The Kennedy Centers Honors is about as old as hip-hop itself. But until Thursday’s announcement that LL Cool J would receive one, the award had never been bestowed upon a rapper.
LL Cool J seems like an odd first choice. He’s known more these days for his role on “NCIS: Los Angeles” (on CBS, which is also the Kennedy Center Honor’s official sponsor), or his hosting gig on Spike’s “Lip Sync Battle,” or his five-year run as host of the Grammys (also on CBS). His last track to get a bunch of attention was his collaboration with country’s Brad Paisley, “Accidental Racist” (yup, remember that?), off his 2013 album “Authentic.”
By the time the 17-year-old from Queens dropped out of high school to release his first album, 1985’s “Radio,” hip-hop had already been born. There were DJs such as Kool Herc in the 1970s. Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” — one of the first rap singles — introduced the world to the genre in 1979. The next year, Kurtis Blow became the first true commercial success with “The Breaks.”
But LL Cool J — long before he became a charismatic cool guy on TV — was hip-hop’s first true superstar. “Bigger and Deffer” catapulted his career in 1987. He displayed a wide range, as the type of guy who could be both battle rapper and a big softy, the emcee who gave us “Rock the Bells” and rap’s first ballad, “I Need Love.” He had bigger hits in the 1990s and beyond. More than 30 years after he began, he’s apparently still working on new music.
“My late grandmother passed some wise advice to me: ‘If a task is once begun, never leave it ’til its done. Be thy labor great or small, do it well or not at all.’ That adage has guided everything I have ever done in my life and I couldn’t be more grateful because it has led me here,” he said in a statement about the Kennedy Centers Honors. “To be the first rap artist honored by the Kennedy Center is beyond anything I could have imagined. I dedicate this honor to the Hip Hop artists who came before me and those who came after me. This simply proves that dreams don’t have deadlines. God is great.”
LL Cool J also stands out as the youngest recipient, tying with Stevie Wonder, who was also 49 at the time he was recognized.
Artists are recognized “for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts,” reads a news release, and the “primary criterion in the selection process is excellence. Honorees were recommended by the Center’s Special Honors Advisory Committee, and past recipients. The winners are confirmed by the center’s Board of Trustees executive committee.” Continue Reading: LL Cool J is rap’s first Kennedy Center honoree. Here are 5 others they could have picked.