Unwinding straight from a studio interview with Funkmaster Flex at Hot 97, Birdman was a gracious host Monday night at Quad Studios in midtown Manhattan, where Rich Gang previewed several tracks from their next project, the imminent sequel to one of the year’s hottest mixtapes, Tha Tour Part 1. The studio was a whirlwind of recreation in which I did and did not partake: blunts a foot long with tips an inch wide, lit by lava glow; a 20-minute discussion of Popeyes locations; plaster-cracking 808 thuds—and that’s all before Baby had even gotten the session started. At 1 a.m., I was bathing in cirrus waves of that stinky haze.
With a longevity and span of influence that rivals (if not surpasses) Puffy’s rolling dominance of the '90s, Baby is the 45-year-old CEO of the most prolific, most important label in rap. Birdman and his older brother, Slim, launched Cash Money in 1991, two years before Birdman met local producer Mannie Fresh, who would go on to perfect a certain blend of traditional bounce rhythms with native slang and unconventionally relaxed rap cadences. Cash Money signed Juvenile, the label's first certified star, in 1996; 400 Degreez and "Back That Azz Up" dropped in 1998; and the rest is multi-volume history.
At the studio listening session Monday evening, we learned that Birdman re-signed Juvenile to Cash Money Records, that Juve’s got a song featuring Drake* (on the hook) due out next week, and that in a storm of internal tensions (Tyga's still signed to Cash Money, FYI) and album delays, Rich Gang is Baby’s foremost priority, with Tha Tour Part 2 due out Nov. 24. For now, that Birdman solo album will have to wait.
As Slim and the entourage ducked out to the studio lobby to shoot pool, I sat with Birdman to discuss Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan’s chemistry, Birdman’s favorite Rich Gang cuts so far, and Birdman's legacy as co-founder of Cash Money Records, the Southern hip-hop monopoly that’s been minting hit records and platinum plaques since '98, till (approximately) infinity.
Interview by Justin Charity (@BrotherNumpsa)
The tracks from the first Rich Gang tape, and the tracks you played for us tonight—how much fun did you have rapping on this shit?
I don’t know if it’s fun. But I really had to put shit down, to be honest with you. It’s something [Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan] requested. Working with them, it’s kind of different. Totally different. To even be working outside of Wayne is different to me because that’s the only person I ever worked with in the booth outside of Nicki and Drake.
How did the Juvenile and Drake collaboration happen? Whose idea was that?
With re-signing Juvenile, I just wanted to write songs and write everything. I’d been working with him, but I just felt like we never had the right introduction for him. When the song came about, I felt like, “This is perfect. It’s a perfect way to bring you back with us on a certain plateau, on a big platform.”
Juve went under the water without us, and I wanted to bring him back to the surface and leave him there because he’s talented as a motherfucker. You can’t take that away from him. He can rap his ass off. But like I was saying, it’s a mindset of people, and when you’re down you’re down; and when you’re, up you’re up. I just felt like he’s been underwater without us, and this [new track] with him and [Drake] could bring him above the rim.
Do you imagine Rich Homie and Thug knocking out some tracks with Juve?
Oh yeah, we’ve done a few songs together already.
The third song that you played tonight, the “Hot Boys” track.
I thought that was a hit by itself.
What did you think the first time you heard him rapping over that, rapping about the Hot Boyz?
If you listen to their music, you can tell that they been studying ours and studying the craft. You ain’t gotta tell a nigga to do that; they come with music like that. So it really lets me know not just that they study the craft, but [that] this is what today’s youngins are off into. This is what their music is built around, the mentality. When I hear them come at me with shit like that, to be dealing with me, it really feels real special to me. Any time [you build something] and then a mothafucka be rapping about it, it feels good.
We were listening to Juve, BG, and Wayne back then, and we’re listening to Rich Homie and Young Thug now. When you listen to these Rich Gang tracks, do you hear a unified legacy in there somewhere?
I don’t look at it like that. I never looked at legacy, period. When you look at life like that, it means you’re at the end, or you’re about to stop or something.
For me, I never looked at it like that. I just continue to do what I do. I haven’t even put a tag on what I’ve done already, because I feel like I’m still not as respected as I should be, for what I already have done. And I feel like I still got a lot more to do. I still feel young in this shit. I’m not dead in it, I live it, it’s my passion, and I really wake up for this shit every day. I feel brand new in this shit.
I still feel young in this shit. I’m not dead in it, I live it, it’s my passion, and I really wake up for this shit every day.
Respect in what sense? From who?
[Respect for] all that we have accomplished. We’ve accomplished more than anybody in the industry, ever. We’re going to get ours, but that just lets me know we got a lot more to do. We’ll just grind it out and keep doing what we’re doing, and when the time come God will give us that. I’m not looking for that, that’s not what I wake up for. I don’t give a fuck if a motherfucka never cherishes what we’ve done as long as I’m going to the bank every day.
I’m from Richmond, Va. The earliest hip-hop I came up on, the earliest videos I watched—basically you and OutKast defined the South. That makes sense to me when I think of my people, my cousins, my uncles, but why do you think that you, Rich Homie, and Young Thug resonate with people in this big, national sense that you clearly do right now? Why you think the South is really able to pop off in a way that was not always the case?
It started before them. If you really think back, it started with OutKast from getting booed at [the 1995 Source Awards]. We always felt like we had a point to prove because we always watched them do them. When the time came and we got the opportunity, I know for me personally I wasn’t going to ever let go.
If you pull my resume, if you Google me, I’ve been who I am. Tats, golds in my mouth, speaking one way. Wayne and everybody that’s affiliated with us, we ain’t never been nothing different. Shit might’ve changed, but I’ve always kept it one way.
I’ve fought a lot of battles in this shit. I’ve been through all the wars. You can name it from the late ’90s to 2000s, I’ve been through all the shit. Really everybody that I’ve seen come up in this shit, it’s really nobody around anymore. It’s a rare few.
So you’re still hungry.
We always looked at this as our ticket out the game. When you coming from up top in different areas, niggas have different options in the game. With us, it was rap. It still is rap. I never wanted to be the one to give up on what I love, and I still love the game. I ain’t gave up on loving what I do. I ain’t give up on making young niggas millionaires, and taking nothing and making it into something. I still love it like I just started.
What’s the thing you're most proud of?
How many people we’ve helped. We’ve helped so many and continue to help. Thug and Quan, we gave them life. When I met them they were boys, they weren’t what they are. Now their mamas have houses, they got houses, and their homies got jobs. That shit run deep.
God said, if you can help one, you’ve done more than enough. I’m doing my thing, and I’m satisfied with that. I love working with Wayne. That’s the most passionate thing in my life, when I go in the studio and watch my son work. I love working with Drake, I love watching [Wayne] work with Drake and Nicki. I love that passion. I love being in the studio with Rich and Thug every night.
Not getting any sleep, my back all fucked up, my head hurting—I love it. Honestly, I don’t think I would want to live life without it, because I don’t know how to do nothing else.
As someone who’s seen Wayne go from—
0 to 100.
Exactly. Now, what’s your long-term vision for Rich Homie and Young Thug?
I just see magnificence for them, but that’s bigger than me. That’s a God thing, what he wants for them. I just see what I believe in. I’m going to do what it takes to make them special. I’m going to put them on the same platform as the three most special artists in the world: Wayne, Drake, and Nicki.
What’s your favorite thing about Rich Gang’s music together?
Their melodies. Their hooks. I listen to it and I don’t pick any of that shit. I’ll come in the studio—I may be in Miami for a week or two—and I’ll come back, and they’ll play me 20 songs. I’ll be like, “Fuck! They know music!” They’re 22, 23 years old, and they know music like that. These young niggas know how to do music, and that’s a big difference.
Working with them, what do you think is their biggest motivation for all this music they're making? Livelihood? Or creativity?
Both. Livelihood first of all, because they ain’t got nothing. They’re really on the block. [But also] the love of it, because they grew up watching niggas that they want to be like. They check these styles and these formats of how niggas used to do it, and now it’s some new shit going on. It’s something different.
* Throughout the evening, Birdman would play certain songs several times, over and over again, without making it past the first verse until the sixth or seventh reprise. He did this with the Juvenile f/ Drake collaboration, for instance. For many years, I've wondered if other people in fact listen to music this way. With certain songs, e.g., "Damien," "Hoe Cakes," "Gold Watch," "Let Me Ride," "Neck uv da Woods," and "Skew It on the Bar-B," I'd go weeks, months, years after I'd first heard those songs just rewinding the tracks, over and over, before I'd finally move on to the second and third verses. Maybe you do this, too. If so, if you've ever wondered how strange this habit may be, fear not: I'm rather sure that's also how Birdman listens to music. You're in decent company.