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Larger Than Luda
By Kelsie Allen Barton | Photo: By Zack Arias | Styling by Lauren Finney | March 27, 2017
He’s known for driving fast on the big screen and rapping even faster, but local luminary Ludacris is more than the sum of his parts. Photographed behind the scenes at the Atlanta Braves’ new stadium, SunTrust Park, "The Fate of the Furious" star brings his A-game.
It’s photo-shoot day at the new SunTrust Park, and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges has opted for something a bit different to help him get in the zone. No thumping music blasting in the background; instead, on comes a YouTube video playing one of Dave Chappelle’s stand-up acts. The comedian’s animated voice fills the room, creating a social, lighthearted energy. As if on cue, Chappelle delivers a punchline just as the camera fires off a few quick shots of Bridges, sending his sly smile into a full-fledged, toothy grin. It’s photo gold, and he knows it—he looks completely relaxed, natural, at home.
That funny, carefree quality, combined with the smooth confidence of someone who’s sustained a decades-spanning career, is part of what makes Bridges such an enigma in his field: a rap superstar who’s anything but one-dimensional. Sure, he’s a Grammy-winning, multiplatinum artist with a seemingly endless list of hits, but the 39-year-old has become just as well-known for being a talented actor, savvy entrepreneur, philanthropist and, in many ways—as a beloved Atlanta resident—an ambassador for the city. (“It’s gone from the place everybody talks about visiting to the place everybody visits,” he quips.)
He’ll continue to expand on that jack-of-all-trades reputation this month when he reprises his big-screen role as former street racer-turned-mechanics whiz Tej Parker in the Fast & Furious franchise’s eighth chapter, The Fate of the Furious. Simultaneously, to the delight of his fans, Bridges plans to launch new music for the first time since his album Ludaversal dropped in 2015. Atlanta will shine in the national spotlight for both projects, as the movie was filmed locally; and Bridges’ songs, whether or not he name drops ATL, continue to be influenced by the Dirty South style that became synonymous with the Atlanta rap scene in the early 2000s.
But that’s only a glimpse into what’s filling Bridges’ schedule these days. He’s also co-founder of record label Disturbing Tha Peace and has partnered with Jackmont Hospitality on Chicken+Beer, the new Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport eatery that’s become a go-to for Southern fare and a wide selection of local craft beer (the name serves as a nod to his third album, Chicken-n-Beer). In a now-saturated world of hip-hop artists, many whose careers have been a flash in the pan, Bridges stands out for having steadily worked to cement himself as a cultural icon, and one of Atlanta’s greatest success stories.
Born in Champaign, Ill., Bridges moved to Atlanta at age 9 with his family. (His father picked up work in the oil industry and his mom took a job at mortgage financier Fannie Mae.) Growing up in College Park, Bridges was known for being a well-rounded kid and athlete who enjoyed playing baseball and attending Braves games. But he was simultaneously falling in love with hip-hop, thanks in large part to the smooth rap of LL Cool J, whom Bridges says first introduced him to the genre, and Atlanta’s vibrant, up-and-coming artistic scene, where groups like Outkast had started to emerge. In addition to rap’s fast-paced flow and hard-hitting lyrics, it was the ability to “let out all your frustrations in the music” that drew him to the style, he says.
His love for humor, too, became a source of inspiration (hence the stage name Ludacris). “I think I get my comedic side from my dad,” Bridges says, “and a little bit from Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. I grew up listening to those guys. It’s a mix of Richard Pryor and LL Cool J—that’s what comes out in my music.”
After graduating from Banneker High School and studying music management at Georgia State University for several years, Bridges began recording (after a stint as a DJ at Hot 107.9) and released his first album, Incognegro, in 1999, followed by his first major label debut, Back for the First Time, in 2000. The album was considered a major success, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard charts and launching popular singles like “Southern Hospitality” and “What’s Your Fantasy” that showcased Bridges’ signature exuberant sound and witty rhymes.
Hits like “Rollout (My Business)” and “Move Bitch” followed from 2001 to 2003 as Bridges churned out two more albums, Word of Mouf and Chicken-n-Beer. Then, in 2004, the rapper teamed up with Usher and Lil Jon on “Yeah!,” which became the longest-running No. 1 single of that year, ultimately winning the trio a Grammy for best rap/sung collaboration.
The award was huge, but Bridges has never been one to settle. His 2004 release, The Red Light District, revealed a more mature, serious side of his music, but by 2006’s Release Therapy, he had hit his stride. “With my sixth album, I set out wanting to win a Grammy,” Bridges admits. “It felt like it was my time.” He took home the award for best rap album in 2007, with his single “Money Maker” featuring Pharrell Williams winning best rap song. Dream, achieved.
The opportunity to join the 2 Fast 2 Furious cast presented itself around the time of his second album, and Bridges—feeling like it was a good fit—jumped at the opportunity to add “actor” to his burgeoning résumé. “Once we read the script and saw what they were going for, it was something I couldn’t turn down,” he says.
Little did he know then that the franchise would go on to become one of Universal Pictures’ highest grossing ever and that his appearance in the series’ second film would hardly be his last. “I tell people this all the time,” he says with a laugh, “but it’s the gift that keeps on giving. I never thought when I was doing No. 2 that I’d be back for 5, 6 and 7.”
And now 8, with the highly anticipated Atlanta-filmed The Fate of the Furious—which Bridges describes as “a roller-coaster ride”—hitting theaters April 14. Fans of the mega-franchise should know that the all-star cast members, including Vin Diesel, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Michelle Rodriguez, really are as close-knit as they appear on screen. “Our kids play together when we’re working on set,” Bridges reveals. “One night, I may go to dinner with Tyrese, and the next, I’ll be hanging out with Scott Eastwood.” (By the way, Eastwood—if you somehow missed it—is also featured in this very issue.)
Although he’s best known for his part in the action-packed street-racing saga, Bridges also has displayed a natural talent for acting with memorable roles in 2004’s Crash, which later won the Academy Award for best picture, and 2005’s Hustle & Flow. So, why have we not seen him in more movies? “Acting is something I feel like I can take my time with,” he explains. “It’s more about building a résumé. I’m looking for the right roles, not just trying to do as many films as I can all at once.”
Bridges is allowed to be selective, having been in the entertainment biz for as long as he has. He’s seen failure but hasn’t let past missteps keep him from pursuing his passions.
“I’m the kind of person who lives life with no regrets because I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” he says, “and I don’t mean that to sound cliché.”
Plus, he has plenty else to focus on, from his record label to his restaurant to The Ludacris Foundation, which he started in 2001 to inspire young people to live their dreams by promoting leadership, education and healthy lifestyles. (Every September he hosts Ludaday Weekend in Atlanta, filled with parties and celebrity competitions from bowling to basketball that benefit the nonprofit.) Not to mention his family: He tied the knot with model Eudoxie Mbouguiengue in 2014 and is the father to three adorable daughters—including Cadence, whom he and his wife welcomed in 2015.
Up next, Bridges will debut his new track, “Vitamin D,” this month; and, when asked which artist he’d most like to collaborate with in the future, he answers, without hesitation, “Eminem. We toured together and always talked about teaming up, but it hasn’t happened yet.” The rapper also hints at a possible foray into the tech world—an untapped industry for the multihyphenate. But for now, Bridges is living in the moment. It’s no surprise that his ideal Atlanta weekend would be fast-paced and a whole lot of fun, just like the Furious star himself. “I have a bunch of four-wheelers at my house, so I’d be riding around, playing with my kids,” he says. And, lest anyone forgets that he is, in fact, the famous rapper Ludacris, he adds, “And probably smoking cigars and drinking some top-shelf liquor.”