A short distance takes a long time for LL Cool J.
We’re on our way to a private room at Hirshleifers, a high-end retailer wedged between many other high-end retailers at Americana Manhasset mall, where LL has just held a fundraiser benefitting his Queens-based youth basketball camp, Jump & Ball. Once we find a quiet space to talk, he will trade the Instagram-worthy LL swagger for a different charisma.
He will sit and sip water in a chair next to his mother, Ondrea Smith, and talk about the art and craft of hip-hop with exasperated, childlike joy. He will explain why he thinks it’s incumbent upon him to return to the neighborhood he grew up in — St. Albans — and foster a sense of community and stability among young children. He will dismiss his impressive and meandering career by saying that he simply does “whatever’s on LL Cool J’s schedule,” as if he’s talking about someone else.
But we’re not there yet. We’re still swimming in a sea of his adoring fans who want to shake his hand and hug him and take photos with him.
“This is going to be a process,” a member of LL’s team jokes.
Without hesitation, LL stops and greets every last one. The birds-eye view of the situation must look like a human blood clot, as we float toward a comfortable spot to sit and talk.
The annual shopping benefit at Americana Manhasset has participating stores donate 25 percent of each customer’s purchase to a chosen charity. LL and his wife, Simone Smith, appeared at Hirshleifers on Dec. 1 to encourage people to patronize the store and host an auction of luxury clothing items to benefit Jump & Ball. Smith, a cancer survivor and a self-proclaimed hoop-earring connoisseur, also sold pieces from her custom jewelry line to benefit the American Cancer Society.
Despite the palpable excitement of fans and other local celebrities (Long Island Medium Theresa Caputo was also in attendance, casting spells on auction items like Vanna White with taller hair) the evening seemed pretty run-of-the-mill for Manhasset’s hip-hop power couple. Smith conceded that their family’s lifestyle can seem pretty hectic, but she stressed that downtime is downtime for them.
She and LL have four children together and have been married since 1995. They watch movies, she bounces creative ideas off her husband (whom she refers to as simply, “Todd”) and they toggle between New York and Los Angeles, surfing between business ventures.
“We raised our children here in Manhasset,” Smith says before adding, “New York is always home.”
The only thing perhaps as mesmerizing as LL’s wide-ranging career is the coolness with which his family seems to handle it all. Born in Bay Shore but raised in Queens, LL Cool J’s official music career began when he was 16, with the release of 1985’s single “I Need A Beat,” on Def Jam Recordings, and has continued to evolve in the decades since. He went on to become rap music’s first-ever mainstream icon and sex symbol.
Now 50, the multiplatinum musician’s work transcends categories. LL has grown into an all-out media mogul. He has starred in the hit CBS crime series NCIS: Los Angeles for 10 seasons now, and is also the host of Lip Sync Battle on the Paramount Network (formerly Spike), which debuted in 2015. He’s hosted the Grammy Awards five consecutive times, and famously delivered a touching tribute to Whitney Houston at the 2012 ceremony less than 24 hours after the news broke of her death.
In December 2017, LL became the first rapper to be honored at the Kennedy Center — the highest achievement a performer can receive. Earlier this year, Sirius XM Radio announced LL would helm his own station — Rock the Bells Radio — curating classic hip-hop and deep cuts for fans of the genre.
Just trying to recount his decades-long career is exhausting. But if he’s at all tired of his life in the public eye, it doesn’t show. He seems right at home in the center of the room at this fundraiser — backing a cause he cares about — twirling a basketball and smiling for people.
What made you want to start Jump & Ball? It all started from just being a little kid and I remember guys in the neighborhood used to throw a basketball tournament. I always said to myself, if I was ever in a position to be able to provide that kind of an opportunity for the kids I would, and I’ll tell you why. You know, my grandmother used to always say the idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Just walking around the neighborhood with nothing to do, you just end up in trouble. It’s just a weird kind of byproduct of being in Queens and just being in that area. Even, there’s parts of Long Island like that. So, I decided that I wanted to give these kids an opportunity to learn about teamwork, to really just keep them out of trouble and maybe teach them some sports, and just improve the lives of the kids in the community.
Have you thought about offering the camp in other areas? I really would rather just deepen the roots first. I mean, yes, there’s always thoughts of maybe doing it in other neighborhoods and replicating the idea and the concept and growing it out. That’s always a beautiful thing.
What do you consider to be your main gig right now? I can think of about 10 different possibilities. Whatever’s on LL Cool J’s schedule. I’m an entertainer, man. I entertain the world, you know. And I do it in a lot of different ways.
It seems like your Sirius XM station, Rock the Bells Radio, is a passion project for you. It’s definitely a passion project. I’m putting classic hip-hop at the forefront of pop culture again — and in a cool way. It’s designed strictly for the fans that really love the music, you know what I’m saying? And then everybody else, you know, they can sneak in if they want, but we’re not concerned with them.
How has your own career shaped what the station has become? It’s enjoyable because I 100 percent believe in myself and what I can do and what I’ve done in my career, but at the same time I’m able to move that out of the way and allow it to be a platform for all of the classic artists. So, it’s not like a glorified LL Cool J fan station. I really do my best to make it as authentic as possible and true to the experience that the fans should have. It’s really selfless in that regard. And I started it in 2018… I’m giving you vintage vibes by design.
What artists have you been listening to lately? Last night [Ice Cube] sent me his new album, which was really exciting. Some of the stuff that he’s talking about I think is gonna really shake things up. He definitely has a very specific point of view and he comes at it from an O.G. [original ganster] perspective. In terms of a newer artists, I was listening to Meek Mill’s album last night and I was enjoying that as well. So that was a day in the life right there.
Can we expect new music from you in the future? You know, it’s possible, man. Artists don’t retire. That’s a myth. We’re not athletes. Just because your knee is sore doesn’t mean you can’t get in the booth. Picasso was how old painting? Doing great work? Like, stop it. So, we’ll see. We’ll see.