LL Cool J, rapper and actor, was born James Todd Smith, the only child of James and Ondrea Smith on January 14, 1968 in St. Albans, Queens, New York City, New York. Early in James’ life, the relationship between his mother and father turned violent and they divorced when he was four years old. Later, after enduring physical and emotional abuse from his mother’s boyfriend, James became a bully himself. It was around his tenth birthday that he found a constructive way to channel his aggression, the newly emerging musical genre of hip-hop.
After his grandfather gave him a mixer for his 11th birthday, James began writing and producing his own songs. At age 15 he came up with his stage name: Ladies Love Cool James (which he shortened to LL Cool J). In 1984, LL met Rick Rubin, a student at New York University and co-founder of Def Jam Records, hip-hop’s first major label. Impressed by what he heard, Rubin began producing LL immediately and in 1985 Def Jam released the 17 year-old’s debut album, Radio.
On the strength of songs like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Rock the Bells,” Radio went platinum and represented an evolution in the arrangement of rap songs by including verses and choruses. This was followed by Bigger and Deffer (1987) which went multi-platinum and featured a number one R&B hit, the groundbreaking rap ballad “I Need Love.” Again, LL was at the forefront of innovation with a song that introduced a significant female presence to the heavily male listening demographic of rap music at the time.
In the quickly expanding universe of rap in the late 1980s, LL was criticized for what some traditionalists saw as overtly courting the mainstream. Although his third album Walking With A Panther (1989) reached the top ten, it was widely dismissed in hip-hop circles. LL was booed during an Apollo Theater show in New York City.
When rap critics challenged LL Cool J’s status as a sex symbol who was soft, his response was a fourth album, Mama Said Knock You Out (1990), which contained the singles “The Boomin System,” “Around the Way Girl,” and the title track, which became a number one hit and won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1992.
While he continued to record and release albums, LL began a career in acting. His first big movie role was as an NYPD detective in The Hard Way (1991), and he has subsequently appeared in over 20 films alongside actors such as Robin Williams, Al Pacino, and Samuel L. Jackson. In 1995 LL starred in the NBC situation comedy In the House which ran for five seasons. In 2009 he made his debut as a star on the CBS crime drama NCIS: Los Angeles. LL has won two Grammy Awards (1992 and 1997), performed at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, and hosted the Grammy Awards telecast in 2012 and 2013.
LL Cool J married Simone Johnson in 1995. The couple have four children: son Najee (born 1989), and daughters Italia (born 1990), Samaria (born 1995), and Nina (born 2000).