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.
One interesting thing about you is that you’re 42 and you’re still hanging around with the young kids...
They’re my motivation. I wanna see them be all they can be. My son is like the world to me. We got a strong little team. They’re very talented and I dedicate my life to their future and what they wanna be in this music game. My motivation in this game is trying to make the most superstars as possible for our team.
Is it ever weird for you hanging out with them? Like do they wanna do kid stuff when you’re trying to do grown stuff?
Everybody doing they own thing, move how they feel. When it comes to everybody doing personal things, people go in their different directions. But when it comes to the music, we click tight.
What kind of advice do you give them?
No female ever will be able to sell more records than Nicki Minaj, have more singles than her, have more number one singles than her, have more awards—no more nothing. Her accomplishments are gonna speak for themselves.
If you can’t see us as a motivation, I don’t really know what [it] would be. Focus and grind cause we not gonna stop. Wayne ain’t gonna stop, I’m not gonna stop. Your leader is your motivation. Your leader be lazy, your team gonna be lazy. There ain’t nothing lazy about us. Hard work pays and that’s all they gonna ever see us do is work.
Speaking of working, when was the last time you were in the studio?
This morning—I left at 7 this morning. We get about 10, 12 hours in every day.
Have you ever had to tell someone like “Yo, son, you gotta step it up, you’re not going hard enough”?
I ain’t had to do that. I always be on them anyway, like staying in touch and letting them know we focused on them and they project. I call and get updates every day. If I don’t do it, my nephew Mack Maine do it, my brother Slim do it, because we got so many acts. We trying to find out what y’all doing, what’s up, where the single, what’s the plan? I do that every day.
We’ve got Nicki Minaj on our current cover. Do you think Nicki Minajis the biggest female rapper of all time?
I say she is, but if she’s not today, within time she will be. No female ever will be able to sell more records than her, have more singles than her, have more number one singles than her, have more awards—no more nothing. She had the most singles by a female last year. Her accomplishments are gonna speak for themselves.
I can say that now because that’s just her first album but she’s only growing and getting bigger and bigger. She’s a global artist. She’s a student to the game. She’s hard-body with her workload.
I watched her grow. We got Nicki off a street DVD. Wayne brought the DVD to me, me and him was on the bus watching it and it was her just rapping. At the time, Wayne didn’t have a female [in the crew] and we were rebuilding what we was doing.
We wanted to have a female that could really rap. Soon as we seen her, we were like “Wow.” Two days later, we flew her out and had a meeting with her. We ain’t never looked back.
Do you see her as the biggest female artist or just as a female rapper?
I don’t look at them as rappers, they’re artists to me. Damn near call them musicians. She’s too well rounded to be just looked at like a rapper. She does it all. You’ll see, we gonna do more numbers—across the counter and digital.
Cash Money is an army but is there any artist in the game that you see that you wish was on your team?
Wow. There’s a lot of acts I’d like to work. I got a lot of respect for Rozay and what he accomplishing with his brand and his team. DJ Khaled. I like Jeezy. I like Game. In time, I’ll be working with some of them.
Hopefully in time we’ll get a chance to do some business. I’m looking forward to it though—any of them at any time when the time is right, I’m looking forward to it.
It’s interesting that you mention Rick Ross. A few months ago there was some speculation that he would sign to Cash Money. When his next album drops that will be his 5th album for Def Jam, and his contract will end. Have you and Rick Ross ever had the discussion about him coming to Cash Money?
Right now Rick Ross is signed to Def Jam, but when the time do come, I’m gonna be right there waiting.
Nah, not at this point. Ross signed to Def Jam and you know Ross is a close friend of mine. But if the time ever came, we gonna G up and make it happen. Right now he signed to Def Jam, but when the time do come, I’m gonna be right there waiting.
To snatch him up?
If the opportunity comes through. Time will tell, we will see.
You also mentioned Game. He said that you and him had been in talks about him coming to Cash Money. Is that true?
Game is signed to Interscope—I don’t really know his situation. I don’t like to get into talks with other people who are signed to other labels because I wouldn’t want them niggas fucking with nothing that’s mine. So I show respect to whoever they with.
I know that I told Game, if the time come I would love to sign Game. I think he’s a very talented artist. But right now he’s signed with Interscope, maybe he’s got another album. But when time comes, I’m gonna be there for him too.
What other teams in the music business today impress you?
Khaled’s We the Best. Rozay’s team.
What about G.O.O.D Music?
They’re doing what they’re doing too. But I think Khaled and Rozay are doing a little more. They’re a little more active with their acts. I ain’t talking about them as a brand, but their acts. You got Kanye doing him, but what acts do they have that are active and doing a lot? I’m looking at how much your team is doing.
Rick Ross always says he looks up to you.
I know man. I’ve been seeing Ross. I like his hustle. You can see how he patterned his whole thing around how we do what we do and he’s following the blueprint straight up. I got nothing but love and respect for Rozay. I watched him do it and he did it from nothing. He’s still grounded and that’s what I love about him. He’s got a solid team. They’ve got some great music over there.
With acts like Chris Richardson, Jay Sean, and Kevin Rudolph, Cash Money seems like it’s consciously going for non-rap acts.
You got Kanye doing him, but what acts does G.O.O.D. Music have that are active and doing a lot? I’m looking at how much your team is doing.
We wanna be different types of music, we wanna be a brand of different types. We predominantly rap right now. We have Chris Richardson, Jay Sean, and Kevin Rudolph—I wanna do more of that. I wanna do country, I wanna do heavy rock [Ed. note—Interview was conducted prior to Limp Bizkit signing to Cash Money].
We gonna always pick up different talent—that’s just us, just expanding our brands and having the machine to work it. We’ve been trying to do it—like with R.I.P Teena Marie—and a lot of different acts we had. But at the time, we wasn’t settled staff wise. It was a learning process for us. Everything we went through then is preparation for what we going through now. To be on top, to grow while you’re up here, and try to go further. That shit take a lot, man.
You guys also signed Busta Rhymes and Mystikal, who aren’t the young guys you guys usually go for.
Right. I like Busta. I respect him so much as a grinder. He’s seen the ups and the downs of the business. I saw how he handled it, and all I saw was hustle. He’s still doing it. I thought it was nothing but right to give him a shot. Plus, he’s a real talented artist and I wanted a chance to work with him.
Mystikal is a phenomenal artist. I never even thought I’d get a chance to work with Mystikal. So when the opportunity came [I took it]. Getting Mystikal, he brought that bounce shit back to the table. I always wanted an act from the town, and I’m gonna go get some more acts from the town. Who was a better act than Mystikal? He represent that, he brought that, he lived that.
For all the success you’ve had, there’s also been some negative things. One thing that plagued you guys for years was people complaining about getting paid properly. Especially with Mannie Fresh and Juvenile back in the day.
Whatever business I had with [Mannie Fresh and Juvenile back in the day] I took care of it and we’ll never go through that again. Not with no artist.
Nah that was a lot of shit, being young in the game. I was learning. Mistakes was happening and I got charged for them. I was young, so I guess I didn’t know. I learned from those mistakes and I’ll never make them twice. The mistakes that I did have with them, we straightened them out and got them corrected.
What mistakes did you make?
I was an artist at the time, I should’ve been more about my business and made sure that their business was straight. We all did this shit so young so when shit got fucked up, everyone pointed the finger at me like I was doing something fucked up.
I didn’t know no better myself. Until all that happened and then I figured it out, I wanted to straighten it out and make sure we never go through that again. Whatever business I had with them I took care of it and we’ll never go through that again. Not with no artist.
What about producers like Jim Jonsin and Bangladesh complaining about getting paid for Tha Carter III?
The Bangladesh situation, we got that cleared up too. And right now, me and Bangladesh are doing some business together to put all that bullshit behind us. We still work with Bangladesh, never stopped working with him.
What about Jim Jonsin, did you guys squash that?
That got straightened out too. Jim’s situation [became a problem because] it was a sample. When you sample somebody’s stuff your money gets froze. Jim and them worked it out. That’s out of my control. We didn’t know it had a sample.
Some producers won’t won’t tell you it’s a sample [but then when it is, people file an injunction against you and your money gets frozen].
But that’s normal business, not just my business. Any label goes through that. If you take the time to correct, it ain’t no bad business. You just take the time and if something is owed then you pay it.
So, would you say as of right now, your business is straight? Nobody is owed anything?
Nobody is owed nothing. [Ed. note—This interview was conducted prior to Cash Money being sued by EMI over unpaid royalties. The case was settled a few days later.] We’re 100 % straight. Now, Universal takes care of everything so it’ll never be a problem. All statements, royalties, all that shit is done in house. I don’t have to deal with that shit.
My business will always be ran properly because they’re gonna make sure all my business is done straight. They take care of all that type of shit. It’s been like that for the last four, five years.
5 Star Stunna
Speaking of money, let’s talk about stunting. I remember reading a rumor that you owned an $8 million Maybach?
Yeah, the Exelero. I didn’t own it, I was trying to purchase one.
What’s that like for you? I know you’re big into the jewels and the cars.
Nobody is owed nothing. We’re 100 % straight. Now, Universal takes care of everything so it’ll never be a problem.
I’m more into cars. I just love cars, I’ve been like that since I was a kid. It’s an infatuation because we grew up poor. Cars was something we were always trying to get. We hustle and go to jail and do all kinds of things to try to accomplish a better way to travel and eat for our families. It’s just one of the things that I like, to have a lot of them.
How many cars do you have now?
I used to take a million dollars and buy me as many cars as possible. Now, I might take two million dollars and spend it on one car. My Bugatti [and my other car] is like five million dollars in two cars.
Speaking of money, you’re also known for betting big money on the Super Bowl. What’s your next big bet?
I’m up like two million dollars from bets that I’ve made, so if Mayweather fights Pacquiao, I’m going to bet five million on Mayweather. I put a million on Mayweather during his last fight. I’m not really a gambler, but I’ll bet on the Super Bowl or some boxing. Something I feel comfortable with.
Well you famously took a loss when you bet on the Heat last year.
Yeah I bet on the Heat and I lost one. I’m going to bet back with the Heat again this year. They’re going back. I’m going to bet with them, they won’t do it twice. The first time was just experience, they’d just started playing together. The second time they’ll cash in.
Are you going to put up another two million this time?
I’m going to put one up.
Another interesting thing about you is that you’ve been investing in oil. How did that come about?
I ran across some real estate with some oil in it. I decided it was something nice and cool, something for my kids and my family. I thought it would be nice to get something different, something that not everyone else was doing. It’s a cool business though.
We did a post last year about how you’re always rubbing your hands in music videos. We called it The Birdman Handrub.
I saw you once tweeted saying “I’m rubbing my hands because I’m always counting money.”
So many people ask me about it but honestly I don’t know. Shit just became a habit. But my palms do itch a lot, I swear they do. So I got tired of scratching them and just went to rubbing my hands.
It’s funny, they say when you want to get money they say “your palms are itchy” and your palms are literally itchy.
My palms do itch a lot, I swear they do. So I got tired of scratching them and just went to rubbing my hands.
They itch a lot, man. So I just got tired of scratching them and just went to rubbing my hands. But it just became a habit and it’s like I’m known for the shit. I’m like “Damn, I’m doing this shit that much that people are recognizing it? But then I found myself doing it so now I’m like, Fuck it, I’m going to keep doing it.
That’s dope that instead of shying away from it, you embrace it.
I really wanted to let them know that at the end of the day, it’s really about money. Don’t get it twisted. I’m a hard worker and everything with me is, if I work hard I should get paid for it. Everything with me, I try to symbolize something flashy like jewelry or a car. The rubbing hands is a symbol of hustling, so it goes back to the money.
Jay-Z said that line about “Baby money” and you were on the radio like “Man, we’re going to keep spending this baby money.” Instead of side-stepping it, you addressed it.
I thought that was funny for a nigga to holler out “Baby money.” I was like, “Wow, fuck, what do you mean ‘Baby money’? Nigga, that ain’t no little money. We around here getting it.”
It wasn’t nothing, we ain’t trip. I was like, “Yeah, since it’s such a big deal, fuck yeah we got ‘Baby Money.’ That Bugatti and that Lauder jet comes from ‘Baby Money.’”
So when Wayne spit that line on “It’s Good” about “Kidnap your bitch, get that how much you love your lady money” what do you have to say about that?
I don’t think that’s a diss record. It wasn’t more than what he said. Niggas was G’ing up about what was said. We did that, done that, off that brother. We’re on our money train.
Recently, when Drake got into a beef with Common you stepped aside. You seemed to not even like the idea of dissrecords.
I thought that was funny for Jay-Z to holler out 'Baby money.' I was like, 'Yeah, we got Baby money. That Bugatti and that Lauder jet comes from Baby money.’
That’s never been our thing. Making diss records takes away from people wanting to hear your music because you’re focusing on some bullshit. That shit just gets annoying after a while. I never wanted to get caught up into that.
I love Drake, I’d die for Drake. We riding on whatever he do. But my philosophy is I don’t make diss records, that shit just not cool to me.
But a lot of great MCs have made great diss records.
If you do the history of niggas with beef and diss records, you won’t be able to track them down. That shit don’t make stars out of motherfuckers. It don’t make you a bigger celebrity cause you come and go quick.
We not a brand about coming and going, we wanna be around forever. I want my kids’ kids running this shit. We had plenty of opportunity [to beef], we been at war since we got in this shit. We had plenty of opportunities to entertain bullshit, but bullshit don’t make you no money.
I always tell anybody to stay focused and make the music for your fans and the people. Stay creative. You can’t stay creative with beef that’s just “Fuck you, bitch nigga.” That shit takes up too much energy for nothing.
Lil Wayne & Retirement
In the past few years Lil Wayne has become a fashion icon. What do you think of the way he dresses?
We just living life, having fun. We ain’t tripping on nothing. We know where we come from. We ain’t bothering nobody. They gonna dress how they feel, come as they go.
Wayne recently has hinted at retiring. Have you guys ever had that discussion?
He was saying by the time he hits 35 [he’d retire], I heard him say that. But nah, he’s on a mission right now.
But do you think when he hits 35, he’d seriously consider retiring?
One thing about my son is that what he says is what he means. When he does retire, that’s when I’m going to stop fucking with it altogether because it ain’t gonna be no need. He’s going to take us where we need to go. When he retires, that’s when I stop.
So you’ll retire as well?
Yeah. It won’t be no need for me no more because he’s going to take us further than I ever could. I been doing this shit for 22 years, another six or seven years for him. When that day comes, you won’t hear or see Stunna. But until then, we’re going to go hard like there’s no tomorrow.
When you retire, that would be from music or would that be from business?
I could just sit back and kick my feet up, spend time with my kids and grandkids. That’s all I want to do in my life. I’ve been content with what we’ve made and what we got.
On some reality shit, we have to better as artists. How some people have it today and don’t have it tomorrow—we have to do better than that as a team and survive long term in this business. A lot of this came and went and niggasbe financially fucked up.
One thing about my son [Wayne] is that what he says is what he means. When he does retire, that’s when I’m going to stop altogether because it ain’t gonna be no need. He’s going to take us where we need to go. When he retires, that’s when I stop.
That’s something I try to preach to [my team]: niggas got to be right. Niggas got to be smart with their money. Try to do things the proper way and make cautious investments. Put it up however you do it but, when it’s said and done, you can’t be one of them niggas with nothing because that ain’t going to make no sense.
I’ve never had a vacation in my life. My friends tell me all the time “Man, take a break.” I would like one day to be able to sit back and enjoy life without having every day be all business. I do all day business and I love it, I don’t want to do nothing else. I’m in love with what I do. I’m passionate about success, so I can’t see past not doing what we’re doing.
It seems like you’re addicted to your job. How do you stop?
I don’t know man, I don’t know. I haven’t figured that part out yet. Your kids will make you stop though. Watching them become grown in front of your eyes. That’ll slow ya ass down. Your family are the ones who take the licks because you don’t give them as much as you can.
But you’ve watched your kids grow, right?
Yeah but I could’ve done more. I make sure life will be what they want it to be. My son’s 14 and my daughter’s 13 and even with Wayne—I’ve been in his life since he was 11. So that’s some of the sacrifices, your family doesn’t get as much time. You’re dedicated to trying to be successful. Ain’t no limitation on that time when you’re trying to be successful.
Do you regret that?
I don’t regret it. If [I didn’t do this] I’d be in the projects, in the penitentiary, or dead so I could never regret it. That’s the sacrifice for a nice life. Don’t get it fucked up like it’s bad. I just would like to do more. I see my kids everyday and pick them up from school when I’m home, but I’m rarely home. Out of a year we might travel 9 months.
Well, it ain’t tough. Life is tough. Can’t complain about that. But one day in my life, I’d like to just kick back go on my yacht with a free mind. Ain’t gotta worry about no [business].
That ain’t where my head at right now. I’m focused on my shit and my business. This what we about. Keep going striving hard as we possibly can. I’ll deal with that day if that day ever comes. I’m going to be on my 180 foot yacht, sitting out there in that Pacific, enjoying life with my kids and grandkids.
WATCH BIRDMAN'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO: