‘I Stayed True to Myself and Who I Am’ (Exclusive)

“I’m just a study of hip-hop,” the Atlanta legend tells PEOPLE in celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this month

<p>JSquared Photography</p> Ludacris

JSquared Photography


For Ludacris, life is about evolving. But that doesn’t mean his focus has changed.

The legendary Atlanta MC’s storied career isn’t only a testament to the power of hip-hop in all avenues of entertainment — film included — but also what can happen when you stay true to your vision.

“I stayed true to myself and who I am in all shape, forms and fashion of the word,” Luda, 45, tells PEOPLE. “’Ludicrous’ means beyond crazy, wild, ridiculous.”

“And things have changed just in terms of the progress of my subject matter, things that I speak about, obviously because of me just growing up to having different experiences. So I went from ‘hoes in different area codes’ to being married [to wife Eudoxie since 2014]. So the progression and evolution of an artist and him not only reflecting the times in his music, but talking about his reality, that’s the best way to put it. It’s a beautiful thing, man.”

As hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, Luda took some time to remember the moments that have shaped his career so far, from rapping for friends at the lunch table as a kid, to pushing the limits in his music videos, to where his sound has since taken Atlanta — “ to a place of extreme recognition, respect, understanding, versatility and camaraderie.”

Ludacris is one of the over 30 musicians sharing their stories as part of PEOPLE’s celebration of hip-hop. For more on the anniversary, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

<p>Raymond Boyd/Getty </p> Ludacris performs in Chicago in 2000

Raymond Boyd/Getty

Ludacris performs in Chicago in 2000

What does this milestone mean to you?

Well, it is a big deal. I guess it’s surreal for me because you could say it’s like I’m growing up with hip-hop and I didn’t know anything else when I was born. So to realize that it’s still, in my opinion, so young and so dominant, it is the best thing that could ever happen in the world because it is so omnipresent in every single aspect of life, not only mine, but it seems to be the rest of the world as well. It’s like global domination, man. Basically the impact that it’s had in only 50 years is beyond my wildest imagination. That’s what I’m trying to say.

You’ve told this story before about being a kid rapping for your friends at school, and how the next day the crowd got bigger, full of students encouraging you. Would you consider that experience your first crowd?

Absolutely. That and then at the lunch table at school, during lunch or outside at lunch. So that’s basically where it all started. That’s where I gained my confidence and knew that I had to have some sort of talent because, like you said, every day the crowds would get bigger and bigger.

You’ve sold 24 million records. I hope this isn’t like picking a favorite kid, but which of your earliest records do you hold closest to you today when you think back to where it all started?

Well, the first one, just because of the sentimental reasons for it, because it was Incognegro. I did all that independently of course. And then we repackaged the album and put two new songs on it and that became Back For the First Time. It’s hard for certain people to say what their baby is. I don’t see how people don’t say their baby isn’t there for their first album because obviously that was like 21 years of my life all put in one. And then it finally coming to fruition and me believing in myself, being independent and then finally putting it out independently with “What’s Your Fantasy.” Then me seeing the fruits of my labor from believing in myself and putting everything on the line, no matter what the consequences may have been, of not being afraid of failure. And luckily, not only was it not failure, it was nothing but success. And I’ve been riding that train ever since.

And what do you feel when you listen back to that record today?

It’s exactly what music is supposed to do, man. It is supposed to reflect the time. So when I listen back to it, it reflects the times, bro. Early 2000s. That was the 2000s. 100% reflects the times for me.

I’m looking at your recent setlist opening for Janet Jackson. You had “Stand Up,” “Get Back,” “Money Maker,” all the hits squeezed into 10 songs. When you sit down to make a shortened set list like that, does it help put into perspective just how many hits there are?

Man, to answer the question, abso-f—inglutely, man. I’m so blessed that no matter where I go, the show changes and the show order and the songs that I do. Of course, you’re going to have the songs that you do everywhere like “Stand Up” and “Move.” But then I have so many guest appearances and so many records that I’m not able to do depending on the timeframe, that that constantly reminds me how blessed I am and how much of a catalog I have as well.

So all of that being said, yeah, man. I’m able to cater every show list to a specific audience. That’s the best way to put it.

Even if we look at the evolution of the guest verses, too, it really speaks volumes about your work ethic. How would you describe the art of making the perfect guest verse?

Man, I’m highly competitive, so I guess you could say the perfect guest verse is just doing the absolute best that I know I can, and that if anyone else were to get featured on the record and whether I hear their version or not, that they not going to be able to compete with what the f— I have going on. So when you come in with that mentality, that’s always my mentality, just the competition aspect of it all and just knowing to go hard as f—, man.

A major part of your career has, of course, always been the visuals. Which are you proudest of today?

Which video am I most proud of? Damn. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question, man. Give me a moment to think about that s—.

I mean, it would have to be between the crazy videos, like the “Stand Up” or f—ing “Get Back.” When they’re calling my arms iconic… that s— will pretty much make you realize that something you did visually stuck in people’s heads for decades. And I think that’s something very unique to me, I guess.

Trying to make sure I’m not forgetting nothing because “Stand Up” video with the big shoes is also ridiculous and then “Roll Out” with the big-ass head. Being upside down in “Southern Hospitality” video is dope. Ah, man, that’s a hard one. But I’m just going to just for, I don’t want to say political reasons, but I would say for the sake of what stood the test of time in terms of sticking out in people’s heads and just being a staple, is going to have to be the “Get Back” arms, man.

What do you hope that the music itself has contributed to these last 50 years of hip-hop?

F—ing fun, man. There’s so many artists, they so serious and never want to show the, not necessarily the vulnerable side, but just in terms of making hip-hop fun and making people laugh. Not only that, but obviously being very versatile from a man that can do something like a “Runaway Love” and then also do something like “Number One Spot.” But yeah, and that’s another visual that I had so much fun doing. But anyway, yeah, I would say bringing fun to hip-hop. I grew up on comedians, man, so I was one of those kids that’d be watching standup and s— when I was like 6, 7 years old. So a man who grew up on Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and just all these different comedians, that’s kind of my forte, so that crept into the music, obviously, in a way that I didn’t even realize subconsciously it would do. And it sets me apart from a lot of people.

Some of the people in hip-hop that I feel like helped mold and shape me that I absolutely loved, like Redman. I absolutely love Redman. So when we talk about having fun with hip-hop, he was one of those people. Common Sense was one of those people. I mentioned LL Cool J. And then the OutKasts of the world. So I’m just a study of hip-hop. I love it. It’s changed my entire life. It’s changed my family’s life. To this day, I wake up and I’m thankful for it. I can’t believe it’s only 50 years old.

Where do you hope your music has taken Atlanta hip-hop, specifically?

Man, listen. To a place of extreme recognition, respect, understanding, just like you said, of versatility and camaraderie. That’s extremely important.

Not every city is working together with artists in their city the same way Atlanta is. Many artists have said that before. And luckily I feel like we’re on this earth to collaborate with one another in one shape, form or fashion. And the fact that I’ve been able to collaborate with so many, I feel like it’s something that is great. I think that’s what hip-hop is about. When it stands on the foundation of cutting and scratching and looping and sampling and break dancing, it’s just like we do these things together.

What do you hope for the next 50?

What I love that’s so dope about hip-hop is that everyone is evolving in not just being a rapper, but they’re getting their businesses and everything. If anything, I would say I love seeing the entrepreneurship of hip-hop and people owning their stuff more. So I would say more ownership and it’s already happening.

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