The Detroit News
It’s hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, and few have made a larger impact on the genre’s history than LL Cool J.
In the 1980s, he was rap’s first solo superstar, breaking through to the mainstream with his 1985 debut album, “Radio.” He introduced vulnerability to hip-hop with 1987’s “I Need Love,” gave the world the phrase “don’t call it a comeback” with 1990’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” and coined the term “G.O.A.T.” — as in Greatest of All Time — with his 2000 album of the same name.
“You’re welcome,” says LL, on the phone last month from his home in New York. He’s talking specifically about the ubiquity of the term G.O.A.T., but he could be talking about all of his contributions to hip-hop, as well as his crossover success: the 55-year-old native New Yorker and two-time Grammy winner is also a successful actor, a Kennedy Center Honors recipient and a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
He’s hitting the road with a roster of hip-hop notables including Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Ice-T, MC Lyte and Common. They’ll be backed by the Roots, DJ Jazzy Jeff and DJ Z-Trip for a sort of living, breathing hip-hop mixtape, a mash-up of talent celebrating hip-hop’s half-century and its immeasurable impact on culture at large.
The tour is derived from a performance on this year’s Grammy telecast where a group of hip-hop legends shared the stage to toast rap’s anniversary. Here’s what LL had to say about the tour, his forthcoming new album, his relationship with Eminem and more. (Note: questions and answers have been edited for clarity.)
Q: Which came first, the Grammy performance or the idea for the tour?
A: The Grammy performance came first. The Grammy performance just made us feel like, yo, this would be something great to take out on the road, because nobody has seen anything like this before. This is a tour unlike any other. Most tours, when you see the lineup, you think these are going to be individual groups playing and you kind of piecemeal it in your mind and you look at it kind of a la carte. But this is not that, this is Thanksgiving. Everybody on the bill is all rocking together at once. The Roots are behind us, Z-Trip’s behind us, Jeff is behind us, and every group you see is rocking. So it’s going to be an unbelievable show, unlike anything that people have ever seen.
Q: How did the Grammy performance come together?
A: It was a combination of things. I’ve been hosting the Grammys for years, I’ve been involved with it, and one thing led to another. Myself, (Grammy producer) Jesse Collins, (Roots drummer) Questlove, we all got together and we wanted to make a great show. Quest went out there and started curating acts, I started making phone calls, Jesse started coming up with stuff, and the next thing you know, we had this vibe that kind of all worked together.
Q: Was it during rehearsal or was it after the show when you said, ‘this can’t be it, this is bigger than just the one performance, we need to take this on the road?’
A: It was during rehearsals. When we started rehearsing and we saw how it felt to have all of these groups on one set, it felt like yo, you know what? We need to do this in different cities. We need to check people’s availabilities and do this, because hip-hop fans are going to know all of this music, and seeing these acts presented this way is going to be so new and unique and fresh that everybody’s gonna be rocking with it. It’ll be the best hip-hop tour in years.
Q: Hip-hop’s 50th is this huge, sprawling thing, and this tour seems to be the nucleus of it. As one of the forebears of the genre and one of its masters, did you feel like if there was going to be a major celebration at the center of the anniversary, you had to be the one to bring it to the masses?
A: I don’t know if I had to be the one, but I wanted to be the one. I chose to be the one. I decided to really step up for hip-hop culture, and really be front and center in promoting this culture and lifting it up and showing people that this is an art form that goes way beyond just your last hit this week. I wanted to step up and represent, you know what I’m saying? Now I want to show people, from a performance standpoint, that things can be taken to another level.
Q: It’s been 10 years since your last album, and you were 45 then. I imagine at 55, you’ve got different things to say, a different perspective.
A: Yeah, I think so. I think that as an artist you have to evolve. As you mature, as you get older, you’ve got to create stuff that speaks to the people that grew up with you and you’ve gotta come from the heart. It’s about the truth of the art, and whatever that art is, you present it to the world. You don’t really think about it in terms of like, am I 57 or am I 59 or am I 62, you don’t think about it that way. It’s more about what kind of art do you want to create, and what are you inspired to make? What do you want to show or reveal to the world through your art? I think that’s one of the other reasons I stepped up with everything that I’m doing with hip-hop. You look at people like Carlos Santana, there’s never been limitations on his career, you look at people like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan, there’s no limitations. I feel like in hip-hop we have to give ourselves room to be that way as well, that’s my hope. As long as I’m creatively inspired to continue to do what I love to do, the goal is to give it to the fans.
Q: So it’s been 10 years since the last record, do you have anything gestating?
A: Oh yeah, I just finished a new album, it’s produced by Q-Tip. He did all of the music on it, and the goal is to drop it this year. It feels really good. It’s coming from the heart, it feels very inspired. It will be a lot of fun for me to present this to the fans. So many people have been waiting for so long for me to do some new music. They’re excited to hear how I’m going to approach it.
Q: How are you approaching it? What does the album sound like, what are you talking about? What’s the title?
A: The title is kind of the same as the tour, the F.O.R.C.E., Frequencies of Real Creative Energy. The name of the tour, that kind of teased out the album in a big way. But I think it’s really about people hearing it, you know what I’m saying? I feel really good about it, I do.
Q: You had been up for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a few times before you finally knocked that door down. How did it feel to finally get in?
A: It was super rewarding. It was like, there’s no limitation on what can be accomplished, and that just proved that if you put the work in and you believe in what you do and you stay focused, it’s going to happen for you. It felt phenomenal, baby — Rock & Roll Hall of Famer is a pretty good title.
Q: What piece of work of yours would you say that you’re the most proud of? Either a single, or an album, or a movie or a TV show?
A: It doesn’t work that way. I’m proud of all of it, because it takes a body of work to make you an artist. It takes it all. It takes the things that are commercially successful, it takes the things that are more challenging, it takes a combination of all those things to take it to that next level.
Q: The term G.O.A.T. is now part of our everyday lexicon, how do you feel when you hear it? It’s probably in Webster’s dictionary by now.
A: I don’t know, I never checked. (Laughs.) But it’s beautiful. To be able to make that contribution to the world? I’m just glad that people saw the vision, and it turned into an everyday word.
Q: What was the genesis of it? Was it something that you’d always kicked around, or did you come up with it when you were in the studio?
A: It was Earl “The Goat” Manigault, the streetball legend, and Muhammad Ali, the greatest of all time, and I took those two things and I put it together and I came up with The G.O.A.T., the greatest of all time. I just made it an acronym, and I guess it stuck, huh?
Q: What can you tell me about your relationship with Eminem?
A: That’s my man, you know what I’m saying? That’s my guy. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s a great artist, a very generous artist, there’s a lot of hard work in what he does. Genuinely he’s a great friend of mine, and he’s so creative. He’s a good dude. I love working with Em. We first met at a book launch, I came down and we met, and we rode around a little bit in the car and we talked a bit and we just vibed. I mean, I love Em, and we’ve got more work together coming in the future.
Q: Lastly, can we get Oreo on the phone, and have them do some sort of Cool J cookie for hip-hop’s 50th anniversary?
A: You get Oreo on the phone and you connect it and I’ll give you 10 percent, bro. Let me know.
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