Cash Money: The Billboard Cover Story
Read an excerpt from the cover story of Billboard's Urban Power issue
Spend any time talking to Bryan "Birdman" Williams about his business these days and you'll quickly come to understand that he has two immediate goals: Releasing 100 albums in one calendar year and growing Cash Money Records Group, the company he founded with his older brother Ronald, aka "Slim," in 1991, into the record industry's first billion-dollar independent brand. Talk to those around him, like Cash Money's longtime business manager Vernon Brown, say, or even the elder Williams, and you'll get the sense that one of those goals may be just a bit out of reach, at least at the moment. And it might not be the one that you'd think.
"He's not putting out 100 albums per year," Brown says while sitting in his office high above Midtown Manhattan. "I'm putting that on the record: No, he is not."
Slim's initial reaction is different only in tone. It arrives, first, with a whistle. "That's wild," he says, his towering frame folded into a rolling chair in the control room of Studio E at the Hit Factory in Miami, which has served as Cash Money's de facto home base since the label relocated there from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Two smartphones rest on the edge of the mixing board to his right, at least one of them set to a ringtone of the "Godfather" theme song that rattles off every five minutes or so. "If I could get 16, something like that, I'll be great. But 100? I don't think that'll happen. But, you know, he's got big goals. Has it ever been done?"
Certainly not by the likes of a label like Cash Money, meaning that no rap-rooted label has ever released anything even approaching 100 albums in a calendar year. The closest any similar operation is believed to have ever come is when Percy "Master P" Miller's No Limit Records dropped 23 albums in 1998. And just to put that number in perspective: Last year Cash Money released a grand total of three albums. Universal, the global music conglomerate and Cash Money's longtime distributor, released 700-plus albums in the United States across all of its brands.
Not that the younger Williams has any interest in backing down from his goal.
"It's a challenge, and I love challenges," he says while riding through the streets of South Beach in the back seat of a black SUV. It's a Friday afternoon in early June. The Miami Heat, the local NBA franchise he's adopted as his own, aren't yet world champions, and one of his marquee artists, the chart-topping rapper Aubrey "Drake" Graham, is still days away from being implicated in an incident involving Chris Brown that left several injured and turned a New York nightclub upside down. The streets are flooded, the South Florida skies are open, and it's pounding rain.
"I look at the charts," he continues, taking a piece of gum from the center console. "On iTunes' top 25, we have 13. On the top 10, we got six. I figure if I can get half of [the chart], I can get all of it. If I can get the top 10, I can get the top 20. If I can get the top 20, I can get the top 50 . . . It's an exciting challenge for me because I know we can do it."
Birdman is dressed all in black. Black on black YMCMB hooded sweatshirt (the logo represents his label's core brands, Young Money and Cash Money; the "B" is for "Billionaires") and black sweats. His shoes, a pair of Air Force 1 mids, are icy white. Among his many tattoos, the word "Pricele$$" floats above his left eye. He smiles with conviction as he talks.
"We have so many acts and, at some point, everybody is going to be popping at the same time," he says. "We've got rap, rock, we're expanding into the R&B area. We just signed our first reggae artist. We're also opening a YMCMB West Coast [operation]. I need more acts. We know that.
"We're going to put out more music. We'd like to be able to put out 35 albums in one year. It's like putting a pyramid together. I'm trying to figure out how we can put out 100 albums. I ain't even done 20 yet, let alone 100. I'm trying to figure that out."
As for that billion-dollar business?
It's been 21 years since the Williams brothers first founded Cash Money Records, and 14 years since they signed their initial pressing and distribution deal with Universal. Widely reported to be valued at $30 million with $3 million in advance, the P&D deal, finalized in May 1998, gave the label 85% of its royalties, 50% of its publishing and ownership of all masters. In the rap community, the stakes and the terms were regarded as unprecedented.
"I refused to let them take anything from us-that's how we got my deal," says Birdman, who credits Rap-A-Lot CEO James Smith for bringing the label to Universal. (Before the deal, Cash Money had been relying on independent regional distributors like Houston's Southwest Wholesale.) "I wasn't one of those people coming to Universal trying to live off their money. We wasn't really tripping on being with a major. I was making a million dollars a month, shipping 100,000 each album-that's at $10 [each]. And I dropped three or four of them a month."
But the terms of the deal proved too good to ignore. Once in the Universal system, Cash Money's success continued and any doubts about the deal's viability, on all sides, were quickly put to rest. Building on New Orleans' musical tradition and the Southern gangsta rap blueprint laid by crosstown rival No Limit, Cash Money strung together a rope of platinum hits led by the label's first release through the Universal system, Juvenile's "400 Degreez," which rode a pair of singles, "Ha" and "Back That Thang Up," to the top of Billboard's 1999 year-end rap chart and sold 4.8 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
A series of significant releases immediately followed, including B.G.'s "Chopper City in the Ghetto" (released in 1999, it has sold 1.1 million); the Hot Boys' "Guerrilla Warfare" (1999, 1.5 million); Lil Wayne's debut, "Tha Block Is Hot" (1999, 1.4 million); and the Big Tymers' "I Got That Work" (2000, 1.5 million). But even that early success couldn't forecast the label's growth during the past four years.
That growth has been propelled by the breakout success of Lil Wayne, who famously took to the mixtape circuit in the mid-'00s to stoke a demand that exploded into a firestorm of commercial success. When his sixth studio album, "Tha Carter III," bowed in June 2008, it posted the first million-plus sales week since 50 Cent's The Massacre in 2005. Since that tipping point, Cash Money has grown from regional rap curio to R&B/hip-hop (and increasingly pop) radio powerhouse and retail juggernaut. The label's core roster of young superstars -- led by Wayne and including the Canadian actor-turned-rapper Drake as well as Billboard's 2011 Rising Star Nicki Minaj (both signed to Cash Money through Wayne's Young Money imprint) -- is in the middle of such a dominant run on all of the major charts that most any comparison falls well short.
"I don't think anyone in the urban field is on par with them now," says Sony Music Entertainment chairman/CEO Doug Morris, who as Universal Records chairman/CEO (1995-2011) oversaw the original Cash Money-Universal pact.