LL Cool J: Actor, rapper, and host of the Grammy Awards
“What’s in a name?” is no idle question when it comes to LL Cool J, who stars in the CBS show, “NCIS: Los Angeles.” He’s an actor, a rapper, and host of the Grammy Awards. But still, what about that name? Michelle Miller has discussed that with the man himself:
Watching LL Cool J backstage is like watching a boxer getting ready to enter the ring. He gets psyched up . . . gelled up . . . loosened up.
And then, the bell sounds.
Has he ever had a problem with self-confidence? “No, that’s never been my issue,” he laughed.
It’s that self-confidence — together with talent and a lot of drive — which made him a rap star, then a movie star, then a prime-time star.
And lately he’s the face of the Grammys, after winning two of the awards himself. Tonight he’ll host the show for the fourth time.
“Do you ever ask yourself, ‘Why me? Why did they pick me?”” asked Miller.
“You know, that’s a funny question. I’m very grateful. Very, very grateful. But my answer to the other side of that is: Why not me?”
There were plenty of reasons why not. when he was James Todd Smith, growing up in Queens, N.Y., there were plenty of reasons why not. His home life was turbulent. When he was four years old, he saw his father shoot his mother and grandfather in a jealous rage. They both recovered, and while his mother worked multiple jobs, he was largely raised by his grandparents.
“My grandfather exposed me to music, exposed me to different cultures,” he said.
When he was 11, his grandfather gave him a $2,000 turntable setup so he could play DJ in the attic. That gift put him on his path.
“I don’t know many granddads, or dads, moms, anybody who’s going to drop that kind of money,” said Miller.
“Yeah, but he was willing to dig deep in his pockets and pay that kind of price just to keep me in the house and keep me out of trouble,” said LL.
It was the early ’80s; rap was in its infancy, and young Todd wanted in.
First, he needed a new name: LL Cool J, which stands for “Ladies Love Cool James.”
Where did that come from? “Wishful thinking,” he replied. “Just wishful thinking.”
“‘Cause you wanted the ladies to love you?”
“Absolutely. Couldn’t wait.”
“The ladies weren’t loving you back then?” asked Miller
“Not as much as I wanted ’em to!” he laughed.
Then he went after a record deal, targeting a new label, Def Jam, and its founder, Rick Rubin. The label signed him at age 16.
How did he manage that? “Sent a tape in to Rick Rubin, called him every single day,” LL said. “Persistent. And one day, he called me back. My grandmother answered the phone. I came in. She couldn’t remember the name, couldn’t pronounce it correctly — ‘Stick Stubin? Stick Blubin? Dick Van Dyke?’ You know, just anything but Rick Rubin. And I called him back, and I was really overwhelmed and overjoyed that I had an opportunity.
“And I made the most of it!” he laughed.
“Why do you find that funny?”
“Because, yo, I absolutely made the most of it. Woo! Damn, that’s funny!
“Let me tell you something: When you growing up in Queens, and you walk in your math class, and your teacher punches you in the back and calls you a dummy, and then you go to your next class, and the teacher’s telling you they’re gonna read about you in the newspaper as a criminal, and when you grow up in that kind of environment, when you get an opportunity, and you make the most of it, it’s fun. And it’s funny. Because it’s not easy.”
He seized another opportunity when a friend invited him onto the set of the movie “Krush Groove.” He hadn’t been hired for anything; he was just visiting. But he was energetic: “I’m bouncing off the walls. I got 10 times as much energy as I have right now. I can’t sit still.”
He was so persistent he somehow got the filmmakers to let him perform.
The movie set the stage for his duel career as rapper and actor. Meanwhile, still a teenager, he pioneered a softer side of hip-hop, with hits like “I Need Love.”
When I’m alone in my room
Sometimes I stare at the wall
And in the back of my mind
I hear my conscience call.
Telling me I need a girl
Who’s as sweet as a dove
For the first time in my life,
I see I need love.
And then he found love. He met Simone Johnson in his old neighborhood. “Todd bought me my first pair of earrings when I was 17 years old,” she told Miller.
But as their relationship developed, it hit some tough times. He wrote in his autobiography about the groupies hanging around his concerts. It seemed the ladies started loving Cool J a little too much.
“I’m-a tell you most of all why I love him, because he’s a God-fearin’ man,” said Simone. “That’s one of the reasons why I really love him.”
I read his autobiography. He wasn’t always,” said Miller.
“No, no, I always had faith in God,” Said LL. “I didn’t say I was perfect. But he who have not sinned cast the first stone.”
“But he laughs about it,” said Miller.
“You laugh about it; that’s your past,” said Simone. “Your past is your past. Your future is what’s important, and your present.”
LL and Simone got married in 1995 and have four children. Marketing her line of jewelry is a family affair. Her signature lollipop necklace represents her battle to overcome cancer several years ago.
And LL keeps in touch with his old neighborhood in Queens (“No matter how big you get, you should never ever forget where you came from”), remembering that when he was growing up, there was very little to keep him out of trouble.
For the last decade, he’s sponsored a basketball tournament during the summer.
“You know, when you do something for ten years, and you have kids that grow up in the program and people that grow up doing this, that’s, like, the most rewarding feeling in the world, you know what I mean?”
At 47, LL Cool J is a hit whether he’s working with kids, working the Grammy stage, or the concert stage.
And James Todd Smith’s wish has come true . . . because the ladies definitely love Cool J.