Puffy was gawd of the 1990s, especially the latter half, in which everyone from the Notorious B.I.G., Ma$e, Jay Z, Nas, and even KRS-One and Gangstarr got jiggy under Bad Boy’s tutelage and influence. It was a weird, excessive, shiny era. Meanwhile, Cash Money Records co-founder Brian Williams, a.k.a. Baby, a.k.a. Stunna, a.k.a. Birdman, broke 1999 with “Back That Azz Up,” the banner single that put Juvenile, Mannie Fresh, Lil Wayne, and Cash Money Records on the map.
Puffy’s run was seven years of unprecedented excellence, from the ascent of Biggie and Lil’ Kim, to Ma$e, the L.O.X., and Shyne, and ending approximately with Black Rob, Loon, and G-Dep’s popping off briefly with “Whoa,” “I Need a Girl,” and “Let’s Get It,” respectively. In contrast, Birdman’s run hasn’t ever really ended, with Drake, Nicki Minaj, Rich Gang, and Lil Wayne churning out hits, mixtapes, and best-selling albums on the regular. In October we sat down with Birdman, who confirmed with all due slickness and gusto that this shit don’t stop.
Who’s to say which of these gentlemen, Puffy or Birdman, is the greatest rap mogul of all time? Our very own Damien Scott and Justin Charity, that’s who. Gloves up. Take that, take that.
CHARITY: Kanye West, who is a lunatic, frequently compares himself to late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, when the truth is that Birdman is Rap Game Steve Jobs and Rap Game Lorenzo de' Medici, both in one.
Birdman bankrolled Juvenile, B.G., Mannie Fresh, and Lil Wayne through the late ’90s and early ’00s; he relaunched Wayne as the greatest rapper of his generation; a decade later he topped that by signing Drake and Nicki Minaj, the two most commercially successful rappers of their respective generations. As if all that weren’t enough, now Birdman is giving us Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan at their synchronized best.
As Mannie, Juve, and now Weezy and Drizzy all attest, Birdman is (allegedly) a loathsome extortionist, and visionary. We are blessed.
Meanwhile, the greatest video ever posted in the history of YouTube is titled “Puffy Is Poison,” in which comedian Maronzio Vance does an eight-minute run-down (“then he brought orphans together and put ’em in a house and tried to make an album”) of Puffy’s catastrophic legacy of artist mismanagement, that’s word to 8Ball & MJG.
Bad Boy Records has been a rap fan punchline since 2003. What’s Puff done for us lately?
DAMIEN: I see this is going to be a case of convenient amnesia. Yes, Birdman, as the CEO of Cash Money Records, has had a hell of run, helping to birth the careers of some of rap’s biggest stars, but if we were to take a look at the success of the label over the years, we will see that his ability to actually mint stars isn’t as incredible as it’s made out to be.
The best-selling Cash Money artist is, of course, Lil Wayne, who rose like a dreadlocked Phoenix in the early 2000s to become arguably the best rapper alive. But, he’s been on the label since before he could legally apply for a work permit and released his first album with the label in 1999. The label’s other best-selling artist got trapped in Birdman’s claws thanks to a deal involving J. Prince, his son Jas Prince Jr., and Weezy. Nicki Minaj was also brought to the label by Weezy F. Baby hasn’t actively searched for talent since he tricked the Hot Boyz into signing shitty deals.
Puffy has been nothing if not a hawk-eyed talent scout. He’s the one who launched the career of the best rapper ever. He’s the one who turned a girl from Yonkers into the Queen of Hip-Hop and R&B. He’s the one who refined the talent and look of four dudes from North Carolina, turning them into the best R&B group of the ’90s.
And, sure, 2003 was a rough time for Bad Boy with the singing of Loon and the terrible MTV experiment Da Band. But around that time, Diddy hired a guy by the name of Block who was tasked with getting Bad Boy involved with the growing Southern movement. What we got was Boyz n da Hood. Their album didn’t go gold, but the world was exposed to Young Jeezy, who would go on to drop some of the best records to come out of ATL post OutKast. Not to mention Yung Joc who, though he is now a hilarious footnote known to a new generation as a Love & Hip Hop Atlanta guest star, gave us “It’s Goin’ Down” and the jovial summer banger “I Know You See It.” I could keep going. I can talk about how he signed Janelle Monae and agreed to let her do her thing, or how his Making the Band TV show managed to birth a good-bordering-on-very-good R&B group in Day26.
Bad Boy was reduced to a punchline, you’re right, and that’s unfortunate. But before Weezy resurrected Cash Money by starting Young Money, it was primarily known as the place where the label head screwed over the producer who crafted their sound and allowed kids to get hooked on dope while they were robbed for everything but their gold teeth.
That’s just music, though. Do you really want to compare these guys’ side hustles? Puff's worth around $700 million. Dude made $60 million last year primarily off of non-music businesses. While Birdman, the CEO of arguably the hottest label right now, pulled in only $24 million. And that's including all the money he didn't pay out to Drake and Wayne.
CHARITY: Drake just sold more than 500,000 copies of a If You're Reading This It's Too Late in its first week out. A fucking mixtape, fam! Drake, Nicki, and Weezy are all among the last few rappers who can reliably drive contemporary hip-hop to the top of Billboard and Soundscan. Birdman is on that Forbes list along with three of his signees: Drake ($33 million earnings in 2014), Wayne ($23 million), and Nicki ($14 million). Whereas Puffy is on the list alone.
At Cash Money’s low-point, the label was a hotbed of financial dispute, and Baby was a sort of derelict landlord, for sure. Still nothing compares to Bad Boy’s low-point, at which Puffy gave us Yung Joc and six flavors of one-star vodka. Biggie ain’t die for this empire of shucking and shaking through Macy’s commercials.
Let’s not pretend that Bad Boy’s nadir was exclusively 2003. I say all this as a fan who severely fucks with Carl Thomas’ debut album and The Saga Continues compilations, which dropped in 2000 and 2001, respectively. It’s all the false starts and artist disappearances of the past decade-plus—from 2003 to present—that have inspired Bad Boy’s reputation as an artists’ graveyard. Conditionally, Puffy introduced us to Jeezy. Indisputably, Puffy had Carl Thomas murdered and buried in Siberia. Allegedly. The man ruins careers. He squanders potential. He flushes art down the tax bracket. (Notable exception being G-Dep, who turned himself into the feds.) Baby may well be wrecking his descendants' finances; meanwhile Puffy extorted three boy bands and a girl group to far less lucrative effect.
“[Puffy] signed Janelle Monae and agreed to let her do her thing,” and how’s that working out for the homegirl so far?
DAMIEN: First, let me qualify the Janelle Monae statement. In 2010, she told Pitchfork that Diddy, after seeing her and her band at a show in Atlanta, told her that he was “not trying to be involved creatively,” that he just wanted “to know what's going on in the underground." And while Monae hasn’t had the type of success I thought she would—-none of her albums have moved over 200,000 units—she’s created a small but impressive, if idiosyncratic, body work that is unlike anything else in the marketplace. She’s toured with Prince, notched six Grammy nominations, and an endorsement deal with Sonos. So, to answer your question, it’s been working out pretty well so far.
These days, all Birdman seems concerned with is the amorphous Rich Gang group which, I guess, is him, Young Thug, and Rich Homie Quan—two dudes who aren’t even signed to Cash Money. Still, Birdman managing to get the two of them under his wing is impressive. Tha Tour Part 1 was one of the best releases of 2014.
But remember what happened when Puff took a little rapper from Miami under his wing back in 2010 to create the equally nebulous Bugatti Boyz? Rick Ross made “B.M.F.,” a song that ran rap for damn near two years, and the best album of his career, Teflon Don.
That’s what Puffy does. He’s been able to fashion seamless visions for the artists under his purview. Remember: "I was Murda, P. Diddy named me Pretty/Did it for the money, now can you get with me?" That marketing plan was him. Granted, sometimes the artist don’t fully agree with the vision, but that’s another story altogether. But when he’s on, he’s unfuckwithable. When Jay Z needed some flash to follow up his slept on debut, he called Diddy and his team of Hitmen. Sure, they provided the much maligned “I Know What Girls Like” and “Always Be My Sunshine,” but they also laced him with “Lucky Me,” “Where I’m From,” and “You Must Love Me.” Hov called on him a second time, 10 years later, to handle the lion’s share of American Gangster. No one calls Birdman when they’re struggling to strike artistic gold.
CHARITY: Tha Tour Part 1 was the very best release of 2014. Don’t get it twisted.
Baby groomed Wayne. Whatever credit is due to Wayne for scouting Drake and Nicki (and Tyga, welp), residual credit is due to Baby for the now hotly disputed contract that started it all. If not for Birdman, would Young Money and Weezy have had the credibility to lure Drake away from Jay Z’s clutches in the first place? If not for Birdman, would Cash Money have given Thugger and Quan a platform to appropriate and ultimately outshine Wayne? Do people really think that three successful generations of innovative rap music, the best of its respective eras, is all mirages and luck?
Sure, I’ll concede that Puffy was more active and instrumental in scouting, say, Ma$e than Baby was in “discovering” Drake. As a label overall, however, Cash Money has fired far fewer inexplicable duds than Bad Boy Records, that prestigious home of Gorilla Zoe, Day26, and Cherri Dennis. Cash Money signing Limp Bizkit is somehow less perplexing than Puffy’s attempt to make Cassie happen.
DAMIEN: I’ll concede that without Baby’s grooming, Wayne wouldn’t have been in the position to sign two of pop music’s brightest stars. But while Bad Boy at one point fired off a full clip of duds, Cash Money currently has an entire roster of artists who will, and should, never find their CDs on a Best Buy rack. What’s the end game for Gudda Gudda or Lil Twist? You think Birdman gives a fuck about what happens to Jay Sean? Or Paris Hilton? Or Jae Millz? Or Kevin Rudolf?
However, if we’re talking about legacies, let’s delve into what these two men have done outside of the studio. Since founding Bad Boy Records in 1993, Puff has gone on to start a clothing brand, a full-service marketing company, and a television station. He turned a struggling vodka brand into the No. 2 premium vodka brand in the world and partnered with Marky Mark and the former president of Fiji Water on a water brand. He produced and starred in a made-for-TV remake of A Raisin in the Sun. He even won an Oscar for producing the documentary Undefeated. Also, for whatever it’s worth, Diddy has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Birdman does not.
CHARITY: You're right. Late-stage Puffy gave us that unfortunate ABC remake of A Raisin in the Sun, and Notorious. I rest my case.
DAMIEN: I'll take those over anything published by Cash Money Content.