The man born Chris Bridges 30 years ago in Champaign, Ill., initially made a name for himself as a DJ on Atlanta hip-hop radio station Hot 97.5 (WHTA) during the dawn of the Dirty South scene’s rise (when he was better known as DJ Chris Lova Lova). Eventually, of course, he left radio and changed his name to Ludacris, ultimately becoming one of hip-hop’s hottest MCs by signing to Def Jam South and releasing a string of hits that included #1 singles “Stand Up” and “Money Maker” and Top 10 smashes such as “Splash Waterfalls” and “Pimpin’ All Over the World.” Though he may not be an original ATLien, Ludacris quickly established himself as one of the South’s most commercially successful rappers and in-demand guest artists.
But mere success as an artist wasn’t enough. Teaming up with associate Chaka Zulu, Ludacris formed his own boutique label at Def Jam, Disturbing Tha Peace, and released albums by a diverse roster of artists that included Field Mob, Playaz Circle and Bobby Valentino. Then, after making his feature film debut in 2 Fast 2 Furious, he dedicated himself to learning the acting craft and subsequently earned standout roles in Oscar-caliber films such as Hustle & Flow and Crash. Perhaps more importantly, he started his own charitable foundation, helping underprivileged kids by teaching them principles of success, sponsoring Christmas toy drives and giving away turkey dinners over the holidays.
We recently spoke with the always-opinionated rapper about Atlanta’s thriving urban music scene, working with director Guy Ritchie and how he’s managed to stay relevant in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of hip-hop for more than a decade.
You were a DJ on Atlanta radio back in the ’90s when the Dirty South hip-hop explosion first happened. What are some of your favorite memories of the scene during that time?
I just remember when Rowdy Records, So So Def and LaFace Records were all real prominent in the industry, and they were all located in Atlanta. Dallas Austin had Rowdy Records, and he was working with Monica and Kris Kross and all that; you had everybody on So So Def; then on LaFace you had upstarts like Usher, Toni Braxton and TLC; and then of course you had Goodie Mob and Outkast. To me, that’s really where it all began as far as Atlanta being considered the Motown of the South.
How do you think the urban music scene here today compares with places like New York City and Los Angeles?
Today I think it’s pretty evident that the South is the driving force of hip-hop, as far as presence and sales are concerned. I think every region has its time, and right now the South is dominant. I feel like there’s a lot of talent here, and a lot of great examples to provide motivation. That’s one of the reasons I got on my grind, because I saw so much going on here that I felt like there was no way it couldn’t happen for me with all the resources that were available to me here in the South.
As someone who’s been in the hip-hop game for over a decade now, how do you feel about the ways that the music and the industry have changed over the last 10 years?
I feel like things are always gonna change over time; you just have to adjust yourself to the changing environment of music. So basically I feel great about it, and look forward to the future. I look forward to more technology, because seeing it firsthand and experiencing change while it’s happening is one of the greatest virtues of life, in my opinion. You become your own worst enemy when you try to stay stuck in one point in time.
A lot of people criticize hip-hop radio for dumbing down the format. Do you feel that it’s gotten harder for innovative artists to break through?
No, I don’t think it’s harder for creative people to break through. First of all, history always repeats itself, and it’s all about people’s opinions of what being creative really is. With that being said, there are different kinds of music and different kinds of hip-hop, whether it be the dance-friendly kind of the Soulja Boys or the [more conscious artists like] Kanye West. People have different opinions of what hip-hop really is, so people can choose what they wanna listen to.
Are there any particular artists on today’s scene whose sound you’re really feeling?
Man, I’m really a fan of Lil’ Wayne right now. I really think that he’s doing his thing as far as his talent and his flow. A lot of rappers have obviously tried the acting gig at some point in their career, but you’ve had better luck than most.
What’s the secret to successfully crossing over from hip-hop to Hollywood?[Laughs] There is no real secret, man. At the end of the day, you either have the talent or you don’t, and you either take it seriously or you don’t. Those two things combined determine your success.
A lot of rappers—a lot of entertainers, period—are given the opportunity to act just because of our popularity and who we are, so the difference between breaking through or not breaking through is how serious we take it. Studying the craft, working on your role, being humble and not thinking you know everything, and coming into it as a student, all of that has a lot to do with it.
The list of directors you’ve worked with is pretty remarkable for any actor, let alone one who had never done a film until a few years ago, from Paul Haggis on Crash to Craig Brewer on Hustle & Flow. And now I hear you’re working with Guy Ritchie on his next movie, RocknRolla. What can you tell us about that experience?
We filmed it in London, and the experience was great. Jeremy Piven and myself play the managers of a rock star [played by British newcomer Jamie Campbell Bower] whose father is mixed up in organized crime. It was a little different. I’ve seen Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and I really love his work. It’s unique and extremely creative and has that ol’ gangsta edge to it, and he’s very opinionated and knows exactly what he wants, so it was great to work with him.
You also had roles this year on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and in the holiday film “Fred Claus.” Where does acting stand in relation to music on your career priority list?
Music is always my No. 1 love. But I find it challenging. Put it this way: whenever I focus on something, I like to concentrate my energy 100% on it. When I was in movie mode, I was not in music mode at all. I don’t want to get stereotyped as just another rapper/actor. I try to take it seriously, and I always feel I can get better. Right now, I’m back to music mode. But [acting] is definitely something I’d like to continue to do in the future.
I read you drove your 1993 Acura for a long time because it helped keep you grounded. How hard is it to hold onto the essence of who you are when you’re surrounded by all the various trappings of fame?[Laughs] I’m driving my 1993 Acura Legend as we speak! It does keep me grounded, man. Nobody really expects me to be driving this, but it’s just the memory of who I was and where I was when all of this began that’s most important to me. I don’t really let a lot of this fame get to my head. I have to stay grounded and remain who I am, and [the car] is just one of those reminders that takes me back to the grind.
But doesn’t that ideal go against the materialistic nature of what a lot of today’s hip-hop is about—getting the yacht, the Bentley and all that?
I have all of that stuff, too! [laughs] But I stay true to who I am by setting goals for myself and constantly striving to achieve them.
Are you disappointed with any aspect of your life?
I’m just disappointed over the privacy issue sometimes. I’m recognized all of the time, so I can’t just do and go wherever the hell I want to by myself. I can, but there’s always an issue with it. Autographs and shit like that. That’s great, ’cause it comes with the territory. But sometimes you just wanna shop or not be bothered. That’s the only thing.
Are there any particular hip-hop icons that you look up to and have tried to model your career after?
Russell Simmons is the man who laid the blueprint for anyone else I would probably name. I really look up to him. His business sense, how humble he is, and his desire to give back and acknowledge his responsibility here on Earth is extremely impressive.
That brings me right to my next question. Your charity organization, The Ludacris Foundation, is doing a lot of good work in the metro Atlanta area around the holidays.
Absolutely! We just gave away turkeys to over 500 families in need over the Thanksgiving holidays, including organizations that help out battered women, senior citizens and underprivileged kids. This is something we do every year, and for Christmas we’re going to do a toy drive and give those to underprivileged families as well. But we’re constantly doing different things in the community.
Is there a central mission behind the foundation?
To help kids and families help themselves.
In one of your press releases, you talk about teaching kids the principles of success. What are the primary principles you hope kids will learn from you?[Laughs] Well, the ones that are written down specifically I don’t have in my hands right now. But to put it in my own words, success is about being yourself: self-education and self-motivation. If we don’t do those things for ourselves, nobody else is gonna do it for us.
Why do you think the mainstream media tends to focus on the negative aspects of hip-hop artists’ lives, but doesn’t give much ink to the good things people like you and Russell Simmons are doing through your charitable foundations?
You know, they try to paint us as bad individuals, and that’s a whole separate conversation. I could go on and on about that. But I feel like people try and put the blame on rap music for the simple fact that we definitely have a lot of influence over a lot of people. That being said, it’s all about negativity. But I don’t attribute violence to hip-hop; I attribute violence to ignorance. I don’t wanna stereotype and say that everybody does it, because there are certain publications that do focus on the positive things that are going on. But for the majority, you’re right.
I understand you’ve started working on your next album. What can you tell us about it?
It’ll be my sixth studio album, called Theater Of The Mind, and I’m just getting started on it so I can’t really tell you anything about who I’m gonna be working with. It should be released next summer, and it’s pretty much a mixture of all the albums I’ve done. With every album I’m always escalating and taking it another direction. I’m perfecting my craft, becoming better. As you get older, you change as a person. But of course you’ll hear the same Ludacris that most of the core audience loves. Then it’s always about taking things to the next level and doing things that people wouldn’t normally expect me to do.
After more than 10 years in the business, what would you say are the secrets to career longevity?
Staying consistent and staying grounded. It’s just that simple.