The lyrics “Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years” from 1990’s hard hitting Mama Said Knock You Out album are rolled out almost every time LL COOL J gets in the cultural ring. A cliché perhaps, but with the recent TKO of his Black Live Matter freestyle, the hip-hop legend and NCIS: LA star has once again proven that there truly isn’t any school like the old-school.
Taking to social media with his new song in the days after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops, LL COOL J was very much of the moment in capturing the moment for many especially as protests grew on the streets of the Minnesota metropolis and all across America and the world.
On hiatus from his Chris O’Donnell co-staring CBS procedural due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors recipient was also in the process of launching the extension of his Rock the Bells brand when everything went down. One of hip-hop’s early superstars since the release of his Radio album in 1985, the Rock the Bells founder and CEO seeks to take the spirit of the SiriusXM station he oversees to shine a renewed spotlight of artists he came up with like Rakim and Eric B, Big Daddy Kane and Roxanne Shante.
In that vein, I spoke with LL COOL J about Juneteenth, the Memorial Day death of Floyd, Black Lives Matter and this time in America. With the desire of many to see not just serious police reform but change in their representation too, the man who has played Special Agent Sam Hanna on NCIS: LA for 11 seasons so far also discussed what he thinks needs to happen to fix the police on and off the small screen.
DEADLINE: In a time when the country is hopefully beginning to seriously confront issues of systemic racism and rampant violence against Black men and women, and other people of color, in our society, today sees many Americans seeking inspiration and celebration on Juneteenth. A lot of states have today as a holiday, but there is a growing move to make Juneteenth a national holiday, what’s your take on that?
LL COOL J: I absolutely think it should be a national holiday. I think that it’s a date that came two and a half years after the quote, unquote Emancipation and it is a very important day for Black America. It’s a day that we want to celebrate, and revere, I actually think the entire country should hold it in high regard. Juneteenth and what it represents is part of America’s national history and it needs to be respected and celebrated, for sure.
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DEADLINE: Now, to that, you dropped that burning BLM a cappella on Instagram on May 31, just days after George Floyd was killed and as streets across America were filled with people demanding justice and an end to racism and police brutality. It is clear what inspired you, but how did it come together?
LL COOL J: I just woke up, and got out of the bed at 7 in the morning after laying in the bed all night basically staring at the ceiling and just wrote it. I wrote it in 30 or 40 minutes. It just came to me, and I just wrote it from the heart, and then I just said it into the camera because I wanted to express what I was feeling right then, no filter.
DEADLINE: It was so piercing from the jump with “For 400 years, you had your knees on our necks/A garden of evil with no seeds of respect,” and old-school blunt, especially for those who mainly know you from playing ex-Navy SEAL Sam Hanna on NCIS: LA …
LL COOL J: This is a time when you have to decide to be on the right side of history, and there is no being neutral.
Hollywood is notorious for having guys that try to toe the line and skirt around things, and I felt like I had to stand on my truth. I had to stand and speak the truth and just really represent the people the right way and just let people know what I was feeling. Because basically what I was feeling is what so many of us are feeling. It was a real and truthful statement from the heart with no governors, no censor, you know what I mean?
DEADLINE: In that context, there has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about the representation of the cops on TV, and how that needs to be reconsidered …
LL COOL J: Yep
DEADLINE: …Stephen Colbert also joked last week that about the Defund the Police movement that CBS will have “to change their entire primetime lineup” if that became a reality. For you, as someone who plays a law-enforcement officer on TV on CBS, what do you think needs to be done on the small screen to change the dynamic and portrayal of police?
LL COOL J: On the small-screen side, I would say we need to have good cops policing these bad cops. You know, maybe if people see that, then I think it can reflect also what should happen in society.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
LL COOL J: That we have to take a closer look at implicit bias and how that affects people, because implicit bias can make you fearful even if you don’t think constantly that you’re a racist. Implicit bias can cause you to be fearful of a situation where you don’t need to be fearful, and you might, you could take somebody’s life.
DEADLINE: You have addressed police brutality and harassment for a long time, like in your 1990 song “Illegal Search,” what do you think of the defund the police move or others who seek reform?
LL COOL J: First, I think that we got to raise the standards of training for law enforcement in general.
This just can’t be a job where you get a high-school diploma, you go to the academy for a month or six weeks or whatever it is, you have a gun and life and death is in the palm of your hands. These officers have to be more educated, and the training has to be more extensive. We got to look at it in other ways too, like I think the background checks need to be a little deeper.
Look, everybody is not racist, and by no means am I trying to say that everyone is racist, but there is a segment of racists that have infiltrated law enforcement. That’s a fact. They’re in positions that have a lot of leverage, and they’re affecting the overall way that policing is taking place in this country, and that has to be changed.
DEADLINE: You have seen far too many instances of police brutality and police killings of Black men and women, we’ve seen uprisings like LA 1992 or in Ferguson in 2015 too. Do you think this time after the death of George Floyd that it is different and deeper? That change will truly come?
LL COOL J: Yes, I do think it’s real. I think that this is a catalyst, and I think we are one step closer to having change.
LL COOL J: It’s not a cure, but I think we’re a step closer to solving the problem, and that’s the right thing. We’re making progress, we have to.
There are a lot of people out there from all around the globe who are looking at this moment, and they are rooting for us and with us, and they’re on the right side of history, you know what I mean? There’s some times where things are more effective or less effective. I think that’s a matter of policy, that’s a matter of getting out there and voting, that’s a matter of taking action, and it’s a matter of just making your voice be heard, and I think that we’re doing that right now
LL COOL J: Well, I believe the majority of the people of the world are good, and they don’t like to see people treated unjust, they just don’t.
I think that you’re going to see some significant changes, I mean, these different laws, the Breonna Taylor law, different things happening so it’ll get better. It may be incremental. It may not be one giant leap at one time, but we’re a step closer than we were prior to this. The truth is we can’t allow George Floyd’s murder to be in vain, we cannot allow that.
DEADLINE: As America is taking a hard, or harder and perhaps clearer look at itself, you were just launching the newest iteration of your Rock the Bells brand expansion, celebrating the trailblazers of hip-hop. How did events shift your perspective on that?
LL COOL J: Interesting, more than ever it’s all about celebrating the culture, putting ownership back in the hands of the culture, through the platform. Also really connecting with the everyday people out there and not forgetting where I came from, not allowing my either business connections or the place I’ve been able to get to in my career to separate me from the guy on the street.
Hip-hop is a culture, it’s an art form. I feel like the artists that paved the way in this art form and in this culture should be celebrated. Because, to connect to today, hip-hop has always been about trying to let your voice be heard, being in a situation where you may be disadvantaged and under-privileged, but you rise above it. That is the spirit, and, to me, Rock the Bells embodies that spirit.
You know, even the freestyle that I wrote. You know I partly partnered with a designer, Alexander-John, and a portion of the proceeds will go to Black Lives Matter, and another portion will go to my Jump & Ball Foundation. I mean, to me, this is hip hop’s moment.
DEADLINE: How so?
LL COOL J: Because Rock the Bells is a black-owned business that puts ownership in the hands of the black community. It doesn’t mean that we’re excluding anybody. It just means it’s majority black-owned.
We want people to really know these artists. Everybody didn’t have to sell 50 million albums, and everybody’s not LL Cool J or Ice Cube or Latifah. There are artists that have one or two singles but mean the world to our culture, like the Roxanne Shantes of the world. They need to be celebrated as great artists, and that’s my goal.
Also, it’s curated in a way that we can relate to and that we understand, and I think that’s a special thing. I want people to know that when they’re going through the Rock the Bells platform that some of those dollars are staying in the black community. These are beautiful things. This is the first time that we’ve done something like this on a national scale. Look, it remains to be seen what’s going to happen with it. All I can do is put my best foot forward, but the goal is to really get people to rally around this thing and embrace something that is theirs today.
DEADLINE: Speaking of today, what’s the status of NCIS: LA now? Do you know when you are coming back to start production on Season 12?
LL COOL J: I haven’t heard yet. It remains to be seen what’s going to happen.
I know that no shows in LA have gone back into production yet. I think there’s some other shows in other places that have gone back, if I’m not mistaken, but I could be wrong. But not us. So, yeah, I’m just waiting. I spoke to one of the producers the other day, and he told me to just stay tuned. So, we’ll see what happens.
DEADLINE: I have to ask, the BLM tune you put up on Instagram last month really resonated with people, but otherwise you haven’t put out any new music since 2013’s Authentic, is there some new songs brewing?
LL COOL J: (LAUGHS) Yeah, I’m definitely in that space now. I did a deal with Def Jam, just a one-album deal to just see what I can cook up because I’m definitely inspired.
DEADLINE: Is this recent?
LL COOL J: No, I did it a while ago. It wasn’t as a result of what’s going on, but again, the timing, the divine timing worked out. So, yeah, I’m definitely thinking about more music. Whatever I do, it will not be guided by any commercial sensibilities. It’s going to be the truth, and I’m going to bring it from my soul. Not like as a businessman, but from a place of truth and honor as an artist.
So, you know, to be continued, right?
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