Bryan “Birdman” Williams has spent the last two decades building Cash Money Records, the label he and his brother Ronald “Slim” Williams founded in 1991, into one of the most powerful teams in hip-hop history.
His YMCMB imprint, stacked with Drake, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and a gang of other successful artists, keeps racking up No. 1s, largely thanks to the #1 Stunna’s relentless drive and work ethic.
The 43-year-old mogul, who’s known for his flashy lifestyle, could be kicking his feet up, but instead he keeps doing 12-hour studio sessions daily as he plots to make Cash Money the music industry’s first billion-dollar brand. In fact, he says he has never taken a vacation.
That’s why we had to get with him for our "Shotcaller" interview in our 10th Anniversary Issue. But the magazine version barely scratched the surface. Read on for the raw uncut as Birdman tells us how he discovered Nicki Minaj, why he didn’t get involved in the Drake/Common beef, and whether or not he plans on signing Rick Ross to Cash Money...
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
An abridged version of this feature appears in Complex's 10th Anniversary Issue (April/May 2012).
What is the difference between the music business today and 10 years ago?
Time changes time. Everything about the game changed from 10 years ago to now. You never had none of the things that we have now, like the Internet. So many different ways for us to make money now in music. And it’s so digital. We’re a digital-driven brand, we’re an Internet brand.
We global nowadays. 15 years ago, when we first jumped on the scene with Universal, we had gotten too big as artists to be independent. But I still look at us as an indie company because we’re self-contained, we’re self owned. We came in the game self-contained, we probably the last independent label that lasted as long as it did. We our own bosses, run our own ship.
For years we did it all off our own money. [The Universal deal] was a risk from day one, but I refuse to let somebody take something that we work hard for and just take half of it. I couldn’t see myself doing that.
What do you see happening in the future of the music business?
It’s gonna keep getting bigger. Music is spreading into all TVs, networks, and sports. It’s gonna keep expanding. There gonna be quicker ways to become a millionaire. People gonna be playing with millions off of music.
It’s more prosperous, we have so much technology. You don’t have to be an artist if you got some different type of technology—you can make money in a lot of different ways.
I’ll also say we’ll be the first billion-dollar brand of music, that’s our goal. We never had a billionaire brand in music, the closest thing we had was Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson sold 750 million records. I think we’re gonna set the tone for other youngsters to make more money and see that a billion dollars can be accomplished.
How many records has Cash Money sold so far?
We sold 150 million so far. Our track record runs deep. We’ve been the most dominant force of 2011, we gonna be the most dominant force of 2012. We have 16 releases in the first six months of this year. Our goal, as a brand, is to put out 100 albums a year. So I’m trying to figure out how we gonna reach that…
100 albums a year?
We gonna do 16 in the first six months and we gonna try this year to try to put out at least 30 this year. Next year, we’ll try to put out 50. We just gonna keep growing. To have 100 active acts is a lot. It ain’t just rappers, it’s different artists in different parts of the country: rap, pop, country, gospel—its everything.
What was the hardest lesson for you to learn?
We sold 150 million so far. We’ve been the most dominant force of 2011, we gonna be the most dominant force of 2012. We have 16 releases in the first six months of this year. Our goal, as a brand, is to put out 100 albums a year.
Staffing and being able to run your machine. For years, I was so dependant on Universal to do things but the way we work and the way we drop records—they don’t work like that. It’s hard to with with a label because they’re not used to a brand like us who will just drop a record in the morning and work it [the rest of the day].
We had to have our own staffing to do our own things in conjunction with their staffing so they can get the feel of what we do. Its more understandable now that we’ve been working together for a long time. Now they allow us to do what we wanna do, how we wanna do it.
What is your proudest moment?
My proudest moment was watching my son [Lil Wayne] emerge. I’m proud of all our accomplishments, but when I see my son do what he do, that shit means the world to me.
I saw the emergence from Tha Carter. At that time, that’s when all the bullshit happened, when everybody was leaving [the label]. Honestly, I was like “It’s on you Wayne. I’m done with it.”
I knew however far this shit was going to go, it would have to be on Wayne. So I just gave it all to him, “It’s your turn homie. It’s your world. We’re going to follow your lead. Whatever you want to do is what we’re going to do.”
Wayne was always around grown folks at a young age, so he learned a lot young. When the time came I just gave it to him, he was ready. He was so fucking excited, he was eager for it. He didn’t even have to think about it. He showed me how bad he wanted it and he’s still showing me.
That was right around the time we did the Like Father, Like Son album. That was something he wanted to do like, “Let’s bring it back like this with me and you.” It’s been his movement ever since.
Right, at the time your sister had just died and people like Mannie Fresh and Juvenile were leaving the label. What was your mindset like at the time?
I don’t know where my mind was. My sister had just died; I was going through something personal. I was still focused and into it because I’m a hustler. This was at the height of my career [and I said to Wayne], “It’s all about you.” That was probably the smartest move I’ve ever made in my life.
My sister hurt. That’s pain. The business of niggas leaving and all of that that was something I had to deal with, live with, suck up and G up. All that was motivation because my sister loved us and loved the music. She was a motivation for me more than them niggas was because when they left, I knew we were goingto do what we got to do anyway.
This was at the height of my career [and I said to Wayne], 'It’s all about you.' That was probably the smartest move I’ve ever made in my life.
I let all my negatives turn into positives; I use them as motivation. It made me go harder. I never laid down to the losses and the gains. Some losses can bend you over because you’re human and the shit hurts; you can ball up. I did the opposite: I G’d up and went harder.
Me and my son, we buckled down. We looked around and realized it was just us. I didn’t wanna lose [Juvenile and Mannie Fresh] but I guess losing them was a gift and a curse because it really made us go harder and see life differently.
It was about letting Wayne do what he wanted to do. I always felt he was the most talented of everybody and whatever we was gonna do, it was gonna be on shorty. The new talent we bring it was all gonna be surrounded around Wayne.
Did you ever have any self-doubt?
[When I was] young I was doubtful about life after losing so much at a young age. But losing in this game can’t compare to the losses that I already had lost in life so we just kept it moving.
We from New Orleans, growing up there comes with losing family and friends. We never second-guessed oursleves. We see something we wanna do, we’ll do it. I never felt there was something I couldn’t do, I always felt there was motivation for us to do it.