Brian “Baby” Williams (also known as Birdman) and Ronald “Slim” Williams weren’t born into money. On a warm spring day in New York City (April 19), the real-life brothers from New Orleans served as guest speakers for an entertainment law course, taught by their attorney of 20 years, Vernon Brown. Attorneys-to-be filled up Brooklyn Law School’s Moot Court Room as Brown picked Baby and Slim’s brains about building their Cash Money empire, landing Universal Music Group as their distributor (UMG has distributed Cash Money records for the past 20 years, selling over 20 million records) and even offered mock deals that his students offered the hip-hop moguls.
Here are notes Billboard took (which have been condensed and edited for clarity) from Baby and Slim’s guest lecture followed by an interview with both hip-hop entrepreneurs and their attorney on the future of Cash Money.
On success as a means of survival
“I learn to just be who I am. When I got in this business, I was real, real young and I didn’t give a fuck about any one of y’all in this business. I only gave a fuck about if I died this night and this morning so I became a person that learnt the fact that business and personal are totally different. I grew up in the streets with no momma, daddy. I grew up in a boys’ home so I had to learn the hard way what this shit really about so once I understood what this was about, I understood that I had to use my mind more than my body. Physically, I can fuck you up. Mentally, I can still fuck you up. I just learned to be a smart man, a wise man, an intelligent man. What would it take to survive in the business that I chose. In hip-hop, people do die. We lost a lot of people in hip-hop so I just wanted to figure out a way I could be a somebody without being a nobody.” — Baby
On transitioning from independent label to landing a distribution deal
“We got to a point to where we were doing so much independently that it was too big for us to get to the next level of distribution so we had to find a better way to distribute our music. ‘Cause we went as far as we could go.” — Slim
On what Baby and Slim look for in attorneys
“We look for attorneys that are very smart, intelligent, aggressive, contact us [regularly] and let us know what’s going on.” — Slim
On finessing the terms of a contract
“Any contract could be re-contracted. I swear to God every deal I do, I’m about to re-do this in a moment. [Class laughs] I’m a real gangster with this bullshit. Any deal I do, like, hey Vernon, sign that shit. Let’s get this guap. Two in the morning and them numbers ain’t right, man, switch that shit up. Don’t get me wrong, as a businessman, everybody open to doing business … You gotta benefit yourself, your family and your life so when i do my thing, I don’t want to hear that shit.” — Baby
On Cash Money Content’s book deal
“I’m ghetto as it can get. I just felt like we should read more as black people. As people, period. I felt like starting a book company, I could take my demographic and introduce them what we was into and it worked for us.” — Baby
“We was on the plane and I was reading [T. Harv Eker’s book] Secrets of the Millionaire Mind and I had the audio book too. I was like, ‘Vernon, you better listen to this’ and I gave him my headphones. We was talking about the book company, what we wanted to do and how we wanted to get more people to read ‘cause reading is knowledge and we wanted to get more people to start reading and learn.” — Slim
On Cash Money venturing into films
“On the film side, New York is not being respected. I think L.A. have so much going on… When you’re dealing with film, I want to come out here — me, Vernon, and Slim — and we just get with the talent. I think that y’all [New Yorkers] are more talented than any part of the country because nobody have lived the life that you live. It’s fast money and everything is quick and nowhere in the world have this culture that you all have … I have so much respect for 50 Cent. He a street n—a like me. He come from the bottom. He took this culture and he’s showing y’all New York. That’s why [the show] Power works for him because New York has never been shown. L.A.’s been shown. The South have never been shown. I just think that the opportunity is there for anybody that’s in this room and I want to do what I could do to make that dream come true. My next thing for me is music, film and TV. That’s the next thing for [Cash Money] as a brand.” — Baby
“[Baby] has a documentary of him and I’ve been working on the Cash Money story and it’s coming along great. That’s everything about us. That’s special to us.” — Slim
“I got 20-plus years with music, selling records. What my brother tell me was nothing we ever did is worth more than that script. I’m excited about the script. That’s something I really, really want to do. With Straight Outta Compton, I think that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are geniuses for what they have done and accomplished. Cube be doing what he do for so long but for them to do that, they trend-setting and opened doors for us. I just think that what we have is way more special…” — Baby
“I don’t know if I’m gonna do a book first or the movie first but I been working on a script but this is gold. There’s a lot of things that people don’t know that we have been through and there are things that have happened behind the scenes of the company. Things that happened before we was with Universal. We got a lot of stories but the way I’m putting together is gonna be great and it’s gonna be special.” — Slim
On Cash Money’s sports venture
“My first domination is music. That’s my love. I watch a lot of people separate themselves from music. I don’t ever want to do that. My love and my drive is music. Sports is something my brother and my son do. I have no knowledge of the shit they do. [Class laughs]” — Baby
“It ain’t Cash Money sports. It’s Maven sports. There’s a lot of people that came to me and asked me about the sports — why I didn’t want to do it so I been asked to do [Maven Sports] for seven to eight years. I recently decided to get involved in it and help a lot of players. A lot of players get bad advice. Sometimes financially they’ve been in bad [situations]. I have my guys that I teach about being an entrepreneur, a young man, respectful and having great character. I teach them about the business. I have guys like [college football players] Mike Evans, T.J. Williams and Will Gay, who plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. We have guys like that who are top-notch guys and their brand is going great. We love sports, we argue and talk about sports all day.” — Slim
On letting their artists be creative
“One thing we do with all our artists is let them be creative so if we want to get the best out of them, we gotta let them be creative. We gotta let them do what they do in their heart and mind as being creative. We try not to take that away from them.” — Slim
“I always felt like that was the difference between us and [other labels]. Allowing an individual to be themselves, not to tell ‘em how to do records or make records … I never really looked at me as a rapper. That ain’t my thing. I’m the type of n—a that put on rappers. That’s my thing.” — Baby
“Creativity is important. Look at Nicki [Minaj] for example. She was creative, she took a chance. There’s no female in the business that can touch Nicki. Nicki did her thing and she proved to everybody she could do it. I have so much respect for Nicki. As a young lady, she did her thing and was so creative and did so much in her creative mind ‘cause she had a lot of stuff on her mind, she had to get out to make her be the Nicki Minaj she is today. It makes me happy to see that artists can be creative and still be great. We let ‘em be creative.” — Slim
Billboard: Baby, you mention coming from the streets and having to navigate the industry on your own. For both you and Slim, what did Vernon teach you that opened your mind to business?
Baby: I’mma give Vernon his props but at the same it was a real lesson for me because I came in on all this perspective. And then I had to realize that this shit is way bigger than just grabbing a microphone. [President of Black Music at Universal Music Group] Miss Jean Riggins really taught me a lot. She sat me down and told me all the different aspects of the business, so to me, I just want to learn the business. Vernon taught me the overall picture but Miss Jean Riggins sat me down and dissected all the areas.
Vernon: What I learned from the two of them was them wanting to own 100 percent of their company and always own it.
What was a tough business situation you were recently put in that threw you for a loop?
Baby: Every time we re-negotiate [a deal], it throws you for a loop. Contracts are made to be re-negotiated. That’s just the nature of the business so whatever you might deal with now, don’t mean you have to deal with it later. And if you prosper, doing a contract is that much easier for you. I just think what you deal, whatever you enter don’t mean you going to end that way.
Was there a specific instance that happened recently?
Baby: That’s just nature. Even with me and us. I enter a contract but I always re-negotiated [it]. Vernon always did that for us. That just go with success.
Slim, you mentioned Cash Money Sports becoming Maven Sports. How did you know it was time for a reboot?
Slim: We wanted to do something different, you know what I’m saying. I wanted the sports division to be different from the record company.
Vernon: It wasn’t really a reboot. There was never Cash Money Sports. That was just what people put in the newspapers. I don’t know where it came from. But there was never Cash Money Sports. As Baby said, his focus was on music, not setting up a Cash Money Sports but Slim wanted to help young kids and that’s where Maven sports came from.
Baby, you also mentioned wanting to help everyone as much as you can. How can you identify the right person or business to invest in when you get inundated with offers?
Baby: I mean just the gift, the know-how, the dedication. You never know cause we all gamble in the game, it’s a game of gamble. We gamble. We might see talent and think that’s a success. The world might not see it like that so it’s always a gamble. You might see something and believe in it and that’s what we go with.
What area has Cash Money yet to tackle?
Baby: Gospel and film. We never tapped into [gospel]. We never tapped into that side of the music but there’s something we’re intrigued by it, all three of us. I’m intrigued by the feeling of gospel.
Slim: We love gospel music. Mike Brown is one [of my favorites]. He’s an unknown but I really like him.
Slim, how long have you been working on the Cash Money film script.
Slim: It’s been a few months, about six or seven months. I’ve been thinking about it for a while but I just want to make sure I do it right and that’s why I’m taking my time.
Vernon: But I think the intrigue in film is not just their film, as Baby said but finding all those talented people here in New York who want to make a film. That’s what we’re looking at.
Slim: We want to be a real film company. We want to be diverse to where we want to just do every film, do a vampire film, a love story.
Vernon: If it’s good, we want to do it.
Slim: Whatever kind of film. We want to be that company. Like we did in music — we did pop music, urban music, rock. We did it all so that’s what I want to do with film. That’s why I’m taking my time to do it. I want to do it right.
Birdman, you also have the Rich Gang set and your personal album coming out . What can we expect from those projects?
Baby: My solo album is gon; be me. I might have one feature which will be my little bro, Ralo. I ain’t going to have no other feature on my solo album. But the Rich Gang album is like a compilation with MBBG, Jacquees, Jay Soul, Drake, Wayne, Nicki — everybody going to be a part of that. But my solo album is on me. One feature. That’s Ralo.