By Richelle Treves, Managing Editor, Special contributor to the ProQuest blog
The 40th anniversary of the Kennedy Center Honors will take place this December and history will be made when LL Cool J, the first hip hop artist to win this prestigious award, is honored for a lifetime of contributions to American culture. At the age of 49, LL Cool J is the second youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor. A prolific contributor to American culture since 1985 when he released his first 12-inch single “I Need a Beat,”1 he has won two Grammys and is the first rap musician to release 10 consecutive platinum-selling albums.2
LL Cool J is a true renaissance man who has left his mark in music, television, film, writing, philanthropy and entrepreneurship.
An acronym for “Ladies Love Cool James,” LL Cool J was born James Todd Smith in the Bronx, 1968. He grew up in Queens, New York near the South Bronx hip-hop epicenter. In this era, four cultural elements converged to create what we know as hip hop: graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and rapping.3 DJing, the mixing of rhythmic tracks, was once done with two turn tables, and rapping developed out of emceeing events like birthday parties where the “MC” might create a rhyme or other creative verbal expression.
Inspired by this environment, LL Cool J wrote his first rap songs at age 9 when his grandfather gave him a DJ system. He officially busted onto the scene in 1985 at age 17 with his iconic album I Can’t Live Without My Radio (featuring a single by the same name), produced by Def Jam Records.
His rhymes instantly resonated within the hip-hop community and more widely with the MTV crowd of the 1980s. Both of his first two albums Radio and Bigger and Deffer made him a star. His third hit, “I Need Love” is one of hip hop’s first love ballads and made him one of the first artists to cross over from hip hop to pop music.
One of the qualities that made Cool J unique in the hip-hop world was his ability to create both hard-hitting lyrics and tender love songs. Hip hop is notorious for short-lived careers, but LL Cool J proved to be the exception to the genre.4 He won his first Grammy in 1991 for best rap solo for the single “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
His relationship with Def Jam records resulted in a cameo for a film called Krush Groove which tells the story of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s rise as the first hip-hop executive/powerbrokers, and may be the best fictional film about hip hop.5 Due to the popularity of his cameo, and his decision to advance his acting career LL Cool J began using his birth name, James Todd Smith, to avoid any preconceived notions about him based on his earlier career.
Featured in several hit films, from Any Given Sunday to Charlie’s Angels, LL Cool J had his first starring role in the 2003 romantic comedy Deliver Us from Eva. His appearances in television include roles on In the House, which was on the air for five seasons in the 1990s, 30 Rock, NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles. He also hosted the Grammy Awards for three consecutive years starting in 2012.
Throughout his career, LL Cool J has created an image with a positive outlook. He has been credited with improving literacy among kids in his school music and arts programs. Cool J sponsors a five-week summer program called the Jump & Ball Tournament in the South Bronx for kids to get outside and be physically and mentally challenged with activities such as basketball, double-dutch competitions, spelling bees and music. He also volunteers his time as a member of the Red Cross Celebrity Cabinet to bring awareness to the life-saving mission of the American Red Cross.
These accomplishments have turned LL Cool J into a household name. “A person who is part of the hip hop culture would, say, ‘Oh LL’s hustling; he’s expanding; he’s moving on even more and that’s good.”6 With his ground-breaking talents, dedication and philanthropic commitment, LL Cool J truly exemplifies what it takes to be an honoree of the Kennedy Center Award.
Photo credit: Baraka, Rhonda. "LL COOL J." Billboard, vol. 118, no. 10, 2006, pp. 31-32, Arts Premium Collection; Business Premium Collection; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central Essentials; ProQuest Central K-12; Research Library Prep.
1 Warren, Marc. "LL Cool J Takes Acting Seriously." Afro - American, Feb, 2003, Ethnic NewsWatch.
2 McGlone, Peggy. "A Cool Honoree, and Others." The Washington Post, Aug 04, 2017, Global Newsstream; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central Essentials; ProQuest Central K-12; Research Library Prep.
3 RAFER GUZMAN, STAFF W. "30 Years of Hip-Hop, HIP-HOP 101, Hip-Hop's Building Blocks, although some may Equate Hip-Hop with Rapping, it's just One of the Elements that make Up the Culture Series: 30 Years of Hip-Hop." Newsday, Oct 10, 2004, pp. C08, Global Newsstream; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central Essentials; ProQuest Central K-12.
4 Smith, James Todd, III, 1968-, by Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide edited by Vladimir Bogdanov (San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 2001), 1 page(s)
5 Greg Simms Jr Dayton Daily News. "WHEN HOLLYWOOD DISCOVERED RAP." Dayton Daily News, Oct 10, 2003, pp. 5, Global Newsstream; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central Essentials; ProQuest Central K-12.
6 Matsumoto, Jon. "O. C. LIVE; LL Cool J's Defense; with the Rapper 'in the House,' His Street Rep is on the Line." Los Angeles Times (pre-1997 Fulltext), Mar 21, 1996, pp. 2, Global Newsstream; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central Essentials; ProQuest Central K-12; Research Library Prep.
Johnson, Erick. "RAPPER LL COOL J NAMED 2014 HARVARD UNIVERSITY ARTIST OF THE YEAR." Miami Times, Mar, 2014, pp. 1, Ethnic NewsWatch.
Holsey, Steve. "The Rapper-to-Actor Phenomenon (and most of them are Good)." Michigan Chronicle, Jun, 2016, pp. 2, Ethnic NewsWatch; Global Newsstream; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central Essentials; ProQuest Central K-12.
Light, Alan. "Heavyweight." Rolling Stone, no. 614, Oct 03, 1991, pp. 44, Alt-PressWatch; Arts Premium Collection; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central Essentials; ProQuest Central K-12; Research Library Prep.
Krewen, Nick. "Hip-Hop Phenomenon Positive Attitude Helps Rap Pioneer LL Cool J Keep Control of His Soul." The Record, Jul 09, 1998, pp. D3, Global Newsstream; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central K-12.
"NARAS Names Heroes Awards Recipients." Billboard, vol. 108, no. 45, 1996, pp. 6-6, 89, Arts Premium Collection; Business Premium Collection; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central Essentials; ProQuest Central K-12; Research Library Prep.
Reynolds, Simon. Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip Hop, Soft Skull Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central.