Cash Money Records: The Birth of a Dynasty (Part 2)
In part one of our Cash Money story, we left off with a changing of the guard at the label. Past acts like UNLV, Mr. Ivan and Lil’ Slim were being phased out. By 1997, Baby (aka Birdman) and Slim had largely rid their label of its original acts in favor of artists such as Juvenile and B.G. 1997 began a new era for Cash Money Records as the industry finally took notice of the independent label.
Master P inked a major distribution deal with Priority Records in 1995 and upon his return to New Orleans from the Bay Area, began signing local talent along with the production team known as Beats by the Pound. A natural rivalry between No Limit and Cash Money developed, which turned into a full-fledged beef sparked by TRU’s breakout single ‘I’m Bout It, Bout It’. According to Mannie Fresh, Cash Money’s UNLV had debuted the phrase on record with their 1995 song ‘I’m Bout It’. Master P and TRU got the credit instead due the increased exposure via their Priority deal, which didn’t sit well with Cash Money.
Adding fuel to fire was P’s signing of talent from established Cash Money rival Big Boy Records, more specifically Mystikal. Disses were typically subtle, unlike the exchanges with Big Boy, as most of the Cash Money and No Limit rosters came up in the same circles and had worked together in some way. Ultimately, the beef was more Baby vs. Master P than Cash Money vs. No Limit. Those two just happened to be running the labels.
Cash Money did benefit from No Limit’s success as major labels began to look closer at New Orleans. 1997 laid the groundwork for Cash Money as Juvenile made his debut on the label with ‘Solja Rags’ and B.G. released his second solo album in ‘It’s All on U Vol. 1’. 'Solja Rags' which paired Juvenile with Mannie Fresh became an immediate local hit and sold nearly 200,000 copies. Cash Money would then team Juvenile and B.G. with a returning Lil’ Wayne and newcomer Turk to form the Hot Boys. The group’s debut ‘Get It How U Live’ would sell an impressive 300,000 copies.
Cash Money had solidified itself as one of the top independent labels, but was looking for more. 1998 would bring just that as the label would broker a landmark deal in the industry.
Wendy Day of Rap Coalition, who helped engineer No Limit’s deal with Priority, would work with Cash Money on securing an unprecedented deal with Universal Records that has become something of hip-hop folklore. The terms Cash Money scored: $30 million for distribution, $3 million advance upfront, 85% of royalties and full ownership of their masters. Dino Delvaille, Universal’s A&R at the time, would tell AlLindstorm.com years later that he earned Baby’s trust by actually meeting the Williams brothers in New Orleans instead of flying him out to New York to L.A. like other labels were doing.
As of June 18, 1998, Cash Money was officially part of the Universal family. Their first release, however, did not inspire Universal’s confidence in the large deal.
Mannie Fresh and Baby, together known as the Big Tymers, had released their debut ‘How U Love That Vol. 1’ earlier that year. Cash Money’s first release through Universal arrived in September and would be a repackaged version of that album called “How U Love That Vol. 2’. While Mannie Fresh’s beats were undeniable, the Big Tymers had not established their personas or earned the clout to get by on their substandard rhymes. The album didn’t catch on with the mass market, but that inauspicious start was only a speed bump for the Cash Money/Universal partnership.
Later that year, the label would strike gold with Juvenile’s album ‘400 Degreez’. In October, Cash Money earned its first national hit with Juvenile’s ‘Ha’. The hypnotic song would turn Juvenile into a bonafide star as his unique style and delivery captivated a wider audience. Jay-Z hopping on the remix to ‘Ha’ would only increase the single’s already significant profile.
The momentum didn’t stop there as 1999 saw the push of ‘Back That Azz Up’ as the next single from the album. The now iconic song became a massive hit and helped turn Juvenile into a household name. The single dominated airwaves and the video was regular on MTV and BET. Juvenile and Cash Money officially became part of the late '90s zeitgeist. ‘400 Degreez’ was released in November of 1998 and just a year later, it was certified 4x platinum. To this day, it remains the best-selling album in Cash Money Records’ history.
As 1999 moved on, Cash Money proved that the success of ‘400 Degreez’ was no fluke. B.G.’s album ‘Chopper City in the Ghetto’ arrived in April and earned platinum status as well. The LP gave B.G. his biggest hit to date in ‘Bling Bling’ featuring the Hot Boys and Big Tymers. Lil’ Wayne’s memorable hook on the song sparked a phenomenon as the term “bling” became so ingrained in popular culture that the word would eventually get added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary.
The banner year that was 1999 continued as the Hot Boys’ ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ was released in the summer, earning platinum status and spawning two more hits for Cash Money with ‘I Need a Hot Girl’ and ‘We on Fire’. Lil’ Wayne would make his solo debut with ‘Tha Block is Hot’ in the fall and earned a platinum plaque as well. And while Juvenile did not replicate the enormous sales of ‘400 Degreez’ with his follow-up ‘Tha G-Code’, the album still was certified platinum.
As the millennium arrived, the Big Tymers finally got their chance to experience some of the glory. Their album ‘I Got That Work’ would go platinum buoyed by the success of their singles ‘Get Your Roll On’ and ‘#1 Stunna’. Unlike their first effort on Universal, the s—t talking personas of Baby and Mannie Fresh had been established from their guest spots on hits like ‘Bling Bling’ and ‘I Need a Hot Girl’. And while they’d never be mistaken for great rappers, the duo’s charisma paired with Mannie’s beats connected with listeners.
The Cash Money empire would also expand in 2000. The aforementioned “#1 Stunna’ would be featured on ‘The Kings of Comedy’ soundtrack, complete with a music video featuring Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer. And much like Master P had done with ‘I’m Bout It’, Cash Money would premiere their own movie ‘Baller Blockin’. The film’s soundtrack was essentially a Cash Money compilation, but would also feature outside talent such as Nas, 8Ball & MJG, UGK and E-40.
As the year came to an end and 2001 approached, the first cracks in the Cash Money empire began to emerge. While the previous releases routinely went platinum, suddenly albums were going gold instead. The same hype did not surround B.G.’s ‘Checkmate’ and Wayne’s ‘Lights Out’ in late 2000 despite the quality of those records. The trend continued with Turk’s debut ‘Young and Thuggin’, which went largely forgotten rather quickly, while Juvenile failed to replicate the success of ‘Back That Azz Up’ on ‘Mama Got Ass’ off 2001's ‘Project English’. While these albums still did well, especially by today’s standards, Cash Money releases were no longer the sales juggernauts they once were.
Behind the scenes, money disputes began to surface. Juvenile was the first to notice he was not getting compensated properly.
"Well, damn. I’m working like a slave and I’m getting nothing,” Juvenile told Complex in 2012. “So I got an entertainment lawyer and found out Cash Money weren’t who they said they were with me. One thing led to another and I said, ‘Pay me this and we’re cool’. They ain’t pay us and we went to court. They lost in court. Simple as that.”
Juvenile, the flagship artist of Cash Money Records, left the label. B.G. and Turk would soon follow. Their exit meant the end of the Hot Boys, which put their third album ‘Let ‘Em Burn’ in limbo (it would later surface in 2003).
The Cash Money dynasty had taken a major blow. Their initial attempts at expansion, such as signing West Coast veteran Mack-10, fell flat. By 2002, the roster was now dwindled down to Lil’ Wayne, the Big Tymers and a unproven talent such as Boo & Gotti, the D-Boyz (Lac & Stone) and Mikkey Halsted.
Despite losing three of their biggest artists, Cash Money still found a way to rebound. The Big Tymers’ ‘Hood Rich’ topped the Billboard charts and recaptured the platinum status that had escaped Cash Money the previous year. Their single ‘Still Fly’ became a huge hit with its catchy Mannie Fresh-led hook and was even nominated for a Grammy.
Things settled down as subsequent Cash Money releases like Lil Wayne’s ‘500 Degreez’ and Baby’s solo effort ‘Birdman’ netted some moderate success. Wayne began to show signs of his improving skill as a MC on ‘500 Degreez’ in addition his performances on mixtapes with New Orleans crew Sqad Up. Baby’s album formally began the shift to the Birdman moniker he’s known as today while also contributing the memorable single ‘What Happened to That Boy’ featuring the Clipse.
2003 would prove to be a very odd year for Cash Money. It brought about one of the label’s most abject failures, Boo & Gotti’s ‘Perfect Timing’. The Chicago duo's debut album received very little promotion and sold poorly, resulting in one of the label's first flops. The Big Tymers steadied the ship once again as they would release what would become their last album to date, 'Big Money Heavyweight'. But the most shocking event of all would be Juvenile's return to release ‘Juve the Great’.
Juvenile and Cash Money made for an odd partnership on the surface considering their nasty divorce, but it turned out to be a triumphant return. Juvenile’s album went platinum in large part due to the hit single ‘Slow Motion’ featuring the late Soulja Slim. The melodic anthem became the first No.1 hit on the Billboard charts for Juvenile, Soulja Slim and Cash Money Records. The reconciliation was short lived though as Juvenile would depart once again in favor of a deal with Atlantic Records, making 'Juve the Great' his final project with Cash Money.
2004 brought yet another end of an era as it marked Mannie Fresh’s last year with Cash Money. Like many of the label’s artists before him, money disputes led to the break-up. Mannie’s case was perhaps the most egregious as he truly was the architect of Cash Money’s success. His work ethic was incredible, producing almost every single Cash Money release in its entirety for a decade. His production and vision helped make the label what it was. While the relationship ended on a sour note, Mannie Fresh would go out with a bang. He would produce the majority of Lil’ Wayne’s breakthrough album ‘Tha Carter’ as well as release his first solo album, ‘The Mind of Mannie Fresh’, before his departure.
‘Tha Carter’ would be a monumental release for Lil’ Wayne. It completely changed the perceptions of him as a MC and showed the greatness he was capable of achieving. Wayne was always talented, but he had taken his game to a new level. The pure rapping on a track like ‘BM J.R.’ or the raw emotion and honesty of ‘I Miss My Dawgs’ displayed a new dimension to the New Orleans native. Wayne was no longer a role player. Instead, he was the man you wanted with the ball in his hands at the end of the game.
With Mannie Fresh gone, Cash Money Records essentially road the coattails of Lil’ Wayne’s rise to superstardom. Wayne’s sequel ‘Tha Carter II’ dropped in 2005, eliciting more commercial and critical acclaim. Wayne staked his claim as the top rapper in the game with his bold statements that he was "The best rapper alive." This year would also begin the offshoot known as Young Money, which saw Wayne bring on the likes of Curren$y, Mack Maine, Raw Dizzy and Sqad Up members such as Nutt Da Kidd (aka Kidd Kidd) and Gudda Gudda. Wayne’s stardom would reach its apex by 2008 as ‘Tha Carter III’ became one of the most highly anticipated albums of the mid-to-late 2000s.
Up until 2009, Lil’ Wayne and Birdman would be the only rap acts to actually release rap albums on Cash Money. In fact, none of the original Young Money roster ever released a project on the label as Mack Maine, Gudda Gudda and T-Streets are the only artists that have remained a part of the team. Curren$y went on to bigger success as an independent act while Kidd Kidd caught his big break when 50 Cent signed him to the G-Unit imprint in 2011.
The distinction of Young Money being a sub-label soon vanished as YMCMB became the entity that contemporary rap fans know today. The label is now home to marquee acts like Drake, Nicki Minaj and Tyga. While Wayne and Birdman are still major parts of Cash Money today, the label has evolved and developed a new identity far from its humble South Louisiana origins. In fact, the landscape barely resembles what it did just a decade ago. And while it may look drastically different now, Cash Money Records will forever remain synonymous with the New Orleans hip hop scene. Along with No Limit Records, it helped New Orleans break into the mainstream and become a power player in the rap world today.