The Year In Hip-Hop: Cash Money Records Senior VP Mel Smith On Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj & The Label's Big Year
The Year In Hip-Hop: Cash Money Records Senior VP Mel Smith On Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj & The Label's Big Year

Drake, Eminem, Lil Wayne

This year finds rap music in its strongest space-artistically, at retail and on the road-since the economic and creative boom of the late '90s. Many MCs triumphed in 2011, but none more so than Lil Wayne.

Rostrum/Atlantic Records' Wiz Khalifa opened the door for rap's new generation of stars, and his labelmate Mac Miller kicked in another-without major-label distribution. Odd Future brought its DIY attitude to the fore. Two of hip-hop's most acclaimed and successful artists, Jay-Z and Kanye West, merged for Watch the Throne, their collaborative album for Def Jam Records (with 1.1 million units sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan) and a North American (so far) tour. Eminem also found a rhyme partner in old friend Royce Da 5'9. Their Interscope Records project, Bad Meets Evil's Hell: The Sequel (628,000), super-served Slim Shady's core fan base. Lupe Fiasco overcame a public rift with Atlantic and found the greatest success of his career with Lasers (481,000). But even with all this good news, Young Money/Cash Money Records is the hip-hop story of the year.

Weezy's ninth solo album, Tha Carter IV (Cash Money/Universal), sold 964, 000 copies in its first week and has moved 1.8 million total. It's the second-biggest first-week seller of the year, behind Lady Gaga's Born This Way (Streamline/KonLive/Interscope), which clocked a first-week total of 1.1 million, partially due to an Amazon MP3 discount. Coming remarkably close to matching Tha Carter III's (Cash Money/Universal) 1 million-plus launch in 2008, Wayne has become one of the few rappers who can fill arenas on a consistent basis.

And then there are the Young Money/Cash Money/Universal artists who compete with him on the charts. Released in November 2010, Nicki Minaj's platinum-plus Pink Friday debut maintains its presence-1.7 million sold-thanks to the durability of a multitude of sensational singles. Not since Lauryn Hill's monumental 1998 solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has a female hip-hop artist infiltrated pop culture with such flair and ferocity.

Her fellow Young Money & Cash Money Billionaires (YMCMB) artist, Drake, moves a bit more mysteriously. After test-running the song "Marvin's Room" to Internet acclaim, Drake returned with sophomore album Take Care in November. The release is already set to be his most successful, moving 631,000 copies the first week. It has sold 894,000 total. Drake (honored in June with the Hal David Starlight Award at the 42nd annual Songwriters Hall of Fame induction) has proved there's no resisting his addictive melodies. Even a song originally slated as a bonus cut, "The Motto," a free-flowing collaboration with Lil Wayne, is rising as fans clamor for an official release of the titillating title track that features Rihanna.

These acts are all part of the fourth-generation rap dynasty that is Cash Money Records. Founded in 1992 by brothers Ronald "Slim" Williams and Bryan "Baby" Williams, the label is the driving force of the hip-hop culture business.

With charismatic candor, the label's senior VP of promotion, Mel Smith (@mrmelsmith), provides insight into hip-hop's hit-making machine.

Pink Friday came out at the end of 2010. You guys are still working it.
And a lot of people didn't see that the album was great conceptually because it was stocked with singles. But the thing about Nicki and Wayne, they're not always going to give you more of the same. Like, if you go to a Wayne concert, you're going to see Asians, white people, Spanish people, Russians. When you're reaching out to millions of different Americans, you can talk about anything and open up everything. That's what happened with Wayne, Drake and Nicki. Nicki's album . . . we dropped five singles. We'll drop four or five from Wayne. Four or five from Drake. That's how the albums are crafted. We're not just putting songs out there that have a big first week. We try to sell records that have longevity. Wayne is at 1.7 [million] right now. Nicki's at 1.7 [million]. These are numbers that people aren't doing-outside of Eminem and Adele.

Tha Carter IV-people were in shock about how well it did.
If anyone doesn't believe in the reach, come to a concert, watch Lil Wayne rock Madison Square Garden or the Staples Center, or go to the Pepsi Center in Denver-you'll see him rock way, way out. You can't do those numbers selling records unless those stadiums are packed. Do the math. Add up those sold-out arenas, those amphitheaters way out in Nebraska and Utah, add that to how many people follow him on Twitter [just short of 4.3 million on @liltunechi]. He has an intense fan base of people who love him. His whole Young Money movement-YMCMB now is a brand.

Your team has a stronghold on radio. Talk about that.
I've been blessed to be a part of the dynasty that was Bad Boy in the '90s. Also, with Uptown Records in the early '90s, with Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. The common thread with all of it: No. 1, the hit music, and No. 2, the movement. People are a part of the YMCMB movement. So when I go to a radio station to get a record played, there's excitement because we've given them so many hits. We keep the excitement going. Mixtapes between albums . . . and with the emergence of Twitter and Facebook, it's easy to tap into somebody's soul, almost, and get into what they want. It's amazing.

How has Cash Money benefited from social media?
We're very interactive with the fan base. You follow Nicki on Twitter, it's not "Nicki," it's actually Nicki. Not her assistant, not a friend. It's the same thing with Drake and Wayne. True story, about four years ago I went on the Young Money tour bus. Everybody had a Macbook. They were all on Twitter. At the time, Twitter wasn't as huge, but they were there early, doing interviews, tweeting people, talking about the Young Money experience.

Certain records may pop on urban radio, but you also have a lot of big crossover records.
When I first went to directors with [Minaj's] "Super Bass," some of them were like, "It's too pop." We're like, "Radio has changed. It's not what you think anymore." It's not about those walls we used to have, segregation... pop radio now is sort of hip-hop radio. The hip-hop nation has changed the barriers. The kids don't care. The kids want their music. If you don't play it at your pop station or your crossover station, they're going to go somewhere to get it.
So it isn't just a layup.

We continue to push the threshold. Racism is what it was. It's still here in this country... as years go by, it gets weeded out, because the people that championed it are dying off and the white kids are shaking hands with the black kids, they're dancing with the black kids in the club, the music is bringing it all together. And here's the jewel in it: "Super Bass" is over 4 million ringtones sold, because we're first through that door. Same thing with "How to Love"-almost 4 million ringtones. The day the album came out, we were at 140 million in audience. You can't get 140 million unless you got America listening.

So besides signing Busta Rhymes recently...
Huge. He's a superstar. Busta Rhymes is the most talented, underrated rapper there is. If you look at [February's] Chris Brown "Look at Me Now" record [on which Rhymes is featured along with Lil Wayne; it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold 3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan], he was the hottest verse on that. If he's the hottest dude on these remixes, how about he's just the dude on all your records? That's the whole idea.

DJ Khaled-the big, early 2011 acquisition. It paid off lovely with May's "I'm on One," which featured Rick Ross, Wayne and Drake. First Hot 100 top 10 for Khaled and Ross. No. 1 for 11 weeks on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
I feel like we're the Lakers. Baby is Jerry Buss. I'm Phil Jackson. I've got the best point guard, I've got the best forward, I've got the best center. They're all hungry. You got a Tyga, Drake, Wayne, Nicki. Then you put in Khaled, who's hungry. This is a guy who plays off the bench and within the week, he's a starter. They're all rich, all successful-why do they work? Because they have to win. The whole team-and everybody thinks like this-we want to win and we're acting like we haven't won.

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