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LL COOL J is no stranger to the role of hip hop in the Black community — especially when it comes down to politics and culture advocacy in times of injustice and unrest. As an OG, he’s recognized his responsibility to bridge the older generation to the younger one to form an alliance that will become bigger than music. With his Rock The Bells platform, LL is doing just that.
Rock The Bells, catered specifically to Generation X rap fans and those who lived through the era of classic hip hop, is the digital destination dedicated to celebrating the stories, sounds and trailblazing icons that shaped the culture and have been impactful in social and political and movements. This platform is perfect for those who have a passion for music and social justice. Moreover, rap vets like RUN-DMC, Roxanne Shante, Big Daddy Kane, Salt N Pepa, Fab 5 Freddy and more are just a few of the pioneers that have minority ownership stake in the company. Talk about for us, by us.
REVOLT chopped it up with LL COOL J about his freestyle in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others; his passion for giving back to the community, and how he sees hip hop infiltrating the social justice activism space. Check out the conversation below!
Talk about Rock The Bells and its mission to celebrate hip hop culture.
It’s a definitive platform for Gen X and the fans. I wanted to have a place where the trailblazing icons and the pioneers that shaped the culture could get their love, could get their respect, and I wanted the culture as a whole to get the respect that I believe it deserves. There was a certain point when it felt like classic and timeless hip hop was kind of being marginalized and treated like some sort of pop culture movement and it’s not that. It informs pop culture, but it’s bigger than that. Hip hop culture has a global impact and an influence on the whole world in a major way, and I didn’t want people to forget that.
You’ve had artists at the forefront of political and social change from the beginning. Clothing, cars, the way we walk, talk and live our lives, the lifestyle. I felt it was a really important thing that needed to be celebrated. I wanted to focus on content commerce experience, so you got great content, great stories and articles that I’m personally narrating. We’re celebrating people, icons and pioneers that really help lift up the culture in a major way, and I also wanted to give those pioneers and icons ownership.
A hundred years from now, I wanna make sure that people remember the artists that help shape and form this culture that we’re all enjoying. That’s what it’s about.
How do you plan to continue to use the platform to uplift the stories and the icons?
I think what that’s about is just being in the truth. When we put up those top 10 protest songs — we have an article about the top 10 protest songs — those are things that are real...those are the things that are timeless, and those are the things that speak to what the people are feeling now.
I just decided to personally take a leadership role in preserving the legacy of classic hip hop and lifting up those pioneers, and I’d like the company to continue to do that. That’s the goal.
Shifting gears just a bit, your freestyle in response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others hit social media and immediately struck a nerve. What encouraged you to use your social platform to speak out against social injustices?
When you’re a prominent figure in the community and people look up to you, it’s important that you let people know where you stand. I feel like this is one of those times where you can’t be neutral and you’ve gotta choose sides. For me, standing up for my people and speaking the truth was the right decision because how could anybody Black — or any other ethnicity for that matter — respect you if you’re not willing to stand up for your people? What is that about?
I can’t move weak. I wasn’t going to move weak and to be silent in this moment. Yeah, you can move behind-the-scenes, of course, and there’s more than one way to skin a cat, but I felt my best effort was to really just go with it and let people know how I felt about it, let people know where I stood and just be clear on who I am and what this community means to me. There was no other way. I had to speak the truth, speak my truth and let it be known, and that’s what I did. I didn’t want to do the Hollywood two-step, I didn’t want to hold back because this wasn’t the time for that. You’ve gotta lean in on this.
You’ve been in the game for a while, so how have you seen rap and the music industry as a whole transform with the times, especially with the removal of the word “urban” from certain categories in music award shows and more music about the state of the Black community coming to light?
I think you just asked and answered the question (laughs). The removal of that word was a long-time coming. I never, in my entire career, got a full blown [no-bars-held] marketing plan behind me for my music. Everything that I’ve ever did, I had to grind my way through. When I first started making music, they didn’t even play hip hop on the radio in the daytime, much less what we’re talking about now. You’re talking about being tough and fighting through it, and that’s what we had to do. I think that it’s a beautiful thing to see this happen. I think it’s wonderful to see artists becoming more conscious. I don’t think we need to lose all of the fun in our music. I think it’s okay to be silly sometimes and get crazy, floss and it’s good to have fun. But, they need to see art injecting some truth and some reality into a genre that kind of drifted over into escapism for the most part. It’s nice to see some reality and some truth mixed in there.
Aside from your talents as a rapper and the launch of Rock The Bells, how else are you giving back to the Black community and amplifying Black voices?
The main thing I’ve got going on other than that [is] I got a camp called Jump & Ball that I’ve been doing. It’s going on its 15th or 16th year. I have 300 kids every summer and we have a basketball camp for them in my neighborhood in Queens. They’re learning about teamwork, sacrifice, being on time, putting the work in, effort, ethic and that’s a beautiful thing.
In addition to that, obviously the Rock The Bells platform gives me the opportunity to really tell our stories. You can go in there as a day-one fan, my Gen X fans, and learn things that they didn’t know about classic and timeless hip hop. We are unapologetically about Gen X and we’re strictly OG. This doesn’t mean that we’re excluding anybody. I’m not trying to exclude millennials, I’m just not targeting them.
A lot of rappers say, “Shoutout to my hood,” but not a lot of them really go back to their roots and give back. I think it’s really great that you’re doing that for Queens.
I appreciate that. You said “roots” and that’s the whole point. A tree doesn’t survive without the roots, so you want to be firmly planted in the ground, in the people, in the culture that you’re from and then your branches will grow as tall and as close to the sun as they can, and bare fruit. You can grow and expand, and you don’t want to give up your roots to grow and expand. We want to deepen our roots. I want to be closer to the streets than ever before, especially as a guy who’s been in the game so long... I’m very much all about my hood and I still talk to people daily, and l stay connected because I still think they’re a big part of me.
Who would you say are some of the artists today who are doing the work, putting out these messages, and fighting for the Black community?
There’s so many people that are doing great things. A lot of the music that Kendrick [Lamar] makes is very inspiring. DaBaby and his performance that he did on the [BET] Awards was very inspiring. Lil’ Baby put out that song (“The Bigger Picture”).
Over the years, J. Cole has definitely said some things that have been really inspiring. I think there’s a lot of people out there doing really great work [like] when you take a look at Rapsody. They all are doing great and there’s so many people that are making a difference. Even DJs who are just spinning during these times, and making people feel good and lifting people’s spirits. That’s a contribution. There’s a lot of ways to look at it. The graffiti artists who are writing on the walls, [painting] those George Floyd murals and that beautification of our community, and lifting up our souls and spirits.
As a people, I think a lot of us are on the frontlines in one way or the other and a lot of us are unified, and understand that we have to keep it moving and stay focused on the ultimate goal, which is to get the scale balanced. And that takes time. We are all working towards it, and we are throwing the stones and the rocks off the scale one at a time. We’re gonna keep chizzling away and get some stones off the scale until we got the balance right.
How are you protecting your mental health as a Black man with the killings of our people and videos always circulating around social media?
What I always try to do is be better every day. I want to be better today than I was yesterday and I want to be better tomorrow than I am today. Every moment, I’m always striving to get better — constantly reading, constantly trying to sharpen my axe, constantly trying to improve my ability to think, constantly reinforcing my faith, constantly exercising my body. I just believe we’re on this planet to maximize our potential, so you can’t half step. Either you want it or you don’t. If you want it, then you’re going to have to sacrifice something great to get it. I’m not talking about your soul. I’m talking about the pain of going through the motions of being who you could be.
You’re the sculptor and the sculpture. You sculpt your life, but when that hammer and that chisel is hitting the sculpture, that’s painful because you’re the sculptor and the sculpture. You’ve got to keep digging and that’s what I do. I don’t half-step. If I get something wrong, I try to figure it out and get it right. If I make a mistake, I try to adjust and adapt. I don’t get frustrated, I just keep it moving and that’s what you’ve gotta do. You gotta just be the best you can.
Take your vitamins, stay healthy, keep your mind right, believe in the beauty of your dreams, believe in yourself, have faith in God. Don’t get butt hurt at the slightest things. We gotta have thick skin and gotta be strong. I’m not talking about strong to the point where you don’t have any emotions and you have zero vulnerability. I’m talking about authentically strong where you can feel things and still keep moving.
How do you recommend the Black community keep the momentum going for protests and speaking out against racial injustices?
By doing things like getting the word “urban” removed. By doing things like getting those statues taken down. By doing things like getting legislation passed like Breonna Taylor’s [“No-Knock”] law. Doing things that are more permanent. There’s always gonna be a moving target. Racism is not going anywhere, but how we deal with it can be adjusted and can be marginalized to a huge extent. People can be put in a situation where it’s not profitable for them on any level to be racist and that comes through legislation. That comes through voting, that comes through the right people being in the right position, that comes through policy changes.
In this particular instance, not only was George Floyd and the rest of their deaths a catalyst for all these events that have taken place, but there are actually permanent things on the books that are changing. We are one step closer to solving the problem than we were. Doesn’t mean that we won’t have other problems, but we are doing better as a people. We just have to stay the course. More things have to be written — for lack of a better metaphor — in concrete. Some of these changes need to be written in concrete, not sand. We just have to be real strong and solid about the stances that we take. We have to hold people accountable and we can’t be afraid to speak up. Silence is not an option.
The only thing I would caution people is to not demonize a whole group of people because of some bad apples. It’s not all white people. A lot of white people are on the right side of history, but for those who aren’t, we aren’t having it (laughs). It’s not going to be tolerated. That’s the key — making sure we have things we can act on and take action.