After a five-year break between albums, LL Cool J is back with his latest release, Authentic, and a tour featuring some of the biggest names in early hip hop, Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul, at Shoreline Amphitheatre on May 25.
We spoke with him in a phone interview about the tour, his 13th studio album and the current state of hip hop.
Why is now the time for a new LL Cool J album?
It’s like one of those things, when you are born to do something you feel it calling you. I thought if I don’t do it, I may never get around to doing it. There was no reason to do a record other than to just do a record for the love and passion that I have for music and hip-hop.
You took a five-year break, your longest between two records. What did you do during that time?
I was done with the contract that I was under, the music business took a huge turn, record sales changed and I kind of just wanted to try something different for a minute.
I went out and pursued acting vigorously and whole-hardheartedly, which is something I’ve been doing all along since ’85. I ended up catching lightning in a bottle with this TV show [NCIS] and it took a lot of my time. It was something new for me as an artist that was challenging, but then I just started hearing that voice in the back of my mind, “It’s time. Better do an album now.”
But what I’m not going to do is follow the rules that are laid out by people that say you have to have every current rapper on the album and you have to pretend to still be a teenager. I said I’m going to do what I have to do as an artist and explore all different genres and do music that I think kind of pushes the envelope.
Who are you trying to reach?
My fans. People that grew up with LL, period. Everybody else is obviously invited; if you make music, the more people that hear it the better. I want the whole world to love it, but the album really is for people who grew up on my music who will understand the vibes and the movements happening on this record.
One line jumps out: “The next challenge, get this generation screaming my name.” It sounds like your trying to bring some new fans into the mix.
That is a challenge, but the reason it’s a challenge is because I want to do it on my own terms and be myself. Tactically, I guess it would be a lot easier to go get a guest appearance from whatever current rap artist is out and use his producer and just do a verse on it and be done. But then I haven’t made an LL record, I’ve made a song with crutches. It’s a tactical move but not really an artistic move that matters.
You’ve been around almost since the beginning. What do you think about the current state of rap and hip-hop?
I don’t really listen to it, to be honest with you. Some of it’s ok and there’s a lot of talented people out there that make some good music, but I like all types of great music. For me it’s just about the quality of music.
The current state of hip hop, a lot of it, with all do respect, sounds like everybody is trying to make the same song. Don’t get me wrong, I know they are very successful, but a lot of it sounds like the same thing over and over and the same people making the same songs together.
I like hip-hop when with every artist, you know distinctly who they are and what they represent, not when everybody is trying to be the same. I like when there’s a broader range on the spectrum.
That’s what the Kings of the Mic tour is about. If we were on a spectrum—Ice Cube, Public Enemy, De La Soul and myself—we would all be on different points of the spectrum. We would be all over the place, which makes it interesting.
How did that lineup come together?
I chose it. I just knew that these are great acts that kill it on stage and the fans that grew up to my music also grew up to Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul. I think it will be a fun night where people can go out and see a real cool hip hop show with all kinds of vibes and messages.
What message do you want the younger generation to get from your new album?
It’s simple: Open your mind and open your heart. Allow yourself to grow and be bigger than just one thing. Don’t be one-dimensional; you have to be multi-faceted in life and you can’t just operate in the same box. Sometimes you have to get outside of the box in order to go to another level, and that’s what I did. I broke conventions, broke rules and did it my way. I feel good about that.
No, I feel good. I think my career is in a great place (laughs).
There are not many rappers who started in ’85 that are still headlining amphitheaters.
Since 85, I think I’ve done ok. I’m very grateful. Obviously, if I could go back in history and make every single thing I did perfect I would, but we all know that’s not possible. Barring continuous and perpetual perfection, I feel great.
What three tracks would you put on the essential LL Cool J playlist for a new listener?
I think my music is too diverse. I don’t think you can summarize 30 years in three songs; it’s just too much music (laughs).
What are we going to hear at Kings of the Mic tour?
The show is crazy and it’s going to be bananas. I’m doing music from every album. People are going to hear all the classics, some stuff they’ve never heard and new versions of songs. The show is nuts.