The grateful guy inside the Ludacris wrapper


Ludacris is supposed to be surrounded by fawning groupies, a mean-mugging entourage, clouds of marijuana smoke and enough alcohol to buoy a Jimmy Buffett tribute cruise. At least that’s the assumption you’d make of a man who titled an album “The Red Light District,” featuring the hit single “Pimpin’ All Over the World.”

Instead, the rapper whom Bill O’Reilly once called a “vile thug” sits slumped into an overstuffed chair, exhausted in the dressing room of “Chelsea Lately.” There is no entourage, and the lone intoxicant in sight is an untouched bottle of the Conjure cognac line that the superstar is hawking.

Ludacris: A May 2 article in the Calendar section about rapper Ludacris misidentified his agency representative as the William Morris Agency. He is represented by the Creative Artists Agency. —

It’s easy to confuse Ludacris with Chris Bridges. The former is the alter ego of one of the most popular rappers in the world. Blessed with a booming baritone, an innate pop sensibility and the gift to own every cameo appearance he’s ever been on, Ludacris has sold 24 million records worldwide, won three Grammys (including awards for best rap song and best rap album) and attracted a level of conservative opprobrium usually reserved for liberal politicians, Afghan warlords and George Clooney.

The man behind the mask, though, is more humble, immensely appreciative of his good fortune — and gripped by a mild case of existential ennui. It’s the eternal dilemma of the world-beating conqueror: He doesn’t know how to stop.

Removed from their dance floor-friendly context, the ribald humor of songs like “Ho,” “Hey Ho” and “Move Bitch” was lost on O’Reilly, who decried the Atlanta-based rapper and threatened a boycott unless Pepsi fired him as its pitchman. Oprah Winfrey assailed him for his misogynistic catalog during a guest appearance to promote the film “Crash,” and his Hillary Clinton- and John McCain-bashing lyrics on a mix-tape track, “Politics as Usual,” made the artist a political football during the 2008 campaign, prompting Barack Obama to condemn his material.

“It’s bizarre that I’ve been picked as the center of all these controversies. I don’t know how or why it happened. Maybe I was just extremely popular and a big target,” said Bridges guardedly.

The hesitation is understandable, considering that a decade after making history as the first Southern rapper signed to Def Jam, he’s parlayed his hip-hop fame into an established brand. He’s a businessman with his own record label, extensive real estate holdings, a charitable foundation and his own line of body spray.

Unusually versatile, Ludacris has amassed a reputation as the go-to hit-maker for those in need of a rap cameo, with everyone from Mariah Carey to Usher to, most recently, Justin Bieber turning to him for a mid-song boost of adrenaline.

“Ludacris can go from a hood anthem to an R&B cut to a backpack record without compromising himself,” said DJ Felli Fel, mix show coordinator and nighttime DJ at Power 106 (KPWR 105.9). An Island Def Jam/So So Def-signed producer, Fel himself featured Ludacris on his own smash single, “Get Buck in Here.” “Look at his performance on ‘Baby’ with Justin Bieber. If you can do a record with a 16-year-old kid and pull it off without looking cheesy, you have a rare gift.”

Indeed, his latest triumph occurred last month, when his heavily collaborative seventh album, “Battle of the Sexes,” debuted at No. 1, his fourth chart-topping entry. Yet only a week later, the celebratory afterglow had dissipated.

His “Chelsea Lately” segment doesn’t tape for another 20 minutes, but Bridges is already on autopilot. It’s hard to blame him: He’s at the tail end of a cross-country tour supporting the Black Eyed Peas, and seems to be operating within a “Groundhog Day”-type existence.

Every day is essentially the same: a regimented itinerary studded with early wake-up calls, abrasive radio DJs asking about Bieber, talk show appearances, scripts to read (his William Morris Agency representative will badger him later about the newest batch), and concerts or studio sessions at night. The cycle is so wearying that just to catch an extra half-hour of sleep at night, he’ll often park his RV next to wherever he’s slated to appear the next morning.

Consequently, his polite but nonchalant answers rarely extend beyond a sentence. When asked what the public doesn’t know about him, he recommends reading the “25 Things You Don’t Know About Me” feature that he did for Us magazine. (Apparently, he likes hot sauce on his scrambled eggs, Syrah red wine and would want X-ray vision if he were a superhero.)

One gathers the impression that for a man whose label is called Disturbing Tha Peace, Bridges is almost disturbingly normal — as much as possible when you own a private jet and your own line of cognac.

“Every morning, I ask how I do this every day. When I thought the Gorillaz were going to win the No. 1 spot, I went into overdrive: radio call-ins, CD signings, kissing babies,” Bridges said. “It has to do with how hard you’re willing to work for yourself. I couldn’t do this for anyone else.”

When asked if he ever takes a break for vacation, his bodyguard Andre laughs and confirms Bridges’ mad-scientist work ethic: “We’ve been on the road for 10 or 11 months a year for the last 6 1/2 years.”

But when the cameras roll, the soft-spoken Bridges transforms into the character who once referred to himself as “the abominable ho-man”: flirting with Handler, attempting to convert her from vodka to his Conjure cognac, telling her “you like everything but your liquor dark.”

From there, Bridges bounces from radio appearance to radio appearance, charming the over-caffeinated personalities and program directors with Conjure in his hand, ready with a perfect sales pitch (he learned how to blend it himself in Cognac, France). You can see why Hollywood has sought him out. He’s well rehearsed but never forced, changing from Chris Bridges to Ludacris as easily as he does into the leather jacket and tangerine-sized diamond earrings he puts on to perform that night at Staples Center.

But it’s really only then that he seems truly in his element, running through a 45-minute set of continuous hits, voice ricocheting off the cheap seats, with the mischievous energy of a rambunctious third-grader. It’s actually not that hard to figure out the difference between Ludacris and Chris Bridges. He lets you know.