When James Todd Smith bum rushed the headlining Hollywood debut of hip-hop’s towering Kings of Rock, Run-D.M.C., in the classic 1985 film Krush Groove, it was a brazen, dynamic and quite ridiculous debut for the celluloid ages.
“Box!” ordered the barely 17-year-old kid, soon to be known to millions as LL Cool J, rocking a powder blue Kangol, as he launched into his first two-fisted, B-Boy anthem, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio.” But what made LL’s one-minute-plus movie appearance so fascinating was the fact that he had little interest in breaking bread with the thespian world.
More than a decade before Ladies Love Cool James pulled off one of Tinsel Town’s most intriguing rapper-turned-actor triple plays in 1999, appearing in the films Deep Blue Sea, In Too Deep and Any Given Sunday, he was more concerned with establishing a genre-defying, influential hip-hop run. LL had already forged a career template for all future lone wolf MC’s to follow with the landmark releases Radio (1986) and Bigger and Deffer (1987) as well as his third controversial studio album Walking With a Panther (1989). By late 1990 he had dropped hip-hop’s first comeback statement, Mama Said Knock You Out, which today stands as one of rap’s most celebrated works.
Who needs acting when you are a double platinum superstar, battle rap champ, and sex symbol anchoring sellout national tours? Yet, soon LL began noticing that his peers like Kid N Play, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Will Smith, and Ice-T were all making moves to Hollywood. However, it took a meeting with a label head to push the rhyme icon into diversifying his career.
“I didn’t want to limit myself…I felt like I had the ability,” he explained last November on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “The first time I went to a record company I said, ‘I’m thinking about starting a new record…I’d like to get an advance.’ And the guy started adjusting himself like Ahhh, I don’t know. I said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to be handcuffed to this game. I gotta be able to do different things.’”
The lead-up to LL’s most important acting year was a curious mix of bit roles (1991’s The Hard Way and Toys), an indie crime drama bomb (1995’s Out-of-Sync), a four-year TV sitcom run (In The House), and a supporting turn as one of the lone survivors of infamous masked killer Michael Meyers (1998’s Halloween H20: 20 Years Later). To put it bluntly, no one could or should have expected LL Cool J to make such a profound movie leap. But 1999 pretty much launched the next phase of LL’s career as a legit actor.
On the surface, Deep Blue Sea looked more like an extension of his role in Halloween. Both films featured LL in somewhat stereotypical parts, one as a security guard and the other as a cook. But Deep Blue Sea proved to be that rare combination of absurd cult classic (Samuel L. Jackson’s getting chomped to bits by a genetically engineered shark during his big speech is still shockingly hilarious) and surprise box office hit ($164.6 million). Yes, LL’s Preacher had a profane pet parrot. Yes, he was the comedic relief. And yes, the film features one of LL’s most cringe-worthy songs ever imagined. But he manages to save the day and kills the bloodthirsty beast, a shocking outcome for anyone who knows the history of Black folk who pop up in such horror genres.
In Too Deep gave LL the chance to finally stretch his talents as he took on the scene-chewing role as violent crack kingpin Dwayne “God” Gittens. While it doesn’t reach the ‘hood classic heights as such flicks as New Jack City, Menace II Society and Set It Off, the Omar Epps featured project gave studio executives a chance to see LL in an entirely new and more aggressive light. (At one point Mr. I Need Love tortures and kills an underling just for looking at his baby’s mother. Nice.)
Finally, with Any Given Sunday, we see LL’s elevation into the world of first-tier Hollywood productions. He certainly took full advantage of being part of Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone’s wild, and at times surreal, dissection of professional American football. Indeed, it’s not every day that you are able to put on your acting resume that you appeared on screen with acting deity Al Pacino. It’s almost enough to make you forget about that time on the Any Given Sunday set that LL punched out future Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx during a heated squabble. (Almost.)
That being said, it’s important to understand just how rare it was for any actor, much less a rapper, making his or her way through the Hollywood machine to be featured in three high-profiled movies in one year during the ’90s. Today, LL Cool J commands the small screen on CBS’ long running military drama NCIS: Los Angeles. While he has slowed down his theatrical ambitions (his last two movies appearances were the 2006 Queen Latifah romantic comedy remake, Last Holiday, and the critically panned William H. Macy comedy The Deal), LL has become an omnipresent television fixture.
When he’s not saving the world from the bad guys, he’s hosting the Grammy Awards, the hit reality competition series Lip Sync Battle and, most recently, the Kennedy Center Honors, of which Smith became the first hip-hop artist to receive the prestigious award back in 2017.
In many ways, LL shares the dogged career acting trajectory of former hip-hop rival turned colleague Ice-T, who has managed to build an impressive 20 plus-year run on Law & Order: SVU. But LL Cool J owes his current respected standing to three vastly different cinematic statements that proved to the suits and the public that he was more than just a rap god.
“I just wanted to have freedom,” he told The Independent back in 2017. “That’s why I chose to do acting. I didn’t want to be handcuffed to one thing, and now I have options.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo Warner Bros. Pictures / Online USA)/ Getty Images