Cash registers

On a warm night in New Orleans, the Cash Money millionaires gather in the city's trendy Warehouse District to celebrate label co-founder Ronald "Slim" Williams' birthday with a surprise party. Juvenile, B.G., Lil Wayne and Young Turk, the rappers who essentially mint Cash Money, circulate around the room, admiring an ice sculpture carved with Slim's name. Guests munch on shrimp fettuccine and sip drinks bought with dollar-bill coupons bearing Slim's face. It is all very nice, if somewhat sedate.

The mood changes when Slim's brother and business partner, Bryan "Baby" Williams, pulls up outside with a small token of affection for Slim: A $335,000 midnight-blue Bentley Azure convertible. In the car's back seat is a plaque commemorating Cash Money's string of platinum albums; on its sound system is a copy of Juvenile's latest million-selling CD, "Tha G-Code." On its hood, a big white bow.

Fired up by the presentation, the partygoers head back inside. A DJ pumps tracks from the Cash Money catalog, and the dance floor comes alive. The dancers hoist the diminutive Lil Wayne above their heads as he pumps his fist in triumph.

There is much for the Cash Money crew to celebrate these days. Like fellow New Orleanian Master P, they are hip-hop Horatio Algers, surviving the city's toughest neighborhoods to transform a regional phenomenon into a national force. In the last year, Cash Money has outpaced Master P's No Limit Records to become the hottest label in rap. Juvenile's "400 Degreez" has moved more than 3 million copies since it dropped in late 1998, thanks to the hits "Ha" and "Back That Thing Up."

Seventeen-year-old Lil Wayne's solo debut, "Tha Block Is Hot," entered the mainstream Billboard 200 pop album chart at No. 3. The Hot Boys, Juvenile, Lil Wayne, B.G. and Young Turk scored another platinum album with "Guerrilla Warfare." In May, the latest Cash Money offering, the Big Tymers' "I Got That Work," crashed the Billboard 200 at No. 3, and entered the R&B chart at No. 1.

The Cash Money crew, performing an upcoming two-night stand at the House of Blues that's sure to heighten security concerns, includes the Big Tymers and the Hot Boys. This is the rescheduled show meant to compensate Orlando for the "Cash Money Christmas Bash" tour that was unceremoniously pulled at the 11th hour last December from Orlando Arena for reasons unknown, but likely due to sluggish ticket sales.

The Big Tymers is the combo of Baby Williams and Mannie Fresh, who is the producer orchestrating Cash Money's signature "bounce" -- that's what they call the sing-song refrains repeated over an incessant, lazy-groove beat. Bounce has been big in New Orleans for a decade but was perceived as "too local" to compete with the dominant East and West Coast gangsta rap styles. Cash Money has clearly demonstrated otherwise.

"Everybody's bouncing now," says Juvenile, "like a chain reaction."

Flush with success, the Cash Money millionaires are especially conspicuous in their consumption. Baby Williams bought himself a black Bentley to match the blue one he gave his brother (who, incidentally, doesn't drive). Baby owns homes in both of the prestigious gated communities that flank the New Orleans metropolitan area. The official Cash Money fleet includes a pair of Hummer limousines and a four-seat helicopter. Piloting his SUV across the Mississippi River bridge one afternoon, B.G. rummages around in the compartment between the vehicle's front seats, where most people keep spare change; he casually finds a diamond-encrusted Rolex identical to the one on his wrist.

But the rappers maintain close ties to their old friends and neighborhoods. Juvenile and Turk still patronize the run-down seafood joint they frequented growing up in the harrowing Magnolia projects. Before Thanksgiving, the rappers distributed 2,000 free turkeys in a park near the housing development. They religiously attend "second-lines," the street parades based on New Orleans' jazz funeral tradition that wind through black neighborhoods on most fall weekends. Turk proudly reports that he has heard brass bands at second-lines render Hot Boys songs as jazz instrumentals.

Maintaining these ties, they believe, is essential.

"It's in our nature, really, something you can't take away," Baby Williams says one afternoon in a barbershop near the Magnolia projects. "I don't care how much, how little I have -- I'm gonna be here regardless. I can't stay away from this neighborhood.

"In this game, you've got to be true to your culture. Once you lose your culture ... that's like losing your manhood. I could never see it happening to me. I could never lose my manhood or my culture. You've got niggas who do that, and fall short."

The Williams brothers founded Cash Money in the early '90s and enjoyed regional success via street-savvy marketing of local rappers who grafted mean-streets-of-New-Orleans imagery to the city's bounce trademark. But several of the original Cash Money artists courted serious legal and personal trouble. The Williams brothers cleaned house, dropping everyone from the label except B.G.

The young rapper had endured his own share of trouble, including a flirtation with heroin and various scrapes with the law. But his ties to Baby and Slim run deep. After his father was killed, B.G.'s mother asked the Williams brothers, friends from the neighborhood, to help keep an eye on her young son.

They signed B.G. to their Cash Money label when he was 11. His first albums helped sustain the fledgling company. After Cash Money signed a manufacturing and distribution deal with Universal in the summer of 1998, B.G.'s "Chopper City in the Ghetto" quickly went gold.

To B.G., now 19, Cash Money is family. He has the company's dollar-sign logo tattooed across his back.

"When my daddy got killed, they helped my mama raise me," B.G. says of the Williams brothers. "So I look up to them like they my big brothers or father figures. This is the only company I've been on since I been rapping, and this is only company I plan on being on throughout my career."

B.G. is Cash Money's foundation, but Juvenile is the company's most charismatic and bankable star. He grew up in the Magnolia projects, but his family sent him to a Catholic grade school in LaPlace, a small town outside New Orleans. He returned to the city for high school and was soon writing rhymes for the local bounce stars of the day. It wasn't until he joined the Cash Money crew for the Hot Boys' 1997 debut that he started making big-time money.

Now he and the others have introduced New Orleans-style rap to the world. Their success has even influenced their rival No Limit soldiers: "Wobble Wobble," the hit single from No Limit's recent 504 Boyz CD, is more "bounce" than anything the company has ever released.

For the Cash Money men, their hometown affords them a measure of respect.

"They know we've been through a lot down here, and we waited a long time to get successful, so they respect us," B.G. says. "And they know how it is down here. It's a small city, they got a lot of crime going on. People look at me, and all of us, like the people that made it. A lot of brothers get caught up into the wrong thing."

To avoid getting caught up in the wrong thing, the rappers do nothing -- make public appearances, grant interviews, take pictures -- without the approval and/or direct participation of the Williams brothers. All seem content with this arrangement, and it is difficult to quarrel with success.

So far, Cash Money has kept things in the family. The only rappers to make guest appearances on CDs hail from the label's own roster; every Hot Boy is featured on the Big Tymers' new disc.

"Everybody asks why we don't put other stars on our albums," Juvenile says. "Eventually, it will happen, but right now we're trying to get respect as individuals and a group. We're out to get our own respect; we're not trying to ride nobody's back. We'd rather just work hard.

"Hard work pays off in the long run. Sometimes it don't pay off in the first minute -- you've just got to be patient and think of what you're doing. The fans and the money gonna come. Down here, we always stuck to our own thing, and it finally broke for us."

Follow the Cash Money crew through their website



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