LL Cool J has seen hip-hip react to social justice causes and outrages for more than three decades. From Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions tackling systemic racism and oppression, to Lil Baby and YG standing up for Black Lives Matter and taking on police brutality more recently, Uncle L knows all about the importance of MCs using their mics to push the culture — and society — forward.
That’s what inspired the 52-year-old Rock the Bells boss to drop a searing Black Lives Matter freestyle earlier this month, lashing out at a police officer for putting his knee to the neck of George Floyd, nodding to the protests and riots that followed, and explaining in crystal clear terms why he’s sick of dealing with the same nonsense his whole life.
Billboard spoke to LL about his freestyle, the new generation of MCs taking on law enforcement, and how he hopes to use his just-launched Rock the Bells site to make a difference.
You dropped a BLM freestyle recently. Why did you feel compelled to put that out?
I was tossing and turning all night and I just felt inspired. I wanted to connect with the audience in a real way and connect with my community. There’s a lot of pain, a lot of hurt and raw emotions and I just wanted to speak the truth from the heart. Just speak the truth.
It’s such a raw thing. … There comes a point in life when you have to choose sides. And I have to choose to be on the right side of history and have to support my people and support this moment and all the people who are supportive of this moment. I just wanted to tell the truth. I couldn’t sugar coat it; I wasn’t going to try to do the Hollywood two-step; I couldn’t be silent. I had to say something and I had to do it in my own way, and that was the most sincere way I could speak to the community. I want to be there for them. That’s my job as an artist as one of the figureheads of the culture.
You came from a generation of artists who used hip-hop to spread a larger cultural message about what they saw going on around them — I’m thinking about groups like Public Enemy, N.W.A, Boogie Down Productions, A Tribe Called Quest. Who do you see using that megaphone in this generation?
I think we’re just starting. Prior to this you would have said Kendrick [Lamar], J. Cole … deadprez is a different generation. But now I think with everything going on you’re going to find more and more artists are conscious and talking about things. Lil Baby just put out this thing [“The Bigger Picture“], there is going to be more artists going into this space to speak their truth.
I think we’re about to find out a lot more about how people feel and we’re about to see some of the amazing talent that’s out there. People understand the seriousness of this moment, and I think the music will reflect that.
How does it make you feel to see the BLM protest movement spreading to every state and across the world?
I think it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. People all over the globe, people that were on the fence, people who couldn’t understand what we the black community were talking about finally got to see, for real. They finally got a video that was absolutely, undeniably horrible and evil, and they said, “Enough is enough.”
Generally people are good and have good hearts, but there’s just a couple of loud, racist scumbags who make a lot of noise and make the world a worse place than it needs to be. But people in general are good and we’re seeing that.
We’ve got a righteous cause — this is a just and righteous beef, not some low-road complaint — and the world responded to that. Just so you know, I took that freestyle and I teamed up with Alexander John and the Rock the Bells design team for a commemorative T-shirt and hoodie based on the red, black and green Liberty rock where I grew up, and we’re going to give a portion of the proceeds to Black Lives Matter and Jump & Ball, which is a community charity that I started in Northeast Queens that lets the kids have a summer camp basketball experience instead of standing on the corner. People should definitely buy a T-shirt or a hoodie. In fact, I’m saying please support it. For those who really know LL Cool J, that rock has been part of my career, my whole life … that rock represents Pan-Africanism.
I think we gotta just man up. You can’t sit idly by and act like it’s not happening. I won’t mute myself or censor myself in order to keep certain friends. I ain’t doing none of that s–t. I’m keeping it 100.
What’s your message to protesters out there who are sick of seeing the same pattern repeat when a black man is killed by police, and then nothing changes?
I say keep demonstrating, keep holding the people in high places accountable and let’s make this change — we’ve gotta make it. And that change is going to come through voting, filling out the census and letting them know that you’re here. That change is going to come through people running for political office, through people starting companies and working hard.
Be the squeaky wheel. Sometimes you gotta stir the pot to get one step closer to solving the problem. I think we are definitely a step closer to solving the problem than before they started stirring the pot. They have my full support.