Cash Money Records: The Birth of a Dynasty (Part 1)
The Cash Money Records that exists today barely resembles the local operation it once was. Whether you call it YMCMB, Young Money or Cash Money, the label is undoubtedly one of the most prominent empires in the modern rap landscape. Some of the biggest names in not just rap, but pop music are the faces of Cash Money. Unfortunately, the stardom of artists like Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj dwarf the humble beginnings of the label in the early '90s. It’s important to acknowledge and remember the contributions of those early artists who laid the foundation for Cash Money’s future success.
Bryan "Baby" Williams, now known as Birdman, and his brother Ronald "Slim" Williams began Cash Money Records back in 1991. They took the name from the Cash Money Brothers gang featured in the film 'New Jack City,' which was a source of inspiration at the time. The two brothers hoped to create their own empire much like Nino Brown did in the film, albeit a more legal and sustainable one. In their hometown of New Orleans, the bounce music scene was just beginning to blow up. A surge of new labels quickly populated the city hoping to capitalize on the new phenomenon. This provided the Williams brothers with the entrepreneurial outlet they were looking for -- a record label. Baby and Slim quickly went to work on recruiting talent for their fledgling label.
Cash Money Records' opening salvo was the release of Kilo G’s ‘The Sleepwalker.' Rapper Kilo G was just 15 years old when his Cash Money debut arrived in 1992, and his album was sold out of the trunk of the Williams brothers’ car. Kilo’s work was a stark contrast to the bounce music that populated New Orleans at the time. He was a gangster rapper who told grim tales of violence and murder in a cold, calculated manner. The album's production, handled by New Orleans duo Big Ro & Goldfingers, was heavily influenced by the Geto Boys and geared to match Kilo's content. As a result, the release didn’t catch on quite like Cash Money hoped it would. Kilo’s music felt out of place next to the high energy and catchy bounce rap dominating New Orleans at the time.
Cash Money would strike gold though when the Williams brothers were introduced to Mannie Fresh. The now legendary producer was a member of one of New Orleans’ first hip-hop crews, New York Incorporated, and later teamed with MC Gregory D to form one of the city’s most successful acts. As Mannie’s time with Gregory D came to an end, he linked up with Cash Money in 1993. This would become a defining partnership for the label and New Orleans hip-hop as a whole.
Mannie Fresh quickly became Cash Money’s in-house producer, infusing his bounce style of production into the label's projects. This made the team as a whole a force on the New Orleans scene. Mannie’s work ethic was impeccable. He would go on to produce every record the label would release for a decade.
The roster expanded with notable groups like UNLV (short for Uptown N----s Livin' Violent) and PxMxWx (Projects' Most Wanted) as well as solo acts such as Pimp Daddy, hook specialist Ms. Tee and Lil’ Slim. Bryan Williams would even make his rap debut as B-32, releasing the ode to recreational heroin use ‘I Need A Bag of Dope’ in 1993, though it’s not exactly one worth tracking down (Birdman wasn’t any better of a rapper 20 years ago).
PxMxWx released the first album of the Mannie Fresh reign at Cash Money with their debut ‘Legalize: Pass the Weed’ in 1993. It would be the trio’s 1994 follow-up ‘High Life’ that marked a more important moment for the label as it boasted a guest appearance by UGK’s Bun B. This began an enduring relationship between the Texas rapper and Cash Money as he became a fixture on multiple releases in the label’s future.
While Lil’ Slim and Pimp Daddy are barely known outside of Louisiana today, they’d play big roles in the life of rap superstar Lil Wayne. Lil’ Slim was one of Cash Money’s first artists and helped get the label its earliest radio play when his single ‘Bounce Slide Ride’ hit New Orleans staple Q93’s radio airwaves. While Slim would release some locally successful projects such as ‘Powder Shop’ during his time at Cash Money, his lasting legacy may arguably be as the man who introduced Lil Wayne to Cash Money. Slim knew a young Dwayne Carter since they both lived in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. At an autograph signing, Slim got an 11-year-old Wayne to rap for the future Birdman and the rest is history.
Pimp Daddy was an established bounce rapper in New Orleans before he joined Cash Money off his single ‘Got to Be Real,’ which was a local favorite. In fact, he’d go as far as to make a sequel to the track on his debut for the label. Pimp Daddy’s style was a major influence on Wayne, especially in his early years, and he would even take on the moniker of Shrimp Daddy as his first rap name.
The pairing of Mannie Fresh and UNLV was especially fruitful as UNLV’s debut ‘6th & Barrone’ reportedly sold an astounding 40,000 copies. UNLV members Tec-9, Lil’ Ya and the charismatic Yella Boi seemed tailor-made for Mannie Fresh’s production as they began cranking out local hits such as ‘Eddie Bow' off the aforementioned ‘6th & Barrone.' The album may not sound great on your Beats By Dre headphones today, but it’s a fascinating listen for those who want to hear Cash Money’s first strike of gold in the music business. The group would also kick off the long-running beef between Cash Money and rival New Orleans hip-hop label Big Boy Records when they accused Partners-N-Crime of biting UNLV’s style. More on that later.
As time went on, Mannie Fresh's sound evolved. The bounce foundation was still distinctly present, but he began to utilize more West Coast flavor in his production. One of the earliest examples of this was Mr. Ivan’s 1994 album ‘187 in A Hockey Mask,' a highly recommended listen from the early Cash Money discography.
Ivan’s album stood out from much of what Cash Money was putting out at the time with its heavy G-funk-influenced production. Ivan employed an over-the-top, frenetic flow and delivery that became a calling card of Mystikal, though it’s unclear which man was using the style first. Keeping in line with his album title, Ivan actually kept a mask on in public. There’s many rumors of why he actually wore the mask, including that he was a wanted man and did so to conceal his identity.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was Cash Money’s original artist Kilo G that ended up crafting one of the label’s finest releases of its independent days. Kilo G’s second album, ‘The Bloody City,’ arrived in 1995, and continued to show Mannie’s progression on the boards. Kilo stepped his game up as an MC and displayed a more commanding presence with his raps. His memorable performance combined with Mannie’s funky production made for one of the best gangster rap albums New Orleans would ever produce.
1995 would also add more fuel to the fire of the Cash Money/Big Boy rivalry and see the debut of two future household names. B.G. and Lil Wayne -- then known as Lil' Doogie and Baby (or Gangsta) D, respectively -- both made their debuts on Cash Money as The B.G.'z before they were even old enough to attend high school. Their album, ‘True Story,’ is not a particularly memorable project beyond the novelty of it being the duo's recording debut, though B.G. is quite the polished rapper despite being just 13 years old at the time. But, the album did include the not-so subtle diss ‘F--- Big Boy’ featuring UNLV's Tec-9 as the beef continued to fester. That same year, Mystikal would fire back at Cash Money with records like ‘Beware’ and ‘Here I Go’ off his ‘Mind of Mystikal’ album.
As Mannie Fresh became a more versatile producer, old favorites UNLV were once again beneficiaries of his best work yet. The trio’s backbone was still the bounce style that had brought them much success in the past, but Mannie’s new sounds began to shift their output as well. While their albums ‘Straight Out Tha Gutta’ and ‘Mac Melph Calio’ were more refined versions of their debut, their 1996 album ‘Uptown 4 Life’ was a game changer.
‘Uptown 4 Life’ was seemingly Mannie Fresh’s "aha" moment. He found that defining sound on this album and one that would soon help make Cash Money a lot of, well, cash money. The album was also the label’s first release to have larger distribution, which helped it chart nationally. The excellence of this album is sometimes dwarfed by the greatness of UNLV’s ruthless Mystikal diss ‘Drag ‘Em N Tha River.’ Yella Boi’s merciless taunting of Mystikal still rings through New Orleans today and was part of the reason it was so shocking to see Mystikal join Cash Money Records a few years ago.
More importantly for the label, the superb beat Mannie Fresh made for this song would help land them the future face of Cash Money -- Juvenile. The story goes that Juvenile had become disillusioned with the music business after his dealings with Warlock Records and settled on simply being a performer in New Orleans, where he was a bounce star. But after hearing the beat to ‘Drag ‘Em N Tha River,' Juvenile decided he had to work with Mannie Fresh. Juvenile made no secret of his love of the beat either as he blatantly reused it for his song ‘Set It Off’ in 2001.
In many ways, UNLV’s album marked the end of an era. While Big Boy was still a foe, Cash Money would soon find itself in a new rivalry with No Limit Records. After building the foundation of his label in the Bay Area, Master P had brought No Limit back home to New Orleans and began assembling a formidable roster buoyed by the production crew known as Beats By the Pound.
Cash Money’s lineup was reshuffled in favor of younger and more marketable artists as it looked to breakthrough nationally. Pimp Daddy, Kilo G and UNLV’s Yella Boi met tragic deaths not long after each of their respective final releases. Mr. Ivan and Lil' Slim departed Cash Money on bad terms while the rest of UNLV's momentum was derailed following Yella's passing and they soon left the label as well. By 1997, the landscape of Cash Money had completely changed as the Hot Boy$ (Juvenile, Lil Wayne, B.G. and Turk) and the Big Tymers (Mannie Fresh and Baby aka Birdman) were the new focal points of the label that helped them strike a landmark deal with Universal Records. But that’s for part two.