Since its foundation in 2018, Rock The Bells has given a platform to the veterans and superheroes of hip-hop and rap music. Founded by LL COOL J, Rock The Bells is a timeless hip-hop brand owned and operated by the “creators and keepers of the culture.”
On Wednesday, August 3 at The Edition Hotel in New York City’s Times Square, the “Around The Way Girl” rapper hosted an intimate dinner as a prequel to the Rock The Bells Festival, which will be taking place this Saturday, August 6. The dinner was curated by the Legendary Damon and close friends and family were present. Notable guests included Simone Smith, Kehinde Wiley, Dapper Dan, D-Nice, Roxanne Shante, Misa Hylton, Ty Hunter, Bevy Smith, Gil Vasquez, and COO of LL COOL J, Inc. Claudine Joseph.
“I love that Ladybug Mecca from Digable is on the festival. I love that [Roxanne] Shante’s hosting the whole thing. Lil Kim’s performing, Trina’s performing. It feels good,” LL COOL J told ESSENCE excitedly in anticipation of this year’s festival. Along with the aforementioned rappers, the full festival line-up includes Jadakiss, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, and much more.
Ahead of this year’s festival, ESSENCE caught up with LL COOL J at The Edition Hotel to talk about his love and appreciation for his femcee peers, the growth of Rock The Bells over the years, and his top five female rappers in the game.
“There is room for females to look at Lauryn Hill or Missy Elliott. There’s room for that kind of imagery as well. I don’t think everybody has to only follow the Lil’ Kim path, the Cardi path, or the City Girl path,” he said.
ESSENCE: Who are some of the women in hip-hop and rap that you’ve looked up to over the years?
LL COOL J: “I respect a lot of women in the game. When you think about Sha-Rock, she was part of the group that was one of the first hip-hop artists to be on Saturday Night Live. That was a big deal back in the days, with the Funky Four plus one more when Sha-Rock did that. Roxanne Shante, obviously, she’s the first lady of Rock the Bells. She is crushing it on the air. She’s doing extremely well. She’s hosting a festival. I have supreme respect for her and what she does as an artist and what she does as a woman. I think she’s very transparent, true, and real, and I think that’s what matters.”
“To be honest with you, I don’t even really look at women or men. I don’t really think about things in that regard. I just respect people. I’m funny like that. I was raised by my grandmother, so I wasn’t really raised making the distinctions about, ‘is it a woman I’m looking up to, or is it a man?’ It ain’t gender-oriented for me. I respected my grandmother. I respect my moms. I respect these female artists that are out here working hard, doing their thing. I love it and I try to support them on the channel.”
ESSENCE: Because you have such a large platform with Rock the Bells, what’s the significance of highlighting women like Remy Ma, Trina, and Roxanne Shante knowing how big it is?
LL COOL J: “Well, when you think about hip hop, women gave birth to everything and that’s part of it. First of all, it’s not really about if it’s a woman I’m respecting on not respecting; I respect everybody and I give all of them love. I give everybody love. That’s just the way I move and the way I operate. That being said, we go out of our way. Salt-N-Pepa has equity in the company. Roxanne Shante has equity in the company [and] she’s also working at Sirius. Sha-Rock is also on the air. Lil Kim’s a part of the festival. I just literally did the intro for Lil Kim for the festival. I didn’t do that for anybody. People will be surprised, but on video, I’m like “Yo, I represent Queens. She was raised out in Brooklyn. Get ready for Lil’ Kim…” This is what we do.”
ESSENCE: Speaking of Queens and Brooklyn, how have you seen artists continue to put on for New York City?
“The reason why I created Rock the Bells is because I believe hip hop is not disposable. I didn’t want to allow it to wither away. I feel like the culture deserves to be celebrated and elevated the same way that all of these other artists are celebrated and elevated. If they can celebrate Madonna or Paul McCartney, then they can celebrate Lil Kim and Nas. This is about hip-hop culture. I’m not, not representing New York, but this is about hip-hop culture in general.”
“That’s why you have Bun B curating the food court, you have E-40 coming in with Goon with a Spoon, Mia X whipping them pots, Styles and Jada with the juice bar, Ghostface with the Killah Koffee, [and] Nas with Sweet Chick. It’s about elevating and celebrating the culture in a real way and I feel like that’s something that hasn’t been happening. I feel like, for a long time, the status quo would let you believe that we are only as good as our current billboard position and that’s just not the case. This is an art form. That’s why you’re in a room here and you see people like Dapper Dan to people from Keith Haring foundation because they understand that this is an art form. This is something that’s special and meaningful and I want it to be treated that way.”
ESSENCE: Speaking retrospectively, how proud are you to see how far Rock the Bells has come from when it was first curated to now?
“The foundation of it all goes back to the Crash Crew with Breaking Bells, then I created a song called ‘Rock the Bells.’ That song obviously took on a life of its own and inspired many things like that first set of concerts they were doing for Rock the Bells and Rock the Vote. People were coming up with all kinds of different takes on the whole Rock the Bells thing and I believe right now what we’ve done and what we’ve built is spectacular. It feels amazing, but I feel like there’s a lot of room for growth. I want these ladies and gentlemen to be lifted up to the highest heights via Rock the Bells. This is not about LL Cool J, this is about our culture. I did this for our culture. I made certain moves in my career. I want to try to make some of the moves that I would make for myself, but I want to make them for the whole culture, and that’s what I’m doing.”
ESSENCE: If you can give today’s hip-hop artists a piece of advice about staying true to who they are and authenticity, what would you tell them?
“Just continue to do what you love, but understand the art form as well. There’s nothing wrong with going after the money. There’s nothing wrong with getting paid. You want to get rich. You want to be wealthy, [but] understand the art form and understand your craft so that you can have a long-term career. If you only make it about the money, then you’re going to get in and get out really quickly and it may not lend itself to you being artistically successful long term. Now, you may be successful as an entrepreneur because you caught a check and did something else with the money. “
“That’s a different type of success, but if you want to have artistic success, you got to understand the craft. You got to understand the foundation, you got to understand Rock the Bells [and] why it exists. You have to understand these artists and who they are, and what they did. What was the third song on Rakim’s second album? You need to know that. I’m not suggesting creating something like it, but I’m saying you should always be modern and do what you feel and you’re inspired to do, but pay attention. Know your craft.”
ESSENCE: If you could give your younger self a piece of advice earlier in the industry, what would you tell him?
“I would probably tell him to do what you’re doing, [but] just be a little more open-minded and pay attention a little bit more. There’s some good advice that can come your way and you might not hear it just because you have tunnel vision. Now that being said, I’m thankful for where I’m at. It is what it is and I’ve done pretty well. There are a few conversations that I probably could have listened to a little closer.”
ESSENCE: Who are the top songs by femcees in your rotation right now?
“You put me on the spot. I like the joint that Rapsody did with the Wu-Tang vibe. I forget the name of it, but that joint is crazy. I was laughing when I was over on vacation, but I was listening to GloRilla and her friends and some of the stuff that they’re doing. I like what they were doing because it was funny and seemed true to me. It felt real to me. I can’t front, that Cardi B joint, the bloody shoes joint [“Bodak Yellow”] was good and the newest one she did with DJ Khaled on his album, [“BIG PAPER”]. That one was slick and it has a hard beat.”
To purchase tickets visit www.rockthebellsfestival.com. For more information on the festival, lineup, and ticket options, please visit rockthebells.com/festival. Festival updates and new lineup announcements can also be found across Rock The Bells’ Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.