“You might say I’ve outlasted a few of them,” LL Cool J says with a touch of triumph, referring to his staying power in rap, where careers can often be measured in months.
The rapper, whose real name is James Todd Smith, was just a smart-alecky 17-year-old from Queens when his first album, “Radio,” made him an immediate star in 1985. That album, and the three he has released since, have all gone platinum, including 1990’s 2-million-selling “Mama Said Knock You Out.” He hopes to continue the streak with “14 Shots to the Dome,” which came out last week.
One of the remarkable things about Cool J is that he has been able to maintain his stardom without resorting to the violent images of gangsta-rap or the sociopolitical militancy of such artists as Public Enemy.
Cool J’s profile has been so high that he’s been able to branch out into movies. Small parts in 1985’s “Krush Groove” and 1991’s “The Hard Way” paved the way to a solid supporting role in last year’s “Toys.”
Outspoken and confident as usual, Cool J, now 24, sat in his room at Hotel Niko in Beverly Hills and spoke about rap, respect and beating the competition. Question: What’s the secret of your rap longevity?
Answer: The secret is following my instincts. I really don’t listen to other rappers and try to figure out what’s going to sell when I’m ready to do an album. If I had listened to everybody else, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now because I’d be long gone out of this business.
I rap about the kind of everyday things that concern me. I’m just giving my point of view on various things. I try to make it as interesting and entertaining as I can, so it will stick in people’s minds and make them want to hear it again.
Q: It seems the only real setback you had was the image problem when your third album, “Walking With a Panther,” came out in 1989. There was that picture of you surrounded by women and the champagne, looking like an arrogant playboy.
A: That album was a weak point for me. That image portrayed a fantasy . . . but people took it more seriously than I intended. Some people resented it and some people were offended by it. It seemed like I was getting too big for my britches, enjoying things a little too much. There was some truth to that. The image on that album was a lapse in judgment. The memory of that keeps me honest these days.
Q: Is it tough to be a pop rapper when heavy sex and violence are dominating rap?
A: You don’t have to swear in every sentence or talk about killing people or go overboard with the sex to interest the kids. They like melody and good beats and humor too. I’m not soft, but I’m not radical and harsh either. There’s room for a whole lot of styles in rap.
Q: Do you like gangsta rap?
A: It’s not where I’m coming from. I respect some of the rappers who do it--the ones who are really sincere. It’s an honest expression of anger. It’s coming from their heart.
Q: Why did you get into rap?
A: A lot of people get into rap to express their anger, but I’m in it for the art of it--and it is an art, despite what some people think. There’s beauty in the delivery when it’s done right. There’s a beautiful ebb and flow to the words.
Q: Considering all the millions of rap records that have been sold, do you think the music gets the respect it deserves in the industry?
A: Things are better than in the old days, but I still don’t think it gets nearly enough credit for being a vital part of the industry--probably because it’s a black art form. Some people still see it as a fad.
Q: Do you think all the controversy surrounding rap keeps it from being taken more seriously?
A: Controversy brings negative attention and that can be harmful, but that’s just in the short run. Controversies will come and go, but rap will survive, like any true art form.
Q: How do you see the music’s future?
A: You’re asking the wrong person. I’m no predictor. The future of pop rap? Don’t know. The future of gangsta rap? I’m not into it enough to know anything about it--or even care. Answering this question implies that I care about the careers of other rappers. But I don’t really give a damn about their careers. I concentrate on mine. That’s enough.
Q: What about your film career? Some people feel it’s more important to you than your music career.
A: That’s just talk. My focus is music. That’s the way it’s always been. At the moment I’m not working on any film and don’t have any other roles set.
Q: How do you rate yourself as an actor?
A: First of all, I don’t even consider myself an actor. I’m a rapper who does some acting. I’m still learning. I took some lessons before “Toys” because I didn’t want to look ridiculous working with guys like Robin Williams.
Q: “Toys” didn’t do that well at the box office and was murdered by the critics. Is that a factor in how you look at your film career now?
A: I don’t think so. There are still parts out there for me. I just can’t deal in parts that are based on negative stereotypes. I have to be able to keep my integrity as a black man. I wouldn’t play a part where my character was running down the street with a TV. If I do a role it has to be something I can feel good about.
A RESPECTABLE FOLLOW-UP
LL Cool J’s “14 Shots to the Dome” ranks among his best. A review.