But here I am, on the Saturday night before the Super Bowl, kneeling right in front of the stage at Celebrity Theatre, where Ludacris is hosting his "Luda Bowl" concert. And every time Ludacris stands in front of me, I'm looking up at him, all framed in glowing spotlights, like he's hip-hop Jesus or something.
And he pretty much is. Not only has Ludacris sold more than 13 million records in this country alone, but he also has the distinction of netting more top 10 Billboard hits than any other solo hip-hop artist. He's also the most charismatic of the three hip-hop stars I saw over Super Bowl weekend — which says a lot, considering I saw Diddy on Thursday night and Snoop Dogg on Friday night.
Diddy's much-touted performance at the New Times Super Thursday party at Axis/Radius was underwhelming, to say the least. Diddy hit the stage without announcement or fanfare and quickly ran through a slew of new material before heading back to his limo. It was like watching a dress rehearsal with a six-figure price tag.
Snoop Dogg's performance at Axis/Radius on Friday was better. Not only did the Doggfather perform a catalog of fan favorites, like "Murder Was the Case" and "187," with his band, The Snoopadelics, but he took time to talk with the massive audience between songs. The downside was that the venue was overflowing with drunken revelers, so the average Joe couldn't get anywhere near Snoop.
Tonight is a completely different story. I'm not in swarming Scottsdale and I can actually get access to the performer tonight. When I arrived at Celebrity Theatre, I was whisked backstage by Tiffany J, the manager of local rapper Willy Northpole, about whom I recently wrote a cover story ("Raising Terrazona," January 10). Northpole's signed to Ludacris' Disturbing Tha Peace label, and the main reason I'm here is to see him open Luda's show.
The backstage area at Celebrity Theatre is very purple. The hallway and walls are painted a deep mulberry shade, which doesn't come close to matching the fire-engine red dressing room doors.
Inside one of the dressing rooms, Northpole and a huge crew are preparing for the show. Northpole's going over a vocal harmony with three ladies who'll join him onstage for his song "Body Marked Up."
"Okay, when I say, 'Where the ladies at?' that's when you come out," Northpole says.
The trio runs through the vocal harmony a few times, while Northpole's cell phone rings incessantly. Everybody wants on the guest list. Northpole tells everybody to just go to the ticket window at Celebrity Theatre.
Somebody asks Northpole if he's going to be able to get anybody else comped. "I don't know," he says. "I'm just telling everybody to come." (Turns out that Northpole's guest list was already finalized and full.)
In the hallway, R&B singer Steph Jones is doing his vocal warm-up. Rapper Small World is pacing the floor. Several other people are carrying equipment in through the back door. There's a handful of beautiful, busty black women with "all access" passes affixed to their tight dresses. Ludacris is laying low in his dressing room, putting on several pieces of gorgeous jewelry — three huge, sparkling rings; a thick, silver chain necklace; and a diamond watch so huge it'll set off little rainbow prisms when the light hits it. The silver jewelry matches the silver stitching on his black designer jeans.
Inside Northpole's dressing room, the adrenaline is pumping. This is a huge hometown show for him, and he plans on making an impression. He's set to open for Ludacris in about 10 minutes, so Tiffany J leads me out to my little spot in front of the stage.
When the lights go down and Northpole comes out, he's all energy, bounding around the stage and slapping hands with people in the audience. A guy behind me starts to sing along to one of Northpole's songs, and Northpole actually puts the mic up to the guy's mouth so he can rap. The guy chickens out, so Northpole continues rapping and working the crowd. He sounds good, and he's got the throng inside the theater waving its arms. But I thought his set was too short — he performed for only about 15 minutes, and I wanted more. Luckily, he'll be back onstage later.
There's supposed to be a 15-minute intermission before Ludacris comes out, but that turns into half an hour. In the meantime, the audience is getting restless, chanting "Lu-da! Lu-da!"
Ludacris is backstage with a wireless mic when the lights go down. The man onstage, DJ JC, asks the audience if it's ready. Everybody screams, but Ludacris announces, "Fuck that. They ain't loud enough," into the mic from backstage.
With that, the venue erupts, and Ludacris walks down the ramp and onto the stage, leaving a personal security crew of four huge dudes standing at the end of the ramp. The audience is now bouncing up and down, waving its arms, and singing along to seemingly every word. For the next hour and a half, I stare up at Ludacris while he and DTP artist Lil Fate perform a bevy of songs from his extensive hit list, including "Act a Fool," "Area Codes," "Pussy Poppin'," "Stand Up," and "Get Out the Way."
I'm in a three-foot space between the stage and the guard rail, and I'm the only person in the audience this close to Ludacris (everybody else is behind the rail, in the general admission seats). He keeps looking down at me with amusement and smiling. He has to reach over me every time he slaps hands with people in the front row.
For a record label CEO and chart-topping performer with a crowd of more than a thousand screaming people in his pocket, Ludacris is surprisingly humble. In person, he introduces himself by his real name, Chris Bridges, and he loves to share the spotlight with the artists on his label.
When Ludacris begins performing "I Get Money," Northpole joins him onstage and tears up the mic for a verse. Ludacris looks proud of his protégé, and at the end of the song, he slaps hands with Northpole and tells the audience, "Make some noise for Willy Northpole! He's representing Arizona, so go buy his album when it comes out."
Northpole returned to the stage for the last couple of songs of Ludacris' set, along with DTP artist Steph Jones and North Carolina rapper Small World. Before saying good night, they invited everybody to the official after-party at Club Rain in Scottsdale.
After the show, the backstage area's more congested than before. A couple of Cadillac Escalades with California plates are backed up near the loading area, where Lil Fate's smoking a cigarette and drinking from a bottle of Grey Goose vodka. People weave in and out of dressing rooms, looking for each other. Ludacris is nowhere to be seen, but Northpole's hanging out with his homies in one of the dressing rooms. I congratulate him on a great show and tell him to hit me up when his debut album for DTP, The Connect, is released this spring.
Then it's time for me to head home. After hitting three huge pre-Super Bowl parties in three days, I'm bummed that I'm too tired to hit the after-party, because judging by some of Ludacris' comments earlier — "There are some fine-ass ladies in Phoenix, Arizona" and "I heard Arizona got some of the best weed in the country" — he probably had one hell of a good time.