The Williams brothers began taking meetings with several major labels, including Universal, with the help of industry veteran Wendy Day. When Universal’s mid-level executives made a lowball offer to buy half their company, Slim and Birdman got up to leave. Then Doug Morris, Universal’s chief at the time, walked in with his colleague Mel Lewinter. “I wouldn’t sell my company either,” Slim remembers Morris saying. They struck a deal promising an advance of $30 million. In return, Universal would receive a 7% distribution fee but no ownership. The company also got to count Cash Money as part of its empire in market share calculations (with the help of acts like Drake, Universal is now bigger than its two closest rivals combined).
“I was pleasantly surprised at how favorable the deal was for Cash Money,” Day recalls. “[Mel] explained to me that the volume of music that Cash Money would put into the Universal pipeline was what gave them tremendous value to Universal: market share.”
Despite that kind of success, many of Cash Money’s early acts left the label after complaining they’d been cheated out of royalties. Mannie Fresh departed over such claims in 2005 (he did not reply for a request for comment), while Lil Wayne spent much of the last five years suing Cash Money over money issues amid the specter of violence. He finally left the label as a multimillion-dollar 2018 settlement cleared the way for the release of his latest album, Tha Carter V (a representative declined to make him available for an interview).
Cash Money’s founders deny any nefarious activity and argue that the contractual conflicts stem from the fact that many of their artists aren’t familiar with the music business when they arrive. “Contracts haven’t been done, producer agreements haven’t been done, samples haven’t been cleared,” Brown says. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s not that we owe them money. It’s that other people worked to get paid that they didn’t know had to get paid.”
To streamline future payments, Brown says Cash Money has upped the distribution fee it pays to Universal by a few points in exchange for having the record giant handle all back-office matters. A spokesperson for Cash Money also points out that artists including Mannie Fresh and Juvenile have returned for collaborations.
Meanwhile, Drake’s status remains something of a mystery. On his 2018 album Scorpion, he declared himself “out of the deal” after fulfilling his contractual obligations; Cash Money’s spokesperson says he’s scheduled for one more. Neither Drake nor Universal would comment on his status. The Williams brothers say they are “forever in business” with Drake, but won’t get more specific.
They’re likely alluding to the fact that they’ve got a significant interest in his back catalog, as they do with Lil Wayne, Minaj and the other acts that have broken out with Cash Money over the years. Even if none of those performers release another album under the label, their music should add double-digit millions to its bottom line for years to come—and serve as a recruiting tool for new musicians.
“Rappers still clamor to sign to Cash Money, regardless of their business reputation and regardless of the fallout with many of the original artists,” says Day, who says she had to sue Cash Money to get her fee two decades ago. “Would I ever do business with them again? Hell no. But their history and impact can’t be denied. They’re brilliant.”A
s Slim’s car rolls through Miami, following closely behind Birdman, a song about Maybachs blasts through the sound system. It’s by Jacquees, the crown prince of Cash Money, who is waiting at the studio minutes later when they arrive. The 24-year-old Atlanta native signed with label in 2014 and, along with acts such as Caskey and Blueface, represents the future of the label. “Birdman called me on the phone,” Jacquees remembers. “My eyes watered up.”
Upon arriving, Birdman starts dispensing advice to Jacquees, fresh off a big performance where he was admittedly a bit nervous going in. (Birdman’s philosophy for live shows: “Have no fear . . . you just gotta go out there and face it.”) Just as Motown brought along the Miracles, then the Temptations, the Supremes, and then the Jackson 5, Cash Money is grooming Jacquees to be one of its next big acts—a move that’s giving him more confidence. The singer recently declared himself this generation’s King of R&B, much to the chagrin of many observers; indeed, Jacquees doesn’t even have a Billboard Top 40 single. But he does possess a pair of powerful believers in the Williams brothers, who know from experience that talent often takes years to fully blossom.