Six months ago, Money Man had 400,000 Spotify monthly listeners. Now he’s at 4.9 million.
Much of that boost comes from the trap rapper’s Kobe Bryant tribute song “24,” which further soared in popularity after Lil Baby jumped on a remixed version in August. But that collaboration wasn’t just good fortune. It happened because Ghazi Shami, CEO and founder of indie music distribution company Empire — which started working with Money Man in March — slid into Lil Baby’s DMs.
“I was like, ‘My bro, got a Money Man record going viral, can I shoot you a bag to hop on the remix?'” Shami tells Rolling Stone.
Baby cut the record and sent it back 48 hours later. Shami raced to his self-built studio space at Empire’s headquarters in San Francisco to tweak the arrangements before remixing and remastering the record himself, and the remix dropped two weeks later to loud applause on August 14th.
Shami’s entire business model revolves around being hands-on and fast-acting. He met Money Man two years ago the same way he negotiated the “24” remix with Lil Baby — through Instagram DMs. Money Man had recently gotten out of a deal with Cash Money Records and decided to release music independently; Shami was struck by his intellect, and his ability to handle his own contracts and write songs about things like veganism, personal finance, and other topics of substance. “Everyone was chasing him because he was charting on Apple Music on his own,” says Shami. While heading to dance music festival ADE in Amsterdam, he decided to randomly message Money Man, offering to swap his direct flight for one with a four-hour layover in Atlanta, Georgia to meet up.
And they did. In the Uber ride from the Atlanta airport to meet Money Man, Shami heard the rapper’s song “Exotic” for the first time, which featured the lyric “I’m independent like Ghazi” — written well before the pair had even started talking.
“I’ve had a lot of these types of moments happen to me in life, where I’ve kind of spoken things into existence,” says Shami. “That felt like one of those moments.”
The pair only talked in person for about an hour before signing a deal.
Money Man is still independent; the rapper doesn’t have a manager, or even an attorney. After agreeing to work with Shami, Money Man had four songs that had been unofficially released on YouTube — so Shami grabbed those songs, took a picture off the rapper’s Instagram for cover art, and loaded it all right before Christmas 2018. The goal was to show the performer how fast and lean the process of releasing music could be — an idea that’s relatively unheard of in the major-label system, which often involves much hoop-jumping and periods of “hurry up and wait.” That project got into the top 15 of Apple Music’s album chart.
“I wanted to make him look like a god in his own city.” — Ghazi Shami on the marketing strategy for Money Man
Their next project together, the 15-track Paranoia, got into Apple’s top five. “That’s when everyone really started to pay attention,” Shami says. He put together an elaborate and hyper-local marketing plan: “I wanted to make him look like a god in his own city,” says Shami, who wrapped MARTA trains and buses, placed 30 billboards throughout Atlanta, and took the record to nearby radio stations.
On March 2nd, Money Man dropped the eight-track project Epidemic, on which “24” is the opening song. Another song “Courtesy” talks about starting a metaphorical pandemic with his music and counting his money while binge-watching Netflix during quarantine. And the artist didn’t hesitate to keep the ball rolling, dropping the 14-track State of Emergency before the end of March.
Shami’s team immediately sent “24” to TikTok creators and other digital tastemakers. By circulating through the Internet’s underbelly, the song eventually caught the attention of social-media influencers with millions of followers.
“We noticed that ’24’ just continued to pick up steam,” says Shami. “It was doing 100,000 plays a day, then it started doing 300,000 a day, then half a million plays a day — eventually it was like a million.”
Spotify’s Carl Chery, creative director and head of urban music, noticed “24” bubbling up on smaller playlists and put it on Rap Caviar. Chery moved it higher on Rap Caviar after the remix dropped; Apple Music also slotted it into its Rap Life playlist, where it took on new life. Instead of stopping there, Shami encouraged Money Man to release a deluxe version of Epidemic, which extended the life of the album and its hit song even further. “If this song really reaches critical mass, you could have a gold album,” Shami told Money Man.
Empire then had Money Man enter a collaboration with The Shoe Surgeon, revamping the classic Jordan look with purple and yellow snakeskin; Money Man will wear the shoes in the upcoming music video for “24” — as the latest artist to embrace brand partnerships in music videos. For now, only tastemakers will be sent the shoes, but eventually fans will also be able to win them in a contest. Money Man has also dropped his own merch line, and Shami says they sold $100,000 in products this week alone.
The rapper is currently in Houston, where he’s working on the “24” music video with Lil Baby. Shami — who says he’s in the studio twice a week, sourcing beats and engineering — plans on digging in deeper with Money Man over the next six months. He expects “24” to become the rapper’s first platinum single in the next 60 days.