Andrew Ahiakpor has never heard the "explicit version" of star rapper Ludacris' platinum-seller Word of Mouf and that's just fine with him.
"I think that true talent doesn't need profanity to shine," scoffs the 25-year-old UC-Santa Barbara grad from Fairfield, California. "Plus, when words like ho' and the b' and n' words are thrown around, I think a lot of the suburban' okay, white' consumers of hip-hop aren't exactly picturing people who look like them. So they end up being entertained at the expense of getting these sometimes twisted perceptions of black people" -- like himself. "I hate hearing my people demeaned like that."
Nevertheless, Ahiakpor loves his "clean-edit" version of Mouf, and considers Ludacris one of his favorite artists. "Ludacris is bursting at the seams with sheer charisma," he chuckles. "He's great!"
Lisa Acosta, 15, from New York City, didn't have a choice of which Ludacris CD she could buy. But the high school freshman admits she actually likes some of the sound effects used to cover up the dirty words on her copy of Ludacris' Def Jam South debut, Back for the First Time. "I love the laser-gun sound effects on Game Got Switched,'" she says. "And the chorus is awesome!"
Andrew and Lisa are part of a largely ignored segment of the hip-hop audience: the "clean-edit" crowd, CD buyers who, either because their parents won't allow them to get the dirty versions or because of their own distaste for profanity, choose to buy the edited versions that now accompany the release of nearly every major-label hip-hop album.
Ludacris himself admits he's never stopped to think about the clean-edit versions of his CDs or, for that matter, about who actually buys them. "I don't know anything about the edited versions," he says in a tired growl. "I just do the bad' versions."
The 25-year-old Chicago-born Atlanta transplant did contribute a crucial vocal redo for the radio version of his hit "Area Codes" altering the now-famous catch phrase "I got ho's in different area codes" to "I got pros." Other than that, he leaves the cleanup work to his main producer, KLC.
Still, now that it's mentioned to him, Ludacris is intrigued. While it's hard to determine how well the clean-edits sell on their own (Geoff Mayfield of Billboard laments that SoundScan "marries" the bar codes for the two versions upon release to track the tallies of total sales), people are clearly buying them. "About 13 percent of rap sales are from Wal-Mart stores," estimates Wendy Day, founder of Rap Coalition, a not-for-profit artists' advocacy group, "and they sell only edited albums."
Sure enough, Ludacris' Word of Mouf and the debut album by his hip-hop clique, Disturbing Tha Peace, called Golden Grain, sit among the top-selling CDs at Wally-Mart over the past 12 months. Clean-edits are also sold at Target, Kmart and Sam Goody.
Ludacris ruminates on the preponderance of the clean versions of his albums as if hearing the news that he has a long-lost twin a "good" twin, in his case. "I wonder what they're getting to hear," he thinks aloud. The Eddie Murphy fan appreciates the suggestion that it's a Professor Klump/Buddy Love clash of identities: The clean Ludacris serenades the girl at the bedroom window, and the explicit Ludacris sets off the fog alert with her in his Escalade.
And indeed, there is a clean Ludacris with his own career. He's the Ludacris who shows up on the cover of Teen People sitting on an inflatable pool toy instead of swinging it in front of his crotch. He's the Ludacris whose picture and bio show up on family-oriented Web sites like KidsWorld.com without links to the official Ludacris site, which offers "behind-the-scenes" hot tub shots from his "What's Your Fantasy" video.
He's also the Ludacris who showed up when Pepsi needed a new spokesman to reel in the multicultural youth market. That is, until Bill O'Reilly exposed Ludacris' own Buddy Love.
When Ludacris saw the debut of that Pepsi Twist commercial during the Super Bowl the one where the cursing-crazy Osbourne kids transform into the Osmonds rap's sharpest comedian couldn't help but see the irony.
Only five months earlier, Ludacris had seen his own Pepsi commercial yanked off the air after storms of protests, led by O'Reilly, Fox News' rabble-rousing conservative. During an August episode of The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly stirred up such a fuss about Pepsi partnering with the "decadent mercenary" that the company announced it was dropping Ludacris the very next day. It actually issued a statement reading, "We've decided to discontinue our ad campaign with this artist and we're sorry that we've offended anyone."
Then, come the Big Game, we saw Ozzy, Jack and Kelly the dysfunctional TV brood responsible for making the "bleep" the punch line of 2002 pitching their favorite soft drink.
"Y'know, all this time I coulda been yappin' my mouth and saying bad things about them," Ludacris admits. "But I didn't. I just had a plan. I thought this issue was bigger than me, so I had to get somebody bigger than myself, you know, who had a voice on a whole 'nother level."
The former business major didn't have to look far: Ludacris took his cause to Def Jam founder Russell Simmons. Simmons hip-hop fat-cat #1 stood up for his label's southern franchise by launching a "Campaign for Respect," threatening to boycott Pepsi unless the company jumped through three hoops: issuing a public apology to Ludacris; making a $5 million donation to the Ludacris Foundation, the inner-city youth charity headed up by Momma Ludacris; and re-airing the Ludacris commercial. (In the end, Pepsi agreed only to a $3 million agreement with the Ludacris Foundation "to provide funding to grassroots, nonprofit organizations serving the needs of youth throughout the United States.")
Along the way, Simmons tossed some food for thought to the media: Middle America, he contended, was showing a double standard by accepting an older white rock star's constant cussing while condemning a younger, blacker hip-hop star for talking the same way.
Ludacris agrees there are cultural differences in the way families talk that everybody just needs to get over. "Some people talk differently than other people," he says, shrugging. "That's what hip-hop is all about: Bringing the people to where you're at. And in my neighborhood, this is how we talk, this is what goes on."
But the point Pepsi, O'Reilly and Simmons all missed was that America hasn't really accepted Ozzy's cussing either. The only way we like hearing The Osbournes and the only way we get to hear them is with the cuss words bleeped out. When actress Patricia Heaton got to hear the Osbournes live and uncensored as hosts of the American Music Awards show, the Everybody Loves Raymond wife stormed out of L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium, shocked by the "stupid and vulgar" humor.
We all want the edited Osbournes, just as lots of Americans want the edited Ludacris.
Listening to an edited Ludacris CD can warrant a visit from the Sprint PCS guy ("You heard I got fro's, in different area codes'?"). Customer reviews of the clean-edit CDs on Amazon.com are full of 10-year-olds whining about the futility of "trying to get the Ludacris experience with all the words cut out," as one young reviewer from Bothell, Washington, complains.
Still, they all love their Ludacris even if they're only getting him in fragments of sounds, like a '50s teen glued to a buzzing transistor radio listening in on some distant late-night rock 'n' roll broadcast.
"I think when they only get to hear the chopped-up versions of my songs, they kinda form their own opinion of what those words might be," Ludacris surmises. Sometimes, he laughs, what they imagine is wilder than what he actually says.
But there's also just something in the sound of Ludacris' voice and sledgehammer enunciation that fans respond to. "They might not even be into the words I'm saying," Ludacris guesses. "They might concentrate more on the melody; they might concentrate more on the beat. It could be what the rhythm is. It could be the sound of my voice. It could be a lot of different things."
Ludacris greets compliments on his "funny" personality about as gracefully as Joe Pesci in GoodFellas ("I ain't funny all the damn time," he corrects). But in his videos and magazine photos, the rubber-faced rapper exudes a madcap comic charm that sets him apart from the standard scowling, ice-grill-faced MCs. It's a persona that makes him more accessible to all those suburban kids who might yell "stranger danger!" at the sight of DMX.
Whatever the reason, Ludacris is one of those rare rap artists who's as entertaining cleaned up as he is dirtied down. In Ludacris, Def Jam has an artist it can effectively sell as two products: Ludacris and Ludacris Lite. He's at once a Colt .45 and an O'Doul's, a Big Mac and a light pita sandwich.
And if his current plans for world domination are any indication, Ludacris doesn't intend on phasing out his with-the-works offerings anytime soon. Next for 2003 is another solo album, tentatively titled Chicken and Beer, a starring role in the shoo-in summer blockbuster sequel to The Fast and the Furious (2 Fast 2 Furious) and in a career move most certain to stir up controversy a voice-over role in the animated feature Lil' Pimp.
"It's like the hip-hop world meets South Park," Ludacris says. "That was real fun because I'm this little itty-bitty gerbil with, like, a really mean voice. And I like using my voice to my advantage."
It's a plot synopsis that'll probably set off code-red alarms at the headquarters of every watchdog organization in America. Naturally, Ludacris had to be a part of it.
"The way I see it, I got a responsibility to be who I am that's it," he says. "And that includes being free about my speech."
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In truth, Ludacris' best rhymes substitute comic metaphors where most rappers opt for graphic sex-ed descriptions (he managed to make millions of female fans horny with nothing but his "maintenance man" guarantee to "check fluids and transmission" on Missy Elliott's "One Minute Man").
But when he does dip into his repertoire of four-letter words a panelist on O'Reilly's show counted him using the "f" word 26 times in five and a half minutes Ludacris suggests we all just try to look at what lies underneath, just as we forgive the Osbournes' foul mouths because, with the bad stuff bleeped out, it's actually quite easy to see their endearing family values.
"To a lot of people, what they hear in hip-hop music, they think is bad," he says. "But if they really listened to what we're saying, they would understand where we're coming from. It's not bad, really, it's just the truth."
And if that's a little too strong for some people's tastes, the rapper suggests, there's always Ludacris Lite.