Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cash 4 Gold: A decade later, the Hot Boys have appreciated in value.

The Way We Were: Hot Boys grace The Source Magazine cover (Oct. '99)

by Thomas Matich

Lil Wayne will be releasing his debut rock album, Rebirth, in April. Judging from the awful, cringe inducing first single, "Prom Queen," it will be more Limp Bizkit than TV On The Radio. Even though he can barely strum a guitar, I guess we can cut Weezy some slack because he's come a long way in ten years; from being the third best rapper in the Hot Boys to a bona fide pop star who is getting interviewed by Katie Couric for a Grammy special (he lead the pack in nominations, as his Tha Carter III was up for 8 including Best Album, but lost to Robert Plant & Alison Krauss).

It's mind boggling how many in the media (and now award shows!) have crowned him the greatest rapper alive (a title Weezy first bestowed upon himself). I was very unkind to Wayne's album in my review, but that's only because I know his history. Wayne's always been a borderline weak rapper that has his moments. Nothing special, a guilty pleasure, far from great, but he can write a tight song and even make an enjoyable album. Despite what the bandwagon jumpers claim, Weezy isn't making music as good as he and his Hot Boy brethren made ten years ago.

And that music from a decade ago joins the class of hip-hop's new classics...

The Cash Money saga is as electrifying and mysterious as a mini-series...

Now, a gay kid digging a rap group named Hot Boys seems like asking for trouble. But when the Cash Money Records super group consisting of Juvenile, B.G., Lil Wayne and Turk exploded onto the national scene in the late '90s, I was still in middle school and going through puberty. So all this irony doesn't really manifest itself till the present day.

I always assumed I gravitated towards hip-hop during my adolescence due to socioeconomics, hormones and having plenty of black friends. Plus, one can't get any more action packed and hyper-masculine than gangster rap. By the time the Hot Boys blew up, I was a backpacking, Ecko-wearing East Coast elitist - bumping Nas, Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, Black Star, Boot Camp, The Roots, Jay-Z, Biggie, Gang Starr, etc. in my Walkman at the back of the school bus.

When these modern classics from Cash Money first hit the record store shelves, I mocked their elementary Rolex raps and gaudy, jewel encrusted Pen 'N Pixel album covers. But you couldn't escape Cash Money at that time, as they were plastered all over Rap City: The Bassment, The Source Magazine and the local urban FM dials. So aside from breaking it down to "Back That Azz Up" at the school dance, I wasn't engaging in deep listening sessions with Cash Money LPs.

But in the summer of 2002, when Weezy took a shot at Juvenile (at that time, Juve left the label due to financial disagreements), by naming his latest album 500 Degreez (in reference to Juvenile's breakout 400 Degreez) my palette had assumed an acquired taste and I found myself loving Cash Money. Perhaps it was adaptation to the climate, as by my senior year of high school, southern rap artists like Outkast, Nelly, Ludacris and Lil' Jon were dominating the airwaves. As I began exploring the mammoth discography of the Magnolia projects legends, I was hooked like the crack addicts they rapped about serving rocks to, as I blared booming Mannie Fresh beats in my car and bobbed my head as these gold toothed thugs blistered the mic with Ghetto-CNN coverage.

It's hard to talk about Cash Money without discussing No Limit Records. Both left legacies that reach far beyond the bayou, with Master P elevating entrepreneurial opportunities in rap to ridiculous levels, slapping his likeness on anything from sneakers, sitcoms and dolls. But the new millennium has been unkind to Percy Miller and his battalion of No Limit Soldiers, as the only viable artist for the last several years was his kiddie rapper son, Romeo. Cash Money, however, is steaming full ahead into 2010 and beyond with Weezy - despite the fact that the other three Hot Boys jumped ship along with in-house production whiz Mannie Fresh (all due to complaints over compensation).

Master P (TRU) - "I'm Bout it, Bout it"

Both labels initially operated on shoe-string budgets and kept expenses low, flooding the market with product. At their height, No Limit was practically releasing a CD every week as it wasn't so much the artist's name or their music that was the selling point, but the label's logo. Miller tried to branch the brand name out too broad (even signing Snoop Dogg at one point) and the quality of music went kaput and eventually fans stopped shelling out. Cash Money seemed to finesse the formula: 4 rappers, one producer and one Puff Daddy (Bryan "Baby" Williams).

Hailing from "Chopper City," a nickname given to the once murder capital New Orleans, as "chopper" is slang for an AK-47, there's always a concrete commando tone to the Hot Boys. Apartheid mirroring images of skinny, tattooed black kids lugging semi-automatics around while riding around in Hummers, fully prepared to coldly blast off a clip if the deal goes wrong.

Some of the stark references to bloodshed (an album named Guerilla Warfare) seem polarizing in today's climate of exorbitant military defense spending and an unpopular, gruesome war overseas. But in the post-Desert Storm and hyper-materialistic, consumer powered pre-9/11 era, the aesthetic of Juvenile clad in camouflage while rapping about Bentleys, barrels, bitches and billions encapsulates the state of mind of bloated baby boomers and the world they created.

Juvenile - "Solja Rag"

It's funny to think that 1999 was ten years ago. Times sure were different. The Clinton administration was still running the country and the economy was fantastic. Rap albums were selling like hot cakes as going Platinum was the equivalent of selling a couple hundred thousand units in today's bleak recording industry (as Napster emerged, people were shelling out $18 for the new Blink 182 ). As technology grew exponentially and people lived lavishly beyond their means, there was the emergence of "bling bling" and "y2k" scares and it was Cash Money's flashy odes to riches over techno blips that perfectly captured the era.

While the earlier part of the decade saw The Geto Boys and Scarface put Houston, Texas on the map and Luther Campbell's 2 Live Crew highlighted Miami Bass, southern rap's successes came in small, concentrated pockets (an Outkast here, a Three 6 Mafia there). Riding the wave of Master P and his No Limit Soldiers that trail blazed the path for Southern Rap's mainstream exposure, Cash Money Records became a dominant force seemingly over night.

But it was really an independent rumble that began in the early '90s when Cash Money founders and brothers Bryan "Baby" Williams and Ronald "Slim" Williams started circulating their tapes through mom and pop outlets in the south. The roster initially included acts like Kilo-G and U.N.L.V., but by 1995, the rotation brought in fresh blood with True Story, the debut album by The B.G'z (a 14 year-old B.G. and 12 year-old Lil Wayne).

But these kiddie rappers weren't sweet talking the teenyboppers like Lil' Bow Wow or wearing their clothing backwards like Kris Kross. Nope, these were hardened young thugs going through puberty, as B.G. (a heroin addict by age 14) raps "learned about crack cocaine/ now you know it's on bitch... still got that fucking glock, hollow tips for that ass/ young dope dealer/ stacking motherfucking cash" on "Hood Took Me Under." Aside from Rugrat ruffian raps, the album features disses towards regional rival Big Boy Records and Mystikal, of "Shake That Ass" fame, all woven together by the low-budget drum machine magic of Mannie Fresh.

The B.G.'z - "Thrill Bg"

Prior to Cash Money inking a 30 million dollar distribution deal with Universal Records (which saw them cleverly retaining their rights to the master recordings), the label's discography picked up tremendous steam in '97, with three releases from B.G., Juvenile joining the label to release his second album, Solja Rags and the first Hot Boys album, Get It How U Live!! The material meshes together similar to Wu-Tang's classic catalog, with Mannie Fresh's lava bubbling 808 loops stirring the sizzling gumbo that come from the four different Louisiana tongues. B.G.'s rippled, throat-y flow combines raw storytelling and black humor, all with a gold teethed grin. Juve flexes an "old man strength" with his grimy, gun-toting and greedy verse. Weezy and Turk are hungry, vowing for stardom, ripe with firepower and action-packed punchlines.

Hot Boys - "Get It Hot U Live!!"

Weaving shadowy tales of crime and intrigue from inside Magnolia Projects to mirror some sort of gothic, smoky gangsta Robert Stack voice-over from Unsolved Mysteries, these earlier album cuts are far more compelling than the club aimed chart toppers like "Bling Bling" and "Back That Azz Up" that would make Cash Money a household name.

Juvenile was a FUBU draped unknown when his sophomore Cash Money set, 400 Degreez, hit with the flash of a comet in '98. Listening to this album some eleven years later, it has stood the test of time, with sonic synthesizers that sliver and shake the speakers and brolic boasts of hood riches, rugged project soap operas and a distinct dialect (drawls of declaring his homeys "whodi"). Juve was the star player for Cash Money, and at his best on 2Pac inspired Death Row grooves such as "Gone Ride With Me," his melodic flow burns slow like a Black & Mild, he's the cool uncle that's seen some shit and has plenty of stories to tell.

Posse cuts like "U.T.P." served as an introduction of the Hot Boys to mainstream America, cold steel drive-by soundtracks that country fried the jheri-curled N.W.A. noir. Of course, it was the booming pinball blipping "Ha" that put Cash Money on heavy rotation on urban radio. Introducing a new lexicon, every bar Juve rapped was a memorable, silly quote: "You done switched from Nike to Reebok ha/ you twinkle your gold every time you leave your house ha..."

Juvenile - "Ha"

The crossover success of Juve's next single, "Back That Azz Up," with it's crocodile chomping cello and stripper pole bounce would simultaneously make fans out of the TRL and titty bar crowd. Weezy's troll like delivery of "After you back it up and stop/ then drop, drop, drop, drop it like it's hot" became a catchphrase that has since instructed millions of sluts in clubs across the country to dry hump their bootys all over penises and it even helped Snoop Dogg breathe new life into his rap career when he made a No. 1 single out of the slang in 2004.

Watching Dwayne Carter accept a Grammy award for Best Rap Album makes me feel old. Of course the panel snubbed more deserving MCs such as Nas and Lupe Fiasco but what’s even more head scratching is that if The Carter III is regarded as the pinnacle of hip-hop releases in the modern age, than Guerrilla Warfare is a masterpiece of Citizen Kane, Casablanca or The Godfather proportions. The production is still evergreen fresh in 2009 and the concepts are timeless.

"I Need A Hot Girl," all be it a dumb rump shaker with hilarious hyperbole, can still set a club on fire. The samba flavored storytelling on "Tuesday & Thursday," serving as a cautionary tale to young thugs hanging on the corner in that the police swarm with drug raids on those days, hits the with spirit of the The Chronic or Cuban Linx: "certain days lil' B Geezy hit the block and hang/ two days out the week I lay low cuz the people gon' swang/ I ain't bout getting hacked, yo that ain't my thang/ police riding my back, scopin out my ring."

Following the blueprint of Get It How U Live!!, Warfare sizzles with crackling collaborations among the 4 members and The Big Tymers (Mannie Fresh and Baby) along with a solo cut for each Hot Boy to allow their molten mandibles to erupt and spray like a "chopper." B.G. evoked the hysteria of fire engines and sirens, Juve took his bounce to a Space Jam plateau and Turk's swagger was sleeker than Miami Vice. On "Clear tha Set," Weezy's rasta flow over the foggy, spooky Mannie Fresh's graffitied wall of Ouija board sound is superior to the nail to the chalkboard delivery he's currently practicing via the vocoder.

Hot Boys - "Clear tha Set"

The golden egg of Cash Money's treasure chest was the production work of Mannie Fresh. In terms of sheer work ethic and output, providing the beats for every Cash Money album highlights his versatility. While Fresh did create a signature sound, he blended in with each individual Hot Boy to mold an animated audio environment that was the most creative set design for their street cinema. The mambo fiesta of Juve's "Follow Me Now" captures his tropical flavor; the bourbon soaked growl of a rapper who use to catch gators.

On the title track to Weezy's debut, The Block Is Hot, Fresh orchestrates a ghetto symphony that sounds like it's appropriately booming from the bedroom of a Grand Theft Auto playing teenager. Turk's "It's In Me," is a marvelous Matrix inspired cosmic masterpiece, with enough F/X on the synthesizers to match the liquid metal flow.

"I feel like Fresh is the best with beats," B.G. raps on Guerrilla's "I Feel." It might be true. Fresh's soundscapes on Guerrilla Warfare and B.G.'s Chopper City in The Ghetto are simply spectacular. From the mammoth organs and garbage can stomping 808 drums of "Boys at War" to the rapid machine gun fire of "We on Fire," Fresh flame broils the cornerstone classic clan cuts the RZA cooked up.

The backdrops on B.G.'s album combined the classy Goodfella mafioso mystique with laser zappers and android robotics that give his southern drawl a sonic clap. Perhaps the crown jewel of Fresh's repertoire is "Niggaz in Trouble," which makes a strong case for why he's just as futuristic as Timbaland and as gutter as DJ Premier. With drums that crash harder than two Semi-trucks in a Terminator shoot-out and an 8-bit loop that precursors Crystal Castles or even could have been a Deastro instrumental, Fresh's stellar arrangements are just as strong today.

B.G. feat. Juvenile & Lil Wayne - "Niggaz in Trouble"

As the calendars rolled into the year 2000, Cash Money was on top of the world, milking a formula that resulted in millions of album sales and chart-topping success. They made one of those ridiculous straight to video hood movies, Baller Blockin'. Their music videos were bloated with excess: beautiful women, exotic cars, champagne, glittery chains and mansions. They were the gangster's answer to a boy band.

Cash Money Millionaires perform "Bling Bling" in 2000.

But all dynasties must come crumbling down. For a label that once referred to themselves as "Millionaires," there's humorous irony in Juvenile, B.G., Turk and Mannie Fresh parting ways with CEO Bryan "Birdman" Williams over unpaid royalties. Juve jumped ship in 2001 after the release of the sub par Project English and then returned for '03's Juve the Great (which saw him earn a number one single with "Slow Motion" featuring the slain Soulja Slim) and then leave again. By 2003, B.G. formed Chopper City Records under the independent label Koch. Mannie Fresh left in 2005 and signed to Def Jam South. Turk was recording on Koch until he was arrested for first degree attempted murder in 2004 as he is currently serving a 12-year sentence.

Dwayne Carter continued to make music with "Baby." He exchanged disses with his former Hot Boy peers. On 500 Degreez and The Carter (2004), Weezy grew both artistically as he stepped up his lyrical prowess and songwriting. His stream of now infamous mixtapes and guest appearances began to take form in 2005 with the release of Tha Carter II, which was his first album to feature no production from Mannie Fresh, instead embracing a more Jay-Z influenced East Coast sound on cuts such as "Hustler Musik." By the release of Tha Carter III, Wayne was working with a different producer for each 16 songs. It shows, as there was a complete lack of direction as the album itself felt like one of his mixtapes, and a very cheesy one at that.

Although much hubbub has been made about Weezy's wordplay, none of his current catalog has the fun spirit of tracks like the beaming "Loud Pipes" from his debut, where he raps with the whizzing speed of Bone Thugs: "Plus a blue and black Ferrari/ With Nintendo and Atari/ Man I swear the car is awesome/ Vroom! sorry we lost em/I'm back, I pull up smellin' like dime sacks and cognac." His lyrics were just as goofy back then, but at least his voice doesn't sound like E.T. and he wasn't following trends like emulating T-Pain's auto tune.

The music Cash Money made from '97 to '00 provides the template for many of the rappers coming out of south (Young Jeezy) and the mid-west (Detroit's own Stretch Money) today. But lately, Weezy is crossing into LL Cool J territory by continuing to hop on what's hot instead of innovating. Juvenile and B.G. are currently stagnant, with their last projects being forgettable boilerplate. Meanwhile, whispers of a Hot Boy reunion have been circulating for the past couple years.

The 2003 "return" of the Hot Boys.

The gossip surrounding Cash Money could spawn a daytime Soap Opera. There's the gay rumors about the "father-son" relationship between Weezy and the "Birdman," which has been fueled by the scandalous photo of them kissing and homoerotic magazine shoots like these don't help either. There was the fishy release of Let 'Em Burn in 2003, the third Hot Boys album which featured tracks recorded by the defunct group from '98-'00. All references to dates were edited out, the album artwork was tinkered with and Wayne re-recorded several of his verses.

Long time rumors have said that "The Birdman" is deeply involved in the New Orleans drug trade and that Cash Money might be a nothing more than a front similar to Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family. Personally, I have friends in New Orleans who say it's true to some degree. And is it really that shocking? Organized crime has always played a role in the entertainment world, from Frank Sinatra's mafia connections to Eazy-E starting Ruthless with drug money.

What is startling however, is the recent rash of violence, drug troubles and intrigue surrounding the Cash Money Millionaires. It's been speculated that B.G. relocated to the Detroit area specifically to get away from Baby. In November of '07, Mannie Fresh's sister was murdered and his two children were tied up inside the home. In February of 2008, Juvenile's baby mother and four-year-old daughter were shot and killed. And then there's been Wayne's high-profile drug abuse and arrests for cocaine, marijuana and MDMA possession.

This would be purely for the sake of debate, but Cash Money rescued the Hot Boys from the projects and gave them lucrative recording careers - as long as they remained on the label and played their role. All of them have continued to have run-ins with drugs and violence. Could it be that Bryan "Baby" Williams "owns" these guys for life? Perhaps Lil Wayne is in too deep to leave the label?

Whatever the truth may be, it's a shame these guys aren't still making music together because it's much better than the current sum of their parts. As of last year, Weezy, B.G. and Juve have confirmed a reunion and a new song was leaked to the internet. It's not as hot as their old stuff, but I'm sure these guys can set off more fires once they warm up. //DC//

Hot Boys - Ya Heard Me (2008)

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