As the trailblazing rapper-turned-''NCIS: Los Angeles'' special agent, 44, preps for a gig cohosting the Grammy nominations special with Taylor Swift (CBS, Dec. 5, 10 p.m.) and a new album, ''Authentic Hip Hop,'' due next February, he looks back on nearly three decades of hits

”Rock the Bells,” 1986
”This came from hearing old-school rappers and old records in the street, mixtapes. It was a phrase that was creeping around. I didn’t love the original version we recorded, so I pestered [now-legendary producer] Rick Rubin until we redid it. He wasn’t busy, he had time. [Laughs] Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys played a tape for him, and I went and met him in his dorm room. Back then he only had Def Jam Productions. Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons and myself — they formed the label, and I was the flagship artist.”

”I Need Love,” 1987
”It ended up being a major hit, but a vast majority of hip-hop artists hated it and thought it was soft and wrong — I broke the rules somehow. But that’s what makes it exciting. Was there a muse? There’s always a muse, but I won’t name ’em. When Picasso was over there in France painting those pictures, he had some people sitting around with tank tops on. That was his thing. You get inspired.”

”Going Back to Cali,” 1988
”This was a strange one. I went out of my comfort zone. It’s funny, because Rick Rubin always hated ‘I Need Love,’ and there was a time when I hated ‘Going Back to Cali.’ It ended up being something really special, but it took me a minute, it really did. [Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 riff on it] was a great compliment — he took it back to the street, more traditional hip-hop. Whereas I did more of a dusty, bluesy, alternative version.”

”Around the Way Girl,” 1990
”This was produced by Marley Marl. Rick is more of a traditionalist, so he likes to go words first, then music. Marley to me is like James Brown’s band. He has that thing in him, that groove. It’s an ode to the girl next door — just me riding around in the neighborhood, what I would see on a daily basis.”

”Hey Lover feat. Boyz II Men,” 1995
”I wrote this hook and I just thought it felt like Boyz II Men. They were on fire at the time, but more importantly, it just felt like they were made to do it. We drove out to Philly, and I played the record for the guys. They got in the truck with me and some friends, and they loved it. We went right to the studio that night and did the entire song in one take. Everything. It was just magical.”

”Doin’ It,” 1996
”That’s one of my favorites, because what’s better than doin’ it? And the track pounds just like you’re doing it. It just made me feel good, you know? ‘I represent Queens/She was raised out of Brooklyn’ has definitely become part of the vernacular, I guess you would call it.”

”Headsprung,” 2004
”This is a prime example of me caring more about the feel and the vibe and the energy than the substance. I didn’t say anything particularly special, I just love the flow and the rhythm of it. [1993’s] ‘Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings’ is like that. Ask the Beatles what the ‘Yellow Submarine’ is. Sometimes as artists, we just do crazy stuff.”

”Ratchet,” 2012
”Sometimes you do The Godfather and sometimes you do Analyze This. Some De Niro fans would rather see him in The Godfather II or GoodFellas, but Analyze This is fun. And that’s what ‘Ratchet’ is. It’s just pure comedy. Straight up.”

NCIS: Los Angeles
  • TV Show
  • 10