I will admit that up until LL Cool J took the main stage at PromoWest Fest, I had never seen a hip hop set. Not because I don’t like rap, but because I’m into rock music and I rarely cross over into other genres. I will admit to watching Yo, MTv Raps back in the 80s but it seemed to be orchestrated to fit the suburban teens it appeared to be aimed at. And this is where I first heard LL Cool J and I’m Going Back to Cali. Yes, it was upbeat and a bit humorous bordering on sarcastic, two of the things I like in my music, but it wasn’t enough to convince me that hip hop was worth looking into. I. Was. Wrong.
LL Cool J, born James Todd Smith in 1968, grew up in Queens, New York. He started rapping at the age of 9 and his grandfather encouraged him by buying him his own equipment. He started making his own mix tapes and demos and eventually sent some of his recordings to Def Jam Recordings. Rick Rubin liked what he heard and it wasn’t long before he signed with Def Jam as LL Cool J (Ladies Love Cool J). His first performance was at Manhattan Center High School in 1984. His first single, 1984’s I Need a Beat, sold 100,000 copies and put both LL Cool J and Def Jam on the map. His first studio album, Radio, was released in 1985 and eventually reached both Gold and Platinum record status in the United States. I Need a Beat and Radio propelled him into the mainstream, and he hasn’t looked back since. LL Cool J has released 13 studio albums in all, the last being Authentic in 2013.
Aside from hip hop, LL Cool J has also been a successful actor, starting with a role as a rapper in Krush Groove and continuing on with parts in Wildcat, Toys, and Any Given Sunday, to name a few. Television success came with his own sit-com – 1995’s In The House. He continued to star and guest stare in several movies and TV shows. Currently he plays Sam Hanna, a recurring character on NCIS Los Angeles. He has hosted the Grammy Awards since 2012 and currently hosts Lip Sync Battle. He landed a well-deserved star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in January of this year.
With a career this diverse, you would think that his music career has fallen by the wayside but it hasn’t. The LL Cool J who walked out on the stage at Columbus on that hot and steamy day was as polished and professional as you could want, and he had the crowd in his hand from the start. With DJ Z Trip starting the show off, he performed songs that spanned his career. He worked the stage from one side to the other and didn’t stop until his time was up. The crowd was on the young side but very much into his act – many of those immediately behind the photographer’s pit knew every word to every song and sang along loudly. He won me over with the first song and he’s one of the few acts that I wish I could stay in the pit for the whole set instead of just three songs. Later that night I checked the internet to see if he has any more tour dates.
LL Cool J has earned his place in not just rap history, but music history as well. He helped to bring rap into the mainstream where it belongs and where it will hopefully stay. Although his diversified career seems to leave little room for touring – his only other show this year is the Austin City Limits Festival in Austin, Texas – I highly recommend that you keep an eye out for tour dates. Don’t be stubborn like I was. Mama said knock you out, and he did.
For more information – http://llcoolj.com/
Austin City Limits Festival Tickets – http://www.aclfestival.com/tickets/
I’m Going back to Cali – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdizL4on-Rc
Mama Said Knock You Out – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vimZj8HW0Kg
All photographs copyright – Tara Pitts