LL Cool J has never forgotten where he came from. After more than 35 years in the rap game, James Todd Smith is giving back to the legendary masters of the form with a major announcement on Tuesday (June 16) about the the expanded universe of his SiriusXM Rock the Bells channel.
“I really believe in this culture, I’ve lived it my entire life and it’s time that hip-hop actually benefits from hip-hop,” LL tells Billboard about his decision to form a strategic alliance with a group of rap icons that will give Big Daddy Kane, Run-D.M,C., Eric B, Roxanne Shante, Salt N Pepa, Fab 5 Freddy, graffiti writer Risk and b-boy legend Crazy Legs ownership stakes in the Rock the Bells brand.
The other side of the expansion coin for the two-year old channel that mixes rap classics and rarities with LL’s enthusiastic career stories and remembrances, as well as shows hosted by Biz Markie, Shante and DJ Mister Cee, is Tuesday’s announcement of a major new group of investors.
Looking to turn the Rock the Bells homepage into the definitive destination for Generation X rap fans and others who are hungry for the music and social movement that shaped the genre, RTB CEO LL says that he’s brought on a group of strategic investors including Redpoint Ventures, Bozoma Saint John, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Azoff Company, Mark Cuban’s Radical Investments, Glenn Hutchins’ North Island, andApple exec Eddy Cue, among other groundbreaking leaders, along with investor Geoff Yang (founding partner of Redpoint Ventures) as co-founder and Chairman.
In addition, LL has hired a leadership team of top creative and executive talent from Facebook, Farfetch, Highsnobiety (including new RTB editorial director Alec Banks) and Lollapalooza to help make RTB the ultimate landing spot for music, videos, culture, editorial, streaming and shopping, including limited-edition drops of speciality merch. The best part? LL’s heroes will all benefit from his efforts to shine a light on the culture and users can find LL narrating features about some of the genre’s legends, plus a link to stream RTB radio.
Below, LL chats about his RTB expansion.
The Rock the Bells site is full of great features about the Philly hip-hop scene, like the best protest songs, classic videos and profiles of icons like Crazy Legs and DJ Kool Herc, who might be familiar to old heads, but maybe not to the casual fan. What do you want people to get from the site?
The platform is going to give people a place to read, shop, listen and vibe… all the elements of hip-hop, with content, commerce and experiences. I feel like the classic hip-hop Generation X fan has basically been forgotten about. It’s either “okay boomer” or millennials with some Gen-Z sprinkled in, but people have forgotten about Generation X. We’re the pre-eminent voice of classic and timeless hip-hop.
What you’re looking at on the site is just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to talk about things that are familiar and unfamiliar. Even people who are hip-hop aficionados will be able to learn some things. There will be virtual experiences coming in ’21, our offerings will consistently expand, but what I wanted to do is curate the best of all things hip-hop.
Right now, if you want to learn or buy products associated with the culture you will go to Amazon and various sites, but it’s all over the place. I decided that that we could curate the best of all things hip-hop, whether you’re looking for a hair weave or something to drink or the brand new fresh J’s, we got it and it’s curated in a way that true hip-hop fans will love. On top of that, I wanted to put some ownership back into the hands of some of the people that started this thing.
What’s it mean to you to offer an ownership share in RTB to folks like Big Daddy Kane, Run-D.M.C., Fab 5 Freddy, Crazy Legs and Roxanne? What do you hope they’ll bring to the business?
So many people have gotten rich off of hip-hop, except for a lot of the people in the actual culture. Let’s be honest, a lot of the black and hip-hop community have been side-stepped when it comes to capturing value. Of course there are a few outliers who blew up and made a lot of money, but a lot of people didn’t get to get on that train. I want Big Daddy Kane to have ownership, I want Run-DMC to have ownership, Salt N Pepa, Fab Five Freddy… they’re owners in the company, so instead of going to directly to Amazon or one of our partners, when you go to RockTheBells.com you’re actually creating value for the people that started this culture.
I felt like it was the right thing to do. You’re gonna tell me that Run-D.M.C. shouldn’t be making more money from their contribution to hip-hop? I didn’t want to just talk about talk about giving people ownership, I actually wanted them to have it. We have a black-owned company, a hip-hop culture-owned company and that’s a great thing.
Will all those legends be involved in the platform experience as well?
They will all be doing different things. They’re all cultural icons and they’ll all be participating and involved. I think it’s just dope. When you get some sneakers, apparel, books, grooming, hair care, and finally you know when you spend your dollars through RockTheBells.com you know that hip-hop culture is truly benefitting and it’s not just some mega-corporation getting all the money and giving somebody a tiny royalty.
Talk to me about the expansion you announced today with all those investors. What was your goal and what do you hope they’ll help you do in expanding the brand?
We brought on some strategic investors… we will drive this next phase of growth. We’ve got an experienced leadership team and I brought some creatives in from Farfetch, Facebook, Highsnobiety that I think can help us reach and touch these fans in a big way. I think it’s going to be really exciting because those people invested in the culture and they’re putting their money where their mouth is.
I can’t wait to see Run-D.M.C. and Salt N Pepa and Fab Five Freddy get checks on some level. I just wanted to bring the best in, do this the right way. Getting with Mark Cuban and his Radical Investments was like being on an episode of his show, it was hilarious.
Did he make you get in the Shark Tank to get him on board?
It damn near felt like it! It was Zoom, but it felt like that. This is the right thing at the right time for the right reason. I really believe in this culture, I’ve lived it my entire life and it’s time that hip-hop actually benefits from hip-hop. Especially this particular group of artists. And that doesn’t mean it can’t expand. I’m gonna be lifting up the big superstars and people that are not quite as well known in the mainstream because I want to make sure they get the prestige and love and respect I believe they deserve and earned.
You said the platform was created to teach Gen-X fans about some of the artists they love, but also ones they might not be familiar with, especially with some of the features. Do you feel that responsibility, to keep telling the story of hip-hop?
100 percent. It’s not just a business, it’s a way to document our history. This is about 200-300 years from now, getting the narrative right. A big part of it is I’m saying, “history is written by the winners, let’s tell the truth, let’s tell them the real story.” It shouldn’t just boil down to whoever was most popular at a certain point, or who was the most mainstream. It should be about all of these artists and all of these contributions that they made. As the site grows you’re going to see more and more articles and videos and content about artists that are truly important.
And we’re going to get the stories right. We’ll do a story on a Kool Herc and they’ll say, “Hey, we need to correct this.” We’ll be correcting those narratives and adjusting and editing those narratives until they are as close as we can get to the absolute, actual history so that 200-300 years from now people actually remember and we set it up for future generations to keep this thing going. As trends change I want to make sure that classic and timeless hip-hop is remembered in the right way and this is part of the way I’m doing it.
If it’s about getting the narrative right, from my personal experience writing and interviewing him, you’d better have a Batphone for Chuck D, because you know he’ll be calling in with some fixes to the historical record…
I definitely have a Batphone for Chuck D. [Laughs] I hear you. He’s another one that obviously at some point has to get even more involved. He’s one of our kings, so we gotta give him love and lift him up as well.
One of my favorite parts of the channel is your stories and your deep dives into tracks that were foundational but that the casual fan might not be familiar with. What have you learned about hip-hop and radio after two years of doing this?
One of the things I learned was that Gen-X was truly underserved. For so long, let’s be honest, hip-hop has been treated like pop music. If you’re not at the top of the charts, good night. I found out that these fans really, really, really want more and they’re curious and there’s a lot of love for this culture. I didn’t know how starved these fans were until I did this and I’m just glad to be able to give them this kind of experience.
And we’re doing it in a modern way. We’re not caught in a time warp, we’re giving people the music and culture and products and experiences they love but we’re very clear about what year it is It’s not some throwback thing, but like, “Hey, we curated some classic, timeless hip-hop culture, music and art products that we think are amazing and here they are for you.