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, after 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 antisocial behavior." And "a dumb idiot who got lucky and exploits the system." And a danger to anyone who listens to him, because his message is "Look, be an outlaw. Take narcotics. Abuse people. Punch people. Hurt people." Then the punchline: "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, Pepsi dropped Ludacris from its ad campaign without bothering to tell Ludacris first. "Was I surprised?" Ludacris asks from his home in Atlanta. "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. Right after he did it, you know, I had to hear it on the news."
Let's get one thing straight: Ludacris does, in fact, have a dirty mind and a foul mouth; he's no Will Smith or Young MC. He titled one song on Word of Mouf "Move Bitch"; on another, "Coming 2 America", he raps, "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 O'Reilly attributed 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 preceding lines were contributed by I-20, a member of Disturbing Tha Peace.) Fox News Channel's motto may be "We report, you decide," but its decision-makers evidently don't own a CD player. If they did, they'd hear a rapper who's closer in spirit to a court jester than to someone who needs a court-appointed attorney. Ludacris' 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, though: 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. Back then, O'Reilly believed cold cash was the proper reward for "peddling antisocial behavior." He even wrote an editorial in the New York Times praising the practice of "checkbook journalism."
All of 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? As 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 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. (Apparently this 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."
Ludacris never needed the exposure that the aborted ad campaign would have given him. 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."
One of these new things 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 is in negotiations with MTV Films to produce and star in another flick. Also coming soon is Lil' Pimp, a Flash-animated feature starring Ludacris as Weathers, a foul-mouthed gerbil. "It's kinda like the hip-hop world meets South Park," he says. "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."
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, everything except stumping for Pepsi.
"I feel like I want a helluva challenge," he says. "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."