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Cash Money Records' original offices in New Orleans were located between a body shop and a hot tub dealer. Still, the label moved hundreds of thousands of albums from those humble digs and signed an unprecedented distribution deal with Universal Records in 1998. That kept the label largely independent but brought it tens of millions of dollars. By the end of 1999, it boasted four albums simultaneously in the Top 20.
Its rise was as meteoric as that of fellow New Orleans label No Limit. But No Limit soon burned out, at least partly because founder Master P was more interested in making the NBA and mentoring his dreamboat son, Lil' Romeo. It was fair to assume the same fate would befall Cash Money, especially after the departures of early stars Juvenile, Turk, B.G., and in-house beatmaker Mannie Fresh.
But ten years later, Cash Money is somehow as strong as ever. Buoyed by new faces Drake, Jay Sean, Kevin Rudolf, and Nicki Minaj — and of course Lil Wayne — the label is dominating like it's 1999. "We have control of our business," cofounder Bryan "Baby" Williams says. "If I was making moves the way corporate wanted us to make moves, I probably wouldn't be in business, because they really don't know how to hustle how we hustle."
Cash Money moved to Miami in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and after taking a bit of time to find its footing, the label has rebounded with a vengeance. Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III was 2008's top-selling album, period, and 2009 was another banner year for the label.
In the first week of December, Cash Money artists appeared on eight of Billboard's Hot 100 songs and had another eight in the R&B/rap Top 50.
But that wasn't the case in the late '90s, when two brothers from the Magnolia housing projects — Baby and his brother, Ronald "Slim" Williams — first emerged on the national scene. The media became obsessed with the crew, which was just as streetwise as No Limit but released tracks that were less grimy and had a better sense of humor. Their artists piloted a fleet of luxury cars, souped up with giant chrome rims and TV sets. The trunk of Juvenile's blue Bentley, for example, featured a unique promotional display: When you popped it, a mounted copy of his CD, 400 Degreez, spun atop a tiny motor.
In 1999, No Limit was already fading, but Cash Money ruled the charts. 400 Degreez sold nearly 5 million copies on the strength of singles "Ha" and "Back That Azz Up." B.G. — the "Baby Gangsta," who was then only 18 years old — had a big hit with Chopper City in the Ghetto. That album spawned "Bling Bling," a term that eventually made the dictionary and the vocabularies of old white ladies in Hollywood movies.
Also moving massive quantities were Tha Block Is Hot, the debut from 17-year-old Lil Wayne, and Guerrilla Warfare, the second album from Hot Boys. (The latter was a Cash Money supergroup composed of Juvenile, B.G., Wayne, and another rapper from the Magnolia projects named Turk.) All four albums would go platinum, and each would reach number one or number two on the charts.
But the money, cars, and drugs went to everyone's heads. B.G. checked himself into rehab with a heroin addiction and left the label over a financial dispute. Mannie Fresh and Baby emerged as stars with a duo called Big Tymers, but Fresh eventually departed too. It was a stunning loss, considering that his techno-styled, 808-drum-heavy beats were Cash Money's signature sound.
Juvenile quit and rejoined at least twice, and in 2006, he said on a radio show that he wanted to fight Baby: "I want to show the world that you're a sissy boy, and I'm going to smack you when I catch you." Turk was convicted of second-degree attempted murder in 2004. Acting on information that heroin was being stored at his girlfriend's Memphis home, narcotics officers backed by a SWAT team stormed the apartment. Turk, hiding in a closet, allegedly shot an officer in the jaw.
Thus the mid-'00s were a relative low point for the label. But now, bolstered by the sales of now-marquee artist Lil Wayne, it has climbed back to the top. Wayne has been rap's most influential artist for a few years, and Tha Carter III was the rare CD that fans and critics loved equally.
Though his promised followup, Rebirth, keeps getting pushed back, Wayne's ties to Cash Money are as strong as ever. For proof, look no further than the increasingly ostentatious tattoos he and Baby (his "daddy") have gotten of each other. To reward his loyalty, Baby and Slim even gave Wayne his own imprint, Young Money.
Meanwhile, in the past couple of years, Cash Money has also begun to think outside the box. In 2008, execs surprised the music world by signing their first white artist, a New York-bred songwriter named Kevin Rudolf. He would go on to hit the Top 10 with the jock jam "Let It Rock," but not everyone was so sure he was doing the right thing by hooking up with gangsta rappers. "It's a real connection, a real label, and it's a real situation for me," he told New Times at the time, sounding a bit defensive.
Last year, the label extended its reach across the Atlantic by signing Jay Sean, an R&B singer raised in West London who is the son of Indian immigrants. Having already sold hundreds of thousands of units in the U.K., Sean released his U.S. debut, All or Nothing, in November, and his up-tempo, Auto-Tuned track "Down" went to number one.
More recently, Young Money signed Nicki Minaj, a curvaceous MC with a flirty voice. Boosted largely by her buzz, the compilation album We Are Young Money recently debuted in the Top 10. (That album is the reason you have that dumb line "Call me Mr. Flintstone/I can make your bed rock" stuck in your head.) In a genre that remains as male-dominated as ever, Minaj is something of rap's next great female hope, and her debut is due out this year.
But by far, Cash Money's most high-profile recent signing has been Drake, a Toronto actor best-known for playing a student in a wheelchair on Degrassi: The Next Generation. A rare talent who can also sing and rap credibly, he brings a charismatic presence and clean-cut good looks to the label, which reportedly signed him for millions. The move has already paid off: Drake was ubiquitous on radio in 2009, despite not having yet released a full album.
According to Baby, desirable artists are flocking to Cash Money because it takes a "hands-off" approach with its musicians. "We believe in giving a youngster an opportunity to [express] what their vision is," he says. "To corporate, you're just an artist in a box. But when you fuck with us, you inherit a family." Superior artist development is possible because the label keeps its ears to the streets, he explains. "Corporate will never be able to fuck with us, because we're in touch with the young world."
Sure, Baby is undoubtedly good at what he does. But the bigger question is this: What continues to drive him? Having helped sell some 60 million albums, by his own estimation, he has more money, bling, and possessions than he could ever dream of. (Growing up, his family didn't have a TV set, he says, so now he has 40 or 50 in his home.) Once you've reached the top of the game, why continue busting your butt?
"I want to do more in the business than anyone ever did," he says. "I feel like people died for our success." He's referring, in part, to early Cash Money rappers Pimp Daddy, Kilo-G, and Yella Boy, who were killed before the label came to prominence. This is why, Baby says, he's utterly ruthless when it comes to business dealings. In his book Do You!, Russell Simmons calls Baby's negotiating style "gangster." "Nobody else deserves this," Baby concludes.
In fact, he's even reconciled with some of Cash Money's original stars. B.G. and Juvenile are both onboard for a Hot Boys reunion, though that will be put on hold at least until Lil Wayne finishes a one-year prison sentence on a gun charge. When it comes to old collaborators, it seems that success — even more so than time — heals all wounds.