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LL Cool J Star

LL Cool J, co-star of the "Mind Hunters" Movie!

He was a rap pioneer in the 1980's, and has since expldoded into a superstar, by appearing in movies and commercials, and releasing several albums. Hip-hop is notorious for short-lived careers, but LL Cool J is the inevitable exception that proves the rule. Releasing his first hit, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," in 1985 when he was just 17 years old, LL initially was a hard-hitting, street-wise b-boy with spare beats and ballistic rhymes. He quickly developed an alternate style, a romantic -- and occasionally sappy -- lover's rap epitomized by his mainstream breakthrough single, "I Need Love." LL's first two albums, Radio and Bigger and Deffer, made him a star, but he strived for pop stardom a little too much on 1989's Walking With a Panther. By 1990, his audience had declined somewhat, since his ballads and party raps were the opposite of the chaotic, edgy political hip-hop of Public Enemy or the gangsta rap of N.W.A., but he shot back to the top of the charts with Mama Said Knock You Out, which established him as one of hip-hop's genuine superstars. By the mid-'90s, he had starred in his own television sitcom, In the House, appeared in several films, and had racked up two of his biggest singles with "Hey Lover" and "Doin' It." In short, he had proven that rappers could have long-term careers.

Of course, that didn't seem likely when he came storming out of Queens, NY, when he was 16 years old. LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith; his stage name is an acronym for "Ladies Love Cool James") had already been rapping since the age of nine. Two years later, his grandfather -- he had been living with his grandparents since his parents divorced when he was four -- gave him a DJ system and he began making tapes at home. Eventually, he sent these demo tapes to record companies, attracting the interest of Def Jam, a fledgling label run by New York University students Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. Def Jam signed LL and released his debut, "I Need a Beat," as their first single in 1984. The record sold over 100,000 copies, establishing both the label and the rapper.

LL dropped out of high school and recorded his debut album, Radio. Released in 1985, Radio was a major hit and it earned considerable praise for how it shaped raps into recognizable pop-song structures. On the strength of "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and "Rock the Bells," the album went platinum in 1986. The following year, his second album, Bigger and Deffer, shot to number three due to the ballad "I Need Love," which became one of the first pop-rap crossover hits.

LL's knack for making hip-hop as accessible as pop was one of his greatest talents, yet it was also a weakness, since it opened him up to accusations of him being a sellout. Taken from the Less Than Zero soundtrack, 1988's "Goin' Back to Cali" walked the line with ease, but 1989's Walking With a Panther was not greeted warmly by most hip-hop fans. Although it was a Top Ten hit and spawned the gold single "I'm That Type of Guy," the album was perceived as a pop sell-out effort, and on a supporting concert at the Apollo, he was booed. LL didn't take the criticism lying down -- he struck back with 1990's Mama Said Knock You Out, the hardest record he ever made. LL supported the album with a legendary, live acoustic performance on MTV Unplugged, and on the strength of the Top Ten R&B singles "The Boomin' System" and "Around the Way Girl" (number nine, pop) as well as the hit title track, Mama Said Knock You Out became his biggest-selling album, establishing him as a pop star in addition to a rap superstar. He soon landed roles in the films The Hard Way (1991) and Toys (1992), and he also performed at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration in 1993. Mama Said Knock You Out kept him so busy that he didn't deliver the follow-up, 14 Shots to the Dome, until the spring of 1993. Boasting a harder, gangsta-rap edge, 14 Shots initially sold well, debuting in the Top Ten, but it was an unfocused effort that generated no significant hit singles. Consequently, it stalled at gold status and hurt his reputation considerably.

Following the failure of 14 Shots to the Dome, LL began starring in the NBC sitcom In the House. He returned to recording in 1995, releasing Mr. Smith toward the end of the year. Unexpectedly, Mr. Smith became a huge hit, going double platinum and launching two of his biggest hits with the Boyz II Men duet "Hey Lover" and "Doin' It." At the end of 1996, he released the greatest-hits album, All World, while Phenomenon appeared one year later. G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time, released in 2000, reached the top of the album charts, and 2002's 10 featured one of his biggest hits in years, "Luv U Better." With the help of producer Timbaland he unleashed the tough DEFinition album in 2004 as his James Todd Smith clothing line was hitting the malls. LL Cool J was born as James Todd Smith on January 14, 1968, in Long Island, New York.

LL Cool J Talks About "Deliver Us From Eva"

In "Deliver Us From Eva," James Todd Smith (LL Cool J) tackles the role of Ray, a ladies' man who is hired by a trio of frustrated men who want their girlfriends' demanding and omnipresent sister, Eva (Gabrielle Union), out of their personal business. Smooth, handsome, and with a reputation as a player, Ray's handling of the job is surprisingly sensitive, turning what started as a quick way to earn $5,000 into something much deeper than anyone ever anticipated.

Needing someone with charisma who could match Gabrielle Union's onscreen presence, director Gary Hardwick turned to an actor he'd teamed with before - LL Cool J. The two had worked on the TV show, "In the House," and Hardwick remembered LL Cool J as a solid actor with the potential to play the romantic leading man. Hardwick recalls, "[I've] watched him grow by leaps and bounds as an actor. He's been an action man for so long that I wasn't sure he would want to take on the role of Ray. But he did, and he plays the part with depth and resonance, he's fantastic. I'm very happy to get him and Gabrielle together on-screen. It has been real magic between these two."

LL COOL J ('Ray')

Are you changing your name from LL Cool J?
It's not a name change. I put James Todd Smith, aka LL Cool J, just so people who are familiar with my music persona, it'll help them understand how serious I am about acting. I'm not going to lose the name. It's not necessary. I've done well with it this far. It's just that I want people to know how serious I am.

For those who don't know LL Cool J as an actor, I don't ever want them hearing that name. Bottom line, I don't want to alienate anyone. I don't want a 45-year-old white guy or 50-year-old white guy who's not familiar with my music to hear the name LL Cool J and not want to see a film that's great because he thinks the name is associated with something that he can't understand or can't relate to, based on the fact that the name is LL Cool J, which is something that he associates with something else. Now, whether or not he will enjoy the movie, I don't want the name to stop him.

I think it opens it up and gives other people an opportunity to enjoy what I'm doing as an artist and it doesn't limit what I'm doing. At the same time, I'm not giving up my history and what I've done in my music because I love it and I'm very proud of it. I just want to open it up for more people.

How will you be listed in the credits for your next film?
I'm still trying to figure it out because it's an ongoing battle. Quite frankly, LL Cool J is going to get people to come into the theater. However many people it is, they come because of that. James Todd Smith isn't. There's still a balance and we have to figure it out, but I'm trying to at least do what I can to open it up for more people.

How did it feel being the romantic lead?
It was fun. It was my first time doing it in a film. It's my first leading role, actually. It feels great. I'm happy with it. I read the script, thought it was great, and thought the role was cool. [I] thought the role was great actually and wanted to do it immediately. [I] called Gary [Hardwick, the director] up and said, "Hey, I want to do this project." He was into it and we did it.

Was this a stretch?
I guess so, yeah. Growing up being a rap star, growing up being a person in the public eye and interacting with a lot of women on tours and stuff like that, is not the same as a guy who's in his town, playing the games that Ray plays. Interacting with women, I'm not unfamiliar with that. But the way he does it and who I am are two different people. I've never been one to have to manipulate women. I always want it to be like a mutual thing, like everybody loves everybody. We're in this together. I don't need to manipulate and figure it out, so he's a different guy for me.

There are aspects of his personality that are close to mine. He may be a little bit more subtle than I am. I might not have gone through the elaborate set-up in the ballroom in order to deal with that guy the way he did. I might've just told the guy to get out of my girl's face and that would've been the end of it. But, Ray is a little bit more - not cerebral - but a little more subtle and a little more intellectually inclined. I don't know what the word is or how to say it, but he's just a different guy. I think he's a little bit more polished than I am.

Was it a challenge to become Ray?
He's a real subtle guy but he's different from me. It's challenging. It's not easy. Most people who are familiar with film and understand acting know that romantic comedies aren't the easiest films to pull off because there are certain beats. There's drama and comedy but the comedy is in the truth, so there's a lot to deal with in order to make it believable. But it still has that surreal, fairy-tale quality because it's a romantic comedy and we all know the ending so the journey has to be kind of different and interesting. It's not an easy thing to do. But playing the character and playing the role was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to allow people to see me in a different light for those who are familiar with my work as an actor. And for those who aren't, I think it's a nice introduction. It's a nice way to say, "Hey, there's a new actor and he's on the scene and he's into what he does and check him out."

Have you ever had an 'Eva' in your life?
No, and I'll tell you why. I've been so focused on my dreams that I don't know if I would be able to put that much energy into someone to get to know them, quite honestly. My dreams are so important to me and achieving my goals are so important to me that after one or two tirades, I would be basically finished with the whole thing. But Ray is a guy who could use $5,000. He's driving a meat truck and for him, he was willing to put that energy in.

Why do so many rap artists cross over into acting?
I guess it's just a natural thing. Let's look at the history of rap music. Since hip-hop started, films have always been a big part of it. I made my first movie in 1985. This is 2003. There were a lot of other rappers in that movie. It's always been a part of hip-hop culture, whether it was "Beat Street," "Krush Groove," "Tougher Than Leather," or "Wild Style." These movies were always were coming out. The Fat Boys had all of those movies. They were always a part of hip-hop culture because I guess Hollywood always understood that there was a market out there that appreciated seeing these artists in films. Now what has happened is it's no longer just rappers in rap movies. They've just crossed over into more mainstream pictures. Those questions about who should, who could, who would - that's 10 years from now. You'll find out. People that are still doing films, you'll know.

What are you working on now?
I'm doing "S.W.A.T." with Sam Jackson and Colin Farrell. It's fun. We have about a month left. We've been shooting for three or four months now. We're shooting in L.A., all over L.A., downtown, all different parts of L.A.

Did you do much research for that role?
Oh, yeah, I studied with the S.W.A.T. guys, and went to S.W.A.T. school. [I] did special weapons and tactics training, tactical entry, weapons training, the range, the whole bit.

What was the most important thing you learned?
You don't wanna mess with S.W.A.T. You don't want them to call S.W.A.T. 'S.W.A.T.' is exactly that. They come to swat the flies, so surrender.

Do you still learn from your co-stars?
Working with Sam Jackson, he's a very giving actor. Al Pacino was very giving. Those guys, it's a lot of fun to work with them. You learn a lot. It's kind of like being in the NBA, being a rookie or being in your second season, and just getting to play with some of the great guys who play the game and them just showing you all the little nuances of the game. You really become a professional for real.

Did you always know you'd act?
I've always wanted to act. My inspiration, the person who always made me want to make movies, was Bruce Lee. I mean, he didn't play a lot of different characters but he was so charismatic, so charming, so physically gifted and so entertaining that the guy was just amazing. I used to watch him as a little kid and think, "I'd like to be like that guy." He was a role model, just because of his existence. I'd be 11 or 12 years-old and we'd have the old-style video cameras. I'd have the "Game of Death" Bruce Lee suit on, I'd be jumping off the rock and my friend would be filming it. We'd edit it and play it backwards and I'd be doing all these kung fu moves. My grandmother would be like, "You're crazy. Get in here. What are you doing? Get off my couch." I was the experimental kid, creating blueprints to the house and sneaking around the house while my grandmother had company over, appearing and disappearing. It was crazy, so I always wanted to do this kind of stuff.


 

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