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The story of a good-guy rapper.
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The story of a good-guy rapper.
"There are rebels and there are innovators. I'm an innovator." —L.L. Cool J
"Keeping it real ain't about carrying a gun or smoking blunts. It's about being true to yourself and those around you." —L.L. Cool J
"In this business, sex is like candy-plentiful and cheap." —L.L. Cool J
I could go into great detail, dime people out, dime myself out. For what? The only thing anyone needs to know, the only thing I learned experimenting with drugs is that drugs ain't s***. Drugs aren't the answer. I didn't find any answers in weed, coke, mescaline, or dust. No answers, just a question: Why?
Why was it that when I smoked coke, everybody in the room was my friend. I mean, did all of these jerks suddenly turn into great people? I don't think so, but the drugs could make you believe anything.
Know what I mean?
At a point in time, I even began to do drugs with Cornell. He and I would smoke weed or coke together. And I know he was a real friend. But he did give out stupid advice sometimes. He would say, "Look, stop walking around the goddamn party, sniffing out of everybody's dollar bill. Just go get yourself an eighth and do it by yourself."
Now what kind of advice was that? It was warped. But he thought he was making us sophisticated. He meant well in his own zany way.
If you hang with me today, you'll see that I surround myself with people who don't do drugs. This is a drug-free camp. The most you'll see is allergy medicine. I don't even want beer or any alcohol around. You can tell by my life that it's clean, because I'm not getting into trouble anymore. I'm not getting high, getting drunk, and having women all over the place. I don't bring it into my camp. And I don't allow anyone else to. The atmosphere around me now keeps me focused. And I think it's easier for my troops to respect me when they see me conduct myself in a manner that is worthy of respect.
I think that's important, because it used to be a free-for-all. Everybody was a clown, and so was I. That's why it was so easy for people to rob me or play me out. I was too busy getting high and having girls and drinking my little Cristal and my Moët and my Alizé to notice what was going on around me. In fact, I was drinking so much Alizé I was going to name my son Alizé. No joke. Good thing Simone wasn't having it. I'm sure Najee's glad too.
It wasn't easy to get back in control. Somehow I overcame the drugs and the alcohol. But I needed help. I needed strength. I had to dig deep down inside myself and find who I really was, and force myself to understand what I saw. Lots of people struggle with drugs and various addictions and don't think they can get out. It's not easy. I didn't come through my trials and tribulations without a scratch either. I have scars, and I've left a few scars on others. Roscoe had turned me into a person I couldn't even say was human. Because I knew nothing but pain. I was inflicting pain and receiving pain.
There is a powerful saying in the hip hop community that is like the hip hop motto: Keepin' it real. You ain't nothing, ain't true to the game unless you keep it real. For some, keepin' it real is just being you -- no matter how negative that is. But I totally disagree with that. I'm sure glad I grew up and became real. A real man doesn't behave like a savage.
I grew up surrounded by people who didn't keep it real. My father, who tried to blast my grandfather and mother into eternity with a shotgun, didn't keep it real. Roscoe, who beat me with vacuum cleaner attachments, threw me down stairs, and blew reefer in my face didn't keep it real.
But keepin' it real ain't about carrying a gun or smoking blunts. It's about being true to yourself and those around you, taking care of your family and showing respect for others, being considerate. Men and women who diss and try to kill one another and who abuse drugs and sex ain't keepin' it real.
You know what I'm saying?
Keepin' it real, for me, is about staying tight spiritually. You've got to keep it real with God. You have to keep it real with your internal self, your essence, with that which makes you a human being. With that subconscious power that keeps your blood flowing, that makes you blink when you don't even know it, that makes you breathe without having to think about it. That's what you have to keep it real with -- righteousness.
No, I didn't keep it very real the early part of my career. And I now know that there's a price to pay for not keepin' it real. You think it's okay, that you can get away with that kind of behavior. But it eventually catches up to you. I learned that lesson the hard way.
But not right away.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. Copyright © 1997 by James Todd Smith.
|Introduction : Know What I'm Saying||1|
|4||Junior Cry School||37|
|I Need a Beat|
|5||Please Listen to My Demo||53|
|6||Escape to Planet Hip Hop||67|
|7||Snakes, Bureaucracy, and Bulls...||79|
|8||Believing My Own Hype||93|
|11||Sleeping with the Enemy||131|
|13||G.E.D. (General Education on Decency)||155|
|14||My Around the Way Girl||165|
|15||From Those to Whom Much Is Given, Much Will Be Required||171|
|Finale: Power of God||195|
|A Sneak Preview||203|
|About the Authors||211|
It took four hours of labor, sweating, and pacing. Four hours of straining, thinking, and writing. I put on the O'Jays and went to the bathroom. I put on a Grandmaster Flash 12-inch and lay down on the floor. I put on the Furious Five and looked out the window. I was in North Babylon, Long Island, in the living room of my mother's house, alone and making what turned out to be one of the biggest decisions of my life: whether or not to change my rap name from J-Ski to Cool J. Around this time it seemed like every other rapper had a ski on the end of his name. There was Luvbug Starski, Busy B-Starski, Mike-ski, and a whole bunch of assorted Skis. I wanted to be different.
J-Ski just wasn't getting it. But I was feeling Cool J. To me cool would never be played out. It seems like cool has been around since the beginning of time. Each generation uses cool, and it's still, well, cool. So after going through this long process, I gave birth to Cool J. I spent all night going through my school notebooks and a small suitcase full of scraps of paper that I had written raps on. Every place I had written J-Ski, I erased it and wrote, "Cool J." To me that was making it final, like getting married. I had made that kind of commitment to Cool J.
I couldn't wait to go chill up on Merrick Boulevard with my homeboys and try out my new tag. The first person I told about it was my man, Playboy Mikey D, who I used to write rhymes with. "I like that Cool J," he said, "but you need something in front of it. Something like Playboy. How about Ladies Love?"
I looked at him and started smiling. Yeah, Ladies Love Cool J. It was working. I kept letting it roll off my tongue. "Ladies Love Cool J, Ladies Love Cool J."
I liked the feel of it. I also thought it was a paradox, because the ladies were definitely not feeling me then. I was 14 and I was either a pain in the a** to girls or simply didn't exist. The ladies were hating J-Ski. But I figured if I turned it all around, maybe the ladies would love Cool J.
It took two days of labor and love, but in 1982 somewhere between Long Island and Queens, LL Cool J was born.
Physically, I came into being 14 years earlier, as James Todd Smith.
It was right around Christmas, 1967, at about two in the morning on a Saturday. The brand new Buick 225 was swerving down Pioneer Drive two blocks from the Southern State Parkway in Bayshore, Long Island. My father, James Smith, was driving. A chocolate brown man with thick muscles and coarse hair slicked back with Conkalene, he was cursing at my mother, Ondrea. They had been at a party, where he had accused her of flirting with another man. She was looking good that day, in a light green satin dress with a lace collar. Her dark hair hung off her shoulders, and her honey-colored face was made up to perfection.
It got so bad at the party that my mother actually picked up a pair of sewing scissors and tried to stab him. So they had to leave, but they fought on the way to the car and continued to battle as my father drove off.
"What the hell were you looking at him for?" he growled.
"Jimmy, what are you talking about? Stop talking crazy."
"Who you calling crazy?"
He started slapping her up, leaving more than one imprint of his hand on her face. She kept swearing at him, but by now she was crying. He kept cursing at her, calling her all kinds of things, things a real man shouldn't call his wife.
The brown Buick began to swerve as it approached the off-ramp of the Southern State. When my mother opened the door, the car was going about 30 mph.
"I'm getting out of here," she said, hoping he would come to his senses.
"Well get out then," my father said, swinging at my mother again with one hand and trying to steer with the other. She ended up on the highway, cold, scraped up, and dirty in her new green dress. Oh, yeah--she was also nine months pregnant with me.
I was born at 8:46 P.M. January 14, 1968, at South Side Hospital in Bayshore. I weighed seven pounds, four ounces, and my right arm was paralyzed. Maybe it was from my mother rolling out of the car while she was pregnant. Maybe it was from the forceps the doctor used to pull me out of her womb. Maybe it was just one of those things. But one thing's for sure, the nerves in my right arm were damaged.
By the time I came home from the hospital my mother had forgiven my father, again. He somehow convinced her that he didn't mean to go off on her, that he would never go ill on her again. He said he wanted us to be a family. But, like most of his promises, that frame of mind didn't last long. He even used my bad arm as an excuse to yell at my mother.
"You can't even have a healthy baby, Ongie," he would say. "Look at him. Maybe if you weren't so stupid, he'd be okay."
My mother absorbed this, but she never paid much attention. She knew she didn't deserve it, and she loved me. She used to lotion me down every night until I looked like a little greased pig. And when she put me to bed, she would dress me in a onesie and pin my sleeve to the mattress, so whenever I tried to move, I would be forced to exercise my bad arm. After a few months, I waved my arm for the first time. And within a year it had gotten so strong it was almost perfect--just the way my life appeared from the outside.
After I was first born, we lived in a tiny house in Brentwood, Long Island. Of course, I don't remember it, but my mother told me it had a small living room that you entered as soon as you came in the front door. There was a heating grate in the floor of the entryway, where she would dry clothes by hanging them over a chair. Two bedrooms--one for my parents and one for me--were right off the living room. It was all on one level and looked like a little doll house.
In less than a year, like the Jeffersons, we were "movie' on up" to a bigger house in Bayshore. My father had gotten a loan through the Veterans' Administration, and he got a great deal on a high ranch. This is the house I remember. It had a big yard in the front and one in the back. And there were always people over--family mostly.
Music was a big part of our house too. My father used to write songs and he played the keyboard. He even had a record label at one time. He always wanted to be a musician. And my mother loved listening to music. She used to play her 8-track tapes and her 78s, the O'Jays, the Main Ingredient, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Whispers. We always had a nice stereo system.
There was a barbecue pit where every spring and summer my father would cook hotdogs and quarter-pound hamburgers, chicken and ribs, and corn wrapped in aluminum foil. Every Fourth of July my father and his friends would buy a whole pig, soak and clean it in our bathtub (ain't that nasty?), and cook it whole in a big pit out back. Back then, women wore midriffs and hot pants, and the fellows had shirts with the huge lapels.
One summer, I taught myself how to ride a bike on the street outside our house. I was just a little kid, and my parents bought me a bike that they didn't expect me to ride until I got older. But I surprised them. The bike was blue and silver and almost as big as I was. And even though it didn't have training wheels' I would roll it outside in front of our house every day and try to ride it. My mother would crack up as she sat on the front porch with her friends, watching me fall all over the place trying to ride this big old bike. By the end of the summer, though, I was riding it. I guess I was always determined to do things no one thought I could. (Later, I even taught myself how to juggle. To this day I can still do it.)
That same year, my father bought me a puppy that I called Pup. I didn't go anyplace without him. He was one of those mixed breed mutts, a little guy with short brown hair with a patch of white, and real cute. Pup was my true friend and the first thing I had that I felt belonged to me. Everywhere I went, Pup was right behind me wagging his tail and looking up at me. I would put his little leash on him and take him for a walk with my mother whenever I could.
One day while we were going out to play, he fell through a missing floorboard in the porch. His leash got stuck on a nail, and he started making this horrible squeal. I ran down under the house to try to save him, but by the time I could get him, he had choked to death. I cried for days. My father buried him in the backyard, one of the few nice things he ever did for me.
From the outside we were an all-American family, with the house in Long Island, dog, and cute little kid. But inside that house was pure hell. Because my father was a straight up Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To almost everyone around him, he was Mr. Responsible, a family man who was taking care of business. He and my mother were the perfect couple. They partied, went out, and entertained.
But my grandfather wasn't fooled. He hated my father, and he hated the way he treated my mother, his only daughter, his only child. Pops would show. up at my grandparents' house looking like a pimp--hat cocked to the side, a cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth. And he always had something smart or ignorant to say.
My parents met in 1966 at Pilgrim State Hospital, where they were both nurses' assistants. My pops had just gotten out of the navy, and my mother was studying to become a nurse. My mother thought my father was like one of those romantic guys she used to read about or dream up listening to her Marvin Gaye records. At the time, my pops was a sharp dresser, he always seemed to have a pocketful of money--he was always working or starting a business--and he always had a nice car. That year it was a '65 Mustang. "Mustang Sally" was the popular song, and my father loved to sing that song and drive his car.
They got married a year later. There was no ceremony, no bridesmaids, no ring bearers, no flowers, no nothing. They found some minister on Straight Path in Wyandanch to perform the marriage. My father wore a pair of blue slacks and a shirt with big lapels. My mother had on a black skirt and a pink sweater--like they were going to dinner or the movies or something.
My father left the hospital to take a job driving a truck, which paid twice as much. But the extra money and all the entertaining they did didn't make them happy. The fighting between them was off the hook--every night was another round. They would fight over the dumbest things. One time, my pops wanted to get a loan to buy a truck, and Moms didn't think it was a good idea, so he choked her for not co-signing his plan. It was like he couldn't discuss his feelings and he had to get violent. And there I am, right in the middle.
I hated my life sometimes. Being an only child made it harder because I was all alone. Sometimes I would sit in my room and drift off into Lala Land, staring at the colors in the wall, or the patterns in the hardwood floors. I'd pretend I was someplace else, in a different family with lots of brothers and sisters. I would make up an entirely new life, while my parents fought and cursed each other. There was a lot of emptiness and loneliness.
There was one time when my parents left me at home by myself. When I was about four years old, I remember waking up in what seemed to me the middle of the night to go to the bathroom or call for my mother for a drink of water. No one answered I ran from room to room in that big dark house in complete terror. After realizing I was home by myself, I lay in my mother and father's bed and cried, staring into the closet, thinking the clothes in the dark were shapes moving or monsters or something.
After a while my moms just got fed up with my father. She got tired of him embarrassing her, hitting her in front of her friends, and cursing her out, so she decided to move back home with my grandparents, who had just bought a house in St. Al bans, Queens.
The day we left was kind of weird. My pops was standing calmly at the top of the stairs as we headed for the front door. I remember looking up at him and seeing a tear in his eye. Maybe somewhere, I thought, underneath the anger, the violence, and the evilness, was a man who really loved us in his own way. If he did, he had a funny way of showing it.