Rap icon LL Cool J has been much more of a fixture hosting awards shows than being at the center of the festivities. When tonight's 2017 Kennedy Center Honors presentation is broadcast tonight, though, the tribute to LL Cool J promises to be one to remember for the ages. Just to be along the revered artists who receive the Kennedy Center Honors is a privilege of the highest order, but to be the first-ever rap artist to earn the accolade is proof for the boy born as James Todd Smith that “dreams don't have deadlines.” Wardrobe choices prompted early ribbing for the rapper, and much more painful life experiences would come, all while the dreams of LL Cool J seem to bring him to places he never dreamed possible.

Big head, bigger dreams

Before sitting down for the proper, official interview with CBS Senior Music Editor, Anthony Mason, for his interview as a Kennedy Center Honors inductee, LL Cool J playfully joked that some of his early life lessons as a young man came from wearing turtlenecks. “I was always that kid with a big head, “ he began describing, putting his hands in a constricted pose around his neck. “Have you ever seen that kid putting on a turtleneck?” The man who now has his own fashion line in addition to his achievements as songwriter, producer, singer, and actor insists that he learned “patience, and to keep trying” from his experiences with winter weather wear in Queens, New York.

“When you're a kid in the inner-city, you feel invisible,” related the rapper.

“When I heard this [rap] music, I felt powerful.” His grandfather bought him a DJ system, and from a very young age, the beats that LL Cool J created were insatiable.

More than a name

He can still recite the full phone number of producer Rick Rubin at Def Jam Records, and he remembers the address by heart, too, because he called him every day, asking “Did you get my tape?” When the pioneering producer finally heard that tape, he immediately wanted to record LL Cool J.

“I Need a Beat” was the first breakout hit for rap music's first heartthrob, and his first album, “Radio,” sold a million copies. The rising hit-maker was completely in love with keeping his acronym name for “Ladies Love Cool James” but shortened it happily when Rubin convinced him that the words would not fit on a record label.

With some prodding, LL Cool J confesses that he had a phase of falling in love with himself at the height of early success, and he learned lessons from that, too. He was booed at a show during his period of wearing “furs and gold chains,” and he doesn't deny that “it hurt.”

He took that rejection and reverted to musical creativity again. In 1990, “Mama Said Knock You Out” became omnipresent on the airwaves, and LL Cool J was on his path to 10 platinum albums and a permanent status in music history.

Another wardrobe dilemma

A new kind of hunger came over LL Cool J when he co-starred with Debbie Allen in the series, “In the House.” He had a deep drive to become an actor, but once more, a wardrobe issue got in the way.

“I didn't want to take off my hat,” insists the singer. That resistance, which he now deems as “ridiculous,” went on for 10 years. He finally made the leap, and for nine years now, has won millions of other fans over in his role of Sam Hanna in “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

LL Cool J understands that the hardest aspect of acting is “going to some dark places,” where personal hurts and hardships come to the surface. The multitalented artist doesn't have to go far to draw that kind of experiences up from his own life. When he was 4, his father shot his mother and his grandfather, and “the aftermath” of that violent, disturbing act burned itself into his being

Grace was lived out by example by his mother, who allowed the father back into his son's life after recovering from the incident.

LL Cool J has never directly asked his mother the “why” that prompted her forgiveness but understands the result. “Sometimes, people make mistakes, and they just need a little mercy.”

LL Cool J has made philanthropy and giving back a primary point of his life. His involvement with Jumpstart, MusiCares, and the Hip Hop Action Summit have been focused on direct intervention with youth, showing them the difference that music and a dream can create.

He reflects that being A Kennedy Center Honoree is certainly evidence of his “against all odds” success, and now, his story may be the biography that sparks even bigger dreams for the next artistic generation. He hasn’t hit a half-century yet at 49, but he has lived several lifetimes of despair and dreams come true.

LL Cool J joins Norman Lear, dancer-choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, Gloria Estefan, and Lionel Richie as this year's group of Kennedy Center honorees.