LL Cool J Bio

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At first glance, I thought LL Cool J was defined by his sexy tunes and smooth, seductive lines. You know, the type that gets you first in line for a J.Lo collab.

While he’s pretty good at this type of stuff—there’s a reason he’s called Ladies Love Cool James, you know—his skills on the mic go way beyond the art of allure. Way, way beyond it.

Why else would icons like Eminem and Tip consider him an important influence in their careers? And how else could he have become the first rapper to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor?

A highly accomplished artist in the fields of music, film, and TV, LL Cool J has commanded the respect of every industry that he has ever graced.

And if he ever decides to release an album several decades from now—whether at age 65 or 75—I’m sure his loving fanbase will never call it a comeback.

Quick Facts

Birth Date January 14, 1968
Birth Place Bay Shore, New York
Nationality American
Zodiac Sign Capricorn
Children Italia Smith


Samaria Smith

Najee Smith

Nina Smith

Partner/Spouse Simone Smith (m. 1995)
Most Successful Songs “Going Back to Cali”


“Mama Said Knock You Out”

“Hey Lover” (feat. Boyz II Men)

“Doin’ It” (feat. LeShaun)
“Loungin” (feat. Total)

Net Worth Estimated value of $120 million (as of 2022)
Social Media twitter.com/llcoolj




Major Awards 2x Grammy Award winner


2017 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor

Last updated August 21, 2022

Early Years

LL Cool J Early Years

He was born James Todd Smith on January 14, 1968 in Bay Shore, New York. His parents were James Louis Smith Jr. and Ondrea Griffith.

Before the glitz, the fame, and all the creature comforts of a superstar lifestyle, James had to endure a horrific childhood that was traumatizing in more ways than one.

As chronicled by Teresa Wiltz of Chicago Tribune in a 1997 piece, a 4-year-old James found his mother and grandfather in a bloody mess one day. The culprit of this near-fatal shooting? His own father, James Louis.

Shortly thereafter, James Louis and Ondrea divorced. Ondrea then entered a relationship with a drug addict named Roscoe. Wiltz describes young James being beaten by Roscoe with “extension cords, vacuum cleaner attachments, and fists, for the slightest infraction.” 

With all this violence pervading his home life, it was only a matter of time before James found its counterpart outside the walls of his residence.

In school, he was a bully; on the streets, he came to wield knives and guns. (As a former schoolteacher, I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen dozens of cases like James—troubled children who manifest disruptive behavior in their other social circles.)

Hip Hop: James’ Saving Grace

Amidst all this turmoil, James sought psychological refuge in rap music. Becoming a fan of the genre at the age of nine, James had a special place in his heart for The Treacherous Three (a pioneer rap group that originally consisted of Kool Moe Dee, L.A. Sunshine, and DJ Easy Lee).

By the age of 11, James was already composing his own verses. As he immersed himself deeper and deeper into his musical passion, he received valuable support from his kin.

His grandfather bought him $2,000 worth of music equipment, while his mother used her tax refund to get him a Korg drum machine.

Using these gifts, James started creating demo tapes, which he would then send to record companies in the hopes of being signed. In 1984—at the tender age of 16—James caught his big break when a newly opened independent label called Def Jam offered him a deal. 

I think James was the perfect signing for Def Jam, which was the brainchild of two New York University luminaries named Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons.

Def Jam needed to find a signature voice to represent their musical identity; and James craved an opportunity to prove himself as an emcee. It was a match made in heaven.

LL Cool J’s Career Takes Off

LL Cool J’s Career Takes Off

As a Def Jam talent, James took on the stage name LL Cool J, which was coined by his friend Mikey D. (Prior to his record deal, he had gone by the name J-Ski. Yikes.)

In 1984, shortly after Cool J signed his deal, his very first single—entitled “I Need a Beat”—was released. This debut made it abundantly clear that this emcee would be defined by power. Cool J’s voice had an undeniable authority capable of commanding the full attention of an arena. 

The track proved to be a win-win situation for both artist and label. With over 100,000 copies sold, Cool J made a great first impression as an emcee; while Def Jam proved that it had an eye for talent that could move the needle.

In addition, “I Need a Beat” (along with The Beastie Boys’ 1984 single “Rock Hard”) helped Def Jam secure a distribution deal with Columbia Records.

On November 18, 1985, Cool J released his debut album Radio (which also happened to be the first full-length release of Def Jam). Aside from the significance of this debut track in Cool J’s career, Radio can be described as a milestone project in the evolution of hip hop. 

Whereas the disco rap-oriented old school was prevalent in the early ‘80s, Radio (along with albums from The Beastie Boys and Run D.M.C.) ushered in the new school upon its arrival.

Fans now came to enjoy a fresh hip hop sound characterized by aggressive delivery and elements of rock music, as well as minimalist production (pioneered by Rick Rubin, whose fingerprints are all over Radio).

Powered by singles like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Rock the Bells,” Cool J’s debut record went on to peak at number 46 on the Billboard 200. Radio was eventually certified platinum.

It should also be pointed out that the onset of Cool J’s chart-topping success coincides with the beginnings of his acting career.

A month before the release of Radio, Cool J made his big-screen debut in the film Kush Groove, which is loosely based on the early days of the Def Jam label. As he continued to drop albums in the ensuing years, he secured more and more roles in both film and TV.

Cool J Transcends Genres

Cool J’s next three albums illustrated how his musical style walked the fine line between blending genres and supposedly “selling out.” 

In 1987, he released his sophomore record Bigger and Deffer. The crown jewel of this album was the ballad “I Need Love,” which deftly straddled the boundaries between rap and pop.

On the strength of this track and other hits like “I’m Bad” and “Kanday,” Bigger and Deffer lived up to its name by going double platinum.

In 1989, Cool J dropped his third album Walking with a Panther. On the one hand, the singles “I’m Going Back to Cali” and “I’m That Type of Guy” were certified hits (with “I’m Going Back to Cali” getting a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance).

On the other hand, the rest of the album did not receive the same adulation from the hip hop fanbase. In particular, fans felt that the love ballads were too pop for their taste. Cool J heard this criticism loud and clear when he was booed at a concert in the renowned Apollo Theater.

Since the act of responding to critics is inherent in hip hop, Cool J was able to deliver the perfect reply when he released his fourth album Mama Said Knock You Out in 1990.

Produced mostly by the iconic New York DJ Marley Marl, Mama Said Knock You Out left no doubt about Cool J’s determination to stay on top of the rap industry, his crossover appeal notwithstanding. 

Cool J’s defiant spirit buoyed the album all the way to double platinum certification. The title track went on to become just the second track in history to win Best Rap Solo Performance at the Grammy Awards.

To this day, I’ll put up this track among the best workout songs of all time. Who wouldn’t be motivated to get those reps in while Cool J’s menacing declaration of “I’M GONNA KNOCK YOU OUT!” is blaring in the background?

Making His Presence Felt in the ’90s

Making His Presence Felt in the '90s

In my opinion, the ’90s was the most iconic era of the rap game. Legends were making waves everywhere—West Coast, East Coast, down South, and elsewhere.

In perhaps the most competitive period of hip hop history, how did LL Cool J—who had already unloaded four albums in the so-called “golden age” of hip hop—stack up?

Fading into the sunset was not in the cards for Cool J in the ’90s. As a matter of fact, he even benefited from an asset that most rappers didn’t have: regular on-screen exposure.

His TV and film appearances in this decade helped him maintain a strong presence in the consciousness of his national audience.

Whether it was his lead role as Marion Hill in the sitcom In the House, or his scenes in films like Toys and Out-of-Sync, Cool J took advantage of his screen time opportunities to gradually become a household name.

On the music side, Cool J continued to thrive. In 1993, he released his fifth album 14 Shots to the Dome (which does sound like a catchy name for an action film).

In this record, Cool J took on a very Ice Cube-esque sound as he tried his hand at West Coast gangsta rap. It didn’t quite click, though, as indicated by the lukewarm critical response (plus the fact that it “only” went gold).

In 1995’s Mr. Smith, Cool J reverted to his signature blend of hardcore rap and smooth love tunes. Cool J’s sixth album spawned three platinum-certified singles: “Hey Lover” (a Boyz II Men-assisted ballad), “Loungin” (which features R&B group Total), and “Doin’ It” (a collaboration with rapper LeShaun).

Thanks to this return to form, Mr. Smith became Cool J’s third album to go double platinum.

Cool J’s final album release in the ’90s was Phenomenon, which hit the shelves in 1997. This album was executive produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs, who brought his signature R&B influence to the project.

This 10-track record spawned 5 singles, including the poignant song “Father” which narrates the abuse that Cool J endured at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend. Phenomenon was certified platinum less than three months after its release.

The 2000s: Staying Busy on All Fronts

I can’t help but marvel at Cool J’s body of work in the 2000s. He remained relentless in his music career even as his film and TV pursuits went into overdrive.

I wouldn’t blame anyone born in this decade who thought that Cool J had always been a full-time actor! The man has such stage presence, and he flexes it particularly well.

On the big screen, he’s done comedies like 2001’s Kingdom Come and 2008’s The Deal; thrillers such as 2004’s Mindhunters and 2005’s Slow Burn; and romantic flicks like 2003’s Deliver Us from Eva. 

As far as the small screen goes, Cool J was a member of the original cast of NCIS: Los Angeles, an action series on CBS. To date, the show has run for thirteen seasons, meaning that Cool J’s Special Agent Sam Hanna has been a mainstay of primetime television for more than a decade.

Impressively, Cool J continued to be a relevant presence on the music scene amidst his jam-packed filming schedule. Each of the albums that he released in the 2000s made the top 10 of the Billboard 200; and all but one of them was certified gold.

His 2000 album G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Timeis the only record in his discography to reach number one on the Billboard 200; while his 2002 album 10 peaked at number two.

Cool J released three more albums that decade: 2004’s The DEFinition, 2006’s Todd Smith, and 2008’s Exit 13. (Notably, Exit 13 is his first album that failed to chart; and his last album to be released under the Def Jam imprint.)

The 2010s and Beyond: Cruise Control

The 2010s and Beyond

I’d like to think that, by the time the 2010s rolled around, Cool J was already on cruise control as his legacy had already been firmly cemented.

Notably, he only released one album—2013’s Authentic—during this time frame. Though this record is far from his best output, it’s still an impressive mark of longevity. It’s Cool J’s thirteenth studio album, for crying out loud.

Meanwhile, Cool J was invited to host the Grammy Awards five straight times, from 2012 through 2016. He also hosted and produced the reality competition Lip Sync Battle on Paramount Network from 2015 through 2019. And, in 2016, Cool J received his well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Perhaps, one day, Cool J will join the likes of Tupac and Biggie Smalls as an enshrined rapper in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

When you take into consideration his critical and commercial success, along with his significance in the growth of the rap industry himself, you would see essentially no argument against his inclusion in the highest echelons of hip hop.


LL Cool J will go down in hip hop history as a prolific, influential emcee whose longevity and list of accomplishments speak for themselves. Few rappers have put together a career as consistent and as well-decorated as Cool J.

The defiance in his lyricism—a reflection of his resilience in the face of hardships like scathing criticism—resonates in his authoritative voice. It is this stubborn dedication to his craft that has endeared him to his fans and peers alike.

Why is LL Cool J Influential?

Why is LL Cool J Influential?

Cool J perfectly embodied the paradigm shift to hip hop’s new school. At a time when several legends of the ’90s were just starting to fall in love with the genre, Cool J made powerful tracks that moved budding poets to pick up a mic.

His powerful delivery and story-telling skills became a template for rappers to follow and build upon.


Question: Did LL Cool J have a Family of his Own?

Answer: Cool J married Simone Johnson in 1995. They have three daughters (Italia, Samaria, and Nina) and one son (Najee).

Question: Why did LL Cool J leave Def Jam?

Answer: Cool J’s departure from his long-time label stems from the takeover (no pun intended) of rap mogul Jay-Z as president/CEO in 2004. In Cool J’s mind, younger artists started to get better treatment than OGs like him under Jay-Z’s watch.
Though 50 Cent tried his best to mediate between Cool J and Hov, Cool J ultimately decided to leave Def Jam after the release of his twelfth studio album Exit 13 in 2008. (For what it’s worth, Cool J has since stated that he no longer harbors ill will against Jay-Z.)

Question: Aside from Music and Acting, what are LL Cool J’s Other Pursuits?

Answer: Cool J also happens to be a writer! He’s written two fitness books, a children’s book, and an autobiography entitled I Make My Own Rules. In addition, Cool J established a charitable, basketball-focused foundation called Jump & Ball in his home base of Queens, New York.

Bottom Line

If you had to compile the names of ’80s hip hop acts who are still relevant to this day, you’d be writing quite a short list. Along with Dr. Dre and Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J is an OG who deserves nothing but mad respect for maintaining such a strong presence for so long.

Indeed, if anyone will claim that Cool J is exactly what’s printed on the cover of his eighth album—the greatest of all time—I’ll simply listen to their argument with great interest.


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