Above: Entertainment attorney Vernon Brown (far left, black tie), recent Cash Money signee Aziatix (center), Cash Money CEO Ronald "Slim" Williams (far right, black hat)
If there was any question that Young Money Cash Money Billionaires lives up to its high-rolling moniker, then one would need look no further than the annual pre-Grammy party thrown by the New Orleans-bred, currently Miami-based label group that brought us hip-hop superstars like Lil Wayne and Drake. The annual party has become one of the premier Grammy Week events: in 2012, it was held at Paramount Studios, while this year’s edition took place at The Lot, another massive Hollywood film-soundstage complex. Appropriately, the theme for 2013 is “vintage Vegas,” according to John Berke, president of event-planning/design firm Colin Cowie. “It’s ‘Rat Pack’ mixed with Crazy Horse: classy and elegant, but a little bit wrong.” That’s clear from the authentic ’51 Cadillac at the end of the red carpet, exclusive V.I.P.-only cabanas that could’ve come from Caesar’s Palace during Elvis’ fat years, and the omnipresent weed smell. Hey, it’s practically legal in California, right?
Inside the cavernous makeshift ballroom, burlesque dancers gyrate above a high-tech, LED-bedecked stage, where DJ Telemitry pumps beats for the boldfaced likes of Paris Hilton, Afrojack, Ashanti, Mya, Christina Milian, Kelis, Meek Mill, and much of the YMCMB roster -- in addition to an elite ground of label chiefs, A&Rs, branding execs, publishers, managers, and all around biz power players. “We’re the tastemakers, and this is the congratulations for our accomplishments,” explains producer Detail (Lil Wayne, Pussycat Dolls, Beyoncé) before firing up a blunt. The evening really kicked off around midnight, finding Ace Hood spitting on the mic, DJ Khaled storming the stage to spin Drake’s new single, “Started from the Bottom,” in honor of the double-Grammy nominee’s presence, and YMCMB co-founder/artist Bryan “Birdman” Williams receiving a car-shaped birthday cake. We can’t make this stuff up.
Alas, YMCMB queen Nicki Minaj was nowhere in sight -- not that her absence slowed down the proceedings. “The Grammys have been going on so long, usually you get an older crowd,” explains Birdman. “We wanted to bring a different flavor -- a younger vibe.” “This is the ‘cool’ party,” says Mike Horton, head of urban radio promo at Universal. “They’ve been doing it a while, but it’s never become the mainstream focus. When it started, you had to be in the know to get there; then it got bigger, and now it's back to being even more exclusive.” That’s why this get-together from the former Hot Boy$ is the best place to take the industry’s temperature during Grammys insanity -- from predictions to who will (and should) triumph at music’s most prestigious awards extravaganza to the trends we’re going to see play out across the charts in 2013.
“After the awards, I’m doing 19 different parties,” says Joshua Berkman, Cash Money's A&R for Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Chris Richardson, and Kevin Rudolf (whom Berkman also manages). “I don’t know what they are -- my assistant booked them all.”
Indeed, during Grammy Week, parties become the zone where the real business of music goes down. “Roc Nation did a very good job of getting interesting people together [at their event],” says Paul Adams, owner/founder of Bang The Drum management, which reps top producers like Ben Allen (Gnarls Barkley) and Jimmy Douglas (who collaborated on Justin Timberlake's new album). “Of course, Jay-Z and Rihanna were there, and Kylie Minogue, who they’ve just started working with -- but there were also a lot of publishers, A&R people, and managers. I got to see colleagues I don’t normally see.” YMCMB artist Jay Sean, meanwhile, was happily blinded by the event’s star power: “The Jay-Z/Roc Nation event was great fun. At our table was that Kardashian guy, Scott Disick -- he’s quite a character -- and Kanye’s crew. I’m sad I didn’t see Kylie: I had a mad crush on her growing up, and she’s become quite a MILF!”
Cash Money president and artist Mack Maine
Ron Perry, president and head of A&R for Songs Music Publishing, cites annual Grammy mainstays like Atlantic Records’ big fête and the Friends and Family gathering as where to see and be seen; PJ Morton -- keyboardist for Maroon 5 and signed Young Money solo artist -- had a great time palling around with BET head honcho Stephen Hill at VIBE’s first-ever Impact Awards ceremony this past Friday honoring Mary J. Blige. As well, there’s great anticipation for another new entry on the circuit: Maroon 5’s post-awards show hang at the Soho House. “If I go to anything, it will be the Soho House Maroon 5 party,” says Janina Gavankar, the sexy, leatherbound True Blood/L Word actress who was once signed to Cash Money as part of girl group Endera (and currently records as a solo artist for Randy Jackson’s Dream Merchant 21 imprint). “One of my best friends is Questlove from The Roots, and he’s DJing, so that seems like the move.”
The event that’s on everyone radar, however, has nothing to do with the Grammys: Justin Timberlake’s semi-covert return to the concert stage at famous Los Angeles venue The Palladium, immediately following Sunday’s awards ceremony. “Everyone’s talking about Justin Timberlake’s performance -- that’s absolutely the party to go to, says Larrance “Rance” Dopson of smash production team 1500 and Nothin’, who helped create Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Pt. 1, nominated for this year’s “Best Rap Album.” “Shout out to our partner, James Fauntleroy -- he co-wrote Justin’s whole album with Justin and Timberland!” According to Jay Sean, the Timberlake Palladium show “is the hottest ticket in town, and super hard to get. Everyone wants to go there.”
“Justin Timberlake stole all the Grammy buzz,” says Detail. “It’s a timing thing: first he came with his single with Timbaland and Jay-Z, which is a phenomenal record, and then there’s this exclusive concert.”
CAN’T STOP THE HUSTLE
“Grammy week is time to work, not party -- this is only party we’ll be at,” explains 1500 or Nothin’s Dopson. “We’ve just been studio hopping: yesterday, we had a session with Drake, then we worked with 2 Chainz, and next did a song for T.I. That was all just this week -- we’re not playing games!”
“I’m supposed to be going to Ne-Yo’s party after this, but I actually have a session with Busta Rhymes later tonight,” admits young mega-producer Jahlil Beats (50 Cent, Rick Ross, Diddy). Busta may be, in fact, the hardest working man in show business today. “My Grammy week has all been in the studio, working with people like Wiz Khalifa and DJ Khaled to finish up the fine tweaks on my upcoming album,” Rhymes says.
Diplo, meanwhile, claims he’s been busy “writing acoustic records, working on cooking shows, and trying to buy an ‘underground owl’ and all kinds of rare animals for a zoo I’m building.”
“Definitely Roscoe’s on Pico,” says 1500 or Nothin’’s Lamar “Mars” Edwards of L.A.’s famed chicken-and-waffles spot beloved by pro basketball players, African-American churchgoers, and platinum-plated b-boys alike. “When artists come to town during the Grammys, we try to get them to the ‘hood,” adds Dopson. “Roscoe’s is close to our studio, which is right by LAX. As soon as the artist gets off the airplane, they come right to us and start working.”
YEAR OF THE PRODUCER
“I think Diplo will get Producer of the Year -- I voted for him,” admits Bang The Drum’s Paul Adams. “Hopefully I’ll win, but I doubt it,” says the dapper superstar DJ/producer himself on the red carpet, flanked by his outré protégé, Riff Raff. Despite acclaim for helming recent smashes for the likes of Usher, No Doubt, Justin Bieber, and his own Major Lazer project, Diplo thinks Black Key Dan Auerbach’s got the lock: “People tend to vote for rock and roll. Besides, Mark Ronson told me you have to be nominated three times before you get it. It took him a while -- Danger Mouse got nominated four years in a row!”
Diplo (background, right) protégé Riff Raff
Regardless of who wins, industry experts agree that the producer role has taken on significant creative prominence in the pop/hip-hop game of late. “Producers are the stars now -- they’re creating ideas and opinions,” says Detail. “I was fortunate enough to have someone like Lil Wayne believe in me on songs like ‘How To Love.’ Once someone like Lil Wayne believes in you, it’s on us to run with it.”
EXPERT GRAMMY PREDICTIONS: WHO WILL -- AND SHOULD -- WIN
“I hope Diplo and M83 win tomorrow,” says Ron Perry. “I think fun. will have a big night as well.” “I think fun. is going to take it,” notes former "American Idol" contestant and current YMCMB artist Chris Richardson. “Making your own lane is what the Grammys look for, and they’ve got the drive to be individual and still make hits.”
Elsewhere, expect the Americana/new folk movement to assert its dominance in the pop zone. “I think the Grammys will prove a big success for The Lumineers,” states Songs Music A&R colleague Katy Wolaver. “‘Ho Hey’ was amazing this year; I’m also rooting for Ed Sheeran.” “I think Mumford are going to sweep the awards,” says Bang The Drum’s Adams. “Last year they got nothing because of Adele, and I think Academy voters feel a bit bad about that.”
“I’m rooting for my buddy and labelmate Drake, and Maroon 5 of course,” says PJ Morton, who’s been doing “double duty” as keyboardist for Maroon 5 and budding Young Money solo artist: Morton’s highly anticipated, largely self-produced debut album, New Orleans, drops May 14 with contributions from Busta, Stevie Wonder, and Adam Levine. “I just left Grammys rehearsal with Maroon 5 at the Staples Center for our mash-up of ‘Daylight’ with Alicia Keys. I started three years ago with the band, and worked on its last album as a member -- it’s been a great ride.”
Meanwhile, the hip-hop nation thinks its time Nas finally got his due from Grammy voters. “I’m rooting for Rick Ross, but I also want to see Nas win,” says Jahlil Beats. “Nas’ album [Life Is Good] is great -- it’s a classic.” That sentiment is seconded by Busta Rhymes: “I’m checking for all whole YMCMB team players first and foremost [Drake and Lil Wayne received nominations], but I’m a big Nas fan -- I want to see him get it.” Many of those polled at the YMCMB party also registered hope that Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange triumph would be recognized by Grammy voters. “I hope Frank does well -- he’s helped the R&B genre, and music as a whole, to open people’s minds,” says Morton. “I’m rooting for Frank because he’s important to the industry,” says Jay Sean. “We went through a phase where music became so generic, but then he did something unique -- that’s just him.”
“I was a little pissed when Nicki didn’t get nominated this year-- but then again, you know, it’s the Grammys,” admits Berkman. “We sold how many millions of singles, and she had one of the biggest songs of the year -- and she’s Nicki Minaj! Then again, little Justin Bieber didn’t get anything either.”
When asked on the red carpet what he thought of fellow Canadian Justin Bieber’s immediately viral “Black History Month”-themed "Saturday Night Live" skit that aired during the YMCMB party, Drake responded, “I have haven’t seen it, but it sounds mad racist.” He was smiling when he said it, so we think he was kidding...
When YMCMB co-founder Ronald “Slim” Williams made his entrance on the red carpet at his own Grammy fiesta, he was accompanied by the label’s latest group -- Aziatix, a South Korean boy band that marks the label’s first ever “K-pop” signing. “We were courting Aziatix before Psy broke, but that certainly helped,” explains Berkman. According to him, Aziatix represents a new worldwide focus for YMCMB, pointing to recent signings like Australian house-music DJ team Stafford Brothers, and interest in even more Asian acts. “We’re reaching out more internationally now -- it’s a global thing,” Berkman says.
“The business has come down to that,” agrees Birdman, who cites the label’s U.K.-bred hitmaker of Indian descent, Jay Sean, and an affiliation with influential English hip-hop authority/BBC DJ Tim Westwood; the first release on YMCMB’s recent label partnership with Lady Gaga producer RedOne’s 2101 Records is Swedish-Congolese act Mohrombi. “It’s important to have a full international impact, so we’re grooming and growing international superstars. I see an opportunity to do something no one has done in music business: be the first billion dollar-brand in music.”
The new trend making records in general is getting different genres together -- getting the hip-hop guy with the pop guy, and vice versa,” says Ron Perry. “I’m putting a lot of those pairings together. My client Diplo, who’s nominated for Producer of the Year, is working with Tinie Tempah and produced a new ‘Gangnam Style’ remix featuring 2 Chainz and Tyga. And now we work with Dev, who’s now being produced by DJ Mustard, who did ‘Rack City’ for Tyga, ‘I’m Different’ for 2 Chainz, and ‘R.I.P.’ for Jeezy. Those are some big records.”
This approach figures in the current YMCMB strategy, which includes pop acts like Kevin Rudolf, Chris Richardson, and teen group Savvy (who recently had the video for their RedOne-produced single “Young and Reckless” directed by Wayne Isham) alongside upcoming releases from crew icons Drake and Lil Wayne. This year, top 40 hitmaker Jay Sean also plans to release his fourth studio album, Neon, which builds on his traditional club-pop with tracks like the single “Mars,” which Sean calls “a straight R&B sex jam” featuring a verse from Rick Ross. “Cash Money are genre busters -- they've had success that goes way beyond hip-hop,” notes Republic Records president Monte Lipman. “These days, they're going into rock , they're going into EDM, they’re going into pop -- Cash Money is a full-service major label.” A&R Berkman notes the upcoming reunion album from Limp Bizkit exemplifies this thinking. “We’re treating it like a serious rock album,” Berkman says. “It’s a great blend: there’s the full, original band writing true Limp Bizkit songs, but we’re bringing urban stuff in, too. Boi-1da and Detail are going to do some production, and Birdman, Lil Wayne, and Tyga will be on it for sure.”
Branching out into different styles of music stems from YMCMB’s tradition of giving its roster artistic freedom. “Wayne's always been an artist that's never been put inside of a box,” says Cortez Bryant, Young Money’s “Chief Visionary Officer.” “Once Birdman granted him that right, years ago, to do what he wanted, he passed that down to everyone he's brought on.” “We give the artist 100% creative control, and try to bring their vision into fruition,” adds Young Money president/artist Mack Maine. “You want everybody to be different and unique; that’s what actually makes a brand. For example, Tyga's releasing his new record a week before Lil Wayne’s. I spoke with Wayne the other day and said, ‘I want to play you Tyga's record to make sure you like the direction it's going in.’ He was like, ‘I don’t need to hear it -- I believe in him.’”
TO THE FUTURE
Grammy season is as much about jumpstarting the future as it is celebrating the recent past: it’s no surprise artists and labels look to it as a key launchpad for next year’s batch of awards hopefuls. “My upcoming album will be the pinnacle of my work to date,” says Busta Rhymes. “Look forward to Busta Rhymes sweeping shit next year!”
YMCMB as well has an ambitious slate of releases coming as well. “We only put out four albums last year, so this year we’re going to try for twenty or thirty,” says Birdman. They include Tyga’s Hotel California, due March 19th; Lil Wayne’s I Am Not a Human Being II, out March 26th; and the first Rich Gang release, due April 3rd -- “a collaboration album featuring all the Young Money/Cash Money artists and friends and family like Future and Meek Mill,” says Berkman.” Then there’s Birdman’s fifth solo LP, Bigga Than Life, set for April 3rd, and the upcoming, inevitable smash: a new Drake album. “Even if Drake doesn’t win Grammys this year, it will still be incredible for him,” Berkman says. “It’s just another push.”
Cash Money co-chief Ronald "Slim" Williams
Likewise, Jahlil Beats is set to apply his studio savvy to new projects from Jay-Z, Rick Ross, DJ Khaled, French Montana, and Leona Lewis -- but one project is particularly close to his heart: “Next year I’m going to get a Grammy for Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares.”
As well, 1500 or Nothin’ has an impressive batch of releases they’re associated with in the coming months. These include efforts from T.I. and Marsha Ambrosius, as well as a surprise Chris Brown/Tyga collaboration set for release as a single on Valentine’s Day. “We’re going to be on every album -- they’re going to be competing with each other,” claims 1500’s Dopson. The production team has also been developing up-and-coming talent Young Marcus from Houston, Texas; the video for his debut single, “Send Me a Picture,” recently premiered on 106th and Park. “He raps as good as all the rappers we work with -- and he’s 13!,” says Dopson. “He went on a world tour with Lupe Fiasco when he was twelve! He’s just not human, man -- he’s going to be the next Justin Bieber, or Bow Wow in his prime. He’s got the swag and star quality.”
AFTER THE AFTERPARTY
Despite the hoopla expense of surrounding the YMCMB’s pre-Grammy gala it’s actually not even the label’s most exclusive get-together. “Tomorrow after the awards, we’re doing a Cash Money little thing,” says Detail. “We come together and play each other music -- stuff for this year, because we get records out fast. That’s the beauty about YMCMB -- if we get amped about a record, that bitch is going to be out!” “For me, Grammy time is important for everyone on the label and the team to get together and meet up,” explains Birdman. “I’m excited to hear what everyone’s doing -- some have TV shows, some have completed albums, some have just started recording. We’re just grinding.” “When I’m breaking bread with my brothers and business partners during festive events like this -- we’re celebrating a whole lot more than just the Grammys,” Busta Rhymes concludes.