And he still does.”
Another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-D.M.C., says that he is proud of LL’s success and was happy to join him onstage at The Meadows festival for a medley that included “Peter Piper.” “I was honored that LL wanted me to perform,” DMC says. “I was there as a fan.”
LL even gets name-checked in Eminem’s new single “Walk on Water” as one of Em’s hip-hop heroes. “I’m not God-sent,” he rhymes. “Nas, Rakim, ’Pac, B.I.G., James Todd Smith.”
Politics seeped into this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, as it has into so much of popular culture these days. Singer Gloria Estefan said she looked forward to discussing politics with President Donald Trump at the event, but two of this year’s other honorees, “All in the Family” creator Norman Lear and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, said, after his comments on the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, they would skip the event if President Trump attended. (At the time, singer Lionel Richie said that he would “play it by ear” on whether he would attend.) President Trump and first lady Melania Trump announced they would be the ones to skip the event. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the first family would not participate in the event or the usual White House reception of the honorees “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.”
LL told DeGeneres that he was glad Trump was not attending. “It would have been a distraction,” he said. “It would’ve been more about, you know, who’s standing next to who and less about the actual art.”
LL has said that he is always careful about speaking his mind or when he puts violent or negative images in his songs. “I want to make music that’s real and honest, that has integrity,” he wrote in his autobiography. “There are rebels and there are innovators. I’m an innovator. But I can’t condemn those rappers and entertainers who aren’t always positive. You can’t expect someone to become a positive role model for all of mainstream America overnight.”
He has always believed in the importance of excellence and being honored by the Kennedy Center showed that his work had paid off. His response to the announcement, though, reminded him of his grandmother.
“My late grandmother passed some wise advice to me: ‘If a task is once begun, never leave it ’til it’s done. Be thy labor great or small, do it well or not at all,’ ” he said in a statement. “That adage has guided everything I have ever done in my life and I couldn’t be more grateful because it has led me here.”
SOMETHING LIKE A PHENOMENON
Since his teenage days growing up in North Babylon and St. Albans, Queens, LL Cool J has had many interests and built a career like a hip-hop Renaissance man. Here’s a look:
Since Def Jam’s Rick Rubin signed him when he was only 16 years old, LL has mastered a variety of hip-hop styles from the romantic “I Need Love” to the hard-hitting “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
BIGGEST HIT “All I Have” (No. 1, four weeks, 2003)
His first appearance on film was in “Krush Groove” in 1985 where he performed “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” but, over the years, acting has become his main artistic outlet. After a string of appearances in movies like “Toys” and “Out of Sync,” LL starred in his own TV series, “In the House,” and more recently “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
BIGGEST HIT “NCIS: Los Angeles” (2009-present, CBS)
LL Cool J hosted a few specials but really made people take notice when he led The Grammys for five years starting in 2012, the memorable year where he started the show with a prayer for Whitney Houston who had died the night before. He began hosting “Lip Sync Battle” in 2016.
BIGGEST HIT “Lip Sync Battle” (2016-present, Spike)
LL launched his own label P.O.G. Records in 1993, but his creations have extended far beyond music. He launched his own clothing line, Todd Smith, for Sears in 2008. He currently has a men’s jewelry line for Kohl’s (as does his wife Simone I. Smith). And he recently announced he will have his own “Rock the Bells” channel on SiriusXM Radio launching next year.
BIGGEST HIT Todd Smith/LL Cool J clothing line
LL wrote his autobiography “I Make My Own Rules” in 1997, outlining his personal history and some of his views on life. He has also written a children’s book and co-written two books about his workout regimen.
BIGGEST HIT “I Make My Own Rules” (1997, St. Martin’s Press)
MEET THE HONOREES
Like LL Cool J, this year’s Kennedy Center honorees all pushed boundaries and showed how powerful entertainment can be when artists tell stories from their unique American experiences. Here’s a look:
CARMEN DE LAVALLADE
HOMETOWN Los Angeles
BIO The actor, dancer and choreographer began with the Lester Horton Dance Theater and quickly moved into movies, including “Carmen Jones” with Dorothy Dandridge and “Odds Against Tomorrow” with Harry Belafonte. However, live performance was where she made the biggest impact in her six-decade career. De Lavallade made her Broadway debut in Truman Capote’s “House of Flowers” in 1954 and was the principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera and later choreographed “Porgy and Bess” there.
BEST KNOWN FOR The 2005 documentary “Carmen & Geoffrey” chronicled her life and artistic partnership with her husband Geoffrey Holder in New York.
BIO The Havana-born singer-songwriter, actor and author is seen as the biggest Latin crossover artist of all time, starting with her group Miami Sound Machine in 1984 with the hit “Dr. Beat.” With Miami Sound Machine and then as a solo artist, Estefan has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide. She then turned to acting in the movie “Music of the Heart” and the TV series “Glee.” “On Your Feet,” the story of her and husband Emilio’s relationship, became a Tony-nominated Broadway success in 2015. She will be the first Cuban-American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor.
BEST KNOWN FOR A string of powerful ballads that hit No. 1 in the late ’80s and early ’90s — “Anything for You,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Coming Out of the Dark,” her comeback single following her recovery from the fractured spine she suffered in a tour bus crash in 1990.
HOMETOWN New Haven, Connecticut
BIO One of the most successful and prolific writers and producers in television history, Lear injected social and political issues into the world of the ’70s sitcom and found that audiences couldn’t get enough of it. As a social activist, Lear founded the advocacy group People for the American Way and found himself on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list. In the ’80s, Lear’s Act III Productions produced a string of hit movies, including “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.”
BEST KNOWN FOR At one point in the ’70s, he had nine shows on at the same time — including “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and “One Day at a Time.”
HOMETOWN Tuskeegee, Alabama
BIO The singer-songwriter, producer and television host began his music career in 1968 when he joined the R&B group The Commodores as a saxophonist and singer, eventually writing and singing classics like “Easy” and “Three Times a Lady.” In 1982, he went solo and became one of music’s biggest stars, selling more than 100 million albums worldwide. He also teamed up with Michael Jackson to write “We Are the World.” Richie is in the midst of a career resurgence, with a massive arena tour and a new role as a judge on the upcoming reboot of “American Idol.”
BEST KNOWN FOR Richie had five No. 1 singles in five years starting in 1981 with “Endless Love,” followed by “Truly,” “All Night Long (All Night),” “Hello,” and “Say You, Say Me.”
WHAT The Kennedy Center Honors
WHEN WHERE 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C. The event will air at 9 p.m. Dec. 26 on CBS.