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Cash Money's Mixed Messages 

The New Orleans-based empire of Cash Money Records had reason to be proud last week. The Cash Money posse headed to New York to promote Birdman, a new CD by label co-founder Bryan "Baby" Williams, at the same time that the compilation Cash Money Records Platinum Hits Volume One hit record stores. Both CDs promise to continue the trend of platinum-certified releases from Cash Money; in fact, every song on the Platinum Hits collection is culled from eight acts from the Cash Money roster that scored albums selling more than a million copies.

Perhaps more importantly, Monday, Nov. 25, marked the fourth annual Cash Money Turkey Giveaway, where label brass and artists gathered at A.L. Davis Park to hand out 2,000 holiday dinners, complete with 25-lb. turkeys, green beans, cranberry sauce, cake mix, dinner rolls and soft drinks. Cash Money producer Mannie Fresh issued the statement, "Kids shouldn't go hungry on Thanksgiving, not in America. Maybe someday the kids we help today will pay the love forward, and help out another generation of kids."

The Cash Money Turkey Giveaway also coincided with the announcement of the formation of "Cash Money Kids," an organization designed to reward local students for academic achievement with VIP tickets to New Orleans Hornets' games. Those two gestures are proof that brothers and label co-founders Ronald and Bryan Williams haven't forgotten their roots, despite becoming a powerhouse enterprise that has flown high since signing a $30 million national distribution deal with Universal Music Group in 1998.

The release of Cash Money Records Platinum Hits Volume One is as good a reason as any to assess the label's artistic and cultural impact to date. And there are some noteworthy achievements, ranging from the clever wordplay of Juvenile, whose "Back That Azz Up" (despite its blatant misogyny) became a local and national catchphrase, and the innovative production of Fresh, whose diverse beats drive the label's sound. (No less a visionary than New Orleans jazz legend and composer Harold Battiste praised Fresh's vision and creative chops in a 2001 Gambit Weekly interview.)

But listening to the lyrics of some of Cash Money's biggest hits raises larger, more difficult questions about the label's influence. Consider these song lyrics on Cash Money Records Platinum Hits Volume One:

From Juvenile's "Ha": "You see me with that gun, you better run for it ..."

From Big Tymers' "Big Ballin'": "Fight who you gotta fight/

Shoot who you gotta shoot/ Boot who you gotta boot/ Do what you gotta do ..."

And most graphically, from Turk's "It's In Me": "Quick to spill ya blood, I'm real I ain't fake/Leave ya ass a murder scene in the middle of yellow tape/Put a hole in your thinkin' cap, you won't be thinkin' no more/Nigga you'll be put to nap."

The cold-blooded attitude and images of gangsta rap are a staple of Cash Money's productions. Is it street poetry rooted in real-life experience, creative license, or simply offensive? Whatever your opinion, it's freedom of speech protected and guaranteed by the First Amendment, as it should be. The United States justice system has previously ruled that the darker lyrics of Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne can't be held directly responsible for teenagers' suicides, and Eminem recently posing as Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't a call to arms. Similarly, there's no direct link to Cash Money's songs and the actions of its consumers.

There's no denying, however, that Cash Money Records has a large and devoted local following. Local landmarks and culture are frequently cited in Cash Money songs, including LaSalle Street, the Magnolia and St. Bernard housing projects, Uptown second lines, and the "17th Ward to the 3rd Ward."

That makes it hard to listen to some of Cash Money's more chilling rhymes in the current context of the alarming increase in New Orleans' murder rate, which is approaching the scary statistics of 1994, the deadliest year in the city's history. On the night of Nov. 22 alone, five men were shot to death in separate incidents. One of the victims was a 15-year-old boy.

As 2003 approaches, Cash Money Records is at a crossroads of sorts. Cash Money mainstays such as Juvenile and B.G. have left the label, and Cash Money now has a revamped talent roster. Business as usual might be the future. But the Williams brothers have shown their heart and love for New Orleans through their Thanksgiving giveaways and new Hornets' ticket program -- why can't those positive messages translate into future Cash Money lyrics? With all their formidable rapping, production, and business skills, imagine the Williams masterminding an album promoting non-violence, education and respect for women. Cash Money Records' brass already has enough fame and wealth to last multiple lifetimes; using their economic engine as an engine for positive social change could be a priceless legacy.

click to enlarge A new compilation of Cash Money Records' biggest songs is a source of both pride and troubling lyrics.
  • A new compilation of Cash Money Records' biggest songs is a source of both pride and troubling lyrics.
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