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Old Skool Cool 

CoolRap legend still knocks 'em out

James Todd Smith -- the estimable LL Cool J -- has been rapping since somewhere around 1980. He's 34 now (or 33, depending on whom you believe). He doesn't lack for Grammys or street credibility. He doesn't lack for hats, either (he owns some 2,000). He leaves ladies swooning in his wake (his moniker stands for Ladies Love Cool James), including most of the women in this office. ("LL Cool J? Really? He's sooo hot.") He doesn't lack for confidence, either. His last album, a nod to his zodiac sign, Capricorn, was called G.O.A.T.Wonder about those periods? There's a dual meaning, of course. The title also laid down a claim: Greatest Of All Time. Typical hip-hop braggadocio, right? Perhaps. Hell, probably. But as LL notes, it was just close enough to the truth to set people wondering.

"I think -- in hindsight -- calling my album that was a mistake," says LL by phone. "And I'm gonna tell you why. I think it was a mistake because I think that I didn't realize how seriously people take hip-hop nowadays. I didn't realize the impact that [such a statement] would have on people and their minds, their souls, their bodies, and in the state of rap music in the world. When Run-DMC called their album King of Rock, it was OK. First of all, they weren't even a rock group. But, you know, we [in the community] took it like "Yo, this is a hot title. They're confident. They're doin' what they got to do. It's hot. King of Rock.' We let them go with that -- that was fine.

"Now, if you call your album King of Rock, it's all about "Oh, you're sayin' you're the king,'" he continues. "It's such a different ballgame in that respect. I expected people to take it like they took King of Rock, but instead of that, they took it like it was deep down heart and soul narcissism, you know what I'm sayin'? The thing is, they don't take it the same from everybody. I guess -- and I'm saying this with humility -- but I guess it was just so topical. You know? The fact that it might be true or close to the truth? [I think that] nobody wanted to really hear that."

Could it be? Let's consider: Born in St. Albans, Queens, LL (J?) started rapping at the age of nine, after his grandfather bought him his first DJ equipment. By 13, he was producing his first demos. Thanks to the hot-as-NYC-asphalt 12" singles "I Need A Beat" and "I Just Can't Live Without My Radio," LL soon found his music featured in the movie Krush Groove, in which he also performed. The playas involved, including The Fat Boys, Whodini, Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC, soon took off on a 50-city US tour. Hip Hop, then a burgeoning genre, was taking off, and kids in the suburbs were discovering the music. According to LL, they always were.

"It's hard to see those kinds of things when you're at the eye of the storm," he says. "Now, the tour you just described, right? We were doing Madison Square Garden two or three times a week. Two or three times at one venue, right? It was already big. Run-DMC would tell everybody in the audience to put their Adidas in the air, and the whole crowd had their Adidas on. That's what I'm sayin', see? I never saw those color lines in hip-hop, you know? The Beastie Boys' Ad Rock gave one of my tapes to Rick Rubin, who gave me my break. My first album had a white producer. My first album was produced by a Jewish white kid in college. (laughs.) I mean, people got to get realistic about this. It's just that as the music progressed, people just deemed it so urban. I don't know, it's weird to me. Everybody just looks at it as so urban that they can't believe suburban kids will like it, when, in reality, that's all it ever was to me."

How about influence? LL was among the first to wear fancy jewelry, spit lyrics in a gruff style, incorporate metal riffs, act in movies, do songs acoustically, and write what some call "rap ballads." For that last one alone, Ja Rule ought to tithe him 10 percent of his salary. LL?

"That's cool, but that just shows you how important timing is, I think. You know what I'm sayin'? People always ask me that question, and you know what? I only want the respect that comes to me naturally. I don't want to force anybody to have to feel like they are obligated to respect me, because they're not. I can give respect, and hopefully I receive it. That's the way I look at it. It doesn't matter to me if people shout me out in every record, because you know, that's up to you. It's up to me -- as an artist -- to stay exciting, and to keep making the hot records, and keep making the hot music and doing the hot movies and stuff. That's gonna keep them respecting me and keep them enjoying what I do. If anything, I hope people ask me if I respect them. You know what I'm sayin'?"

In his early 30s, LL is already an elder statesman in a musical genre that has never seen any of its practitioners still rockin' the mic at the age of 45 or 50. At this juncture in his life, LL can't see himself stopping. He has a new album coming out soon, 10 (it's his tenth, in case you were wondering), and promises it will be "a force to be reckoned with." LL doesn't like the past tense, and promises that he will not go gently into that last "goodnight!"

"No," says LL, ever-excited as usual. "Just think about Mick Jagger. Look at Mick Jagger, look at Steven Tyler. Look at the genre of music they're in. Look at the records they've made. That'll tell you where hip-hop will eventually go."

I mention to LL that many of the fans of such artists -- Aerosmith being the obvious choice -- are fans of hip-hop anyway.

"That's right. I mean, if you're a fan of hip-hop at 25, you're not going to stop being a fan of hip-hop at 45. You may not be a fan of current hip-hop, but you will be a fan of the hip hop you've always been a fan of."

Like classic rock then? Could classic rap be far off?

"Exactly," says LL. "Grateful Dead, baby."

LL Cool J will perform as part of the Uncle Sam Jam on Wednesday, July 3, at Dixie's Tavern. Gates open at 3pm. For details, call 522-6500 or 525-1717.

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