Birdman: In It For Keeps [June 2011 Full Cover Story]
Two o’clock in the morning, on a warm spring night, Bryan “Baby” Williams
pulls his blood-red Bugatti Veyron into the parking lot of the Hit Factory studio in Miami. Stepping out of the driver’s-side door in blue jeans, white-on-white Uptowns, a white YMCMB hoodie, a Gucci belt, dark sunglasses and a whole lot of diamonds and tattoos, the Cash Money Records founder looks like real hip-hop—a back-in-the-day era when rappers still dressed like they came from the hood. Baby, 42, is from the streets of New Orleans, where he and his brother Ronald “Slim” Williams founded their label 22 years ago. They broke nationally in 1998, entering into a landmark distribution deal with Universal Records and selling millions of records by the Hot Boys—Juvenile, B.G., Turk and Lil Wayne.
Juve, B.G. and Turk would jump ship a few years later, complaining of financial impropriety. But Wayne remained and was rewarded with a president position at the label and his own imprint, Young Money Entertainment. He would soon become, of course, the biggest star in rap music, and would sign a pair that would become the two biggest new stars in rap music, Drake and Nicki Minaj.
Baby, meanwhile, oversees it all. As hip-hop goes through its transitions and industry heavyweights fizzle out, lose power or disappear, he and his company grow stronger and richer every year. In April, Forbes magazine named him one of The Forbes Five: Hip-Hop’s Wealthiest Artists, tallying his wealth at $100 million (a figure he disputes as being far too low). XXL sits down for a conversation with one of hip-hop’s last true moguls. — Vanessa Satten
When you look around at the industry and see the lack of moguls doing it like they used to, what does that make you think?
Birdman: When I look around, through my years and my time, you know, the game, it was a lot in the field, a lot of people doing it. And I look around, and it’s like, Where the fuck did everybody go? I ain’t never understood that, but the game like that sometimes. That muthafucka’s gon’ keep ya or it’s gon’ leave ya. It’s all on you.
So you look around and feel like everyone’s gone… What does that feel like? How does that work?
Just how heavy it was, how many different brands you had, how many different artists. Now it’s a new era, really. A lot of the old acts ain’t around no more, of the era when we come in the game. The labels, the corporations, they not supporting the brands. I think one of my biggest things was I been an independent brand. I always owned my own brand. I never been funded by them. It’s P&D deal. I was always able to use my money to do everything we wanted to do, too. So when you bagged up by them and they money, and you ain’t working out… You might have one bad year, and they’ll give up. Things might not balance out. It could be any little thing. Times change, like 9/11, depression. People didn’t wanna fuck with money like they used to. In my situation, I never had them do that for me. I always floated my own money. We made our own moves.
You and your label have been through a lot of ups and downs. You had major success coming in the game in 1998, but by 2001, the Hot Boys had broken up; Juve, B.G. and Turk left the label with beef; and Lil Wayne wasn’t nearly as big as he is now. A lot of people had written you off. What were you thinking?
You know, the way I grew up was, I lost my mama at two. My daddy died
when I was, like, seven. My brother died when I was, like, nine. So I been losing lives all my life. So for the acts to leave me, it really made me stronger, ’cause personal life made me this way, and growing up taught us that we have to take a loss and try to make it into a gain. And it’s all I really had in life to do was music. So they losses, really, when they left, it opened me up to have to go harder, you understand me? At that time, Wayne was young, so I had to get it in. We had to go hard as a team. So then when he came to the plate like, “Let’s do it,” that was a wrap.
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It seems like an interesting role that you took at that point in the label. You named Wayne president of the company in 2005. You were stepping back in a sense.
Honestly, I gave him the floor. He wanted it. I been with him since he was
seven years old, eight years old. I been in his life all of his life. And he was like, “Let me handle it.” At that time, me as an artist, losing my sister and everything I was going through personally, I was just like, “Go ahead, I’ma just support what you gon’ do. You can handle it.” And I took a step back. Probably was the smartest move I ever made in my life was to let him go ’head. And I saw his…he had a vision, and we stuck with it. I believed in him. I believed in everything he wanted to do, and I supported it. I still do that today.
What did it mean to take a step back?
Back then, I was looking at the flow, too. Observing the game. We had a lot of niggas in my position don’t wanna take the step back, and I didn’t wanna be one of them niggas, you know. I understood he can do it longer than me. He had the talent. And it’s my son, so I’m gon’ support whatever he wanna do. And I ain’t have a problem stepping back. Go ahead, you do it. I’m gonna rock with you. It’s yo’ world, our world. Do ya thing.
At that time, before Wayne blew up so big, was there ever a thought of, Maybe we don’t do this anymore? Did you ever think of quitting?
Never was, No, don’t do it. I always knew that he was gon’ do it. I was gon’ let him do it, ’cause he was young. So for me it was that or back on the block.
You had come so far. Could you have really gone back to the streets?
I mean, honestly, we never left there, you know. I just didn’t wanna have to be one of those ones who was a story like, He did it this year and ain’t do it the next year. I couldn’t. It was a fear factor for me to have it and don’t have it, be on top then don’t be on top. ’Cause I always studied the game. I watched the Suge Knights, the Master P’s, the Sean P. Diddys, Tony Draper, James Smith. I watched Eaz. I studied them, and I wanted to be better than all of them together.
Okay, so YMCMB is a little confusing. Is Young Money on Cash Money and Universal? If you’re signed to Young Money, are you signed to Cash Money? Is it the same label? Sister labels both on Universal? Can you explain?
Me and my son is partners. We partners. Everything we do, we do together.
We 50/50 with it, and we one. I don’t look at us as separate. We one. We’re a unit. We a team. It’s our family. We work together, and we grind together, and we a team. Just point-blank, we’re a team.
So it doesn’t matter if Nicki and Drake are signed to Young Money or Cash Money officially?
They signed to Young Money.
But affiliated with…
So it’s different on the paperwork, but you get in the studio, stay involved with everybody the same?
Yeah, I still do that. I love doing that. That’s what keeps me young, being in the studio. I worked with them all. We all got personal relationships. They my son acts. They the new talent, and they very talented. I think Drake gonna be the next best to ever do it, after Wayne. He gon’ hold the world down, and I feel like Nicki there. It’s just a matter of time. She will be…you never had a female artist that you would put in the realm with the males to be the best. She that…
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That’s the picture we paint to the world. This is family, me and my son, Wayne. You know where we come from and how hard. Ain’t nothing never came easy to us. It’s a together-forever thing, and we wanna grow and let the artists grow. Let them be as big as they could be and just keep growing as a brand.
Do you think that you get the respect that you deserve for the role that you played over the past 10-plus years in hip-hop?
Nah, not at all. But it do give me another motivation. It make me wanna work harder. Maybe I didn’t work hard enough. I’ma just keep going hard and keep tryna let my muscle, my money, my creativity, just keep us getting bigger and bigger. I think we have a lot to do, and I have a lot to do. But I definitely think people ain’t got it yet, and that’s good, too. I respect that.
Why haven’t you?
I don’t know. They gotta answer that for me.
Has it not come from the industry? Has it not come from your peers? Has it not come from fans?
The industry know what it do. ’Cause it do what it do, and when it comes down to it, they know what they gotta do, where it gotta go. We bigger than life, for real, though. I don’t think nobody is doing it as much as us. No brand is out there like us. I really don’t weigh it like that. I like to get the numbers and, like what y’all doing. I think that’s respect, and I feel we deserve that respect. ’Cause we going hard, and when you look around, there’s no other peers. It’s like it is the last man standing.
Most people who have lasted as long in hip-hop as you have have grown into a different look over time. A more “grown,” CEO look. You’ve gone the other way, tattoos on the face, the head. When did you decide, Doesn’t matter, I’m tattooing myself everywhere?
This my life. I knew this since I was 15 years old: either the streets, death, jail. My life didn’t come from books and education. I come from the projects. So I had already put it in my heart, This is gon’ be for me. I did this young, 14, 15, with tats. Then I just went crazy. I think that’s our lifestyle. We rock stars. So that’s how that go.
Do you and Wayne compete for who has more?
Nah, I can’t. He got way more than me. I can’t fuck with Wayne. He go hard. I went hard, but I ain’t go that hard.
You have a large red star on the top of your head. You went hard.
Five of ’em. Yeah, if you look at it that way.
Besides running the business, you still release your own albums. Where does that come from, and what do you like to rap about anymore?
Wow, that’s just my grind. I feel like I’m just hustling. I like to talk about
my life and my lifestyle. When I started this shit, I didn’t understand a lot
of shit about life, because I was young. I didn’t understand why we had to
live in these lil’-bitty-ass houses; you lucky if you got just one car. I ain’t
understand this shit. When I was young with money, I didn’t get it, so I did it different. I wanted a lot of cars, a lot of houses. I just didn’t get that shit. So I think, today, I just paint that life that I hope the whole world get. Live it, you know. Try your best to get it, ’cause it’s there.
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Over the years, everyone has asked you about the Hot Boys, and Juvenile and B.G., and a reunion and them coming back to Cash Money. Is that something you regret? Are you at peace with them? Do you wish they were here now?
I just think, you know, I love ’em. I talk to B.G. all the time. I talk to Turk
sometimes. But I think we just in separate directions. But I’ll help them in any way possible, if they ever ask me. If they ever need me for anything, I’ll be there for ’em. It’s no love lost—we grown. The things we went through then, you know, we can’t change that, but we got nothing but love and respect for ’em. I brought ’em in this game. I brought ’em into this shit. You never know. Maybe one day, but right now, we in different directions. But if they ever call me, I’ll be there for ’em.
You and Wayne have been together for so long. How hard was it for you when Wayne went to jail?
Wow. That was some other shit. That shit was crazy. But once we realized he had to go, we had to buckle up and G up and go for what we know. We had to set a strategy. He had to go, so we just had to G up. Everybody wanted to make sure to please him—it was all about him. Everybody, the fam, the team, it was all about him. We helped him do that time by just supporting him, being there all the time.
Did you visit a lot?
Once every two weeks.
So when he got out, it must’ve been a relief. What was that like?
One of the happiest times of my life. I mean, we been feeling that way ever since he been home. Every day. We’ve been doing it every day like the same day he got out. Every fuckin’ day been like that. We been poppin’ bottles, making money. Every day feel like that day he got out. I’d like to relive the rest of my life like that. It feel good.
In April, Forbes magazine ranked you No. 5, tied with 50 Cent, on their annual “Hip-Hop’s Wealthiest Artists” list. They said you had a total wealth of $100 million. You went on the radio in New Orleans and said their estimate was low.
They wildin’. I think I should be worth more to them, if they look at the brand and the years. I mean, if they predict me as a hundred, I’ve been doing this 22 years and you averaging me with, what, $4 million a year, $5 million a year?… I ain’t trippin’. I don’t care about being on Forbes. That don’t make or break me at all.
Yeah, but it’s still kind of a cool thing, come on…
Ain’t no diss to it. I respect it, but let’s just get that shit right.