The rasp of his voice is the source of his other nickname, Weezy — or, more fully, Weezy F. Baby. His full proper name is Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. He grew up in New Orleans' 17th Ward, in a neighborhood called Hollygrove, one of the poor, low-lying areas badly flooded during Hurricane Katrina. He never knew his biological father, Dwayne Sr.; his mother, Jacinda, was only 19 and not up for the responsibility of raising a child, so Wayne lived with his grandmother until he was 10. He always loved performing. "I was the only child," Wayne says, "so whenever anybody came to the house, it was showtime. I couldn't wait." He started rapping at eight. He liked the reactions he'd get from people when they'd hear unexpected things coming out of a little kid's mouth. "I used to know what I shouldn't be understanding," Wayne says, "so when I'd rap, adults would say, ‘How did you know about that?'" Eventually, he met a rapper from the neighborhood named Lil Slim, who was putting out Southern gangsta-rap records with titles like Thug'n & Pluggin on a local label called Cash Money.Lil Slim eventually introduced Wayne to Cash Money's founders, the brothers Bryan "Baby" Williams and Ronald "Slim" (a different Slim) Williams, at a record signing. Wayne was 11, and he rapped for Baby on command. Baby was impressed that Wayne looked him directly in the eye, and he gave the kid a Cash Money business card. "I never stopped calling him," Wayne says.
"You can't listen to most New Orleans music and listen to mine and compare — they're so different," says Wayne. "But how New Orleans is in my music is, we have this drive about us. We have this motivation. You see people on the corner, singing, and that takes a different type of pride to do that. It takes a different type of pride to go on the corner and ask for money for Girl Scout Cookies. When we used to play on the little baseball team, you had to wash cars at the red light. It takes that kind of pride. I think that's why me, being 11, looking at this man who's intimidating the world, he tells me to rap, and I rap. He didn't ask me to tell him about who I am. I probably would have froze up. But music, rap music — I think that's where New Orleans comes in. We're relentless when it comes to music."
It turned out that Wayne's mother had gone to high school with the Williams brothers, which seems like it should have been an advantage, except she knew their gangster reputations. "When I came in and said, 'I'm thinking of being with Cash Money,' she said, 'Who?' I said, 'Baby and. . . .' She said, 'Bryan Williams. Oh, no.' She was totally against it." Still, she allowed him to do odd jobs around the label office, until his grades began to suffer. "Her punishment," Wayne says, "was, 'You're not gonna be with them no more.'" It probably didn't help that, around this same time, Wayne accidentally shot himself in the chest while playing with a handgun. He's told different versions of the event, but all involve childish clowning around: In one, he was stoned and reaching for a bag of cookies, in another, imitating Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver in a bedroom mirror.
To win back his mother's trust, Wayne threw himself into school. "I wasn't the type of kid to be like, 'I'm going to be distraught because I can't rap,'" Wayne says. "My mom said, 'You're going to do school and love school,' and that's what I did. I'm smart as fuck. I started bringing home shit she never did." Last year, his former drama teacher told New Orleans' Times-Picayune: "[Wayne] didn't always behave, but as far as an actor, you couldn't ask for anything better. . . . He was very talented. He was very committed to his character."
"He was about 12, and I was about 15 when we met," recalls manager Bryant, a thin, preppy guy who wears cardigan sweaters and glasses with red plastic frames. "It was right after he'd shot himself, and his mother had pulled him away from rap. I was involved with a lot of things in high school, so that's how I got to know him." Wayne says Bryant was "like a college high school student. You know that type? The 11th or 12th grader that's already acting like he's in his second year of college, coming to school in slippers, like he lives in a dorm room. The girls loved that shit — girls always want to mess with someone who acts older. So he was kind of the shit at school."
Wayne also became a bit of a nerdy overachiever, playing a munchkin in a high school theater production of The Wiz (YouTube it) and cymbals in the band and fullback on the football team (he was small but aggressive). He was always small for his age, but other students never picked on him. "I always ran with some badass kids," Wayne says. (Cortez, presumably, aside.) "We were all small, but we'd bust your ass. We were called MM — the Midget Mafia."
Meanwhile, the New Orleans underground hip-hop scene was beginning to blow up. Master P and his self-financed No Limit label had just signed a huge deal with Priority Records after a series of regional hits, and other labels were beginning to look for local talent. Wayne's stepfather, Reginald "Rabbit" McDonald — whom Wayne describes as a drug dealer on one of his mixtapes — paid $700 to have Mannie Fresh, Cash Money's in-house producer, record a demo for Wayne; at the time, Cash Money was a year away from breaking out of local notoriety and signing its own lucrative deal with Universal. "That was big money back then," Wayne says. "That nigga was putting down, because he wasn't my real dad. He was like, 'Shit, nigga, if this shit don't work, I need my $700 back.'"
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