By MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
Atlanta rapper Ludacris had already sold almost 8 million albums before dropping his third, “Chicken-N-Beer” (Def Jam South), last fall.
Since then, the 26-year-old (born Chris Bridges) has made inroads into Hollywood as an actor, the fashion industry with his own show line and the music industry as the chief of the Southern rap crew Disturbing Tha Peace.
His protege, Chingy, joins him on his current tour, which hits the Congress Theatre Saturday. What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation Ludacris and I had recently, where he explained he’d like to be seen as having more depth than your average party MC.
Q. The last song on your album, “Eyebrows Down,” reads like an autobiography. When did you discover you had a gift for rhymes?
A. Probably when I was like around 9 years old. Like the song says, it was when kids in the fourth grade started giving me feedback on my own music and wanted me to keep rapping. That’s what motivated me to really keep going, getting feedback from kids.
Q. But as a kid, how do you realize that dream can become a reality?
A. As a kid, what motivated me was seeing movies like “Krush Groove” and “Beat Street” and “Breakin'” and hearing Run DMC and LL Cool J. But then when (Atlanta teenage duo) Kris Kross got signed (in 1991), everybody was really excited and I was like, “man those kids were just signed,” and I just thought I’ll do it too.
Q. In the song, you say you made “mistakes sharper than a Ginsu blade” – what mistakes?
A. I’ve been through so many groups, and groups don’t work out for me. So just becoming a solo artist and learning about money and the industry. I learned from experience.
Q. Before you made records, you started out as a radio DJ in Atlanta. Why make that as a first step?
A. I went in that direction because at first I was trying to get my song played, my demo played. At first I got an internship because I noticed how many people came up there. And people were always telling me it’s about who you know in the industry, and what better place than a radio station to meet all sort of people? It was a means to an end.
Q. You’re known as a funny rapper and you have more jokes in your albums than most people.
A. I was always a guy that loved to laugh, man, I still do. That’s why it comes across in my music. My personality’s about just having fun, kicking it with my friends and laughing, watching funny movies to comedians, all of that stuff. So yeah, that was always me, I was always that kind of person.
Q. Do you think that helps pigeonhole you as just the funny gut who could never rap about anything serious?
A. A little bit. That’s why I like people to listen to the whole album because if they … listen tot he album they’d see so much versatility between songs. That if they shape and mold their mind into believing this is just a person, you just don’t know what to expect from them.
Q. What should people expect from you?
A. Versatility. (They should) just know I can be serious, I can tell a story, I can be funny, everything – there’s no limit, there is just a wide variety to the person I am and songs I come up with.
Q. You’re known as an Atlanta rapper, but really, you grew up in Champaign on the University of Illinois campus.
A. It’s when I was really young and there wasn’t much I really remember, but it was because my parents went to college there. And I just remember it was what got me music also because they were people who loved music. I felt like I was part of the college crowd because they were the kind of parents that would tug me along with them to certain places.
Q. Like where?
A. They would take me to some parties with them, even house parties you know, because I didn’t have a baby sitter and they would take me along sometimes and I would wake up every morning to music.
Q. What were they spinning back then?
A. Frankie Beverly and Maze, James Brown, Michael Jackson, The Time, everything.
Q. When OutKast won album of the year at the Grammys this month, it became the first real hip-hop album, outside Lauryn Hill’s, to get such an honor. How significant is that for you?
A. It brings more attention to our style of music, and it’s beautiful, I love it.
Q. What about the cliches that are so much a part of mainstream hip-hop? Do you think that’s bringing down the music?
A. I don’t think that’s true. It’s getting bigger everyday. It’s in commercials, it’s expanding it’s at a bigger point than it’s ever been. Some of it probably is (cliched). But there’s a lot of it that isn’t so there’s no way you can say anything about the whole genre of this music, it’s just crazy.
Q. It’s been town years now since Bill O’Reilly led a successful campaign to convince Pepsi to dump you as its spokesperson and have you replaced by the Osbournes. What did you end up learning about that incident?
A. All he did was light a fire under my (expletive), man, and I learned he’s a racist and it’s crazy that we still live in a racist society.
Q. Did it convince you there’s still a large segment of society that still has n idea what hip-hop is all about?
A. They definitely don’t. I’d like them to understand what it’s all about and maybe go purchase some of these albums because it’s not all violence, it’s not all crazy, there’s a variety out there. I think they’d enjoy it.