While LL Cool J might not be knocking out hits like he did early in his career, the veteran emcee has orchestrated one of the biggest hip-hop shows of the summer concert season with the Kings of the Mic Tour, also featuring Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul.
Stopping at Shoreline Amphitheatre on May 25, it’s a tour far removed from the lean and molly scene found in popular rap music today, but just as relevant for the role each act had in shaping the genre and their diversity of styles. LL Cool J was its first sex symbol, Ice Cube and his partners in N.W.A introduced gangster rap to the world, Public Enemy brought revolutionary rhymes and political assassinations to the mix and De La Soul added depth with their brand of NYC bohemian hip-hop.
While some might know LL Cool J more recently for headlines from his cringe-inducing collaboration with Brad Paisley, “Accidental Racist,” acting roles or the beat down he served on an intruder at his L.A. home that blew up on TMZ, his role in bringing hip-hop into living rooms across the United States and the world can’t be understated.
LL Cool J emerged from Queens, New York, in 1985 and quickly became a national star after the release of Radio on Def Jam, part of a trifecta with label mates Run DMC and the Beastie Boys that grabbed headlines with one of rap’s first riot-inducing national tours in 1986.
What set Cool J apart early in his career, and even now, was equal appeal among men and women. His early hits “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” “Going Back to Cali” and “Mama Said Knock You Out” had enough swagger to keep the guys interested while tracks like “I Need Love,” “Round the Way Girl” and “Doin It”—and his suave persona—had the ladies loving Cool J and screaming for more.
After 28 years and nine certified gold or platinum singles, LL Cool J is still doing it—and doing it fairly well—with Authentic, his first album in five years and his 13th release to break the Top 10 on Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts.
“It’s like one of those things when you are born to do something you feel it calling you,” LL Cool J said during a phone interview about his return to music after five years of mostly working in TV with his role on NCIS: Los Angeles. “I thought if I don’t do it, I might 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.”
While that passion is still there for his own music, LL Cool J doesn’t feel as strongly about the current state of the genre that he has championed for almost 30 years.
“The current state of hip-hop, a lot of it, with all due respect, sounds like everybody is trying to make the same song,” he says. “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.”
With Authentic, he rejected advice to connect with younger rappers who could help introduce him to new audiences. Instead, we find two appearances from ’80s guitar hero Eddie Van Halen with another guitar performance from Tom Morello, features from rappers Snoop Dogg and Chuck D and cameos from ’70s throwbacks Earth, Wind & Fire and Bootsy Collins.
“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,” he says. “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.
“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.”
As a result, there are no big radio singles from Authentic (in fact, no airplay that we’re aware of in the Bay Area), but that seems fine for Cool J. He says he made the album for the fans that have been with him from the beginning.
“Everybody else obviously is invited,” he says. “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.”
And for the new fans?
“The challenge is to get people into what I’m doing by introducing them to something new, but be myself while I’m doing that and stick to my truth.”
LL Cool J
Shoreline, Mountain View
May 25 7pm
$38.50 & up