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Music mogul LL Cool J finds success during the pandemic

Music mogul and Rock the Bells Founder and CEO LL COOL J sits down with Yahoo Finance Editor-at-Large Brian Sozzi to discuss his business ventures during the pandemic and how the country is undergoing rapid change.

Video Transcript

BRIAN SOZZI: LL Cool J is an acclaimed actor, musician, entrepreneur, and best selling author. He's a two-time Grammy award winner, with 10 consecutive platinum-plus selling albums. LL Cool J has received the NAACP Image Award, and he's the first rapper to receive a prestigious Kennedy Center Honor.

He currently stars in the hit CBS TV series NCIS: Los Angeles, and curates Sirius XM's LL Cool J's Rock the Bells Radio. He's both a passionate and avid philanthropist.

Music icon, TV star, business mogul, trailblazer, husband, father, and now, grandfather. In under 15 words, that pretty much sums up my next guest, who really needs no introduction, but I just gave him one anyway. LL Cool J, welcome to Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit.

LL COOL J: Thanks, thanks for having me Brian. How're you doing?

BRIAN SOZZI: Good, good. It's good to speak with you again. And, you know, the theme of our event is Road to Recovery, but for you, it's road to creating a business during the pandemic. Tell us about Rock the Bells. Why did you launch it? And what is it?

LL COOL J: I just felt like, you know, Rock the Bells was something, a journey that I began about seven years ago. I felt like, Sirius XM had a channel called Backspin, and I felt that, although it was it was classic hip hop, it didn't really go deep enough into the culture, and didn't really dig into the nuances of what it means to be a fan of classic hip hop.

So I got with Scott Greenstein, and over the course of five years, convinced him to let me take over the channel, let me do something with it, let me work with it. I finally got the channel. You fast forward to now, and we've taken it from where it was to around 7 million listeners daily, and people are really enjoying it.

And what I discovered, and what I learned, is that there are a lot of classic hip hop fans out there, Generation X fans out there, who will be totally ignored. No one's really speaking to them. No one's talking to them. Generation X has $28.4, what, $28.6 trillion. A lot of that generation are hip hop fans, and they've been completely ignored, so it's like, why not start a platform and systematically start speaking to these people through content, through commerce, and through experiences?

I'm not trying to boil the ocean at once, but incrementally, just systematically rolling it out. So now we're really focusing on content, and getting heavy into that. And we're speaking to the people in a way that has kind of awakened this kind of sleeping fan base, that was out there, with no one speaking to them for many years.

BRIAN SOZZI: Oh, you think there's too much focus on millennials? Everywhere I go, consumer, big business, focused on millennials. But you just said, I'm focused on Gen X.

Well, look, I think that Generation X has been completely ignored and written off. I mean, they're are a group that built hip hop. They're a generation that is rooted in a culture. They are a generation that really lives in and speaks it. They'll pay for elevated experiences. I think that they're just a group that really loves and enjoys classic hip hop. And no one has really seen the value in that, and they just been asleep.

So it's not any way trying to say anything negative about the millennial generation, which is a cool generation as well. But I just feel Gen X is a generation that I completely understand, and that has really been ignored for a long time. And Rock the Bells really has the kind of content, commerce, and experiences that that generation loves.

And what's interesting about that, is the dirty little secret is we over index with Gen Z, because of our connection to Gen X. So it's pretty cool.

BRIAN SOZZI: Yeah, believe or not, there was life before Instagram. And I can attest to that too. And I recognize all the songs on the Rock Bells Station on Sirius, that much is for sure.

So talk to me. How do you launch a business during a pandemic when you can't necessarily get up close and personal, and can't see them in a room? How do you pull that off?

LL COOL J: Well look, luckily we were building a platform, right? It is a platform business, so, obviously this was, we were well on our way to building this business far before the pandemic. It just so happened, the way the timing worked out that we launched in the middle of a pandemic.

But because we're an online platform, that helps us. It didn't affect our reach. We didn't start in a bricks and mortars area, so that was an advantage. Beyond that, it's really about just making sure that our stories and our narrative is-- we tell the right story to the people and that they get it.

And people responding. They love the station, they love what we're doing. And now it's just a matter of getting the people that love the station to understand that rockthebells.com is an extension of that. And it's a place where they can go to really experience classic hip hop and all its various facets and dimensions.

And look, hip hop is an ecosystem. You know what I'm saying? And we feel like we could touch a lot of parts of that. And that's what's happening. So the how is, basically, it's staging and execution, right? Like we're doing it very staged. We're not trying to do it all at once. We have a very clear way of how we're trying to roll things out. We're be very specific about that. But we also know that there is a flywheel here between content, commerce, and experiences. We can get that thing turning, and get it rolling and build some momentum, and we have.

And it's just a matter of time. rockthebells.com is really appealing to the fans in a big way, and we just gotta keep doing what we're doing, and be authentic while we're doing it. And give the people what they want.

BRIAN SOZZI: You know, there are a lot of struggling businesses out there during the pandemic. If someone is watching this and they see, you know what? LL Cool J started a business, from scratch. I want to do that. How do you know who to trust? I can imagine you have dealt with all sorts of people throughout your career. How do you know how to put your trust in?

LL COOL J: Well look, you've got to have faith, and you've got to go with your gut. I think gut instincts are an important tool in your toolbox. Using your intuition, using your instincts, and if something is gnawing at you, don't ignore that voice inside of you. Don't ignore that small still voice. I don't have all the answers, but I just think that Rock the Bells can be something really cool. You know what I'm saying?

It is something really cool. And I feel like, you know you have to do something that you're not only passionate about and that you can be the best at, but then you have to have the people around you that have the skill set to operationalize what it is you're trying to do. Rock the Bells is not just about LL Cool J and my knowledge of classic hip hop. There's also people that I've put in positions who really understand the fundamentals of how to know take this business from A to Z. And that's what it's about. And then, you know, the chips fall where they may, but we're going to do our best to give people something that we believe, that we totally believe in. And I'm going to put the right people in the right position so that we can operationalize the business, and take it to the next level.

BRIAN SOZZI: What does that next level look like in 2021?

LL COOL J: Well I think, look, we want to, without divulging all of the plans, I think that having to Rock the Bells Festival out there, having some great content, offering some premium content, we have some great premium content stuff coming that we'll be announcing. And then having commerce drops that people can really get into and feel and really get excited about.

So you know it's really about, our plan is right. You know the plan feels right. It's true. It's authentic. It's just about delivery. And we will. You know what I mean? We will.

BRIAN SOZZI: Let's switch gears here. We-- I can't believe we talked five months ago, about two weeks removed, or three weeks removed, from the killing of George Floyd. A lot of protests sweeping throughout the country. Now that you've had five months to digest what's happening in this country, what are some of your thoughts?

LL COOL J: I think that times like this, the country needs leadership. I think leadership is key. I think that you can't walk around with a hammer and see every problem as a nail, when the country needs a heart surgery. I think that there is a time-- this country needs to really reflect. I think that this period has been probably as disruptive as the 60s, or even Reconstruction, that period right after the Civil War.

I think that this has been, between this, the Civil rights era, and now, those have been three periods that have been really, really just full of strife and intention. And we need leadership. And we need people that--

I think it's important to have a person running the country who understands how to communicate with those who agree with him and those who don't agree with him. And that's a skill, but it's needed. You have to, in order to be the president, or to be the leader of something, you have to be able to deal with all sides. And you have to be able to see the big picture, and hear people out. And I think that what we're dealing with now is a kind of my way or the highway style that I don't think bodes well for the future unification of our country. In order to keep the country unified, you have to hear everybody out and inspire people. It's not about pounding people. And I think that's the issue.

BRIAN SOZZI: Well it sounds as though you're looking for a change atop the White House. How could these leaders do a better job and address-- really, it's an extremely challenging situation this country right now.

LL COOL J: Well I think, look, I think empathy is important, understanding what people are going through. When your only goal is to preserve a specific status quo or specific power source or resource, that's a tough way to go. You've got to empathize. You have a lot of citizens who feel a lot of different things and are going through a lot of different things and have a lot of dynamics. And everybody's dealing with it differently based on where they fit in this puzzle of America. So we need a president, we need leaders with empathy.

You have to have empathy. It doesn't mean that you can't be tough. It doesn't mean that you're going to be able to please everybody because you never will be able to. But it does mean that in order for you to lead, you've got to embrace the entire country, man. That's part of it. That just comes with the territory. If you're going to be the president or leader of a nation, you have to embrace all of the citizens, in some shape or form, and at least hear them out.

BRIAN SOZZI: Do you think this is the most important election in your lifetime? I mean, you're a young guy, but even still?

LL COOL J: I think every election is important. I think that obviously, this is definitely an inflection point for America. I think it's an inflection point when you have the Supreme Court being filled, going in different directions. You have a lot of legislation being passed, budgets being put in place that will affect generations to come.

Yes, it's a key. I mean, there's some elections that are not quite as important as others, and this is definitely an inflection point. And I think America has to get it right. These decisions have to come from a place of what's going to be best for the entire nation. Or, at least, the greatest percentage of the entire nation in the right way. You know, you want to be on the right side of history, right?

BRIAN SOZZI: Now have you ever publicly endorsed a candidate?

LL COOL J: I mean, in my life, I have. I haven't said anything about who I'm voting for or anything like that, but I think it's pretty obvious the way I'm leaning. Just because I just feel like things are too tense. I feel like there's too much negativity being encouraged. People got to vote for who they want to vote for, but you know how I feel about it. I just think we need a change.

BRIAN SOZZI: So what's music role right now?

LL COOL J: Well, I think it depends on who the musician is, and who the artist is. You know, hip hop, classic hip hop, in general, has always been at the forefront of the game, always been at the forefront, always spoke to the issues of the day. And always spoke from that place of the underdog. And I don't see that changing. I mean, Rock the Bells, for sure, is supportive of the idea of supporting the underdog and lifting up the common man.

So, yeah. You know, music and art always speaks, especially hip hop, speaks to the current situation that's going on. And it's about not forgetting where you come from and just remembering. A lot of times, you get the celebrities, and the celebs get a bad rap, they forget where they came from. Or get a couple of dollars, can get an extra sandwich, and people think that they can't relate, but I actually care about what's going on in the world. And care about what's going on in the community. And care about my people, and I care about America as a whole. I want to see the right thing happen for the nation.

BRIAN SOZZI: Yep. No, I can definitely, definitely tell. LL, last question before I let you go. I asked you this before, I ask it again. Any new music coming next year? And you're signed to Def Jam. I had to ask you. I'm a fan, very much a fan. Your music is the soundtrack of my life.

LL COOL J: My man! Yeah, yeah. I'm actually working on a new album. Me and Q tip are working on it. And it's coming along crazy. I like it a lot. I'm enjoying it. Feels good. And I think that people will be pleasantly, I think they'll feel good when they hear it. You know what I'm saying?

BRIAN SOZZI: Well, now I really can't wait until 2021. LL Cool J, again, it's been a pleasure to speak with me throughout this year. Thank you so much for joining Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit. Be safe, be well, and we'll talk to you soon.

LL COOL J: Much love, man. Stay healthy. Peace of love, everybody! Peace.