It's not easy being young and black, even if you happen to be rich and famous. Sometimes, it's even worse if you're rich and famous. Because that's when people notice you. People who want you to be something you're not. People who think you're something you're not. People like, say, Bill O'Reilly, the self-important host of Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor.
Ask Ludacris. Late last August, Ludacris (Luda to his friends and fans, Chris Bridges to his mom) was pretty close to the top of the world. Closer than he ever thought he'd be when he was growing up in College Park, Georgia, a mostly black, mostly poor town near Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport. His second album, 2001's Word of Mouf, had racked up a few million in sales, matching and surpassing the success of his major-label debut, 2000's Back for the First Time. The release of Golden Grain--the first album on his Def Jam South-distributed label, Disturbing Tha Peace, featuring the rap crew of the same name--was only a couple of weeks away. The 25-year-old rapper was also set to become a movie star, following his bit part in The Wash with a flashy supporting role in 2 Fast 2 Furious, the sequel to The Fast and the Furious. And Pepsi-Cola had signed Ludacris to be its new spokesman. The first commercial was to debut on MTV's broadcast of its Video Music Awards show.
He didn't account for The O'Reilly Factor factor. On August 27, O'Reilly went on the attack, calling Ludacris "a man who is demeaning to just about everybody, and is peddling anti-social behavior." And: "a dumb idiot who got lucky and exploits the system." And: a danger to anyone who listens to him, since his message is, "Look, be an outlaw. Take narcotics. Abuse people. Punch people. Hurt people." Then the punch line: "I'm calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse and does all the things that hurt particularly the poor in our society."
A day after O'Reilly's rant on his show, Pepsi buckled like a belt and dropped Ludacris from its ad campaign. And they didn't bother to tell Ludacris first. Figures.
"Was I surprised?" Ludacris says from his home in Atlanta. It's a couple of days after the NBA held its annual all-star game in the city, and he's still recovering. ("Wild. Out of control. Too much.") "Yeah, I was surprised, only because, you know, Pepsi knew about my lyrics before they signed me to the contract. And then all of a sudden, when the man came on television, that's when they decided to drop me. So yeah, that kind of surprised me. They didn't even talk to me. It just happened. Right after he did it, you know, I had to hear it on the news."
OK, before this goes on, let's get one thing straight: Ludacris does, in fact, have a dirty mind and a foul mouth; he's not Will Smith or Young MC. He titled one song on Word of Mouf "Move Bitch," and said in another ("Coming 2 America"): "I got a arsenal of automatics down to .22s/Know how to use 'em, fight dirty as shit/I throw a grenade and all-in-one bury a clique." On one of Back for the First Time's big hits, "What's Your Fantasy," he rhymed, "I wanna get you in the back seat windows up/That's the way you like to fuck, clogged up fog alert."
But: Many of the lyrics attributed by O'Reilly to Ludacris, the ones that really got Bill's BVDs in a bunch--"Grab the peels, cuz we robbin' tonight/Beat the shit outta security for stoppin' the fight," for instance--were never said by him. (The above line was contributed by I-20, a member of Ludacris' Disturbing Tha Peace crew.) Fox News Channel's motto might be, "We report, you decide," but they evidently don't own a CD player. If they did, they'd hear a rapper who is closer in spirit to a court jester than someone who needs a court-appointed attorney. His lyrics might sound shocking if you read them in black and white, but then, so does most of President Bush's domestic policy.
There's more: A few years ago, when O'Reilly was hosting Inside Edition, which did to broadcast journalism what bullets do to temples, he would have paid Ludacris a few hundred thou to come on his show to tell his side of the story. Because back then, he believed that was the proper reward for "peddling anti-social behavior." He even wrote an editorial in The New York Times, praising the practice of "checkbook journalism."
Which is fine. If O'Reilly wants to change his position on the merits of people like Ludacris, if he wants to start a crusade against rap lyrics that's (at least) a decade too late, hey, that's his business. Fox News pays him an assload of money to be the cranky asshole who serves as the voice for all the cranky assholes out there; he has to earn his paycheck. But Pepsi? Like Ludacris says, Pepsi knew what it was getting into.
Instead of reaching a demographic it prized, Pepsi completely alienated it. The company has recently begun to try to repair the damage: A new series of ads gives a shout-out to various hip-hop scenes around the country. And on February 11, Pepsi entered into an agreement with Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN) and The Ludacris Foundation, a nonprofit that "provides gifts and grants to organizations that promote youth development and assist young people in their efforts to achieve their goals," as well as scholarships. (Which, apparently, is O'Reilly's version of exploiting the system.)
"It's gonna be like a multimillion-dollar, multiyear deal, where they're going to give money for my foundation," Ludacris says. His mother, Roberta Fields, is president of the organization. "And to be real with you, that's the only thing that the Pepsi Corporation can do for me right now--to help me out with the community. And that's all I ever want them to do."
See, Ludacris never needed the exposure that the aborted ad campaign would have given him; Pepsi needed him to sell its sodas. His career will be just fine. He's out on the road through March, promoting both Word of Mouf and Disturbing Tha Peace's Golden Grain, and then he'll head home to finish off his third album, Chicken and Beer. The disc, hitting stores sometime this summer, features guest shots by Eightball and MJG, Scarface and Snoop Dogg, as well as the DTP family: Shawnna, I-20, Lil' Fate, Jay Cee and Titty Boy.
"We're about halfway done right now," Ludacris says. "It's gonna be the same Ludacris that, you know, my core audience loves. And then expect some of the unexpected, 'cause that's what Cris is all about--doing things to reinvent yourself and the music. Try things, like, they wouldn't even think they would hear me doing certain songs like that. So that's what it's about, man. It's about giving the audience what they want and some new things."
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One of the new things Ludacris is getting into lately is movies. In addition to his role in 2 Fast 2 Furious--as Taj, who's sort of the Don King of the Miami street-racing scene--Ludacris also is in negotiations with MTV Films to produce and star in another flick. Also coming soon: Lil' Pimp, a flash-animated feature starring Ludacris as Weathers, the best friend of the title character. Who just happens to be a foul-mouthed gerbil.
"It's kinda like the hip-hop world meets South Park," he says of Lil' Pimp, headed for a theater near you this summer. "It's crazy. It was a great experience, man, 'cause you know, it was just me voicing it and doing things like that. I try to use my voice to my advantage a lot, so it was a great experience, because I'm like this little gerbil with a big-ass voice. So it was crazy."
Acting wasn't part of the original plan. But with so many other rappers adding that to their job descriptions, Ludacris figured he might as well give it a shot. Besides, he's been a success at everything else he's tried: selling records, running a label, giving back to the community. Well, except for Pepsi pitchman.
"I feel like I want a helluva challenge," he says. "I'm up for different challenges. Just being in front of the camera so much doing videos and things of that nature, I just wanted to experiment and take it to the next step, try and get in front of there and do the acting thing, man. You know, it's almost like a progression. It's almost what you're supposed to do."