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. 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. His second album, 2001's Word of Mouf, had racked up a few million in sales, 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 antisocial behavior" and "a dumb idiot who got lucky and exploits the system" -- implying, as well, that he's as 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 came 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, 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. "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."
Okay, 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, including 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's Disturbing Tha Peace crew.) Fox News Channel's motto might be "We report, you decide," but evidently they don't own a CD player. If they did, they'd hear a rapper who is closer in spirit to a court jester, rather than someone who needs a court-appointed attorney.
Now, if O'Reilly 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 to be the cranky asshole who's 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 hooking a demographic it prized, Pepsi completely alienated it. The company recently began trying 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's 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."
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, promoting both Word of Mouf and Disturbing Tha Peace's Golden Grain; after that, he'll head home to finish 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. It's about giving the audience what they want and some new things."
One of the new things Ludacris is getting into lately is movies. In addition to his role in 2 Fast 2 Furious, Ludacris 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.
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. "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."