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For the Love of Money

Lil Wayne does not want to live like common people.
photo: Jonathan Mannion

Two words say almost everything you need to know about Cash Money, the New Orleans label that has pretty much ruled rap in 1999: Mannie Fresh. Not just because he's the producer who programs, engineers, and plays nearly every instrument on records by the Cash Money roster (Juvenile, B.G., Big Tymers, Hot Boys, and Lil Wayne). But also because the surname Fresh is like a flashback to the old skool era. "RZA said that in the South, we was still livin' like it's 1985," Juvenile told Rolling Stone. "At first I was pissed off, but you know what? In a way, it's kinda true."

Fresh's sound returns to that point in the mid '80s just before rap was totally transformed by digital technology, and imagines a sort of "What if . . . ?" alternative future where drum machines and synths, rather than looped breakbeats and sampled licks, remained hip-hop's building blocks. This alternative future is actually what transpired as reality throughout much of the South. The brittle rigor of "Planet Rock" electro, traded in by New York rap producers in favor of sampler-assisted retro-funk fluency, survived and thrived as Miami Bass and New Orleans Bounce—party-oriented styles organized around 808 bass-booms, call-and-response chants, and crisp'n'dry programmed beats.

Like its Crescent City rival No Limit, Cash Money has gone from local hero status to nationwide dominion by merging bounce- influenced rhythms with gangsta rap. The bounce element is what gives Fresh's drum programming its hop, skip, and bump—those rat-a-tat-tat snare rolls and double-time/triple-time hi-hats that feel simultaneously frisky and martial. He's effectively using drum machines to build his own brand-new breakbeats, rather than depleting further the exhausted seam of archival '70s funk. But although he doesn't sample, Fresh is into surreptitious plagiarism, ripping off everything from S.O.S. Band rhythm patterns to lite-classical's pantheon of schlock. I wouldn't be surprised if Fresh's tinny toy-synth renditions of overfamiliar melodies are inspired by cell phones that offer a select-your-favorite-ringing-sound range of Mozart/ Chopin/ Tchaikovsky-type themes.

Alongside Fresh's sly steals and his manifest drum-machine virtuosity, there's another factor that gives Cash Money records their edge over No Limit's. At first I thought I was hallucinating the reverb-smudged Balearic house piano in Juvenile's "Spittin Game," the brief burst of Roland 303 acid house bass-wibble in Lil Wayne's "Loud Pipes." But no, it turns out that Fresh used to work with legendary Chicago house producer Steve "Silk" Hurley. Which helps explain the eerie technoid flavor of Juvenile's "Ha" and B.G.'s "Dog Ass," and the spectral echoes elsewhere of early Todd Terry, Belgian hardcore, Sheffield bleep'n'bass, hip-house, Uberzone. (In fact, a bizarre, unacknowledged convergence took place between rave and hip-hop/r&b this year, audible in the snaky techno-pulse writhing inside Ja Rule's "Holla Holla," in the angular stab-riffs driving Ginuwine's "What's So Different" and Destiny's Child's "Bugaboo.")

From the tinkling timbales in"HighBeamin'" to the jungle-at-midtempo mashed snares of "Remember Me," the rhythm programming on Lil Wayne's debut is like a drum choir—precise yet joyous, a symphony of syncopation. Overall,Tha Block is Fresh's most accomplished and intricate production so far, so riddled with stereopanning subtleties and sonic witticisms it verges on "headphone bounce." Alongside the mock-classical flourishes (pseudo-string ostinatos, synthi-horn fanfare, harpsichord), there'sa pervasive jazz-lite flavor, courtesy of bassist Funky Fingers and Mannie Fresh's own guitar (at times redolent of the echoplexed ripple of folkadelic minstrel John Martyn, or the plangent lacework doilies spun by ECM jazzbos Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie). This relaxed, jazzual vibe overlaying the fierce beats reminds me of when jungle tried to go all "musical" and "intelligent." It exudes a sort of cheap expensiveness, a nouveau riche sheen. And in this context, that's perfect, because Cash Money is—no duh!—all about the Benjamins, baby.

Mercenary and aesthetic impulses have never been at odds in black pop; you can't map white bohemian complexes about materialism onto breadhead seers and business-savvyanarcho-surrealist shamans like Lee Perry and George Clinton. Indeed, "getting paid" has a sort of liberating charge in itself, given the history of black artists being shortchanged and swindled by the white music biz. Which is why it's not just Cash Money founders Ron and Brian Williams, plus friends and family, who are buzzed by the label's $30 million distribution deal with Universal—a pact that allows Cash Money to retain ownership of its recordings.

Still and all, there's something faintly disheartening about the fact that the Cash Money worldview is fundamentally no different from Schoolly D back in 1986. The terminology goes through subtle inflections (gangsta->playa->thug->baller)buttheunderlyingarchetypeabides: Stagger Lee, the sexy sociopath who recognizes no limits to desire. Cash Money have popularized their own term, or at least one filched from a group of "gangsta-ass, killin'-ass niggaz" attending their shows: the "hot boy." Gold-mouthed, FUBU-clad, ice-wristed, camouflage bandanna-sporting, untamed. One measure of the term's currency is Missy Elliott's lust-stricken thug paean "Hot Boys," Da Real World'sbest track and effectively a free radio advert for the Cash Money supergroup Hot Boys (Juvenile, B.G., Lil Wayne, and Young Turk).

Since the label's rappers appear on each other's records in all manner of multiple cameo pile-ups (no guests from other labels, though—why bother boosting non-clan members?), every new Cash Money release is essentially another Hot Boys album. Antipop fogey Theodor Adorno would have called this "pseudo-individuation" and "part-interchangeability." And Mannie's inexhaustible Fresh-ness aside, you are basically buying the same record each time; the lyrics reshuffle a lexical deck—riding Hummers, chasing paper, spilling brains, sipping Henny, bashing heads (a/k/a splitting wigs!), wifey-stealing, flossing, 20-inch chrome rims, choppers (AK-47's), blow jobs from avid 'hos—into slightly different patterns. The effect, and possibly the subconscious intent, is numbing: murda-Muzak, an ambient moodscape that doesn't melt your defenses, but hardens the character armor.

There are a few chinks on Tha Block Is Hot,rare glimpses of fragility that suit Wayne's high-pitched, mannish-boy drawl. Breaking his own no-cussin' rule, "F*** tha World" is a baby-gangsta's blues, Wayne sounding like Tupac in hoarsely mawkish "Ain't Mad"/"Dear Mama" mode as he frets about losing his stepdad Rabbit to the gun and fathering his own girl-child, all before his 17th birthday. "Up to Me" is a touching love letter to Rabbit, who taught Wayne "game" even though he himself lost. Bone Thugs 'N Harmony-style, Wayne imagines meeting his pa at heaven's gate—this, despite Rabbit clearly being no angel and Tha Block'sstaggering inventory of mortal sins and broken commandments (Thou Shalt Not Leave Your Neighbor's Wifey "Tasting My Rubber"). The Hot Boys' Guerrilla Warfare also lets the facade of invincibility drop just once, with the uncharacteristically subdued "Tuesday & Thursday," which advises the smart thug to keep a low profile on days when the police task force is on the warpath.

The forlorn vulnerability and cowed anxiety of these songs stand out all the more because of Cash Money's usual ebullience and exuberance. Strip away the socioeconomic and racial details, and Cash Money's live-for-now voraciousness is sheer Romanticism. When Hot Boys boast "we on fire," they're speaking the same Dionysian language as 19th-century literary critic Walter Pater, who exhorted his readers "to burn always with this hard gemlike flame." Mind you, Pater probably didn't have in mind sporting a mansion's worth of diamond and platinum on your wrist. But 20th-century Romantic Georges Bataille would relish lines like "my Rottweilers drink Moët," or Wayne bragging about buying Cartier watches for every member of his crew.

Celebrating such wasteful aristocratic pursuits as gambling, dandyism, and potlatch (extravagant gift-giving), and denigrating bourgeois thrift and caution, Bataille exalted "a will to glory" that impels us to "live like suns, squandering our goods and our life." His language and hip-hop's converge in contemporary rap's highest superlative: "blazing." It's the kind of existential incandescence that Jarvis Cocker captured in Pulp's "Common People," with his image of lusty proles who "burn so bright and you can only wonder why." For Cash Money's "uptown shiners," though, the joie de vivre is edgier—the kind that accompanies being ready to die.


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