Birdman doesn’t like lettuce wraps. He’s appalled by the watery leaves and aromatic meats sitting on the table in front of him. He keeps repeating the same phrase: “We Southern.” According to Birdman, people below the Mason-Dixon line won’t find joy in such a delicacy. He’s sitting in a private dining room at Philippe Chow’s, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, surrounded by ceramic panda bears cradling chopsticks and an entourage of men that adore Mezcal Mules.
A few moments later, one of the most influential rappers ever to spit a bar enters the crimson room and darts toward the food. Juvenile is overjoyed to see the lettuce wraps. Two unpredictable Southern legends and one contentious appetizer, here to represent Cash Money Records’ past, and its murky future.
At 50 and 44, respectively, both Birdman and Juvenile are comfortably in the black uncle phase of life. They’re promoting their joint album, J.A.G. (Just Another Gangsta), but they can’t help referencing everything they built over 20 years ago, when records like “Ha,” “Back That Azz Up,” “Bling Bling” and “I Need a Hot Girl” were some of the most inventive hits to grace the charts, transmitting New Orleans to the rest of the globe. At one point ‘Nile (as Birdman likes to call Juvenile) reminisces about a mysterious concoction Baby used to give him while the Hot Boys were in the studio.
“Man bust in that bitch with a gallon full of some weird shit he’d done got from the club, from some white boys, a gallon full,” Juvie says. “What that shit we used to be drinking?”
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“I don’t even remember,” Birdman says.
Cash Money artists can run from home, and many have, but they almost always find their way back. Brothers Bryan “Baby” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams started the company in New Orleans in 1991, and since then it’s gone through three major phases. There was an initial lineup that’s been largely forgotten, with regional acts including UNLV, Miss Tee, Kilo G and Pimp Daddy; the label-defining late-Nineties era, led by Juvenile, B.G., Turk and Lil Wayne, a.k.a. the Hot Boys; and the Young Money era of the 2000s, led by a solo Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj.
“Remember this, I came to Cash Money off a failed project,” says Juvie, recalling the first time he signed with the label in the ‘90s. “They got me from a bus stop, brother. I was getting on the bus on my way to my house coming from work. They took a chance on me.”
That bet paid off handsomely for the Williams brothers. For a bright and brief moment in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Juvenile was Cash Money. Between his solo work (“Solja Rag,” “Ha,” “Back That Azz Up”) and contributions to the Hot Boys, he rewrote the style of Southern rap. At 21, he was the group’s oldest member, surrounded by teenagers grasping for his throne. Juvenile recalls what it was like recording in the studio with his three groupmates with clarity and joy. Between the laughter a fleeting sadness creeps in; those times couldn’t last forever.
“He [Birdman] used to give us the subject and we’d be in there and be literally in competition,” Juvenile explains. “It’d be Wayne in that corner, me over there and I’ll prolly say some shit like ‘I’mma fuck y’all up on this song, nigga. You better get yo shit together.’”
“You encourage them,” Birdman interjects.
Juvenile starts to laugh.
“Wayne was so slick,” he says. “Wayne would listen to all our shit and go in the fucking corner. Nigga come back with some brrrrt sound effects and brrrrrp blinging all. I said, ‘Man.’”
In 2001, Juvenile left the Hot Boys and Cash Money Records over contractual disputes, but he re-signed with the label in 2014. Before a question about their past feud has a chance to breathe, Juvenile intercepts.
“Way back then we cleared up everything we had between each other, because they paid me,” he says matter-of-factly. “We settled the money thing. That was way back and that was solved. Time heals all.”
J.A.G. is the next step, presumably, in that healing process. The pair started the album a year ago, recording together in Miami. “This shit was personal,” Birdman says. “We want to bring that N.O. [New Orleans] shit back.”
Birdman and Juvenile spend much of the album in search of refining their past glories. The production features live instrumentation, replayed samples and a New Orleans bounce that’s reminiscent of Cash Money’s early days with a 2019 sheen.
A majority of the conversation at Philippe’s features Baby and Juvie obsessing over what makes Cash Money’s new in-house producer, DRoc, eerily similar to their former in-house producer, Mannie Fresh. If anyone was instrumental to Cash Money’s swift ascent it was the quirky, galaxy-inflected beats of Fresh, who handled the production for all of the Hot Boys, teamed up with Birdman as part of the Big Tymers and frequently featured his voice on hooks and verses.
“Since Mannie, the only thing I can say is nobody ever did that shit. No nigga won’t even let a nigga do they whole album, ever,” Birdman says passionately. “That shit just don’t exist no more in the business. I think why I choose to let a nigga [DRoc] do the whole album is so we can catch a vibe. The vibe we catch is the vibe we stick with, and if the vibe we catch the people like, we ain’t never gotta change it.”
There are a lot of things Cash Money Records has been reticent to change. It’s part of their success. Birdman’s strategy is simple.
“I just dedicated my soul to making these young men what they could be and their potentials could be and could get us out of this ghetto,” Birdman says.
It’s hard to know what that 20-odd year record of dedicating his soul to making money on music has done to Birdman, except that it contributed to a hardened exterior. Any sacrifices seems likely worth it to him, considering that Cash Money Records has made $1.8 billion in gross revenue according to Forbes. After a few sips of Veuve Clicquot Rosé, it becomes clear what draws new artists to Baby, and why old artists come back. Magnetic, prickly, but charming, Birdman has the look of a man who’s always calculating, and always ready to make someone in his orbit a new millionaire. It’s partially why Juvenile is back in the fold.
“What other direction to go?” Juvenile says, speaking of his Cash Money reinvention. “What better direction to go, but back to where you was at?”
The goal for Birdman moving forward? Excess. He wants more — more artists, more projects, more imprints, more moguls. He tells me his plan is to one day release 100 albums in a year. His list of official and rumored imprints — Cash Money West, Juvenile’s UTP, Young Thug’s YSL — are so long it’s hard for him to remember them all when prompted. He describes his next phase as minting moguls like Juvenile, Wack 100 and Young Thug.
“I did a deal with Thug, where I’m embracing YSL and the talent that they got,” he says. “You know he like my lil’ brother. I got nothing but respect and love for Thug. Embraced him in this game and I really like that he on his CEO shit… I like what Thug did with Gunna and all the shit he’s doing.”
Baby is less than forthcoming when asked about the role played by 300 Entertainment, the label that has released Thug’s music since 2014. “That’s his personal thing that he got with them,” he says. “But me and him got our own personal thing that we doing.”
There’s an inspirational quality to much of what Birdman says about himself. “I want to empower black people… Because the game not gon’ do it for ‘em,” he says. “‘Cause I’m in it behind the walls. They not ‘bout to give them the power to do these things.
“I study this shit. I look at the Isley Brothers — them niggas got 35 albums, 4 live albums, 101 singles,” Baby continues. “Man, no rapper don’t do no shit like that. You can name your best rapper, he ain’t got 15 albums, he ain’t got 10 albums, he ain’t got 20 albums. For these dudes to accomplish 35 and 30 albums, that just shows me we got a lot of work to do.”
With Cash Money’s first prodigal son returned to the fold, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that the label’s guiding light for over a decade is no longer there. Their past was Wayne. Their future was supposed to be Wayne. Now their present is without a focal point. In conversation, Birdman and Juvie aren’t shy about their pride for the kid who used to watch them from a corner, plotting his takeover. They’re as animated on this subject as they’ll ever get.
“At one time bro, Wayne was the whole music industry,” Juvenile says.
“Wayne was like Tupac,” Birdman lobs back. “I fed him that. I fed him that. I fed him that game.”
“I think he was bigger, bro,” Juvenile says. “I think way bigger.”
“But what I mean by that, Tupac was the only other person who had that much music,” Birdman says. “Wayne was trained like that, but Wayne did a lil’ more than Pac — because he put out way more music. The hundred singles on the charts in one year with all other rappers.”
Now Birdman and Juvenile are looking for the next Pac in a stable of growing artists. At every stage of the dinner names like Jacquees, Blueface and DRoc are mentioned with an air of possibility. At one point, Baby and Juvie go on a tangent about their pride that Blueface bought his first million dollar house. But as I leave, it’s Wayne — their first spiritual and artistic son — that gets all their admiration, even even if, contractually, he’s an estranged member of the family.
When asked what the pair discuss besides music, Birdman swoops in. “We talk about the future. I see so much he still has to do in this game. I just think he’s one of them artists. Some niggas learn how to rap. He was born to rap to me,” Birdman declares. “I think that he got so much to do and I want to see him accomplish it. All this shit he hasn’t since our departure. So me when I’m speaking to ‘Nile I encourage him on what I’d like to see him do… Talent-wise I think he’s going to be a big imprint in the game.”
A consummate salesman, after 20 years, Birdman can still reel off speeches about his original protege. When I look up the lettuce wraps are gone.