LL Cool J just earned his third consecutive Emmy nomination as one of the producers on “Lip Sync Battle.” The performer is also coming off one of the biggest accolades of his career, earning recognition from the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017.
LL recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about how “Lip Sync Battle” continues to entertain its audience year after year, his contributions as host and producer, and how it felt to be given a tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Gold Derby: LL Cool J, You guys just got your third consecutive Emmy nomination for “Lip Sync Battle.” Congratulations on that. Let me ask you, in the four years this show’s been on the air, how has it evolved, changed and gotten better?
LL Cool J: We’ve just been having a lot of fun. As the seasons went on and fans responded to the show more and more we added a little more production value to give the guest stars an opportunity to do whatever they want, because they were making a lot of requests, asking for different productions, so we upped the ante a little bit for them just to make it more fun for them, but we’ve just been having a good time. I get to work with Chrissy [Tiegen] every day, have a ball. It’s real laidback. It’s cool. Other than that, just having fun, not taking it too serious. I don’t know how we got here. We’re just here.
GD: You are both one of the hosts on the show along with Chrissy Tiegen and also one of the producers, so can you talk a bit about how you have grown in your duties in both capacities?
LLCJ: As a host, I try to just really make it about the guests and really just have fun. I’m a fan of music, and this scenario, it’s so ridiculous that you enjoy it because it’s so fun. Everybody does it. For me as the host, the main thing is just to keep the show moving, keep it flowing and not try to make myself the center of attention. In terms of producing, that’s really more about saying, “Hey, what do you think of those chairs?” First of all, Casey Patterson is amazing. She does an amazing job. Being a producer is really about getting on the phone. Will you get on the phone and call people and ask? When I see people at parties, seeing who wants to come play with us, who wants to come hang out. That’s really what it’s about. And then just giving my input wherever it’s needed. Like I said, Casey Patterson does an amazing job. Jay Peterson does a great job. I just give them my input when it’s needed. I’m totally candid and honest about song selections, what I think a person should maybe perform if they haven’t chosen something themselves, giving suggestions and just trying to keep the whole thing flowing and make sure that I feel good about everything that’s happening.
GD: You are an experienced host. You’ve hosted the Grammys a few times, for instance. How does that experience help prepare you to host this show? What are some of the differences in those kinds of hosting duties?
LLCJ: They are very different just in terms of the fact that the Grammys as a show is a fun show but it takes itself a little more seriously. It is, I would say, arguably, music’s biggest night and it’s a very important show for artists who are out there performing their music, musicians bringing their music to the forefront and really making their dreams come true. “Lip Sync Battle” on the other hand, is us playing. We’re having fun. This is an opportunity for people who may be accomplished in other fields to be a rock star for a night, to come out, hang out, have fun and go crazy. There are differences. But as a host on both shows, it’s always important just to keep it seamless, keep it smooth, keep it flowing and have a good time with it.
GD: You mentioned being involved in song selection. I had a couple questions about that. First of all, tell us a little bit about how you select these songs?
LLCJ: Let me clarify. I said only if they need a suggestion or want a suggestion. The guests pick their own music, because everybody comes from different experiences. You’ll have somebody who’s raised in Iowa and grew up on a different type of music or someone who was raised somewhere else and has something that’s close to them or fans of different music. So it’s not about me just saying, “You’re gonna do this,” or “You’re gonna do that.” The guests come on and they choose that.
GD: Well the other thing I wanted to ask you about that was recently I saw you said something about how you’d like to have an Aretha Franklin tribute for the show. Can you tell us a little more about that?
LLCJ: That’s just something that came up. May she rest in peace. I got the opportunity to meet her at the [Bill] Clinton inaugural performance on the mall that Quincy Jones produced. I forget the exact name, but it was an unbelievable event and it was the inauguration. She was just so spectacular and so special and such a wonderful artist. So it would be great to just have people out there having fun and paying tribute to her music. We did something really great I think for Michael Jackson. We did a Michael Jackson tribute and it’s always nice to just celebrate the artist, really celebrate the artist.
GD: Since you brought up having met her, I’m going to have to ask, can you share a little bit more about what it was like meeting Aretha Franklin? What was she like as a person?
LLCJ: Her energy, her vibe, just a really warm person. The talent part is obvious, but you just knew something was special when you meet her, at least that’s how I felt. There’s some pictures floating around of us at a couple different events and you could always see I was kind of in awe a little bit. I was a little bit in fanboy mode. She was the queen. May she rest peacefully.
GD: People like Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, what are those great qualities that they have that make them not just great artists but also these icons who we miss them when they’re gone?
LLCJ: I think humility. I think obviously talent and a willingness to share your talent with the world, because you have a lot of people who are talented but they’re not really willing to share their talent with the world. You have people that kind of keep their talent close to the vest and you don’t hear as much about them, but they were very giving as artists, very sharing, went out there on the road, did the things that were needed for us as fans to really enjoy them and embrace them. I think that that’s part of it. And then you gotta be gifted. When you get touched, when the almighty or when the muse touches you, gives you that little thing, whatever that is, I don’t know what it is. None of us really know what it is because if we knew what it was we would just manufacture it over and over again and everybody would give their kid a little. But it’s just something special about them.
GD: For you, what were some highlights from this last season, some really standout episodes that you guys had?
LLCJ: I had fun the whole time. I really did. Every season feels like it’s been one long season. It doesn’t feel like there was a first season, second season, like you would in a drama, or third season, fourth season like you would feel in a sitcom. This has been so much entertainment that the very first episode was as fun as the Michael Jackson tribute. Christina Aguilera tribute was fun. There was a lot of great ones, from when Channing [Tatum] and Jenna [Dewan] came out, Beyoncé came out, you name it. It was just great television, to me. I just found it real entertaining and every moment to be compelling and fun.
GD: One of the great things about this show is it really benefits from this YouTube age that we live in. Your bits and your performances perform really well in isolation and some people aren’t just watching the show live, they’re also watching it over and over again, different moments from it on YouTube or on the internet. Can you talk a bit about is the show designed to live in that universe so that people don’t have to just watch it live?
LLCJ: I would love to say that we were so smart but the reality is that just kind of happened. It was like a happy accident. We did a show that lends itself to that world and maybe that’s just because all of us as creators… Maybe because it originally with John Krasinski and Steve Merchant created it, took it to [Jimmy] Fallon, it was like a bit, so maybe it being a bit that we extrapolated or grew it into a more formal show, but it still had that bit element and it lended itself to travel. To sit here and claim that we were in the laboratory and we somehow came up with the super duper viral formula, I’m not gonna sit here and lie to you. It was what it was. It worked, it happened. We’re grateful for it. We enjoy it. We know what we’re doing. We know the show we’re making. We’re not clueless about it, but sometimes things just work. If everybody knew why everything worked, then everything would be working. There’s a lot of liars out there (laughs).
GD: It really is a happy accident though, that this show can translate the way that we watch TV these days.
LLCJ: Like the way we’re talking now. This is our world now, so yeah, you’re right.
GD: I went to an FYC event you guys had. I don’t know if it was this year or last year, but they gave me a T-shirt that I wear to the gym every so often, and people kind of point and say, “Hey, I know that.” Where do you think the popularity for this show comes from with audiences?
LLCJ: I think that we all sing in the shower, even me. Even famous rap dudes sing in the shower. We all sing in our cars. They’re just common things that we as human beings do. Who wouldn’t wanna be out there rocking, lip-syncing, being a superstar for a night with the fans screaming in a different arena? So I think that it’s pretty natural what we’re doing. I think it’s been going on for years. When Tom Cruise sang, “Take that old record off the shelf” and slid in his underwear in “Risky Business,” when he slid in there, I think we knew that lip-syncing was a thing from then. I just think it works. It’s just fun to be silly. It’s fun to know that somebody’s not taking themselves seriously, they’re not giving you a powerpoint presentation about their doctorate dissertation. They’re just having a ball, having some fun, and that’s a good feeling.
GD: Before we go I wanted to ask you. You were just honored at the Kennedy Center, and I think if you’re not the youngest person, you’re just about a year shy of it. What did that recognition mean for you and what was that evening like?
LLCJ: It was the most amazing night of my career in terms of awards and things like that, because it’s the highest honor that I could achieve or hope to achieve as an artist, maybe a couple medals or something, but that was the one. I’m very, very grateful for it. To know that my music touched American culture on that level and that my contribution to hip hop culture, my contribution to the foundation of classic hip hop and it becoming the juggernaut that it is today and for me to be celebrated that way was an amazing feeling. A lot of times, the classic artists and the pioneers, they’re forgotten about. So it feels good to be recognized on that level, on that platform, on the world’s biggest stage like that. It was an unbelievable feeling. And that’s why now my thing I have with Rock the Bells, I’m trying to do that for the other artists. I’m making sure that people know all of the artists. Yeah they know Beasties and they know Em[inem] and they know some Jay Z and some of those guys, but they need to know Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane and make sure Slick Rick gets his props, Dougie Fresh, Crash Crew, and the Treacherous Three, and Kool Moe Dee, Cannabis. Making sure that all of these classic hip hop artists are heard, that’s my mission, just to make sure I lift the culture up the way the culture lifted me up. I’m trying to pay it forward now with Rock the Bells and it’s a hell of a feeling, because I’m passionate about it. It’s not like a pure social charity thing. I love doing it, so it feels good.
GD: Well we’re grateful for it. LL Cool J, thank you so much for your time and congratulations on another Emmy nomination and another great season of “Lip Sync Battle.”
LLCJ: Thank you. I’d like to thank the Academy! Peace.