Ludacris Talks Hollywood Walk of Fame Star, Scaling the Heights of Acting and Music: ‘I Had So Much to Prove’

It’s good to be Ludacris. Twenty years after his first appearance in the “Fast and Furious” action-adventure franchise, 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious,” the Atlanta rapper and actor is set to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the same week “Fast X” premieres. Such attention is nothing new to Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. As an artist, he’s sold more than 24 million albums worldwide since he began making music with 1999’s independent “Incognegro.” From there, it was on to a Def Jam contract and mainstream fame with such hits as “Act a Fool” and “Stand Up,” plus collaborations such as his 2004 feature alongside Lil Jon on Usher’s “Yeah!”

For a guy who hasn’t made a new album since 2015, the “Dirty South” rapper is jump-starting his schedule with just-booked music gigs in Miami Beach in May, and Kevin Hart’s Hartbeat Weekend at the Resorts World Las Vegas in July. Bridges talked with Variety about his start in radio, how Timbaland discovered him, and the way that business school has helped guide him through a long career in the hip-hop game.

Multi-hyphenates who bridge hip-hop and other media often claim that hip-hop is a part of everything they do, even when they’re not rapping. Is that true for you?

Absolutely not. That’s the point of trying to act. I’m taking myself out of the persona of who Ludacris is. Maybe, during the transition when I got my first “Fast and Furious” film, there was a bit of hip-hop in me because that role required it. But, as I progress and evolve in film, my goal is to have the hip-hop part dissipate. 

Your name is synonymous with Atlanta and the “Dirty South.” Yet, you’re from Champagne, Illinois, and left for Georgia at age 8.

My father lived in Atlanta, and as a kid, I always wanted to be around him. There was already a booming music scene in Atlanta, and at that young an age, I already knew what I wanted to do. Labels like LaFace and SoSo Def were there. Atlanta was the Motown of the South. I wanted to hang out with my dad and be in this music mecca — the right place at the right time to pursue my passion.

What do you recall about your first rap?

I made my debut at age 9. I lied, though, and told people I was 10. The first rhyme I ever wrote was, “I’m cool/I’m bad/I might be 10/But I can’t survive without my girlfriend.” I knew I was talented, too, because when I went to school [and rapped] in front of my friends, they would ask me for more. When the next day, there were even more people gathered. … I began to feel I might be onto something. That gave me the confidence to go forward.

Your entre into the music business was through radio, working at Atlanta’s Hot 97. How did that come about?

Nine years passed since that first rap. [Laughs.] I’m 18, fresh out of high school, and noticed Hot 97 was the first in the area in playing hip-hop 24-7. I had a manager then who was an intern at Hot 97’s competitor, a station that only played rap at night, but had been established longer. I decided to get an internship at Hot 97, so that we each had an attack plan, get them from all sides. It would be a matter of time that one of the two biggest stations in Atlanta would get to hear my demo. Our attack plan didn’t work right away: my internship ended up being a job. But working at the station, making people realize I didn’t just want them to put me on as a rapper, established me as a local celebrity. It was in the vein of hip-hop and everything that I loved, while making money and hosting club gigs. I could invest in myself and make an independent album, “Incognegro.”

“People understand what is real,” says Ludacris of his authenticity as an artist. “It can’t be superficial. There has to be depth.”Getty Images

You met Timbaland at Hot 97. He became important to your career early on and continues to be a collaborator. What’s that friendship like?

I had just started at Hot 97, doing intros and outros for station personalities that had their own on-air four-hour increments. Timbaland heard intros I had made for one of our jocks on his way to the station to do an interview. Tim asked after me and we began this great relationship, starting with tracks like “Fat Rabbit.” As for the on-air personality who introduced me to Timbaland, that person is one of my managers today. Everything comes full circle. All of those jingles that I did, and Timbaland inquiring about me, got me to where I am now.

When you finally started making records, you sold them out of your trunk. Does that experience link to you studying music management at Georgia State?

One hundred percent. In order to have a long-lasting career in this industry, you must have a strong foundation. Mine was based on starting small, working my way up, independently and locally.  My Disturbing Tha Peace label. I started in Atlanta and branched out. That was a sound foundation. I teamed with Southern Music Distribution, the crew who worked with Lil Jon and the Ying Yang Twins at that time. I got, like, $7 off every album, sold 50,000 records, and got a check for $350,000 when I was 21-years-old. That was great, but in order to move forward you need to have negotiating skills when doing it on your own. A big label comes to you, offers you a contract, you have to know what they can do for you that you can’t do for yourself. All this came together while I was still working at the radio station, going to Georgia State part-time, with music management as my minor and a major in business administration. I had a good head on my shoulders when it came to understanding contracts.

Georgia State awarded artist, actor and entrepreneur Chris “Ludacris” Bridges an honorary degree.Meg Laskey Buscema/ Georgia Stat

Your flow is one of hip-hop’s most unique like a slide trombone swallowing an oboe. How did you develop that tone?

It was the excitement of loving hip-hop, appreciating other artists, developing my own style from comedians, not just rappers. I used to stay up late as a kid, watching “Def Comedy Jam,” Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence. Laughter is great for the soul. Combine that with hip-hop, and you get where I was coming from. Also, working in radio helped when it came to diction and enunciation. You’re talking to a million or more people at a time. That surely played a part in my vocal development.

You were selling tons of records on your own. When you made the move to Def Jam, what did they offer you beyond prestige?

Yes, we sold records in Atlanta, and that fame blossomed into other cities across the U.S. But Def Jam put me on a world stage with marketing dollars to keep me there. That growth allowed for other opportunities. Everything is a business. Sometimes you sacrifice to get something bigger, if you play your cards right. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Did working with Def Jam mean something to you in a spiritual sense?

Absolutely. I was the first artist they signed from the South. That was risky for us at first as we didn’t know if Def Jam knew how to market a Southern artist. This was a New York label with New York artists like Jay-Z, DMX, Ja Rule, LL Cool J. Either I was going to be put in my own category or soar to new heights beyond any category.

In retrospect, there were people on their side and mine that were worried that Def Jam wouldn’t know what to do with me. I’m proud that it all worked, how things were handled. I can’t be more appreciative of Def Jam. And they weren’t the only label who wanted me at that time. We shopped around. You name it – Atlantic, Elektra, Columbia – we were talking. It was Def Jam that we chose. Their history and the fact that they had Scarface as its president of Def Jam South —  I really admired him —  made the difference. They weren’t even the ones offering the most money. Def Jam just had a better foundation, a better plan. They knew how to help make the Ludacris brand grow to its fullest potential.

What was the image you wanted to put forth, especially in your videos?

There were a lot of rappers then that couldn’t show anything beyond this really serious, hard persona. I wanted to be myself — bring something fun to the table. The persona I had wasn’t there to sell drugs — nothing against anyone who did. In terms of me being me and setting myself apart, I stood on being witty, using clever metaphors and rhymes that incorporated elements of theater and film. I wanted to be versatile. If you listened to my albums or watched my videos, I wanted to take you on a rollercoaster ride of emotion and laughter.

If Variety told your radio persona, “Chris Lova Lova,” or the Ludacris who dropped “Incognegro” that he would get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, what would he have said?

“Get the fuck out of here.” Not because a star was not possible. I don’t think that I could have seen that far down the line. When it came to music, I had blinders on at that time because I knew that I had so much to prove. Now, I have much to prove in film and music — the two most sought-after dreams in the world, rock star and movie star. I’m loving it.

TIPSHEET

What: Ludacris receives star on Hollywood Walk of Fame
When: 11:30 A.M., May 18
Where: 6426 Hollywood Blvd.
Web: walkoffame.com

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