A two-time Grammy winning recording artist—infatuated with rap and hip-hop since his formative years, growing up in Queens—LL Cool J last year took over hosting duties on Spike TV’s Lip Sync Battle, never anticipating that the series would become an Emmy-nominated pop culture phenomenon two seasons in. Every week, the series pits A-list couples, siblings and co-stars against one another in a tremendously entertaining musical throw down, in pursuit of glory and the Lip Sync Battle belt.
With five years as host of the Grammy Awards under his belt, and Chrissy Teigen at his side, LL Cool J is out to provide a platform for the music of iconic artists. After a Season 3 renewal in January, the rapper is in the thick of production on the 20 episodes to come. Taking a break from production, LL Cool J spoke to AwardsLine about on-set spontaneity, his experience with the Grammys and his tease for Season 3.
Taking your second career Emmy nomination as producer and host of Lip Sync Battle, and taking the Spike Network to new highs, what has your time on this series meant to you?
It’s kind of surreal in a lot of ways—just having a great team around me has been amazing. It feels good. First of all, I’m such a big fan of music, and I love music so much, so to be able to bring a show to pop culture that involves music—which is my first love—and to get to work with such a smart and talented team, it’s dope.
Were you aware of the concept of the “Lip Sync Battle” as it emerged as a popular segment on Jimmy Fallon’s late night shows? What was your initial response to the idea?
I was aware of it when I saw it on Jimmy Fallon—I thought it was a great idea. I thought it was amazing, and then when me and [executive producer] Casey Patterson talked about what the show could be—what it could look like—and she was telling me all of these amazing ideas, I felt a level of creativity that was involved that I thought would be amazing to be a part of. The rest kind of took on a life of its own.
Has your Grammy hosting experience helped?
Absolutely. If it wasn’t for my experience on the Grammys, and Les Moonves and the CBS family giving me that opportunity, they probably would’ve never thought about me. I don’t know if I would’ve even been prepared for something like this. Because remember, I had quite a few years; I’ve done maybe 10 or 11 Grammy events—not just the Grammys, but the Grammy nominations, and all of those shows I did even prior to the Grammys that really prepped me for this role on Lip Sync Battle. That was a huge part of the learning process, and just getting comfortable with being out there in that capacity. Then, partnering with [Spike TV President] Kevin Kay and Casey has just taken it to another level.
What does an average day on set of Lip Sync Battle look like for you?
We run through the script, we make sure we feel good about every moment in the show. No matter what writer is involved, I always make sure that it’s my voice, and that things are being said in a way that I feel comfortable with, or even sometimes just figuring out what needs to be said. Casey’s our leader, and we all sit in that room and put our heads together, and try to come up with the most entertaining, fun, funny bit.
And we don’t take it too seriously—I get there, the dancers are rehearsing, people are running around. The energy is crazy; it’s a lot of fun. There’s always something being filmed. The celebrities are coming in and out—a lot of times, they don’t have much time to rehearse, but we’re as supportive as we can be with them. During the day, you just go through a lot of different stuff. Sometimes we do promo shoots, sometimes we do show run-throughs—it depends on how many shows we have that day, and the degree of complexity that those shows entail.
Reportedly, the show is pretty unorthodox and exciting in the way it’s put together.
Absolutely. We always handle it on the fly; we approach the show with humility and fun. Nobody has gotten arrogant, or taken for granted what we’re doing on this show. Sometimes we have to flip the script, sometimes a celebrity may come in and say, “You know what, we want to do a different song; we need a different song,” and we keep the vibe really, really good.
One fascinating element in the conception of the project is the notion that the guests get to pick any songs they want to perform, leaving the producers scrambling to acquire the music rights in time for taping.
The reality is, it’s not always easy, but the one thing that is true about Lip Sync Battle is that it’s a great place for people to hear music. It’s a great place for people to discover. Lots of people are fans of different genres, and we cross and touch many different genres. Plus, for a lot of artists, this is a place where their music is rediscovered, where their music is introduced to a new audience. So it’s actually more of an opportunity for a lot of great artists, no matter what level they’re on. I think it can be helpful, as long as it’s presented in a cool way that the artist is comfortable with. Me being a musician, I’m very respectful of the artists and how they want their music played. So far, it’s been great.
Over the course of these two seasons, with the parade of A-list talent coming through the studio, what have been some of your favorite contests?
I gotta tell you man—whether it was Anne Hathaway, Emily [Blunt], Channing [Tatum]—even Jimmy Fallon and The Rock, I thought were great. There’s been so many great ones. Mike Tyson—love Mike Tyson. [Laughs] Terry Crews. Loved Kevin Hart and Olivia Munn. There’s been a lot of great ones.
A charming aspect of the show, akin to James Corden’s work in his Carpool Karaoke segments, is the sense of organic, real moments transpiring with the talent. Is there a lot of ad libbing on set?
Oh, so much! So much of it—the majority of it. I mean, the show is structured reality, but I’m always improvising, just in the moment. Like when Shaquille O’Neal goes over there and the water hits him, and his wig flies off— you can’t write for that. [Laughs] You don’t know what’s going to happen. So there’s so many unexpected things that happen that you just go for it.
Not only is it organic and last minute, but a lot of surprises happen. I’ll give you an example—when Queen Latifah performed during rehearsals, the whole production fooled me and had her rehearse a Run-D.M.C. song, and then when she went on stage, she performed one of my songs. This is not contrived—it’s structured, but it’s free flowing. The thing could go in any direction.
What can you tease about Season 3, which is currently in production?
I’ll tell you that there are some absolutely funny moments this year, without a doubt. Vibe-wise, you can just look forward to more laughs, more music, more superstars being super serious about being super silly. [Laughs] That’s it. We just want to have a great time with great people, and do great television.
And where are you in the process right now with your own music?
I’m definitely thinking about doing something. We’ll see what happens. The last thing I did was this freestyle with Dr. Dre, which was a lot of fun. We’ll see what I do in the future, but I’m definitely interested in making more music. That’s my first love, and I’m never going to forget my roots.