2017 Honoree Spotlight: LL Cool J
LL Cool J is a hip hop pioneer who’s demonstrated staying power in what is often a young man’s game. He helped popularize the genre as one of the first solo superstars while pushing its boundaries.
At age 16, when most high schoolers are thinking about prom and learning to drive, James Todd Smith, was releasing his first hit single.
Growing up in Queens, Smith, who would become known to the world as LL Cool J started rapping at age 9. Speaking to the New York Times, LL Cool J looked back on his early start and said, “In this neighborhood, the kids grow up in rap. It’s like speaking Spanish if you grow up in an all-Spanish house.” At age 11, his jazz saxophonist grandfather spent $2,000 on a turntable set up, which allowed him to practice DJing in his attic and make demo tapes. Not long after that, LL was discovered by another Queens hip hop artist Jay Philpot, aka DJ Cut Creator, who was impressed by the young emcee and invited him to perform with him.
LL Cool J got a call from producer Rick Rubin, founder of a fledgling label Def Jam Recordings. In 1984, LL Cool J released his first hit single, “I Need a Beat,” with Def Jam followed by his first studio album, Radio, one year later.
Radio helped establish LL, Def Jam and producer Rick Rubin as legitimate players in the growing hip hop scene. LL Cool J became one of the first rappers to achieve mainstream radio success with both his debut and follow-up 1987 album, Bigger and Deffer.
LL had another big breakthrough on Bigger and Deffer with the single “I Need Love.” The song reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list and was also one of the first rap songs to break into an international market, garnering mainstream popularity in the United Kingdom and hitting #8 on the UK Singles Chart. “I Need Love” is also seen as one of the first hip hop love songs, which allowed LL Cool J to be known for his range, shifting between a street-style battle rap on one track and a romantic ballad the next.
Where hip hop had been mostly driven by rap groups, LL Cool J became one of the first successful hip hop solo acts, which in part established a model for rappers who followed. He has released 13 studio albums, nine of which have gone platinum. He’s been nominated for 9 Grammy Awards, winning two, and has won MTV Video Music Awards, NAACP Image Awards, and was recently given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In a hyper-competitive music scene defined by young, up-and-coming rappers looking to make a name by challenging those who’ve come before them, LL Cool J has demonstrated staying power.
Hip hop opened the doors for LL Cool J in other creative pursuits, most notably acting. He first appeared in the movie Krush Grooves in 1985 but has gone onto star in a number of films included Toys with Robin Williams and Any Given Sunday. He’s best known for his role on the TV show NCIS: Los Angeles, which he’s starred in since 2009.
LL Cool J will be the first rapper to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, and he is also tied with Stevie Wonder as the youngest artist to be honored at age 49. “I am blown away. This is the biggest musical award you can receive,” LL Cool J told the Washington Post about the recognition. “To be recognized by your country, and to be able to represent hip-hop as an art form is amazing. I’m surprised, grateful, humbled and honored.”