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The Cash Money label cashes in

By Kelefa Sanneh

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  In 1996, the East-Coast-versus-West-Coast war was the biggest story in hip-hop. It was entertaining, in a tabloid sort of way, until it wasn't: within a year, the decade's best-loved rappers, LA's Tupac Shakur and NYC's Notorious B.I.G., lay dead. The moral of the story seemed obvious: an obsession with geography was tearing hip-hop apart. Home-town pride was killing rap music.

So it's something of a surprise that, as the decade ends, geographic diversity has helped save hip-hop. As New York's moribund beats lost their sheen, and LA's gangstas lost focus, a new generation of innovators sprang up in the South. Timbaland and Missy Elliott made Virginia proud. Goodie Mob and OutKast showed off Atlanta. Most surprising of all was Master P's sudden rise: in a few years, he rocketed out of New Orleans and into the public eye, from Billboard to Forbes. But lately Master P has been facing stiff competition from another upstart hip-hop brigade, one with backing from Universal Records, and two CDs that have established themselves on the pop charts over the past few months. The label is Cash Money, its sonic mastermind is Mannie Fresh, its biggest star is Juvenile, and its elder statesman is a rapper by the name of B.G.

B.G. (born Christopher Dorsey) is a hip-hop veteran. He is the bread and butter of Cash Money, having released seven albums -- most recently Guerrilla Warfare, the August blockbuster from his group the Hot Boy$. He appears on every Cash Money CD currently in the catalogue. But B.G. also has his share of demons: he has talked openly about his battle with heroin addiction, and the release of his last solo album was delayed half a year while he served time on a weapons charge. In other words, B.G.'s credentials speak for themselves. So when I get him on the phone, I simply ask him to introduce himself. Through the static-filled line, I hear the slow, precise, mid-pitched drawl that B.G. has perfected on hedonistic b-boy freakouts like "Fuck These Hoes" and "Dog Ass." "Whuz happening," he says. "This is little B.G., ya heard me? One of the original Hot Boy$, you know what I'm saying? I'm 19 years old."

The Cash Money story began in 1991, when Ronald Sugar Slim Williams and his brother Bryan Baby Williams founded the label to promote New Orleans artists. B.G. was one of the early signings, alongside such regional success stories as UNLV and Kilo G. The label proceeded to make a name for itself in a burgeoning New Orleans rap scene fueled by "bounce," a peculiarly Southern brand of hip-hop that combines 2-Live-Crew-meets-Afrika-Bambaataa beats with monotonous party chants. But by 1994, in the absence of any national breakthroughs, the Williams brothers found themselves at odds with their artists. In the end, everybody on the Cash Money roster was sacked -- everybody except B.G.

B.G. had gotten his start in a pre-teen duo called the B.G.s, or the Baby Gangstas. His partner Lil Wayne's parents objected to the B.G.s (Lil Wayne is now the youngest member of the Hot Boy$ -- he's 15), so B.G. went solo at the age of 14. When his debut, True Story, came out in 1995, it made him one of the South's most bankable rappers. He sold hundreds of thousands of records, mostly in cities like Houston, Atlanta, and New Orleans.

B.G.'s success was largely the work of Mannie Fresh, who's arguably the most innovative producer in hip-hop today. Fresh is responsible for every song in the Cash Money catalogue. His early productions were crude yet effective amalgams of bounce and Tupac-influenced gangsta rap. But Fresh got much better results -- and got them much more cheaply -- by eschewing sampling, playing many of the instruments himself, and pulling a few friends together to form something resembling a gangsta-rap house band. "That makes the production go quicker," he cheerfully explains when I get him on the phone. "If I can just count it off, then we can just play it live, like the old days."

The results of this quick and dirty approach have been both strange and accessible -- a quirky, thugged-out fusion of skewed beats and nearly incomprehensible Southern slang. B.G.'s Chopper City in the Ghetto debuted at #9 in April of this year, thanks in large part to Fresh's avant-garde production. "Thug'n," for example, boasts bracing, double-speed synthesizers and drums that cut in and out of the mix seemingly at random. "Dog Ass" splices together squeaks, squiggles, simple melodies, and snare blasts, only to rip it all to pieces with a massive, drum 'n' bass-style break. "Bling Bling" lays on a bright, trebly foundation of high-pitched chimes.

Yet for all Fresh's hard work, and B.G.'s, Cash Money owes its national profile to the rapper Juvenile. The label signed the up-and-coming MC in 1997, a few years after his appearance on DJ Jimi's bounce breakthrough single, "Bounce for the Juvenile." Juvenile's chewy, melodic flow meshed perfectly with Fresh's beats, and Juvenile's Cash Money debut, Solja Rags, sold more than 150,000 copies in the South alone.

That set the stage for Juvenile's first national triumph, 1998's 400 Degreez, which yielded the surprise smash "HA." Over a chintzy synth concoction, he rattles off a string of familiar scenarios, each one punctuated with a quizzical "ha." For anyone who managed to escape the song during its seemingly endless tenure on TV and radio, the classic opening couplet should suffice: "That's you with the bad-ass Benz, ha/That's you that can't keep an old lady cause you keep fucking her friends, ha." A remix featuring Jay-Z was hurriedly added to Universal's immediate re-release of the album (Jay-Z sounds as if he were singing along to a poorly dubbed cassette), and 400 Degreez soared toward double-platinum status.

As they watched their protégés climb the charts, Baby and Slim decided to cash in by bringing their young rap stars together as the Hot Boy$, the world's grimiest boy band. The group's debut, Guerrilla Warfare, entered the Billboard charts at #5 when it was released in August. To hear Mannie Fresh tell it, the Hot Boy$ -- Juvenile, B.G., Lil Wayne, and Young Turk -- are like 'N Sync with street cred: "I mean, they're just four young dudes that's raw, that's bringing it to you, see what I'm saying? No gimmicks, no funny hooks -- none of that!"

Like No Limit, Cash Money functions as a highly efficient hit factory -- the label already has new albums by Lil Wayne and Juvenile in the can. "Right now, we hongry," says Juvenile, who brags that the Hot Boy$ can bang out a hit single in under an hour. "We got a producer who don't play no games, nam saying? He drops tracks in like five or 10 minutes. And then when we come down to the studio, we're dogs, you know, we get in there and handle our business. We don't be bullshitting. We be doing the albums in, like, a week or two -- our work ethic is real strong."

Hip-hop is a cutthroat business in New Orleans. There have been reports of bitter feuds among the city's reigning rap dynasties -- Master P's well-established No Limit oligarchy, the up-and-coming Big Dog Records, and Cash Money, who fit somewhere in between. But the Hot Boy$ are quick to claim it's not personal, just business. As Lil Wayne puts it, "We'll cover every aspect of the game, because we want to master this. We want to be professionals at this."

It's strange to hear such sober, business-minded talk from a 15-year-old. But Lil Wayne shrugs off any suggestion that success will take the ghetto out of the Hot Boy$. "We gonna stick to our jeans, T-shirts, and Reeboks. All that gangsta shit, you know?"

When I ask Lil Wayne to name his major musical influences, he thinks for a while, then singles out Juvenile's early-'90s bounce tracks. It's evidence of Wayne's youth, but it's also a reflection of the regional loyalty that has played a big role in the rise of Cash Money. Mannie Fresh shares Wayne's enthusiasm for contemporary sounds, but his early-'80s music roots are what make Cash Money albums sound so oddly familiar: the echoey drums and paper-thin production values recapture the feeling of casual innovation that drove old-school hip-hop.

"Think about the first time you heard a really tight rap song," Fresh reasons. "Like, way back in the day, the first time you heard Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and it was just some MCs that was all about rocking the party, you know. And it wasn't really about no hurting nobody, see what I'm saying? Well, just think about that feeling right now . . . that's what we're doing."

A beginners' guide

* B.G.: True Stories (1995) is the oldest Cash Money album in print, and it sounds downright primitive next to the slicker, more experimental It's All on U Volume 1 (1997). B.G. takes his formula -- slow rhymes, fast beats -- to ridiculous extremes on the 1999 release Chopper City in the Ghetto. The title is a reference to the 1996 B.G.s album Chopper City, which has just been reissued.

* Juvenile: Cash Money's most profitable release -- Juvenile's hugely popular 400 Degreez (1998) -- is also its best. The hit single "HA" is here, and the Universal reissue (look for 18 tracks instead of 16) tacks on an excellent techno-inspired remix of the song featuring the Hot Boy$. But the real gem is another last-minute addition: "Follow Me Now" applies breakbeat science to Santana's version of "Oye Como Va" while Juvenile growls his way through a melodic (and mystifying) four minutes of Louisiana slang. G Code, Juvenile's third CD, is scheduled to be released this fall.

* Hot Boy$. Cash Money's resident supergroup are as uneven as they are energetic. Get It How U Live!! (1997) shines the spotlight on Lil Wayne: "Block Burner" combines his pre-adolescent vocals with a brilliantly sparse, skittish beat (his solo debut is scheduled for October 19). Guerrilla Warfare, which appeared last month, travels from beat street ("Boys at War") to the jungle ("Help") and back again.

* Big Tymers. After years of recording flossed-out skits for other people's albums, Cash Money CEO Bryan Baby Williams and house producer Mannie Fresh decided to record their own full-length as Big Tymers. The result, How U Luv That? Volume 1, originally came out in March of '98 and was then reissued (with additional tracks) by Universal in September of the same year as How U Luv That? Volume 2. Baby and Fresh are the first to admit that what they do is more like talking shit than rapping, and it gets old quick, despite Fresh's relatively lush production.

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