Los Angeles — LL Cool J's childhood was scarred by his parents' separation and violence, with his maternal grandparents stepping in to give him a loving home and appreciation of music.
But the couple kept a secret from both LL Cool J and his mother: She was adopted, as the hip-hop artist and actor learns in PBS' "Finding Your Roots."
Series host Henry Louis Gates Jr. guides him down a winding DNA trail that uncovers his mother's adoption as a baby in 1947, her birth parents' identity and a family history that includes 1930s champion boxer John Henry Lewis.
And more: There's an unusual African-American record of 19th-century freedom from slavery on one side of LL Cool J's family tree, Gates notes.
The episode, which also traces Sean "Diddy" Combs' ancestry, airs Tuesday on PBS stations (check local listings for times), the day after LL Cool J hosts the Grammy Awards on CBS.
"This doesn't change how I feel about the people that raised me," LL Cool J, the "NCIS: Los Angeles" star born James Todd Smith, says of his adoptive grandparents. "I have more love and respect for them than I ever did."
Eugene Griffith and Ellen Hightower took LL Cool J and his mom, Ondrea Griffith, into their home after she and his father split. His grandparents "embraced me, they built me up. They made me believe in myself," he recounts on the program.
Eugene Griffith was a jazz musician, he recalls, and gifted him with a guitar when the future Grammy winner was 8 years old.
LL Cool J's mother, who appears on the show, said she understands that the couple "had their reasons" for not revealing they'd adopted her as an infant.
Gates said it was decided it wouldn't be right to surprise LL Cool J on camera with the DNA evidence, instead informing him first in a private phone conversation.
The unraveling of LL Cool J's hidden family history also uncovered a rough parallel to the violence he witnessed as a child, when his grandfather and mother were wounded in a shooting involving his father.
In 1882, his maternal great-grandfather witnessed an accidental shooting that claimed the life of his mother.