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June 14, 2017

Meet the Conductor

LL Cool J makes it happen on Lip Sync Battle.

T.L. Stanley
  • Courtesy Spike
  • LL Cool J

  • Courtesy Spike

Since LL Cool J has music in his bones, it’s only fitting that he would describe his hosting gig on Lip Sync Battle in lyrical terms.

“I try to be the conductor,” he said during a recent phone interview. “I treat the whole thing like an orchestra, and I just keep it all going.”

That means he holds it together even when lanky goofball comedian, Stephen Merchant, one of the originators of the Spike series, sashays around the stage wearing leather chaps and black briefs, pantomiming Christina Aguilera’s raunchy pop song, “Dirty.” Or when actress Alison Brie sheds her girl-next-door image with a sexy, hip-swiveling version of the classic ‘90s Salt-N-Pepa hit, “Shoop.”

Not only does LL Cool J inspire his guests to let loose, he’s their biggest cheerleader when they step out of their comfort zones. He’s been known to blush when former Disney starlets grind on the floor during performances (co-host and “colorful commentator” Chrissy Teigen delights in pointing out how “uncomfortable” he is at times) but he makes sure the action moves along.

In a cable show that’s more like a nightclub, he’s the concierge, the instigator, the support system and the heartbeat of the party all rolled into one. He’s on point, that much is clear, but he’s also having a blast.

It’s an example of his mantra to “never phone it in,” and to be “truthful and sincere about everything that’s going on.”

“I don’t take myself seriously,” he said, “but I take the work seriously.”

That attitude has served him well in his career, which started in hip-hop music and evolved into film roles and television appearances. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and four published books. The five-time Grammy Awards host (and two-time Grammy winner) stars in the CBS cop drama, NCIS: Los Angeles, recently renewed for its ninth season.

Music is still his first love, he said, and he’ll be one of the headliners at the Meadows Festival with Jay Z, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gorillaz and others in September in New York. He’s also talked about going back into the studio to work on new material.

But his focus at the moment is on television, where Lip Sync Battle has quickly become a monster multi-platform hit for Spike. The competition, which pits two celebrities against each other for, well, lip sync battles, is the highest-rated original series in the cable channel’s history. Winners, judged by applause from a live audience, get bragging rights, massive exposure and a gaudy WWE-style belt.

Its first few episodes, in spring 2015, pulled in more than 15 million cumulative viewers and generated 100 million online streams. Heavy-hitters like Dwayne Johnson, Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lopez were among the early contestants.

More recently, the young cast of Stranger Things adorably tore the roof off the joint, with Caleb McLaughlin performing LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad,” looking like the rapper’s pint-sized doppelganger in a red track suit, bucket hat and gold rope chain. (He won).

LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) said he didn’t “drag his feet” when offered the job. In fact, the seeds had been sown a few years prior during a casual dinner party at a friend’s house. He sat next to Casey Patterson, an executive at Spike’s parent Viacom then, and the two started chatting about what kind of music show they’d like to see as fans and maybe work on as collaborators.

They both liked simple formats, they found, made of bits that would be highly shareable on social media. The show needed to travel easily across demographics and geography and span all genres of music.

“We were just talking about the next version of a great music show,” said Patterson, not knowing at the time that she’d eventually partner with Lip Sync Battle creators and become the show’s executive producer. “It was this fun, far-reaching conversation about what might be possible.”

Over on NBC, Jimmy Fallon had debuted a silent-singing skit on Late Night, with help from Merchant and John Krasinski, now executive producers on Lip Sync Battle. When he moved to The Tonight Show, he took the concept with him, challenging stars like Emma Stone, Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart and Drew Barrymore to pantomime more elaborately than he did.

Two-minute lip sync battles had already caught on as a trend in the digital world, with people posting their friendly smack-downs on YouTube and the results often going viral.

The Fallon sketch gained enough traction to warrant a spin-off of its own, with the creators shopping it to various networks. Spike, a destination better known for its wrestling and tough guys, wanted to become a broader-based entertainment channel that women would want to watch, too.

“It felt fresh and different and optimistic,” said Kevin Kay, Spike’s president. “It was a giant departure for us, but we saw it as a chance to reinvent the musical variety show. We decided to take a shot.”

While Patterson and her team had briefly considered a comedian as host, she recalled her dinner discussion with LL Cool J and approached him about the role. “He’s the only person we asked,” she said. “He has such unbelievably eclectic taste in music. It easy to assume he’s just rap and hip-hop, but his knowledge is encyclopedic. He knows every word to every song from every era.”

His chemistry and natural give-and-take with other celebrities cemented the choice, Patterson said.

“He’s the most encouraging, elegant statesman you could possibly ask for,” she said. “Everyone who walks through the door stands up a little straighter because they’re sharing the stage with Todd.”

Having the rapper-actor with the affable manner and the enviable abs definitely gave the project momentum, Kay said. “He brought such tremendous energy – he’s given 150 percent from the beginning.”

LL Cool J became not only the host but one of the producers as well, mining his own connections, especially in the show’s nascent days, to convince Hollywood’s elite that wearing outrageous costumes and pretending to sing would not be a career killer.

He’s also played a key part in matchmaking, that fine art of pairing the right A-list stars to go head to head. (They’re often friends or, as they play it for the audience, frenemies).

“I thought this idea had potential from the beginning, but it’s all in the execution,” LL Cool J said. “Because I signed on as a producer, which is not a vanity deal, I had confidence that I’d have input and we would at least have some fun with it.”

Fun is the operative word, which explains why there have been so many feather boas, wacky wigs, outlandish props and faux fur. The gender-bending role-play, a hallmark of the series, has memorably included Channing Tatum as Beyonce, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Janet Jackson, Tom Holland as Rihanna and Zendaya as Bruno Mars.

Shaquille O’Neal once lip synced “Maniac” from Flashdance, complete with the famous water drop at the end, which left LL Cool J literally rolling on the floor laughing.

The show, which was nominated for an Emmy last year and now has tentacles in more than 140 countries, embraces its freewheeling, anything-can-happen sensibility.

“We don’t like people to over-rehearse,” Patterson said. “We want it crazy and honest. We’re not striving for perfection, we’re looking for energy.”

Lip Sync Battle also avoids TV tropes associated with competition shows (there’s no judging panel) and with celebrity appearances (no one sits on a couch and plugs his or her latest film or project).

The series is shot live to tape, meaning there could be second takes if a star wanted to re-do a performance. But, Patterson said, “We have never done a second take.”

So far, LL Cool J has yet to tackle the two-minute lip sync on the show, but said he doesn’t rule it out completely. He refuses, though, to share his song selection, saying with a laugh, “I’m not going to expose that to a future competitor.”

He’d like to see politicians as guests on the series, because it would be such a departure from their serious public personas, and a few of his dream competitors include the Clintons, John McCain and George W. Bush. He’s invited Barack and Michelle Obama, saying he’s “heard rumblings” of their interest, but nothing’s been scheduled.

New episodes of the current third season start airing June 21, and shortly after that, production will start on season four, which will premiere in early 2018 on the Paramount Network, Viacom’s remodel and rebrand of Spike.

There will be a new set with different props – the bar and its free-flowing alcohol will likely stay put - but the core of the show will remain purposely unchanged.

“There’s a lot of madness and craziness in the world, and we just want to give people some joy for a half-hour,” he said. “We want to get their minds off anything that doesn’t bring enthusiasm or positive energy into their lives. That’s our jobs as entertainers, and that’s the goal of this show.”

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