The Untold Truth Of LL Cool J

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The following article includes mentions of domestic violence and child abuse.

In October 2021, LL Cool J became one of the few rappers to be honored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, receiving the Music Excellence Award. That honor, one of many, recognized a show business career that's encapsulated music, acting, and even hosting the Grammys five consecutive times. Whether it's for a string of hits, including "Rock the Bells" and his Grammy-winning "Mama Said Knock You Out," or his long-running role as Special Agent Sam Hanna on mega-hit CBS procedural "NCIS: Los Angeles," LL Cool J's fanbase spans a pretty wide and eclectic swath of humanity.

As his CBS bio makes clear, those are far from LL Cool J's only accomplishments, which include starring in 30-plus movies, having his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and serving as producer and co-host of the reality competition series, "Lip Sync Battle." He also has his own namesake channel on SiriusXM, and is the author of two fitness-related books, "LL Cool J's Platinum Workout" and "LL Cool J's Platinum 360 Diet and Lifestyle," as well as his 1997 autobiography, "I Make My Own Rules."

Given that his career spans five decades as he maintains a very active presence on the showbiz landscape, it's easy for fans to assume they know all there is to know about the trailblazing rap icon who was born James Todd Smith. Yet there's a lot that can be learned about this multi-talent. Let's take a deep dive into the untold truth of LL Cool J.

LL Cool J has been rapping since he was a kid

LL Cool J released his first album, "Radio," in 1985. As the rapper's label proclaimed, the Rick Rubin-produced LP introduced one of his signature songs, "Rock the Bells," while selling a half-million copies in its first five months of release, "a monumental achievement for a hip-hop album during this time." Not only did LL Cool J redefine hip-hop while introducing a new style of rap, he did it when he was just 17.

Even at that young age, James Todd Smith (as he was known before embracing his rap moniker) already had years of experience as a rapper. His life changed when he was 11, he explained in a 1987 interview with The New York Times, when his grandfather purchased the youngster about $2,000 worth of stereo equipment. ”By the time I got that equipment, I was already a rapper,” LL Cool J said. "I got into it when I was about 9, and since then all I wanted was to make a record and hear it on the radio.”

Thanks to that gear, he was able to create the demo that he mailed to Def Jam Records, and wound up catching the ear of Rubin — then a college student at New York University. That demo led to his first release, the 1984 single, "I Need a Beat," paving the way for the decades of success that followed.

There were a few attempts at coming up with his stage name

The rapper and actor born James Todd Smith is, of course, best known by the stage name he came up with as a teenager, LL Cool J — which, his label noted, is an acronym for "Ladies Love Cool James." Before settling on that, however, the teenage rapper made a few earlier stabs at devising a cool rap name. 

According to an excerpt from the book, "Hip Hop Stars," shared by Yahoo! Entertainment, he was going by the name J-Ski (inspired by such rappers of the day as Luvbug Starski and Busy B-Starsky) when he decided to rebrand as Cool J. "It seems like cool has been around since the beginning of time," he said.

Fellow rapper Mikey D came up with the idea to add "Ladies Love" to the beginning, which was shortened to "LL." As LL Cool J later told Katie Couric during an appearance on her daytime talk show, this was "because Ladies Love would look a little ridiculous and a little long on a piece of vinyl." While LL Cool J may be a boastful acronym, he also admitted it wasn't an entirely accurate one, at least not when he first coined it. "The initials stand for 'Ladies Love Cool James,' but I promise you it was completely wishful thinking," the rapper-actor quipped to Couric. "I was just a little kid, you know, just hoping."

The kung fu legend who inspired LL Cool J to be an actor

While rappers becoming actors has become so prevalent it's now practically expected, back when LL Cool J emerged on the scene, it certainly wasn't. However, he didn't waste much time breaking into the movies, with his first onscreen role — playing a rapper, of course — in the Goldie Hawn-led football comedy, 1986's "Wildcats." While that role was hardly a stretch, his next acting role was a legit one, playing Captain Patrick Zevo in the Robin Williams-starring "Toys," released in 1992. From then on, noted LL Cool J's IMDb credits, acting became a frequent sideline that eventually eclipsed his rap career altogether. 

As for the person who inspired him to branch out into acting, LL Cool J revealed to Us Weekly that it was none other than Bruce Lee. In a Facebook clip celebrating what would have been the legendary martial arts star's 80th birthday in 2020, the rapper-actor discussed the "Enter the Dragon" star's influence on him growing up, before crediting him as "one of the reasons that I got into entertainment, the reason I wanted to make movies, the reason I wanted to be an action hero."

LL Cool J added of Lee, "He was the first non-white actor I saw that inspired me to just want to be my best self, you know what I'm saying?"

Inside LL Cool J's complicated family dynamics

To say that LL Cool J's childhood was troubled is a massive understatement. As a profile in the Chicago Tribune details, his father shot his mother and grandfather when the future star was just four, nearly killing them both. When his mother was released from the hospital, she began dating a "drug addict" named Roscoe, who expressed his displeasure with the youngster by beating him "with extension cords, vacuum cleaner attachments and fists, for the slightest infraction."

In an interview on the "Oprah's Next Chapter" series, LL Cool J opened up to Oprah Winfrey about his complicated family dynamics. "My mother forgave my father," he said, with Winfrey interjecting, "For shooting her in the back!" After his mother's forgiveness, the rapper-actor said, "[My father] came back into my life, and made amends for a lot of things by helping to guide me with my music career early on and kind of helping me in that area." 

Ultimately, LL Cool J reflected, "My father made a massive blunder but he also did a lot of things right, you know? And so, I have learned to hand out the mercy that I would like to receive. I think that's important."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

He got into a notorious on-set scuffle with Jamie Foxx

In 1999, LL Cool J landed his most prestigious acting role to date, playing NFL star Julian Washington in "Any Given Sunday," part of a star-studded cast that also included Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, and Jamie Foxx. 

During the shoot, LL Cool J and Foxx butted heads, with tension between the two boiling over while filming a scene featuring an argument between their characters that escalated into a real-life fistfight between the stars. Foxx put a comic spin on what took place in one of his stand-up comedy routines, complaining that the rapper-turned-actor was "just hatin' on me for no reason ... and once he hated me, then I had to hate him back." In an oral history of the movie for The Ringer, cinematographer Sal Totino recalled LL Cool J firing a "f***ing massive punch" in Foxx's face, sparking a full-fledged fight. "Punches are flying everywhere," Totino said. Pacino, in character, initially tried to separate the two, but quickly realized his co-stars were no longer acting and got out of their way. "I had some sense," Pacino said.

According to co-star Bill Bellamy, as shared in a 2020 video on Instagram, the fallout was so acrimonious that the two refused to be in the same room together. It wasn't until NFL legend Jim Brown (who had a role in the film) stepped in and forced them to squash their beef that a truce was finally brokered and filming could resume.

He's the first rapper to be honored by the Kennedy Center

LL Cool J has received many accolades over the years, but when it comes to sheer prestige, being honored by the Kennedy Center is pretty tough to beat. When the news was announced in 2017 that he would be receiving the Kennedy Center Honor that fall, LL Cool J responded with a statement about the history-making moment.

"My late grandmother passed some wise advice to me: 'If a task is once begun, never leave it 'til it's done. Be thy labor great or small, do it well or not at all.' That adage has guided everything I have ever done in my life and I couldn't be more grateful because it has led me here," he said (via NPR). "To be the first rap artist honored by the Kennedy Center is beyond anything I could have imagined. I dedicate this honor to the hip-hop artists who came before me and those who came after me. This simply proves that dreams don't have deadlines. God is great."

As Billboard reported, the ceremony featured performances from DJ Z-Trip and Busta Rhymes — attired in a "classic LL Cool J outfit combo of a sweatsuit and matching Kangol hat" — along with MC Lyte, Black Thought of The Roots, and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels. 

LL Cool J wrote a song inspired by NCIS: Los Angeles

For the most part, LL Cool J has kept his dual careers as rapper and actor separate. They did, however, cross over in 2011, when he wrote and performed an original song for an episode of "NCIS: Los Angeles." The single, "No More" (featuring Ne-Yo), appeared at the end of an episode titled "Betrayal," noted a message from the show's Facebook account.

There was nothing random about "No More," which included lyrics directly referencing the storyline surrounding LL Cool J's character, Special Agent Sam Hanna, who was engaged in a risky undercover operation. "We see Sam Hanna placed in a particularly challenging emotional situation — and it's a situation that happens when agents go undercover," the show's executive producer, Shane Brennan, told TVLine. "It's a very real problem they have, of getting too close to the people they're trying to catch or use to catch the bad guy. Sam finds himself in that predicament."

According to Brennan, LL Cool J's performance in the episode — both as an actor and with respect to the song he created just for the show — was a high-water mark. "LL has just done an amazing job," he said. "His performance in these episodes really showcases his talent, in more ways than one."

He'll go deep for an acting role

LL Cool J has taken his acting career seriously. That's borne out by the eclectic roster of roles chronicled by IMDb, ranging from the hard-hitting drama, "Edison," to a comedic part in "30 Rock" to his ongoing role as Sam Hanna in "NCIS: Los Angeles."

According to a profile in CBS Watch, when LL Cool J was cast in the CBS procedural, he was adamant about being able to authentically portray a former Navy SEAL. To prepare for the role, he practiced shooting at a gun range, and then sought further weapons training at California's Camp Pendleton. "I want to look like a SEAL, not like something else," he said.

As he explained in a 2011 interview with "The Early Show" (via CBS News), he detailed how important it was to meet with actual SEALs, getting to know them and their stories. "I went down to Camp Pendleton and met with Marines, some Navy guys, special ops guys. These are people that put their lives on the line every day. And you know, to just sit there and listen to their stories and see how dedicated and committed they are to preserve and protect democracy, and risk their lives for you and me is a big thing," LL Cool J said. "It makes you feel good and proud."

All about LL Cool J's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honor

There's been some controversy over the induction of rappers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, starting with the 2007 induction of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, noted Billboard, with other rappers following suit, including Run-D.M.C. (2009), Beastie Boys (2012), Public Enemy (2013), N.W.A (2016), and Tupac Shakur (2017).

In 2021, Jay-Z became the latest rapper to be inducted; that same year, LL Cool J received the Musical Excellence Award, as previously mentioned. "To be honest with you, it's humbling and it's inspiring," he told Rolling Stone of learning he'd receive the award. "It makes me want to get in the studio and give something back for this recognition. In a weird kind of way, it makes me want to pay it forward by creating something special for people, and outdo myself in a way, creatively. That's what it does. It makes me want to give the world a new music project."

Given that the last album of new material LL Cool J had released came out in 2013, he admitted that whatever came next had to live up to the ever-growing expectations. "But I'm definitely serious about this new musical project," he said. "I'm very serious. I'm extremely inspired by this moment, extremely inspired that people are recognizing my body of work. It absolutely makes me want to give people something impactful and memorable moving forward."

He once accidentally punched a three-time heavyweight boxing champ

While LL Cool J may have willfully mixed it up with Jamie Foxx on the set of "Any Given Sunday," he once punched a professional boxer in the face — accidentally, something he was quick to point out the second it occurred.

During an interview with Revolt TV's "Drink Champs," he recalled filming an episode of his mid-1990s sitcom, "In The House," featuring guest star Lennox Lewis, the British boxer who's held the heavyweight championship of the world title three times. "So, back when I was doing 'In the House,' Lennox did a guest appearance, right?" LL Cool J recounted. "For whatever reason, my character's supposed to be boxing Lennox Lewis for charity, right? So we're in there, we're playing around and some kind of way, he threw a punch and I threw a punch, and [I] caught him in the nose and I was like, 'Don't hit me! Yo, hold up! I said timeout, cut! Hold up!' because I wasn't supposed to catch him."

Apparently, LL Cool J is highly cognizant of his skill level at fisticuffs, and wanted to make sure that Lewis knew his punch was unintentional. "I don't know how I caught him, but whatever happened, I wanted to just really give it a timeout, and give it a second and reset," he explained. 

LL Cool J downplayed his long-rumored feud with Jay-Z

On the same night that LL Cool J received the Musical Excellence Award in 2021, fellow rapper Jay-Z was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As GQ noted, Jay-Z paid tribute to LL Cool J in his speech, calling him one of the "heroes" of the early rap scene. 

That was a significant shoutout, given the rumors that have swirled for years of a feud between the two, which flared up in a 2007 interview, when LL Cool J expressed concerns about how his label, Def Jam (of which Jay-Z was president), would promote his album (via MTV News). At the time, Jay-Z downplayed the spat, insisting, "He's upset, not me."

More than a decade later, LL Cool J claimed to rapper Fat Joe in 2020 that there was no "bad vibe" with Jay-Z. He chalked it up to "misunderstandings" from when they were both teenage rappers. "From what I understand, maybe, there was a contest or something, and he rapped and maybe I laughed at him or something. But you know, we're little kids ... just think about us, think about a contest happening, and think about him saying something and me giggling or laughing. You know?" he explained. "I have no malice. I'm like, it's all love from me, and I mean that sincerely, like I don't have no type of ill-feelings, no type of weird vibes. I wish everybody success."

He turned down an offer to sell his soul to Satan

Blues icon Robert Johnson has become famous not just for his music, but for the apocryphal legend that he met Satan at the crossroads, where he sold his soul in exchange for guitar greatness. As it turns out, LL Cool J has a similar story involving a Faustian bargain with Lucifer.

"He came to me, wanting me to sell my soul," LL Cool J revealed in a 1997 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "I couldn't see him, but he held me down and told me, 'You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to say yes.'" Apparently, unlike Johnson, LL Cool J refused the devil's offer. "I said 'no.' And after that, my life went down. Everything around me was just crumbling. But then it just started looking brighter again. I just kept the faith and believed in God," said LL Cool J, noting that he'd since embraced the habit of sleeping with a Bible.

However, an unidentified "entertainment personality" spoke with SOHH about how "amazing" LL Cool J's career longevity had been. Noting that the rapper appeared in the 1985 hip-hop movie, "Krush Groove," and had managed to remain relevant more than three decades later, they pondered, "It's like he sold his soul to the devil." 

LL Cool J's decades-long marriage got off to a rocky start

LL Cool J met his future wife, Simone Smith, in 1987, when he was just 19. They had a child soon after, married eight years later in 1995, and have remained that way since. However, their early years as a couple were not without their challenges — particularly, the rapper-actor's many admitted dalliances with groupies, which he told the Chicago Tribune were so frequent he usually never even bothered to remove his hat. 

Indeed, this couple has had their rough patches over the years; as the Chicago Tribune noted, LL Cool J felt "freaked out" by being a father at such a young age and left Simone. He returned, but the two would fight, "occasionally trading blows," and he left again, before ultimately returning and settling into a decades-long union. There have, however, been ups and downs along the way. As Simone admitted during an interview with Oprah Winfrey, following their honeymoon, LL Cool J showed his bride the video for his song, "Doin' It," in which he's see making out with multiple women, including one who licks his face. "You know what? I didn't talk to him for two weeks," she said. "... I was mad."

When Simone was asked to share the secret of their relationship's longevity, she replied, "Definitely putting God first — we both definitely come from a spiritual background — and compromise, a lot of compromise. ... Picking your battles, you know, respecting each other."

LL Cool J's net worth will knock you out

As LL Cool J's label, UME, reminds us, he's recorded 13 studio albums and two compilation albums, while his Kennedy Center bio points out that he's the first rapper ever to have 10 consecutive albums go platinum. Meanwhile, since 2009, he's starred in "NCIS: Los Angeles," one of television's longest-running and most successful TV shows. Add that all up, and Celebrity Net Worth estimates this multi-talent's fortune to be $120 million, part of which comes from earning $350,000 per episode of the CBS hit. Another source of income for LL Cool J is Rock the Bells, the company he founded in 2018, which The Hollywood Reporter described as "a content and commerce brand dedicated to classic hip-hop."

As the rapper-actor explained on Paul Ollinger's "Crazy Money" podcast in 2021, he'd continually re-evaluated his own personal definition of success, starting with hearing his songs played on the radio, then being able to afford expensive clothing, gold chains, and flashy cars. However, he added, it wasn't until he grew older than he became interested in exploring a "sophisticated investment strategy" to increase the wealth he'd amassed.

Discussing the effect that money and fame had on him, LL Cool J revealed that he'd come to an epiphany that wealth and celebrity don't change someone's personality so much as amplify it. "All [the] money and the fame is going to do is show people more of who you are," he explained. "It's the biggest exclamation mark in the world."