3 Important lessons I learned from working with LL Cool J

Using your messed up childhood as an excuse for being a subpar human as an adult is lame. James Todd Smith or LL Cool J as he is ubiquitously known is a prime example of someone who could have easily gone that route, but chose not to.

He’s a three time Grammy Award winner, 11 time platinum recording artist, talented actor, author, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He also was raised in an abusive household.

I recently had the chance to work with Todd for a couple of weeks. Within the first few hours, I realized why he is one of the most successful celebrities to ever step foot on the stage.

On his road to greatness, there were no favors involved or lucky breaks. He made no excuses, out worked everyone, and played to his strengths instead of his weaknesses.

He made his own rules.

llcoolWith that said, here are 3 things I learned from working with James Todd Smith that we can all use on our path to greatness:

1) No excuses

Todd Smith, also known as LL Cool J, didn’t have the easiest childhood. His Mom left his father when he was a young boy to go live with her parents. His father didn’t like that very much so he showed up one night and opened up fire on LL’s mom and grandpa, with a shotgun. Todd witnessed it all, the blood was everywhere.

Luckily his mom and grandfather survived.

Shortly thereafter his dad fled to California. Instead of his mom and grandparents pressing charges they just let him go.

While in the hospital recovering his Mom met a new man. His name was Roscoe. He would turn-out to inflict more pain on a young LL then his father ever could.

Once LL’s mom got back to good health she started working again. She worked two jobs so she could pay the mortgage on their house in North Babylon, NY.

The fact that she was at work all day and all night left Roscoe and LL alone most of the time.

He would rotate beating me with extension cords, vacuum cleaner attachments, and fists. He would punch me in the chest and knock the wind out of me — and then tell me to “raise up,” get up for another punch. One time he threw me down a flight of stairs in our house. He even beat me for looking in the refrigerator. There’s nothing worse than being hungry and staring into an empty refrigerator because your mother’s man ate all the food after smoking a pound of weed — and then getting a beating for being hungry. Yo, it could freak you out.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You can use all the screwed up things that happened to you in the past as a reason to fail, or you can use it as fuel for the fire that illuminates the path on your road to success.

You are not your past. You are the product of what you do today and what you do everyday from here on out.

What are you waiting for?

Nothing should motivate you more than being in a shitty situation. To get comfortable you have to go through some discomfort. There’s no excuse for not doing something for yourself today to give you a better life tomorrow. Whether that’s reading a book, going to the gym, or networking with someone who is more successful than yourself.

Having a full time job is a lame excuse for not building yourself, your brand, and your dreams. Having a full time job still leaves you many hours after work and on the weekend to work on yourself. There’s no reason to not give everything you have to your dream and what you love to do most, whatever that may be.

Hanging out with people going nowhere and or watching TV in your downtime is not an acceptable thing to be doing if you hate your life and hate your job.  If you hate your job you should be doing things to get you out of that situation, not things that are going to keep you there.

Don’t let anyone or anything from your past hold you down. Just because someone treated you bad, does not mean you have to treat yourself the same. Just because you failed 100 times does not mean you will fail on the 101st time.

Reprogram yourself right now. Convince yourself that you are great. You deserve happiness and success. If you don’t do it, no one else will.

You deserve the best. You are your own best friend. Do for yourself, what you would do for the person you love the most in this world.

You are awesome. You are unique in your own way, and nobody can ever do it like you can. Just do it.

2) Out-work everyone

One of the craziest stereotypes about famous people is that they somehow just got lucky to get where they’re at. Or even worse, that they worship the devil and are part of the Illuminati. Nothing could be further from the truth. Clear that notion from your mind immediately. It’s bad programming and will keep you at the bottom.

Nobody at the top got there because of luck. They got there because they outworked everyone else, and didn’t stop working, ever.


We find all types of excuses as to why someone else made it and we didn’t. Whether it’s their good looks, famous parents or the, “all she ever did was a sex tape” line. Cut the bullshit right now. Stop making excuses for why someone else is successful and you’re not. Even if you’re right, it’s bad programming and it doesn’t work. It will never make you a better person or put money in your bank account. Only working harder than everyone else will do that.

We look at celebrities and see this “party and bullshit” lifestyle being portrayed, as if that’s how they really live. They don’t. That’s a lie. Celebrities work harder than you do. That’s why they’re at the top and you’re not. They. Worked. Harder. Than. You.

We see them at the top of the mountain, sitting under a rainbow with a pot of gold, but we never see them climbing the hills through all of the storms to get there.

Guess what? LL Cool J doesn’t go out drinking or smoking blunts with his ‘friends’ after work.

If our call time was 8 am in the studio, LL would be up at 6 in the morning hitting the gym. Bettering himself and investing in his brand.

The most successful person on set, up before everyone else, working harder than anyone else. While everyone else was sleeping this man was building. Coincidence? Not at all.

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Imagine your name in lights.

3) Be confident

I came home after the show and practiced my stuff in front of the mirror. At first I hated my voice. It was nasal and just didn’t sound good. It didn’t sound like the guys on the records. But I kept practicing, trying to say words that sounded best coming from my voice. I know that sounds funny. But think about it: Can you hear Busta Rhymes on his record Woo-hah! telling you he wants to kiss a woman gently on her neck? I don’t think so. Or Chuck D from Public Enemy: “Bassm I want to make love!” It doesn’t work. But I kept listening to the great rappers and what made them great. And I found that each of them was doing rhymes that accommodated their voices. So I had to find mine. And I did.

Play to your strengths and not your weaknesses. Fake it until you make it. Dress the part. If you’re not one of the best pretend that you are.

All summer I had been begging Jay to let me get on the mike. But he looked at me like a snot-nosed kid. He kept telling me, “Maybe next year, kid.” I couldn’t wait until next year. Next year is forever when you’re 13. I had been practicing and writing rhymes for almost two years. As far as I was concerned, I was ready.

I finally wore him down by the end of the summer. He was doing a block party at 113th Avenue and came and got me. They set up the equipment and my fingers were itching to grab that mike and rock the party. But they were having technical difficulties. There was a short in a wire and they couldn’t get it working. On the other side of the block, a rival DJ crew already had their sound pumping. I walked across the street and asked them If I could get down. They handed me the mike.

Seize the moment. Don’t second guess yourself. If you want it, take it.

A 13 year old LL wanted it so bad that he left who he was supposed to be rocking with once their equipment wasn’t working to walk across the street and perform with the group that already had the crowd going. The outcome? Everyone loved him. His star power was on the rise.

Grab the bull by the horns.

No one knows who said this famous phrase first, but we do know they were a serious person.  They weren’t saying it as a figure of speech during their little kids pre-game pep talk. They were literally telling someone to grab that bull by the horns or risk death by hoof to the heart.

Trying to grab the neck or legs of a dangerous creature like this is not an option. You have to face the problem directly by grabbing the beast by the horns and then pulling it to the ground with authority. Such is life.

I also started thinking about a record contract. I would go to record stores and write down the labels of every rap record they had. Then I would send a tape to each label – CBS, Sugar Hill, Island, Tommy Boy, Electra, Profile, Enjoy. I imagined myself getting signed to any one and becoming a huge star. But two weeks later, the letters started coming in. Most of them started the same way: “Thank you for your interest in CBS records, but…” Always that “but.”

Within a few months, I was getting so many letters that had the “but” in it that it wasn’t even funny. In the beginning my mother and grandmother were right there with me, consoling me. But after a while, I was so frustrated I didn’t want them to know. So I started hiding the letters, or just throwing them away. They knew what I was doing, but they never imagined where it would end up.

None of the record companies were feeling my art. The letters kept coming in. Sometimes I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. If I had cried that would have meant my spirit was broken and I would have quit. But something inside me told me to keep trying. And I persevered.

When he was 16 he got kicked out of his house for dropping out of school. He chose his dream over an education. It was all or nothing, and the gamble paid off.

Imagine if LL listened to those record companies that weren’t feeling him and just gave up? Where would he be today?

Never give up.

Closing thoughts

You will gain more wisdom from the process of reaching your goals than in attaining them. There are great benefits to be had by exploring and learning the wisdom of imperfection.

The resilience to overcome your disappointments, the perseverance to overcome your obstacles, the creativity to look for alternative answers, and the flexibility to navigate through the turbulence.

You can do it.

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