The veteran rapper busts genres, mulls his prime-time celebrity and considers the furor behind his controversial Brad Paisley duet
By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music
LL Cool J
Since 2009, LL Cool J has come into people's homes on a weekly basis as Special Agent Sam Hanna on the hit prime- time drama "NCIS: Los Angeles," but music remains the rapper's first love. On the genre-busting "Authentic," his first album of new material in five years, he partnered with artists from across the musical spectrum, ranging from Brad Paisley to Eddie Van Halen, Snoop Dogg, Seal, Tom Morello, Blink-182's Travis Barker, and Fitz & the Tantrums. "I wanted to touch on some things that people wouldn't expect," he says of the album.
He's looking forward to touring while "NCIS: Los Angeles" is on hiatus. "Performing is just pure fun," he says. "You get the energy, you got the people right in front of you and I just love doing it."
As for whether the two-time Grammy Awards host has grander hosting ambitions, he laughs when asked if he'd like to host the Oscars, but he doesn't dismiss it. "Wow! I would obviously entertain it, but I'm just enjoying these hosting gigs one show at a time."
MSN Music: You credit hosting the Grammys for the past two years with exposing you to new music. How did that influence "Authentic" when it came to disregarding musical boundaries?
LL Cool J: What I really got turned on to more than any individual artist was just the idea that there shouldn't be any limits or boundaries on what you do as a musician. It kind of just put me back in that mindset that I was in when I first started, which was no limits. Obviously I've grown as a person and seen and been exposed to more, so my limits are different now in terms of my taste, my range, but just seeing all these great artists -- Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen -- it just made me feel like ... why don't I push the limit, push the barriers ... and just do something from the soul and from the heart that really feels authentic and true to me. And that's what I did. It's very, very satisfying.
None of the experimentation here feels like it was just a gimmick to be able to say this specific person is on your record.
Oh, that is so true, so true. You know, if it was about a gimmick, then it would have probably been better to just get any current hot artist who's out now and do it that way. If you're going to gimmick it, you might as well rig it in your favor that way. I always liked Seal (starts singing "Crazy"). Van Halen, I just remember growing up and loving hip-hop, but having guys like Rick Rubin and kids I would see on their way to high school wearing Van Halen T-shirts and just being exposed to [their] music through a back door kind of way. ... Fitz & the Tantrums I saw perform at a charity event, and I thought they would be really, really cool to make a song with. I just wanted to really spread my wings.
You have so many legends on here, from Bootsy Collins to Charlie Wilson and Earth, Wind & Fire. Anyone give you butterflies in the studio?
You know, watching [bassist] Verdine [White] sitting there while the Earth, Wind & Fire horns were doing their part, that was crazy! ... Oh, when he was playing the bass, it was unbelievable [laughs]. I mean, this guy's bass, he's played it so much he's worn the paint off of one spot where his hand rests.
"Authentic" is your first album in your entire career that's not on Def Jam Records. Are you walking the halls of 429 Records trying to find where the soda machine is?
[Laughs] It's different because this time it's really about the art. There were no contractual obligations to make this record. It was purely about doing something that you feel in your heart is great and just putting it out there and letting it flow. ... It's is a little scary. It's different being on a smaller boutique label and not on a major label. I can definitely feel the difference, but the flip side of that, the beauty of that is I got to do exactly what I wanted to do creatively and I got to put a piece of work out there that I think will last over time.
On "We Came to Party" you rap, "Next challenge, get this generation screaming my name." Is that your goal?
You know, honestly, it's a challenge, but I can honestly say it's not my goal. The reality is I'm making music for my audience that grew up with me. ... When you get to the point where you're almost 30 years into your career, it's like you have to make a decision about what you're going to do, and for me, I have to keep moving forward. I can't go backwards. What's important is just to make great music. Whoever responds to it, I welcome them, but I'm not aggressively pursuing a younger crowd; I'm just not doing that.
Given that this is your first full album since "NCIS: Los Angeles" began airing, there will be people hearing your music for the first time who probably only know you as an actor. How odd is that for you?
There probably will be. And you know what? I guess it will be fine. You know, it's interesting because I've grown. My truth has changed as an artist in a good way, and I think if there are people who watch "NCIS: Los Angeles" who don't know about my music, this is probably a great record for them to get introduced to me on, because I think I'm at the place creatively where they'll be able to relate to what I'm saying and what I'm doing and where I'm at as a human being. Quincy Jones put it best to me: He told me, "Your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being."
What do you think Sam Hanna's favorite song on the album would be?
[Laughs] My character? Interesting! Sam Hanna? He'd probably like [rock/rap anthem] "We're the Greatest."
I felt like I needed a cold shower after listening to sexually charged "Something About You." Do you let your kids listen to that song?
First of all, I only have one that's 12 years old. My 17-year-old's going to college next year, so it's not like I have a 6-year old. "Something About You" is mature, but it's subtle. It's not like I'm beating you over the head with a blunt instrument. It's not profanity. Yeah ... We're having a conversation on that record.
You perform on a love song here with Brad Paisley. But your duet on his album, "Accidental Racist," really caused a stir. What about the blowback surprised you?
[Pauses] You know, I guess, on certain levels, it is surprising because some people can connect the dots and some people can't, but I mean, if you look at a movie like "42," I think it's pretty clear what I was saying in the song. I think the movie "42" gives you a lot more time to analyze the subject. ... There were a lot of good Southern guys in that movie and the same white guys found out that this black guy [Jackie Robinson] wasn't the worse guy that they ever met. ... I'm not going to allow anybody to tell me that I have to hate someone because of where they come from and because of certain symbols that are important to them culturally. Without getting into a deep discussion about it, I think that you have to deal with people on a case-by-case basis.
This is your 14th album. What is your release-day ritual?
I just pray and hope for the best and just give it to the world. I just want the people to enjoy it. ... I hope it moves their spirits and they can create memories and babies and lives and happy moments around this record.
Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.