New Again: L.L. Cool J

By
Photography Drew Carolan

Published December 3, 2013

For the second year in a row, the public has the opportunity to vote alongside respected historians, artists, and music industry insiders to decide who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Voting is open until December 10th via the Hall of Fame website. The list of greats includes first time nominees such as Nirvana, The Zombies, and Hall & Oates, and returning nominees such as NWA, KISS, The Replacements, and New York native James Todd Smith, a.k.a. L.L. Cool J.

The Grammy award-winning Cool J is nominated for his contribution to hip-hop and to the music industry as a whole. Although he’s settled down a little and is now splitting his time between the screen and the studio, we’ll always think of L.L. as the charming, witty, hot-headed, and outspoken rapper we met back in 1987. Only 18 years old and about to release his second studio album, Bigger and Deffer, Mr. Cool J was interviewed by hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy for our December 1987 issue. The “Mama Said Knock You Out” star told Fab 5 Freddy, “Just give me respect.” —Jacob Bagwell

L.L. Cool JBy Fab 5 Freddy

Without the benefit of a video, L.L. Cool J sold over one million copies of his first album, Radio. His second, Bigger and Deffer, has already sold two and a half million copies and peaked at Number Six on Billboard’s pop album chart, where it was nestled in the Top 10 for over two months. Tall, handsome, and direct, L.L. Cool J is billed as the Crown Prince of Rap.

L.L. headlined the sold-out 70-city Def-Jam tour, which also featured Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, Stetasonic, Whodidi, and Doug E. Fresh. New York artist Fred Braithwaite, a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy, finally got together with L.L. in Troy, New York, immediately following the very last show of the tour. The interview was conducted on the tour bus while tour manager Tony Rome helped security guards convince a crowd of 50 hysterical teenage girls to move so the bus could carry the entourage back to the relative safety of New York City.

FAB 5 FREDDY: While we’re talking, I want us to use a lot of slang and shit because I don’t want this to be like a typical interview.

L.L. COOL J: I’ll just speak how I speak.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Would you consider yourself the most articulate B-Boy?

L.L. COOL J: You mean as far as making shit?

FAB 5 FREDDY: As far as the vocabulary that you use.

L.L. COOL J:  No, not really. I just consider myself one of the brothers who does what he gotta do. You know what I’m saying?

FAB 5 FREDDY: I read somewhere that Langston Hughes is an influence on you. Is he somebody you look up to?

L.L. COOL J: Not really. He was just a poet that I heard about in school. I know about him and I employed him in my music, in my work. That’s about it. ‘Cause he’s a great poet and I associate myself with the great poets. Great writers like that guy Edgar Allan Poe and shit like that. Know what I’m saying?

FAB 5 FREDDY: Speaking of great poets, in terms of the B-Boy style, do you feel like you’re doing poetry, or do you consider it just rhyming?

L.L. COOL J: When I write I consider it a rhyme. In the studio I consider it laying down vocals. Onstage, I’m entertaining; I don’t even think about it. Know what I’m saying?

FAB 5 FREDDY: You still live with your grandmother?

L.L. COOL J: Yeah, in St. Albans [Queens].

FAB 5 FREDDY: How do you feel about that? At this point in your career, how are you able to deal with living in the neighborhood?

L.L. COOL J: I just chill. I don’t stand outside too much. I do what I gotta do and chill, man, know what I’m saying? That’s all. It’s cool.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Do you remember that night up at the Latin Quarter, the benefit for Jackie Wilson, when you came up there with a posse and there was a whole big group of performers? You walked out onto the dance floor and got into the a shouting match with some knucklehead there. It started to get real hectic. You left, and after that I think it broke into a really wild situation. There are lots of stories in different areas of the city… millions of stories about people taking your gold.

L.L. COOL J: I know what you’re talking about.What it is, man, is people invent shit. Know what I’m saying? They invent situations to impress people, you know? Fuck that. Nobody takes my fucking gold. I can get robbed, but I’m not hanging with that bullshit. I never got robbed. My record “The Breakthrough” speaks on all that: “When you’re an old man and people ask you what you did with your life/all you’ll say is I hated L.L. and I carried a big knife!” Know what I’m saying? “Instead of walking like you’re limping, talking yang about me/why don’t you take your monkey ass and get a college degree?” That’s all that’s about. It’s simple, but quite clever.

FAB 5 FREDDY: “I Need Love” is a very soft song, in terms of the lyrics….

L.L. COOL J: It’s not soft. It’s the truth.

FAB 5 FREDDY: I mean in terms of it being a ballad. It’s mellow.

L.L. COOL J: Love ain’t soft, man. It’s just a part of life. Love is only soft when you’re fucking.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Was that a calculated thing, to put a ballad on the album? Is it something you want to pursue, like, dealing with that type of material?

L.L. COOL J: I did a couple of love ballads on my first album—”I Want You” and “I Can Give You More.” They didn’t have as much music, so people didn’t really consider them ballads. I like ballads. It’s a part of me. My name is L.L., which stands for “Ladies’ Love.”

FAB 5 FREDDY: Do the lyrics usually come first? Like in the case of “I Need Love”?

L.L. COOL J: The music came first. I went home, listened to the track, and it took five minutes to write the lyrics.

FAB 5 FREDDY: When you’re writing your lyrics, aside from being the B-Boy character or even an amplified B-Boy character, which I know you must create in your mind, what other roles do you fantasize for yourself?

L.L. COOL J: Interesting question. I look at it like this: All great writers are schizophrenics, you know what I’m saying? ‘Cause they switch up. They become the person when they write. Like when I wrote “Candy,” I was actually feeling sweet. I was thinking about candy, I was looking for candy. When I wrote “I Need Love” I needed it. I didn’t need it the next day, but I needed it when I wrote it. When I wrote “I’m Bad” I was bad. So I’m many different characters. When I wrote “My Rhyme Ain’t Done” I was tripping out in fantasy land and I went into television, The Honeymooners, and looked at Alice’s behind.

FAB 5 FREDDY: At the level you’re at now and in terms of stature in the recording industry, do you feel that at any time you would want to go out and battle in the old school sense?

L.L. COOL J: No. Fuck that. Wanna battle me? Sell more records than I do. That’s how you battle me, because I’m not going to pick up a fucking mike and yell at you. I’ve got fans to entertain.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Did you ever deal with this fact as a performer as you were getting bigger in the recording industry? A lot of people were biting and dissing your style.

L.L. COOL J: To be honest, this is just the beginning. I’ve never been the battle guy that people perceive me as. I don’t even want to battle. I take it to the people, man. I say what I got to say. You know what I’m saying? I’m like the guy that has the gun and shoots you when you try to rob him, you know? I don’t really pull out the inches and try to shoot the brothers.

FAB 5 FREDDY: You mean that as a metaphor.

L.L. COOL J: Yeah. I don’t want to battle. Battle’s out.

FAB 5 FREDDY: You spoke about “I’m Bad” a moment ago. Were you aware when you wrote it that Michael Jackson was coming with his song “Bad”?

L.L. COOL J: I don’t fucking know about Michael Jackson and that “Bad” shit. “Billie Jean” was cool. I don’t care about Michael Jackson as far as his making records. He’s living in California in a big mansion; I’m living in St. Albans, in a middle-class crib. Worlds apart.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Have you met Michael yet?

L.L. COOL J: No.

FAB 5 FREDDY: When you do your live show you do a part where you tell the audience, “When I say ‘Do you like Michael Jackson?’ say, ‘We Love Cool J.'”

L.L. COOL J: I do that not to diss Michael Jackson, because I have nothing against him; I do that to show the fact that you don’t have to be a Hollywood motherfucker to impress the people and have people love you.

FAB 5 FREDDY: When you say Hollywood, you mean Jheri curls and that whole image?

L.L. COOL J: Michael Jackson, even though he might be a real person, symbolizes some fake shit. You know what I’m saying? He changes his face, changes his skin. I’m showing all the people that “Yo, you can be real and make it. You don’t have to get that nose job. Make our music, sing our songs and people will still love you.” Know what I’m saying? Don’t sell out.

FAB 5 FREDDY: I hear that. At the Garden you was wearing some clothes by Dapper Dan.

L.L. COOL J: Yeah. An MCM suit.

FAB 5 FREDDY: What does MCM stand for?

L.L. COOL J: Making cash money.

FAB 5 FREDDY: On the hip-hop side, how do you feel about the trend B-Boys are taking in the status symbols of the super rich, like Gucci and Louis Vuitton?

L.L. COOL J: What it is, man, we’re showing and proving that anything is B-Boy—that we can bring anything up to this level. Know what I’m saying? Notice I didn’t say bring down, I said bring up to this level. The Dapper Dan situation and all that is the best thing.

FAB 5 FREDDY: You first started see Gucci t-shirts a couple of years ago, right? Then everybody started wearing them. Now it’s like you can go and get your own customized, flamboyantly designed Gucci slacks, jackets, jeans or sneakers.

L.L. COOL J: Yeah, because Dapper goes and buys that material and make it hisself and he gets busy with it. He’s making designs for the B-Boys, not for the French guy with the slick black hair sitting back in the Jag.

FAB 5 FREDDY: So you would consider Dapper Dan clothes a B-Boy status symbol?

L.L. COOL J: Definitely. The 125th killer.

FAB 5 FREDDY: As a prototypical B-Boy, tell me some of the things that are fly right now.

L.L. COOL J: Diamonds, gold, an incredible car, a nice sound system in the car.

FAB 5 FREDDY: You got to be more specific about gold because I understand nugget….

L.L. COOL J: Nugget is fly. Diamonds are flyer. On watches and bracelets. Big dog ropes that cost five thousand.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Some people call them dukie ropes.

L.L. COOL J: Chains, dukie chains, duty ropes, cables. All that shit is fly. I know what time it is.

FAB 5 FREDDY: You just said “I know what time it is.” Do you often think about how some of these words and phrases come about? When you’re writing your lyrics do you consciously try to come up with new words or phrases?

L.L. COOL J: I just write whatever I feel, man. I could take the old and make it new, like “I’m Bad.” That’s an old phrase, it’s new now. See what I’m saying? It’s like, “Yo man, I’ll just go with the flow.” I’m just like that. I say what comes along. Know what I’m saying? I made up my own slang. It’s called, “Put your weight on it.” Know what I’m saying? If you’ve got a def girl: put your weight on it. Shit like that.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Do you feel that it’s better to be feared than to be loved?

L.L. COOL J: Nope. I feel it’s better to be loved and respected. If people fear you, you can get killed. If you’re feared, nobody likes you. If you’re feared nobody treats you the right way. You never get the right answers. You ask somebody if this is good, they’ll tell you it’s good even if it’s bad. Nobody wants to be feared. You want to be respected.

FAB 5 FREDDY: For those that don’t know L.L., you’re standing up there, “I’m bigger and deffer.” Boxing gloves on. Real hard-core image. Do you think that some people interpret that as fear coupled with a kind of respect.

L.L. COOL J: On the front cover of Bigger and Deffer I’m just chillin’, standing on a car, a little jewelry, a little leather, saying “Cool it.” Yo man, just showing the both sides. This picture ain’t intimidating. Boxing gloves are showing I’m cool, but I’m not soft. I’m just letting people know how I’m living. See it  for yourself. Look on the cover—that’s how I’m living. Know what I’m saying? Simple, man. Just letting them know I ain’t taking no shots. Don’t be scared of me. Respect me. You heard I need love, but you also see the gloves. So you don’t know how to play me.

FAB 5 FREDDY: How would you like to be played?

L.L. COOL J: Yo, play me with a handshake. Say “What’s up, L.L.? Good Luck.” That’s all. That’s all I want. I don’t want you to kiss my feet. That ain’t necessary. Just give me respect.

FAB 5 FREDDY: How would you define hip-hop?

L.L. COOL J: Fuck hip-hop. I don’t define that shit. I define this, man; it’s music. Let’s not call it hip-hop no more, Fred. We ain’t writing graffiti on the walls, we’re trying to get paid. We’re trying to do things. It is hip-hop still, but you know what I mean, man. Hip-hop is us, the performers.

FAB 5 FREDDY: How do you feel about taking components of early James Brown , funk from the ’70s, and combining it with a new drum track?

L.L. COOL J: You mean what is it all about? It’s just making the old new. That’s it, man. Making the old new. Funk. It’s the true roots, man. Real black, know what I’m saying? It’s real black. Simple, man. Every now and then we throw a little rock in there to make it mean. It’s coming from the heart. And James Brown is in everybody’s heart. You know when you hear a good funk record and you make a hard face like “Damn! Shit!”? You making that face? That’s hip-hop. You don’t hear that when you hear a normal song. You just go, “Yeah, that’s nice.” When you hear real def rap you go, “Yeah!” Know what I’m saying? That’s all.

FAB 5 FREDDY: What has the L.A. posse contributed to your style on Bigger and Deffer, and what do you think about the West Coast style as compared to the New York style?

L.L. COOL J: Those boys are smart. Ain’t no West Coast. Ain’t no East Coast. It’s just good people, people who know what good music is. Know what I’m saying? A guy down South can come up here and play the hell out of a bass guitar—the guitar ain’t got no accent.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Aside from all the good things and benefits that come with the stardom that you’ve achieved, what are some of the bad things you feel you’ve experienced, especially being on tour?

L.L. COOL J: Not being able to put your sweat pants on in the summer, some sneakers and a baseball hat backwards, take 90 cents and jump on the bus—

FAB 5 FREDDY: It’s a dollar now.

L.L. COOL J: See what I’m saying? Take your dollar, jump on the bus, go to the record shop and just hang out, buy a quart and chill. That’s the difference, man. I can’t get out there no more. I want to walk around, but I can’t. I have to chill… How do you feel about people using “fresh” all the time, off your record “Change the Beat”?

FAB 5 FREDDY: I feel really good about it, being that I’ve only made a couple of records and I made that one about four years ago. People keep using it on their records and I feel really good about that. It made me think a lot about hip-hop and what hip-hop is. Like taking something and putting it on their records. I’m totally mystified by it.

L.L. COOL J: You realize that if you hadn’t gotten up that morning and gone to the studio that day, nobody would have had “fresh.” It’s really incredible to realize that if you wasn’t born, there wouldn’t have been “fresh.” Something would have been missing out of hip-hop. It’s incredible, man. Think about it.

FAB 5 FREDDY: I feel really good about it. People ask me, “Hey man, don’t you wish you were getting paid for that?” I don’t. Every time somebody uses it, it’s like rejuvenating me. Know what I’m saying?… Are you planning on buying any more gold chains?

L.L. COOL J: [loud laughter] I don’t know, man. Know what I’m saying? Maybe, maybe not. Not right now.

FAB 5 FREDDY: When you put your gold chains on, do you think about the images of African warriors wearing gold?

L.L. COOL J: I ain’t like Mr. T, man. I love it, but there is no culture in it. My most sentimental piece is this little cross my grandmother gave me. It’s funny, these big ropes. Maybe it is like something in our blood, our subconscious, in our heritage, that we wear these big chains and like them so much. ‘Cause the Africans wore these big chains round their necks. We wear them in gold. Maybe there’s something to it that we don’t realize. White people have money but they don’t buy these big chains. We do. Maybe there’s something to it.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Do you sometimes fantasize about five-finger rings that cover your whole hand? Shit that’s bigger than anybody else has?

L.L. COOL J: Definitely, man. Everybody does. Fuck that. I’m going all the way out. I like the big diamond dumb shit. You know what I’m saying? I’m just like every other brother. I love the big dumb dukie shit, with the big nasty ropes and all that. I just like that shit, man. It gets me off.

FAB 5 FREDDY: I know you’ve been interviewed a lot. Is there any specific thing that you would like to get off your chest?

L.L. COOL J: All I want to say to people, man, is, “Yo, you see me walking down the street and I got a little bop in my walk, don’t think because I’ve got a bop in my walk I’m trying to be all that. The bop in my walk is because I’m just like you, man. I bop when I walk.” Know what I’m saying? I’m proud. If you see me smiling, standing straight up, gold around my neck, it’s not because I’m conceited. It’s because I’m proud of what I achieved. I made this. I worked hard for this. That’s all this is about.

FAB 5 FREDDY: When you’re in New York, and you’re L.L. Cool J and you happen to be going uptown somewhere and you’re standing on the corner trying to hail a cab and one doesn’t stop, what kind of feelings do you have?

L.L. COOL J: That used to go through my head. I’ve got a fucking car now. Fuck ‘em. That used to be fucked up. All they’re doing is judging a book by its cover. I don’t even think it’s the skin color. I think it’s the style of the dress. If I put on a suit and cut my hair and had it slicked back like Sammy Davis Jr., they might stop. That’s their problem. Then again, a lot of the brothers be jumping out of the cabs talking about “Fuck that.” They’re messing it up for the next black man.

FAB 5 FREDDY: You mean brothers that ditch the cab and don’t pay?

L.L. COOL J: Yeah, man.

FAB 5 FREDDY: What do you think about opera? I know it looks rather boring.

L.L. COOL J: It might be all right. What’s that guy’s name? Pavarotti? He’s all right. I’ve seen him on the news a couple of times. I don’t get into opera too much. Maybe I need to take in an opera one time.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Like rap, a lot of opera is words that are sung and spoken. It’s all about the words.

L.L. COOL J: Isn’t there a piece of paper with the words translated on it?

FAB 5 FREDDY: Sometimes they have a projection above the stage, where they project the words, or the libretto.

L.L. COOL J: I’ll be down to see an opera.

FAB 5 FREDDY: I was asking the question in terms of pushing the form, like expanding what you’re doing. How do you feel about the future of rap? What would you like to do to make it better?

L.L. COOL J: First of all, I say as long as the individual stays creative and continues to come up with fresh new and exciting ideas, rap will be here. That’s established. Simple. As far as what I want to do, I want to get busy, man. I want to rock 60,000 people. I want to rock the Superdome.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Speaking of 60,000 people, weren’t you supposed to open for Madonna at the Meadowlands?

L.L. COOL J: I don’t know. I want to rock, but don’t want to open for Madonna. I want to headline! And rock for 60,000—60,000 people putting a fuckin’ L in the air and lighting lighters. That’s a dream.

FAB 5 FREDDY: How do you feel when you’re on stage looking out at the crowd?

L.L. COOL J: I feel… I hold my dick. Know what I’m saying? Why do rappers always hold their dicks? Look at all the people out there who came to see them. You’re happy. Feels good, man.

FAB 5 FREDDY: When you were just starting to rap, when you were sending your demo tapes out to a lot of record companies, what was the ultimate fantasy in your mind of what you could see happening at that stage?

L.L. COOL J: Hearing my record on the radio, seeing it in my hand. No money, no fame, no girls, no car, no jewelry. Record in hand, record on the radio.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Obviously you know a lot of young ladies are into you. How do you feel about the skeezer [groupie] situation coast to coast?

L.L. COOL J: I’m not skeezin’ this year. Last year I wasn’t illin’ either. I got a girl now. Look at what happened to Rock Hudson and Liberace. They say they go in threes.

FAB 5 FREDDY: I heard that. Are you definitely a bag man now?

L.L. COOL J: A bag man? I’m not fucking with you, period.

FAB 5 FREDDY: No wet suits?

L.L. COOL J: No scuba gear. I definitely don’t go diving.

FAB 5 FREDDY: No hard dry rubbers?

L.L. COOL J: No used rubbers. No nothing, man. I’m not fucking with it!

FAB 5 FREDDY: Now in Europe what are you expecting?

L.L. COOL J: Do my best and keep busy.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Okay, L.L., I think we got enough.

L.L. COOL J: Peace, man.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Peace.

THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE DECEMBER 1987 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.