LL Cool J On Hip-Hop’s 50th Anniversary, Looking For That “Santana Moment” & Celebrating The Culture On His Mash-Up Tour With The Roots

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“I mean, there were people who used to look at us at that time and say, ‘Where is the band?’” recalls LL Cool J of hip-hop’s early years and the reaction audiences would have.

As the genre hits its 50th birthday on August 11, no one is asking where the band is anymore. The culture that has emerged out of what Kool Herc was doing that night in 1973 in the rec room of 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the West Bronx is the most popular musical genre on the planet.

One of the first mainstream stars of hip-hop, LL Cool J himself has come a long way from dropping his “I Need a Beat” single back in 1984. A multi-Grammy winner, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and the first rapper to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, the multiplatinum-selling LL also has become a star of the big and small screen with Toys and NCIS: Los Angeles.

Tonight, Queens-raised LL will headline the Rock the Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium alongside the likes of The Roots, Run-D.M.C, fellow CBSer Queen Latifah, De La Soul and Rakim, to name a few. On August 12, LL will start up Round 2 of The F.O.R.C.E. (Frequencies of Real Creative Energy) Live tour with The Roots, DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Z-Trip and a mash-up of some of hip-hop’s finest. The tour will culminate on September 3 in Los Angeles.

A self-admitted fan as much as icon, LL has emerged as one of hip-hop’s foremost chroniclers with his Rock the Bells business and initiative. Coming off ringing the opening bell on the Nasdaq this week as a part of celebrating hip-hop’s golden anniversary, LL spoke with me about the history of the genre, the culture and how it all looks from his perspective.

DEADLINE: What was it, who was it, that drew you into hip-hop growing up?

LL COOL J: I know when I heard the Cold Crush Brothers and when I heard Flash or what I heard Run-D.M.C. or the Beastie Boys, I just was attracted to that magnetic confidence and energy in the musical dynamics. It just it just made me crazy, man. I just loved it. I fell in love with it instantly. It’s like what I was born for. How about you?

DEADLINE: When I was a kid, I saw Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five open for the Clash. and I was like, “This is where it’s at.

LL COOL J: Yeah, and you think about the Clash having Flash open for them — there was a lot of backlash, I remember at that time. People were like, “Oh, who was this they bring it on tour?” and Grandmaster Flash and the Five ended up crushing it and being one of the most revolutionary groups

You know, it’s that magnetic confidence — you’re a kid and you love it. I think, as you grow older, evolve as an artist, maintaining that creative inspiration and maintaining that joy, and maintaining that energy, that jovial vibe. That feeling. It just works, man — that’s really how it was done. And that is about dreaming, right? Like if you want to accomplish anything, you got to dream. And then you got what you got to act. So you got to listen, you got to learn and you got to act. You got to take action.

DEADLINE: Certainly, hip-hop had established itself in New York by the early 1980s, but you went on some of the first tours taking it outside the five boroughs. What was that like back then?

LL COOL J: (Laughs) I mean, there were people who used to look at us at that time and say, “Where is the band?” Right? “What are you doing to those record players?” So those turntables, I used to call them record players. I remember going to Maine and having to explain to people that my DJ was cutting the record back and forth and, you know, like actually having to do a tutorial on what they were witnessing just so they could have some context, so that they can relate. But, you know, the flip side of that is they were curious and showed up.

DEADLINE: Now, you are heading back out on your first arena tour in decades with The Roots, plus the God MC himself Rakim, Queen Latifah, Big Boi, Method Man and Redman, many more. It’s all going to conclude on September 3 here in L.A. What brought you back on the road like that for the 50th anniversary?

LL COOL J: Well, we’re actually doing some really innovative because we’re combining the band and the DJs

DEADLINE: Oh.

LL COOL J: Yeah, so I got DJ Z-Trip, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Roots. So this is a whole new take on live hip-hop performances. It won’t be like anything that anybody has seen because it’s not just acoustic, it’s a mash-up of all of these vibes and sounds. I think that that’s going to be take it to another level, you know?

DEADLINE: In a way that seems like the perfect celebration of the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop, unto itself.

LL COOL J: I appreciate you saying that, I think it is.

It’s perfect for us because it’s what we love to do and what we want to do, right? You know, we had so much fun doing the Grammys — that’s where the idea was sparked. We performed on the Grammys together, and it was myself and The Roots obviously and then all the other acts were involved ..

DEADLINE: That tribute was amazing, everyone was there, and it was seamless …

LL COOL J: Well, that’s the goal for the tour. The F.O.R.C.E. Tour is like the Grammys tribute to hip-hop from February’s ceremony. It’s a celebration of all of this music, but it’s mashed up so this act, that act, this act, me coming out, them coming out, I come out — it’s not conventional. It’s not kinda like, “Oh, we stop and then there’s a set change.’ It’s like once that first downbeat starts, and once that first turntable scratch happens, you know, we’re off to the races for the rest of the night.

DEADLINE: I know you’ve heard this before, but as you get ready for the show at Forest Hills Stadium with the Rock the Bells Festival and then the F.O.R.C.E. Tour, there’s also that large swath of your fan base who know you as an actor, on NCIS: LA and more, not as a rapper. Does that negate some of your legacy for you, or do you see it as an opportunity of sorts?

LL COOL J: It’s funny you say that, because I been thinking about it a lot recently. It definitely doesn’t make me feel like anything negated. I mean, if anything, I’m just blessed to have more than one talent. So to me, it is absolutely an opportunity … remember that’s not everybody … a lot of our listeners on our Rock the Bells radio channel are under 25. But there are a lot many who see me as a host, some don’t even know I act. To me, I do think it’s an opportunity to put people up on something new. You come to the Rock the Bells festival. You come to the LL Cool J tour. For some people, it is going to be a new experience, and that’s OK.

DEADLINE: In a way, you are going back to your own roots with this tour, with The Roots …

LL COOL J: Kind of. Look, hip-hop has never had a Santana moment. Hip-hop has never had an artist that was able to go away for a decade and then reappear. To re-emerge and impact new generations in a major way. Partially that’s because the genre is so young.

Beyond me, that is what I want to do for hip-hop culture. I looked at the way Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney and those guys were treated in the rock genre. Then I looked at how the Rakims, the Method Mans and Ludacris and different acts were treated in this genre. And I say, “You know what, these artists deserve to be celebrated at a higher level. They deserve to play on the biggest stages and be seen in the biggest way.” This festival, the tour, is not about LL Cool J. It’s about my desire to see hip-hop culture celebrated and elevated at the highest level.

DEADLINE: With the 50th anniversary coming next week, your career has in many ways spanned most of the first five decades of the genre. Not a position a lot of artists in any genre, in any medium, find themselves in – as an artist and, with Rock the Bells, an archivist to some degree. What’s your perspective on that?

LL COOL J: It makes me feel amazing, because this is what I wanted to see. I wanted, I wanted the new generations of hip-hop and the earliest generations of hip-hop to be able to coexist and to be equally as popular with their cohorts, so to speak.

For everybody to be able to be respected and loved and be able to have fun and do music and do shows at a high level and be on top. I believe in hip-hop. I respect hip-hop artists as much as I respect to Miles Davis or Charlie Parker and various acts and other genres. I love the fact that people are celebrating it. I just want the celebrations to be done at the right level executed properly. And it’s all good.

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