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‘I Got a $350,000 Check When I was 21′: How Ludacris’ Investment In His Music Led to His Young Success Despite Being Unsigned

Not getting signed right away to a record label turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Ludacris.

Initially known as DJ Chris Lova Lova during his tenure at an Atlanta radio station, he garnered attention from record labels and producer Timbaland as he pursued his career. This ultimately led to his feature on the single “Phat Rabbit.” But a deal proved to be elusive.

US rapper-actor Chris “Ludacris” Bridges arrives for the Mercedes-Benz exclusive WILL.I.AMG. concept car reveal party at the Mercedes-AMG Brand Center Experience in Miami, Florida, on May 5, 2022. (Photo by Marco BELLO / AFP) (Photo by MARCO BELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

He recently discussed his early success at age 21 on the “Drink Champs” podcast on Feb. 3, about a week before his Super Bowl 58 appearance. 

The rapper, who was a young Atlanta radio host at 18, decided to invest independently in his debut album “Incognegro.” In 1998, he co-founded his own label, Disturbing Tha Peace Records, to promote Southern rappers.

Ludacris’ Investment That Changed Everything

“I’ve had my moments with each of those entities, but I never signed with them,” Ludacris said on Drink Champs. “Even with Timbaland, there was a time when I was about to get signed to Timbaland because of my first record before ‘What’s Your Fantasy.’ I was on his album, and I had a song called ‘Phat Rabbit,’ which ended up being on ‘Back for the First Time.’ So again, I went through all of these processes, and nobody really stepped all the way up, which caused me to put my money into myself and invest and do the whole ‘Incognegro’ album.”

The cost of his first album was $20,000, covering the creation of CDs and distribution, with each sold for about $7.

The 16-song independent studio album was released on Aug. 17, 1999, featuring two prominent singles: “Ho” and “What’s Your Fantasy” (featuring Shawnna). The latter received radio spins in key markets, including airplay on Ludacris’ rival radio station. The song entered the Billboard 200 chart.

The success of Ludacris’ regionally recognized album caught the attention of people in the music industry, including artists and executives at Def Jam, who were interested in Southern rap. This interest led to the establishment of Def Jam South, a new subsidiary focusing on Southern rap under The Island Def Jam Music Group. Ludacris was positioned to become the flagship artist for the label’s Dirty South genre.

As Southern rap gained popularity, many groups from Georgia and elsewhere followed the lead of successful acts like Goodie Mob and OutKast by signing with major labels. Ludacris followed suit, catching the eye of rapper Scarface and signing with Def Jam Records in 2000, marking a significant milestone in his career, according to Georgia Encyclopedia.

“Back for the First Time,” released on Oct. 17, 2000, was his second album, a repackaging from his underground first album, featuring major studio production edits and remixed versions of “Ho” and “What’s Your Fantasy” under his independent label Disturbing tha Peace and Def Jam South.

“Back for the First Time” debuted at No. 21 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Originally intended for his first album, one song that got pushed back to his second album was “Phat Rabbit,” produced by Timbaland.

It was the word-of-mouth success of the “Incognegro” album, which Ludacris told the podcast hosts sold 50,000 copies and earned him $350,000, that was crucial for his career and established his presence in the music industry.

“I sold 50,000 records at $7 a pop. I got a $350,000 check when I was 21 years old. Biggest check I ever got, all put into myself,” he added. “And I made the whole album for like $20,000. But that’s all the money I saved up from all the after parties and sh-t that I was doing when I was 18, 19, and 20 from working at the radio station. So, it was all part of the plan. It was very strategic and it took longer than I thought, but that sh-t worked out the way it needed to work out. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for it.”

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