Money Mike and I received some good feedback on our first Sound Dialogue which was focused on the comeback of the New Kids On The Block. This time, we’ll focus on the career and legacy of LL Cool J.

LL Cool J recently released his 13th album (he includes his greatest hits album) titled Exit 13, which is the last album on his current contract with Def Jam. We started with the new album.

GG: Before we get into LL’s career, I wanted to get into his latest album, Exit 13. First off, what did you think? I know you haven’t listened to it more than a few times, but give me your initial thoughts. And second, where does it rank in his catalog?

MM: I’m still digesting the album. I think it’s okay in spots. There are about 3 or 4 songs that I really like, but overall it’s on the bad side of average. He hasn’t made a consistently listenable album since “10”, and that was six years ago.

GG: Why do you think that is? Obviously, he’s a legend in the game. Is it hard for him to find what it was that made him so great back in the day now that he’s famous and successful? And not only in music, but other forms of entertainment. Why else can’t he stay relevant?

MM: Plain and simple, he’s Hollywood. No matter how many times LL goes back to Hollis, Queens, he’s not the same kid who made “Rock the Bells” or “I’m Bad”. He’s a financially stable 40 year old man, and he’d probably do a lot better being himself than trying to act like he’s the same guy who made “Mama Said Knock You Out”. He’s trying too hard to keep up with the Joneses instead of just creating good music.

GG: If LL came to you and said, “Money Mike, I need some help. Help me find the sound that I need to find and help me conceptualize my 14th album.” What would you say to dude?

MM: Listen to Mama Said Knock You Out again, because that was the pinnacle of his career. Back then, he was hungry and worried about falling off and losing his career both for his ego and for his livelihood. Now he’s stable. He knows that if his album flops, he can go do a movie or a TV show or write another book. The loss of his street cred would be a blow to his ego, but it wouldn’t end his career.

What he really needs to do is write about his life and stop trying to be current. Write about being a husband and father. Write socially conscious songs. Stop writing about jewels and being in the club, not only because the topics are tired, but because that’s not the life he lives. He has to be true to himself and stop worrying about having hits.

Photo by Saquan Stimpson/monstershaq200 0

GG: As an artist can you ever stop worrying about having hits though? Isn’t that the name of the game?

Depends on what you’re looking for-fame or artistic expression. I think there are a lot of artists who do it for the love and manage to balance it with creative concerns. And the bottom line is that LL has had enough hits. His legacy is secure. You can perfect your craft and still have hits. But LL seems to have it a little twisted. He makes records like “Dear Hip Hop”, where he’s asking for an end to the characteristics that mark commercial hip hop, but then he spends much of the hour before that song making the same kind of records that he’s talking mess about.

GG: I’m actually glad you brought that up, because I thought the same thing about “Dear Hip Hop”. Let’s take it back to the new record. You mentioned enjoying 3 or 4 tracks. What were they, and why did you like them?

MM: Aside from “Dear Hip Hop”, I liked “Mr. President”, because LL discusses the current political climate in very mature and thoughtful fashion. “American Girls” is silly, but it’s also witty and fun in a way that you don’t hear much from LL. “It’s Time for War” is good, because he sounds legitimately hungry on this record. Also the “Speedin’ on Da Highway/Exit 13” song is cool until Funkmaster Flex starts screaming at the end.

GG: I also thought “We Rollin'” was the best Tupac song that Tupac never recorded.

You mentioned that on “American Girls”, LL was witty. I think that’s been missing from his game. One of the reasons I loved him so much early on was because of his sharp wit that matched his cool. While there have been glimpses of it here and there, he’s kind of gone away from it. Does it go back to him simply being out of touch?

MM: I think it’s more him trying to fit in with what hip hop is currently about as opposed to being out of or in touch. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, it was cool for a rapper to be a little bit quirky or funny. Now, no one except Ludacris and Kanye West has a sense of humor. Again, it goes back to following trends. LL started out by making his own lane, but for the past 15 years or so, he’s really just been dabbling in whatever the flavor of the moment is.

GG: I actually read an interview today and the person asked him if he was simply following trends and he disagreed and said he set trends, and then named off things he did in the 80s. Is he simply following trends now?

MM: Absolutely. LL hasn’t released a trend-setting album since Mama Said Knock You Out. 14 Shots to the Dome was the last LL album that could be considered even remotely ambitious. I assume that because he uses live strings and horns on this album then that constitutes “trend-setting” or “artistic”, but hasn’t Kanye been performing with a string section for five years now? I mean, I suppose it could have been worse. LL could have called up Timbaland and done Justin Timberlake and Li’l Wayne collabos on this album, but even still, there’s nothing on this record that could even remotely be considered groundbreaking.

GG: Let’s take it back a bit. LL was really the first hip hop artist that I latched onto. And I didn’t even really get it until Mama Said Knock You Out, which was a bit late. But then I went back and snatched up the entire catalog immediately.

What made me latch onto him was just a raw hunger of wanting to be so good at what he was doing.

When did you find LL and what was it about him that made you a fan?

MM: I knew of LL because “Rock the Bells” got radio play and he was in “Krush Groove”. The song that made me a fan, though, was probably “I’m Bad”. Hunger’s a very good word to describe early LL. He was definitely brash and cocky, but there was a rawness to his music that I loved. Even when he performed on TV, it was about ripping the stage down, it wasn’t about flexing for the ladies or showing off the ice.

GG: When he came back hard with Mama Said Knock You Out his popularity was probably at an all time high. At that point in his career, where did he stand amongst the greats? Hip hop still wasn’t all that old and certain guys you’d put on that list today weren’t even making records yet.

MM: In terms of lyrical skill, I actually think LL’s slightly underrated. Even his crappy records contain good rapping. On this album, I was surprised by how tight his flow was, but disappointed because he wasn’t really saying anything. In terms of pure ability, LL’s easily Top 10 when it comes to Greatest Emcees, but the quality of his records drops him down the list.

When Mama Said Knock You Out was hot, LL was totally in his own lane. He was the only rapper selling that kind of volume who still had hood appeal. The big commercial artists of the time were Hammer, Vanilla Ice and The Fresh Prince, but they were corny. Public Enemy and Ice Cube were selling records, but they had no crossover appeal. LL had both, and he was really the first to do it.

GG: That was going to be my next question. If he was one of the top guys doing it back then, does having such an up and down catalog since then drop him off the list of Greatest Emcees and how far down? If you were to make that list today, where do you place him?

MM: That’s hard to say. I mean, there’s no rapper with a perfect catalog. I don’t know that he’s top ten anymore, but by the same token, I don’t think his skill set is any worse than that of a Jay-Z. I mean, there are times when Jay sounds downright lazy. L might be lazy from a creative standpoint, but his rhyming is almost always technically precise.

GG: Speaking of Jay-Z, LL had been very outspoken about Jay-Z running Def Jam. His beef seemed to be that when you have an active artist running a label, there’s going to be questions about how hard he pushes his own album, and maybe at the expense of other artists on the label. He’s since backed off a bit on that and said that Todd Smith probably wasn’t his best work (ya think?), and that he just needs to focus on himself.

What did you think of that whole deal?

MM: I think it was the typical artist complaint, and was probably unjustified. I thought the album was fairly well promoted, it just didn’t connect with listeners because it stunk. Who is he going to blame when this album flops? Because Jay isn’t around anymore.

GG: I’m going to give you the title of every single one of his albums (except the greatest hits one) and I want you to give me the first words that come to mind.


MM: Hard, rough, minimalist.

GG: Bigger And Deffer

MM: Definitely full of ego. If Muhammad Ali was a rapper, he would have made this album.

GG: Walking With A Panther

MM: Way too long, but not as bad as everyone likes to say it is.

GG: Mama Said Knock You Out

MM: Closest thing he has to a classic album. Everything on it is gold except that one posse cut.

GG: 14 Shots To The Dome

MM: Another underrated album. LL still sounds hungry.

GG: Mr. Smith

MM: Complete and total sellout. Nothing here beyond the singles.

GG: Phenomenon

MM: Another sellout, but with autobiographical lyrics, a re-energized LL and better production.

GG: G. O. A. T.

MM: LL trying too hard to be hard. This is the point where he should have left the streets behind.

GG: 10

MM: This was his last album that was even decent. Some good stuff here if you skip around.

GG: The DEFinition

MM: What a mess. “Hush” was the only good song on here.

GG: Todd Smith

MM: Too many guest artists, and LL’s trying to be too many things to too many people.

GG: We’re just about ready to wrap up here. The thing I’ll always remember most when I think about him is something that happened in my Freshman year in High School. We’re getting ready for basketball season and we have to be in the gym and lifting. The head coach was this 6’5” hulking dude. He pulls out his boom box and the first cut I hear is “The Boomin’ System”. Weight lifting to me, from that day on, was all about using music to get you higher and higher. To know that because the varsity head coach was into LL, all of a sudden it became a must that I had to be into LL because it was the essence of cool.

In 10 years, when you hear a great LL cut, what is going to be the first thing that comes to your mind?

MM: Probably “damn, this dude had it all and pissed it away”. Nah, I’ll probably remember the time I met LL. I was working at Tower Records and standing near the front desk when LL walked in. I remember clearly that it was raining, he had on a black leather jacket, and he looked smaller than I imagined him being. He asked someone if he could use our phone (this was 1995, before cell phones) and the receptionist screamed out “LL, I wanna have your baby!!”. The look on his face was priceless. I don’t even think he answered her.

GG: Where do you think he goes from here? His contract is up with Def Jam. Do you think he retires? Does he find another label? Does he re-up with Def Jam?

MM: I think he heads over to another label, especially if the album’s not successful. Because he’ll blame it on the record label and not the fact that the album is average.

Later that night, Money Mike told me that LL was only tracking to sell about 50,000 units in week one. If that’s the case, someone is getting major blame.