On a hot summer day in 1991, two brothers named Bryan and Ronald Williams launched a rap label called Cash Money Records. They hoped Cash Money would some day pull them out of one of New Orlean’s most wretchedly poor housing projects. Neither of them had any experience running a record label, or even working in the music industry. They didn’t own a recording studio and they didn’t have any artists on their roster. But what they did have was a dream and the willingness to do whatever it took to be successful.
The Williams brothers also may have had around $100 thousand dollars in cash at their disposal, that may have allegedly been provided by their drug kingpin half-brother Terrence. Allegedly. But that’s besides the point. Fast forward 22 years and today Cash Money Records is one of the most successful and prolific record labels in the music industry. And its two founders Bryan “Birdman” Williams and older brother Ronald “Slim” Williams are two of the richest and most powerful people not just in hip-hop, but in all of entertainment. How did two guys from the projects, with nothing but a dream pull this off? Their story is pretty incredible…
Cash Money Records Is Born
When the Williams brothers founded Cash Money Records in 1991, the underground hip-hop scene in New Orleans was just starting to catch fire. A trend called “bounce music” was exploding all over Louisiana thanks to artists like DJ Irv and TT Tucker. The opportunity for a couple of ambitious entrepreneurs was ripe. To launch Cash Money Records (CMR), the Williams brothers first reached out to their father, who owned a popular local bar/nightclub. Unfortunately, a few thousand dollars from their dad didn’t provide nearly enough for Cash Money to get off the ground. The real money that launched CMR came from their half brother Terrence Williams who was the founder of a notorious drug crew called the Hot Boys (not to be confused with the Cash Money rap group of the same name that came years later). Ronald and Bryan chose the name “Cash Money Records” as a reference to the recently released film “New Jack City”, in which Wesley Snipes played a wealthy New York City gangster who runs a crew called the “Cash Money Brothers”.
With their start up capital secured, the Williams brothers began signing local talent. Their first roster artist was a 16 year old kid named Kilo-G. Pretty soon they had around a dozen artists most notably Lil Slim, Mr. Ivan, PxMxWx and U.N.L.V. In those early days, the Williams brothers organized local shows then sold their artist’s records right from the trunk of their car!
One of the most fundamental events in the history of CMR happened in 1993 when the label signed a talented DJ/producer named Mannie Fresh. Before Mannie Fresh came along, Cash Money’s lyrics and sound were very raw and gangster rap influenced. On the other end of the spectrum, Manny Fresh had just spent more than a decade mixing and producing pop influenced house music beats for DJs in New York City. The combination of Manny’s more consumer-friendly beats, with Cash Money’s gangster image and lyrics, quickly came to be known as “Gansta Bounce”. Gansta Bounce instantly struck a nerve with hip-hop fans throughout Louisiana.
Major Labels Come Calling
Through sheer hustle and talent, Cash Money records signed dozens more artists between 1994 and 1997. Even more impressively, their albums were selling between 25,000 and 50,000 copies without a distribution or promotional deal from any major label. U.N.L.V.’s second album sold 60,000 copies. The Hot Boy$’ debut album sold an astonishing 300,000 copies in its first few months alone, almost exclusively in the greater New Orleans area. The Hot Boy$, who were barely old enough to drive, featured the rappers Juvenile, B.G., Turk and a 15 year old who went by the name Lil Wayne.
At the beginning 1998, every major record label the world made the trek from New York City to New Orleans seeking out the infamous Williams brothers. Even if Cash Money had sold a few hundred thousand albums independently, most labels sought to sign them to a standard rookie deal. That deal typically involved a small cash advance, plus a 50/50 split of all profits earned on albums sales. Also, the record label would maintain ownership of any current and future master copies of albums and publishing rights.
You can imagine the shock each major label executive felt when they heard what the Williams brothers were demanding. Birdman and Slim wanted an 80/20 pressing and distribution deal, plus a multi-million dollar cash advance. This was nothing short of unprecedented for an unsigned indie label. A pressing & distribution deal meant that Cash Money would continue finance their own albums and therefore maintain ownership of all their masters, royalties and publishing. Essentially they were looking for a company that would finance their entire label with millions of dollars, in exchange for a measly 20% cut of the profits made only when a consumer physically purchased an album. To say this was unheard of, is a massive understatement. As Russell Simmons explained at the time, this was the kind of deal an artist like Madonna or Michael Jackson is lucky to get after a decade being on top of the charts.
Cash Money Cashes In
Amazingly, despite their insane demands, two labels were still interested, Sony and Universal. Both companies knew they wouldn’t ever make much money off the deal, but Cash Money represented something far more important: Market share. Making a deal with Cash Money would give the winning record company an instant foothold in the rising southern hip-hop market. It would allow them to court future artists and sell their current roster to people they had never successfully reached before. With that prize up for grabs, Sony and Universal made their pitches. In the end, Universal’s offer was just far too much for Sony to match. Not only did Universal bow to every single demand made by the Williams brothers, they arranged for Cash Money to immediately receive a $3 million cash advance plus $1.5 million for every album they produced each year. In total the deal was worth a mind boggling $30 million.
The magnitude of this deal’s uniqueness can not be understated. Imagine if after selling few hundred thousand copies of an ebook on my own, a publishing company agreed to pay me millions of dollars for 20% of my profits. Then also imagine that the publishing company agreed to book my on every major talk show and get me prominent display in every bookstore around the world, at their expense. Wouldn’t happen. A publishing company is more likely to pay me $50,000 and take 80% of my profits. Plus they would own all my intellectual property and sequel rights…
This pressure was definitely on for Birdman and Cash Money to deliver. Fortunately one their first releases was a massive hit. Juvenile’s 1998 solo debut “400 Degreez” sold 4 million copies right out of the gate thanks to the hit single “Back That Azz Up”, and set Cash Money on the world map. From then on the Cash Money team became a hit making machine. Between 2001 and 2003 alone, CMR sold over 10 million albums worldwide thanks to artists like Big Tymers (which featured Birdman himself), B.G. Lil Wayne, Hot Boy$ and more.
Billion Dollar Brand
Cash Money Records is arguably the only major label in the world that has stayed relevant continuously for the last 20 years straight. There have been a few minor weak periods, but overall CMR has been able to sell millions of records every year since the launch of their incredible deal with Universal. Recently, Cash Money has even begun to aggressively diversify its artist roster in to non-rap areas of music. They won a bidding war to represent Canadian super star Drake, they signed Kevid Rudolph, Nicki Minaj, Busta Rhymes, Limp Bizkit, Jay Sean and even Paris Hilton. Birdman has stated publicly that Cash Money’s ultimate goal is to release 100 albums a year from artists in every single genre of music. Even more amazingly, Birdman believes Cash Money Records is on pace to become the first billion dollar music brand of all time, within the next five years. In total, artists from Cash Money Records have sold over 150 million albums worldwide to date.
Thanks to the phenomenal success of Cash Money Records, today Birdman is sitting on an extremely impressive $100 million net worth. He drives a $5 million Bugatti and is rarely seen without wearing at least $10 million worth of jewelry. He lives in a stunning $14.5 million mansion on Miami’s exclusive Star Island. As for Ronald “Slim” Williams, a few years back he spent $7.5 million purchase the largest house in South Florida. And the best part? He paid cash. As we all know, Lil Wayne is one of the most successful and active artists in the world today. Wayne’s net worth recently topped $150 million.
So what’s the lesson here? If you have a dream, work hard and take a chance… you might make a ton of cash money some day!