Inside the Messy Divorce of Lil Wayne & Cash Money Records

Could the exit of the label’s flagship artist mean the end of its 20-year reign?

Lil Wayne joined Cash Money Records at the age of nine, in 1991. Now, over two decades later, as the label’s most prolific, flagship artist — eleven studio albums, one remix LP, two EPs, nineteen mixtapes, one-hundred ninety-two singles, thirteen promotional singles and one-hundred thirty-six music videos at last count — Weezy wants out.

On January 28, 2015, Wayne sued the label and its owners, brothers Ronald “Slim” Williams and Bryan “Birdman” Williams, for $51 million, citing an array of alleged misappropriation, including withholding financial documents, nonpayment for signing Drake to their joint Young Money Entertainment imprint, and reneging on $8 million of a $10 million advance payment for his album Tha Carter V.

Lil Wayne: “The most loyal person I know on earth”

The lawsuit followed several public incidents of rebellion. In December, the rapper vented about Birdman (pka Baby) and company holding Tha Carter V hostage. “To all my fans, I want u to know that my album won’t and hasn’t been released bekuz Baby & Cash Money Rec. refuse to release it,” he tweeted.

Wayne described himself as a “prisoner” and wrote, “I want off this label and nothing to do with these people but unfortunately it ain’t that easy.” The aptly titled Sorry 4 The Wait 2 mixtape followed, on which the rapper put his frustration in rhyme: “I’m sorry for the wait… Tha Carter gon’ be late so I cooked up a tape… The garden’s full of snakes so I had to escape.” In March 2015, Wayne apparently dissed Birdman in a freestyle, stating, “I say hit em up to my daddy, bitch ass.

In a genre that extols the virtue of loyalty, Lil Wayne’s estrangement from the crew he’s been so crucially tied to — as an artist and as a vital talent scout — is almost unfathomable. But Wayne’s “Free Weezy” crusade may be a sign that beyond the bling, ostentatiousness and $300 million valuation, Cash Money’s two decades of litigation and compromised relationships are catching up to it.

The Hot Boys: Birdman, Turk, Juvenile, Lil Wayne, Mannie Fresh, B.G. in 1999 at the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas

Trials and Tribulations

Lil Wayne’s grievance is just one in a proverbial million for Cash Money, which has fielded numerous lawsuits from artists, producers and others over unpaid royalties and nonpayment. The litigious ethos hails back to the label’s beginnings.

In 1998, Wendy Day, the founder of the Rap Coalition, was an architect in Cash Money’s unprecedented distribution arrangement with Universal Music Group that’s still lauded today. The landmark multi-million dollar deal she brokered granted Cash Money, among other things, rights to its masters; an unheard-of 80 percent of the wholesale price of their albums, with Universal forking over advances on top of that; and the autonomy to leverage Universal or its own external marketing, radio and support functions. Regardless of her work, Day says that neither she nor her attorney were compensated at the time.

Day says that Slim admitted that she was “entitled to more” and then went radio silent when it was time to pay up. “They stopped returning my phone calls,” she says. “We had to sue them.” It took three years for Cash Money to settle out of court, or as Wendy tells it, leading into court. Day was contractually owed 10% of the initial $3 million advance, but settled for $150,000. “They paid me on the courthouse steps right before we went to court.”

As Cash Money grew, more lawsuits followed, including high-profile splits with marquee artists like Juvenile and B.G. In 2012, Juvenile — who helped bring Cash Money crossover success with hits like “Back That Azz Up” and “Slow Motion” — explained succinctly, “My reason [to leave Cash Money] is the same reason most artists leave their label — money.” Producer Mannie Fresh, responsible for the bulk of the label’s early beatmaking, also bounced, stating, “I left Cash Money because of money, scratch, moolah.”

Outside talent like producers Jim Jonsin and Bangladesh didn’t fare any better. After producing “A Milli,” one of Wayne’s biggest hits to date, Bangladesh sued Cash Money in 2010 over royalties. “I don’t fuck with [Lil Wayne]… and you can print that,” Bangladesh told Vibe. “Cash Money don’t pay royalties. Tha Carter III, [is] his biggest album probably because of “A Milli.” [But] you have to sue these guys so that they pay up."

Turk’s Tale

Turk is suing to void his contract

One of the remaining vestiges of Cash Money’s original roster, rapper Turk, recently filed his own lawsuit. The rapper signed to Cash Money in 1997 and delivered nine studio albums, as both a solo artist and as part of the successful Hot Boys collective with Wayne, and says he has yet to receive residuals for his work. “I didn’t get my artist royalties. I didn’t get my publishing. I didn’t get what I was supposed to get as an artist” (1997’s Get It How U Live! , 1999’s Guerrilla Warfare and 2003’s Let ‘Em Burn have sold some 1.5 million copies cumulatively). Turk is suing to void his contract and is asking for $1.3 million in damages. He has since followed up with a legal summons that compels Cash Money to respond within 21 days.

As a teenager from the Magnolia Projects in New Orleans (also the home of Cash Money), Turk saw joining the label as his ticket out of the hood. “Did I know what I signed? No I didn’t. I trusted their word that everything was what it was.” Turk’s youthful naivety and fear that he would lose his deal if he asked too many questions overshadowed his better judgment. He never had an attorney review his recording contract. “My grandmother to this day, she had told me I should of had an attorney,” he chides himself now. “I should’ve got one but me being young, being in the projects, I’m seeing all the gloss and floss. I’m not thinking of no contract. At the time, I’m thinking a contract will hold me back. I’ll miss my opportunity. That’s how we think when we young. Why do a contract when these people [Cash Money] want me and they looking out for me?”

“Young” Cash Money Records at the 1999 Source Awards

Family Ties

Turk’s implicit trust and faith is indicative of Cash Money’s insular and close-knit culture, with many young men under the watch and mentorship of the older Williams brothers. Turk says that he and his fellow artists believed that Cash Money was looking after their best interests. “We didn’t worry about the details because it was such a family environment. It was protocol. We didn’t think nothing of it.” At the time, Turk says he and the others had no clue about the monies owed to them. “We didn’t know about any publishing or artists’ royalties. I didn’t know!”

Birdman and Lil Wayne during happier times in 2000

Cash Money was a surrogate family even more for Lil Wayne. The rapper has spoken publicly about growing up in a tumultuous household and being exposed to guns, drugs and sex before puberty. After meeting Birdman at the age of nine, the two quickly forged a bond that would last decades. “From that point on, Wayne came with me anywhere I go, everywhere I went,’ Birdman says on VH1’s Behind The Music: Lil Wayne. Their familial relationship was spotlighted on 2006’s Like Father, Like Son collaboration album, which featured the musical love fest “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” and the nicknames “Birdman Jr.” and “Weezy F. Baby,” both Wayne’s favored aliases.

Melyssa Philipian, who was Wayne’s manager from 2003 to 2006, describes the closeness between her client and Birdman in business. Prior to meeting Philipian, Wayne’s career was exclusively under Birdman’s stewardship. “Baby had him under his wing. Wherever Baby traveled, he was part of his crew,” she says. Philipian herself ultimately severed ties with Wayne over compensation issues and filed legal action against Wayne, Cash Money and Universal Music Group in 2006 and 2010 for breach of contract, defamation and other allegations. She eventually dropped her suit against the labels and settled out of court with Wayne. The two have since reconciled their relationship. “I’m in a good place with Wayne right now,” she says. “I got my friend back.”

The relationship between Birdman and Wayne was manifested publicly in a 2006 photo of the two kissing. “I am the only one he kisses,” boasted Wayne on 106 & Park. The photo has sparked ongoing rumors of romantic intimacy, which Birdman dispelled in 2009. For him, the kiss was a fatherly gesture. “That’s my son… If [Lil Wayne] was right here, I’d kiss him again. I kiss my daughter, my other son.” In 2014, Turk explained to Vlad TV that the kiss was taken out of proportion; it was a normal show of affection at Cash Money. “They’re just like the mob, they kiss each other all the time.”

The photo that lit the rumor mill ablaze

The Williams brothers held a special charisma for the young men they signed. Before they were household names, Baby and Slim were hood stars, representing life and opportunity outside of the confines of the block. In Behind The Music, Mack Maine (President of Young Money Entertainment) describes the power the duo had over Wayne and the others, even as kids. “Cash Money Records was the biggest label in the city. They were like neighborhood superstars. They had all the money. They had the cars, the music, the women. They wasn’t that big yet but to us, they were big.” “He was a big brother slash Dad… Baby took on that role as father figure,” said Turk in 2014.

Bling Bling

Cash Money’s culture of braggadocio proved both intoxicating and distracting. Before Turk realized that he had signed a bum deal, he and fellow artists like Wayne and Juvenile were living the quintessential rapper rags-to-riches lifestyle; expensive cars, opulent music videos and big spending. After all, this was the crew that invented the term “Bling Bling” in 1999. He got caught up in the fervor. When he did ask for money, the rapper remembers receiving one-off payments and compensation in the form of cash or gifts. “We used to get a lot of cash,” he says. “I’m able to buy Jordans or do things I wanted to do at a young age. All labels gonna make it look good. I didn’t want to say Baby and Slim didn’t give us things. [They’d] give us gifts, so to speak.”

In retrospect, it’s incredible that Turk was satiated by something analogous to an allowance, but back in 1997, the average rapper was nowhere as plugged in nor business savvy as today. Contractual details are far more publicized by social media, blogs and news outlets and it’s not uncommon for record labels and rappers to tout their signing deals. Then there’s the free access to the plethora of information online. Simply Googling “How to negotiate music contracts” for instance, yields over 15 million search results. In 1997, ignorance was bliss for many like Turk. “My albums went gold and platinum and I didn’t know those things until I read up on it, like, ‘Damn. There’s more to signing to a record label.’ Whatever I signed for, I didn’t get it.”

Drake and Lil Wayne often show their camaraderie during live performances

Conflicts of Interest

In 2005, the advent of Wayne’s sub-label, Young Money Entertainment, ushered in a new generation of enmeshed, complex dealings in the Cash Money universe. The coziness (or conflict of interest, depending on who you ask) is well exemplified in artist manager James “Jas” Prince Jr.’s lawsuits against the label. In 2012, Jas claimed that he never got paid for introducing Drake to the artist’s management team at Aspire Music Group; and Jas sued over unpaid royalties. Jas said that he brought Drake to Aspire principal Cortez Bryant (Lil Wayne’s childhood friend and current manager) with the understanding that Bryant would sign Drake and split profits equally. The deal would also allow Jas and his father J. Prince (founder of legendary Southern record label Rap-a-Lot Records) to take the lead on business decisions.

Per the legal filing, Bryant was supposed to “use his influence to compel Lil Wayne to sign and promote Drake through Young Money Entertainment.” Jas asserts that Bryant cut him out of the deal, failed to “pay or account for Drake” and thus “put the entire Drake business in jeopardy.” Additionally, the lawsuit claims that the defendants hid behind an incestuous relationship in which Aspire and Young Money shared the same lawyer, Ron Sweeney. “We have no idea how much is owed because they are hiding behind one guy,” Jas’ lawyer James McMillan said at the time. “It’s one big shell game.”

Following his 2012 suit, Jas Prince filed new court documents against Cash Money in August 2014, demanding to see the label’s books and get what he felt owed. The legal documents feature email exchanges between Prince and Cash Money, including an email exchange from Jas to Baby titled: “I WAS BORN AT NIGHT BUT NOT LAST NIGHT WHATS UP WITH THE MONEY HOMIE.” In it, Jas questions Baby for giving him the silent treatment and feeling he’s only owed $2 million. Baby, via email, says he has no idea where this figure came from and appears to be in the dark: “I neva calculated no numbers. I have the sliest ideal whts owed or not.”

Email exchange via PACER (addresses have been hidden)

In February 2015, Jas filed new papers. According to TMZ (The filing was not publicly available at time of this story), Jas has received $2 million but he feels he deserves more. Jas could not be reached for comment but told TMZ he wants “everything that’s owed.” On February 12, his father sounded off on all parties involved in an explosive audio clip called “Courtesy Message.” “Lil Wayne is a [expletive bleep]. His manager is a drunk and his lawyer is a thief. So fuck all of them together. Disrespectful little punk,” said Prince Sr. “And to Baby and Slim, I will not allow it to stay on my track record that Cash Money took anything from me and my son. Do right by me and pay every penny due.” On an unrelated (or maybe not) note, Jas Prince’s ex-fiancé, singer Christina Milian, is now signed to Young Money and reportedly dating Lil Wayne.

Drake and Young Money

Drake figures heavily in Lil’ Wayne’s lawsuit as well. The Canadian rapper had built considerable buzz with his independent So Far Gone mixtape in 2009 and launched what was rumored to be “one of the biggest bidding wars ever” before he signed to Cash Money. Still, when it came time to find a major label home, he was already intrinsically a part of the Cash Money machine. Because of the Jas Prince connection, Drake had signed with Cortez Bryant, who was until 2009 the GM of Young Money Entertainment; and Wayne appeared on several tracks on So Far Gone. It’s likely Drake felt like he owed his mentor and manager the loyalty of signing to Universal and Cash Money.“[We were looking for] all the creative control and all the say-so over the project… the person who gave us the sweetest deal,” said Bryant to XXL.

Since the signing, Drake has been the subject of ongoing rumors of unhappiness. In 2011, the rapper denied wanting to leave Young Money and underscored his loyalty to Lil Wayne. “At the end of the day, that’s my boss. I’m his soldier. I’m cool with that. I’m good with that,” he said. “That’s the role I want to play. He put me here.” Despite the publicity around Wayne’s lawsuit, Drake has been quiet, save for his mysterious mixtape. Several news outlets and industry insiders have opined that his surprise release, If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, on February 13, was a actually an attempt to leave the label by speedily fulfilling his contractual obligations to it. This could not be substantiated by Drake’s management and for now, remains just a rumor of artistic unhappiness.

Lil Wayne charges ahead

Wayne’s Endgame

On February 19, Wayne told Rolling Stone that he and Birdman are no longer on speaking terms after the lawsuit. “I have no words,” he said. “I'm super-numb to it, to tell you the truth.” He revealed that while Tha Carter V remains in purgatory, he’s working on a free project called, appropriately, Free Weezy to be released in March.

Philipian speculates that Wayne’s decision to file now is pegged to Tha Carter V. “He’s contractually fulfilled his obligation to Universal as a solo artist. When I was there, I negotiated his contract for Tha Carter I to V. Tha Carter V was going to be his last album. He intended on retiring.” This is in line with Wayne’s own public admission in 2014. Philipian says that the combination of not receiving his $8 million recording advance and the notion of lost royalties over Young Money artists may have prompted him to seek legal recourse. “When he turned in his album and never received the budget for his album… when you turn in an album, you’re supposed to get paid. When the album comes out, you’re supposed to get paid. And when he didn’t see any royalties from Nicki and Drake, he started to open his eyes up a little bit. I think he finally saw this is a business, not family.”

Day also feels that Tha Carter V was the breaking point for Wayne. “My guess is he wanted his album to come out. It didn’t come out. He got pissed off and went to see attorneys. When he went to see attorneys, they were able to do the rough math and realized that, ‘Wow. Wayne’s been underpaid,’” she says. For critics wondering why it took so long for Wayne to realize he was underpaid, Day says that it’s not uncommon at all. “When everything’s happy, artists rarely audit their record label. It’s when they become disgruntled and when they go to see the professionals, that’s when they realize what they haven’t gotten.”

On the other hand, timing may be a coincidence. There have been industry whispers that Wayne has attempted unsuccessfully to jump ship from Cash Money in the past. Juvenile told Complex in 2012 that Wayne wanted to leave in the mid-2000s, only to balk and re-up his contract. “When Wayne was trying to leave Cash Money [in the mid 2000s], same thing. He was trying to find out how did I leave, what did I do, he wanted to see my paperwork… Wayne really got beat out of all his money and took another contract. That’s part I never understood.”

Day also remembers rumors she had heard of Wayne being courted by Warner Music Group around this time. Neither Kevin Liles (then-Executive Vice President at Warner Music Group) nor Mike Kyser, (Head of Black Music at Atlantic Records) would comment for Cuepoint. Surprisingly, Juvenile announced in March 2015 that he signed again to Cash Money, stating, “We worked it out…They cut the check.”

Cash Money and those related to the label have remained largely mum on the proceedings (likely on the advice of legal counsel). Initially, Cortez Bryant dismissed the notion of Wayne wanting to leave Cash Money to TMZ, but later, publicly supported his client by stating, “Cash Money on his back for over 10 years when he could have left and did this on his own. The most loyal person I know on earth! He don’t deserve the shit he’s going through at this point in the game.” Mack Maine also posted an image of himself and Wayne flipping the bird on social media, in what appears to be a show of solidarity.

“Lovers” Birdman and Young Thug

The Future: Don’t Sleep on Birdman

One man that has been remarkably silent is Birdman. So the question remains: If it’s true Cash Money keeps screwing their artists, why do they do it? Why do they risk the relationships with artists whose careers they’ve spent years building? Because they can.

Despite public perception and a history of litigation, Cash Money is still revered as one of rap’s most successful and longstanding brands. As long as there are hungry artists looking for legitimacy, a foot in the proverbial door, Cash Money’s cosign will trump its reputation for greed. Juvenile is an excellent case in point. After battling Cash Money over money and publicly haranguing its business practices, the veteran says he has no qualms about re-signing.

Birdman’s tenure of success and business acumen can’t be denied. “I think people are sleeping on Baby. Dude’s been around for 10 plus years as a mogul, when other people have become irrelevant,” Vanessa Satten, Editor-in-Chief of XXL, says. “Even if he’s not talking, I’m sure he’s up to something. I’m sure he has some sort of plan.” It’s true that the Cash Money honcho has continually expanded his empire and influence. Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Forbes Senior Editor and author of the Jay Z biography Empire State of Mind, delved deep into Cash Money’s business for its annual list of richest rappers. He points to Birdman’s diversification into areas like book publishing and film as means for the fourth richest man in rap to continue his dominance.

In music, Birdman is clearly thinking beyond Young Money in positioning his company for a new generation. Whether he’s signing teen pop heartthrob Austin Mahone or inducting buzzy rap upstarts Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan into his Rich Gang collective, Birdman continually rebrands Cash Money and stays relevant. “We signed forever,” Young Thug told MTV News of his Cash Money affiliation in 2014. “It’s a lifetime warranty, you dig? It’s in and out. Blood in, blood out.”

Young Thug appears to be Birdman’s most ardent soldier now. Last year, Thug posted a video to Instagram, in which he referred to Birdman as his “lover” and in another photo, he shared, “Me and Stunna man aka @birdman5star lookin like a million !!!! #KissinEachOtherLove !!” The overt physical shout-outs are very reminiscent of the infamous 2006 Wayne-Birdman photo. Further, when Quan announced that he wanted out of Rich Gang in February, it was Thug who spoke out against him, calling him “Bitch Homie Quan” (He later denied having issues with Quan).

It’s this perennial loyalty and the lure of becoming the next Cash Money superstar that ultimately keeps the label on top. “The music industry is a gamble. If given that opportunity, most artists would take the chance regardless,” says hip-hop journalist Julia Beverly. Lessons of the past pale in comparison to the fear of missing out on a big break. “Fear is a powerful motivator and the thought of missing out on their big break would push them to take that chance.”

Birdman, Mack Maine, Cortez Bryant, Mannie Fresh, Monte Lipman (Chairman and CEO of Universal Republic Records) and legal counsel for both Cash Money and Lil Wayne were contacted and would not comment on this story.

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Follow Sowmya Krishnamurthy on Twitter @SowmyaK.
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