Late at night, an East Village club is filled with too many people and, incongruously, feathers.
Little red feathers and white feathers have been strewn on the tables and floor. Larger feathers have been sewn onto tiny tank tops worn by curvaceous young women who keep looking over their shoulders to see who's here. Still other feathers are affixed to their original owners, a smattering of large white parrots, which are perched on the forearms of record label staffers.
This is the 30th birthday party for hip-hop mogul Bryan "Baby" Williams, and although liquor flows from the open bar and the deejay is spinning hip-hop records, the party doesn't get started until he arrives.
And when Baby finally makes his entrance, he is swathed in hip-hop glory. He is spotlighted by a video camera that records his every move and surrounded by a swarm of men -- security, colleagues and admirers. The entourage includes Ronald "Suga Slim" Williams, Baby's older brother and his partner in their record label, Cash Money Records. Also in tow is Mannie Fresh, Cash Money's in-house producer.
Baby, who also goes by the nickname "Birdman," is wearing a custom-made sweat suit -- its crotch hangs at knee-level -- and is clutching a white washcloth. His head is shaved, and he is loaded down with jewelry. Sparkling platinum and diamonds decorate his wrists, his ears, his fingers and even his teeth. The heavy medallion that hangs from his neck reads "#1 Stunna."
Dozens of women line up in the VIP section to offer him birthday kisses. "I like the feathers," he tells one girl slyly as his hand caresses her waist. He sips his favorite drink, cranberry juice and Absolut, and poses for photographs. Before the night is over, funk icon George Clinton and an array of hip-hop artists, including Noreaga, Black Rob and Busta Rhymes, will come by to congratulate him.
Baby is a hip-hop impresario. He is co-CEO of the Cash Money label, which recently inked its second deal with Universal Records for an undisclosed amount. He also has his own career as a rapper. He has released four albums as one-half of the platinum-selling duo the Big Tymers (the other half is Fresh). Last fall, he put out his solo debut, "Birdman," which is gold-certified and has spawned two hit singles. But although he is a bona fide star in hip-hop, he is not a superstar and lacks the name recognition of, say, Eminem or Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.
He would welcome that kind of celebrity, which is why his staff has invited a Washington Post reporter to tag along. "Mainstream good -- ain't nothing wrong with that. I would love it," Baby will say later.
But he doesn't want anybody to think he's looking for it. "I wouldn't do nothing to go get it. It would have to come to me," he says. "I'ma just be me and be accepted that way. I can't go get it. I wouldn't even know how to do that [expletive]."
Birdman Flies Solo
Hip-hop is no different from the rest of pop music: Once you get to the top of the heap, there's no place to go but down. A few years back, Baby's label was so successful that a slide seemed inevitable. But Baby is many things, and one of them is resourceful. When Cash Money lost its brightest stars, he set out to create a new one: himself.
Cash Money seemed to come out of nowhere back in 1998, when the Williams brothers closed a $30 million distribution deal with Universal Records, but actually, it came from New Orleans, where producer Fresh devised a signature sound incorporating elements of the city's "bounce" music style into hip-hop. In its late '90s heyday, the label's stars -- Juvenile, Lil' Wayne, B.G. and Turk, who rapped as solo artists and also as a supergroup known as the Hot Boys -- were at the top of the charts.
Cash Money has sold more than 10 million records, and its biggest star was Juvenile, who scored huge successes with "400 Degreez" and "Tha G-Code." Another hitmaker was B.G., the young, charismatic rapper who coined the phrase "Bling Bling" (for sparkling jewelry), which would be appropriated by the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy and, it seemed for a while, just about everyone else on the planet.
But the good days didn't last. In time, Cash Money seemed to be losing its sparkle, and its biggest stars -- Juvenile, B.G. and Turk -- left the label. Cash Money still had Lil' Wayne, as well as the Big Tymers, the duo Baby had formed with Fresh. But sales lagged. Baby signed a handful of new rappers, and focused more of his efforts on the Big Tymers. The duo released its fourth album, "Hood Rich," last year, and it yielded a hit with "Still Fly," that borrowed its hook from the "Gilligan's Island" theme. It is an anthem celebrating the ghetto fabulous, the kind of people who manage to own a Mercedes but don't have an apartment. "It's the truth," says Baby. "A lot of these [expletives] grew up putting their [possessions] in their mama name."
In the past year, Baby's solo career has been a top priority. "I'm the rider for this," he says. "If I fall, we fall." He devoted many months to "Birdman," which features a number of outside producers -- unusual for Cash Money -- as well as guest rappers. Ronald Williams says his younger brother was determined to record a hit album. "It's something he's been dreaming about for a while," says Williams. "He's been working hard, trying and trying to get his rap game up to par. He just put his heart and mind to it, to be a solo artist."
The "Birdman" album includes the P. Diddy collaboration "Do That...." The video clip for that infectious track, which features scores of gyrating women, has been a staple on the video channels. The second single, "What Happened to That Boy," features the rapper Clipse, as well as the falsetto birdcall that has become one of Baby's trademarks.
Visiting New York recently, Baby and his entourage hang out on the Avenue of the Americas, where he sips another cranberry vodka and poses for a photographer. His publicist surveys the scene and takes away his drink. "This ain't New Orleans," she says firmly, "and police will bust you if you drink in the street."
New Yorkers are accustomed to seeing celebrities, but that doesn't mean that they refrain from making fools of themselves. A teenage girl begs him to pose for a snapshot. A young passerby from Libya pauses to say how much he enjoys Baby's music, and a would-be R&B singer takes the opportunity to perform an impromptu audition. But mostly, Baby is greeted with soft "brrrrrr" trills that come from every direction.
It is the birdcall.
Baby Got Bling
Riding around New York in a chauffeured minivan with room for Fresh and six security guys, Baby works two cell phones and one two-way simultaneously. "I can do more than one thing at one time," he murmurs. "Probably about 50 if I chose to." When you are hip-hop royalty, you answer your cellie with "Wassup big dog?" and your ring tones play the melodies of your own hits.
Even in the ostentatious world of mainstream hip-hop, Baby, who collects expensive cars and wears hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of platinum and diamonds on any given day, outdoes just about anybody else. A diamond-encrusted bracelet cost him $100,000. He wears a stacked heart-shaped diamond earring for his daughter -- "Always when she see me she know this is a little thing me and her got together," he says. He displays bejeweled fingers. "Each one of my rings, at least 20 thousand or better. Each one of my watches at least 30 thousand. These earrings, like 10. And if I wear a piece, my cross or something, that might be like 50 to 100. And my grill cost like 75."
By his grill he means his platinum-capped teeth -- eight on the top and eight on the bottom. "You can't do your chewing teeth because you wouldn't be able to eat [expletive]," he explains. Each shiny tooth is embedded with a princess diamond. A dazzling smile like this and requires vigilant care. "You got to floss -- I floss maybe two times a day." He brushes at least that often. "I use Colgate, extra whitening. . . .."
Tattooed tears that fall down his cheek represent friends he has lost, and a "G" between his eyes stands for his late mother, Gladys. His back, chest and arms are covered with tattoos: The New Orleans Superdome with a red pepper hovering over it, a New Orleans Saints logo, dollar signs, blazing moneybags. One that says "Hot Boys," one that says "Big Tymers." On the left side of his neck is a pictogram -- he volunteers that it's the Chinese verb that means "to become rich."
Baby didn't always have money. He grew up hard on the streets of New Orleans in the Magnolia housing projects seen in so many Cash Money videos.
His eyes are glued to his two-way as he says he doesn't feel like talking about his family, but according to published accounts, his mother died of kidney failure when he was a toddler. His father reportedly remarried and sired more than a dozen children before he died of injuries sustained in a car accident. Baby says he was "around 7" when he lost his father.
Asked about his childhood, Baby offers this: "I was a quiet person. Ain't never said too much. Just did a lot of observing. Watching what my brothers and them was doing in the streets." At 17, he got into trouble. "Some street [expletive]. Normal growing up [expletive] at a young age, confused age. Not really knowing what you wanna do out of life. Got caught up in the violent life," he says. "You know like some kids graduate from high school and go straight to college? I graduated and my college was straight to jail."
He served three years, which he characterizes as "same old [expletive]. Life behind bars is like the streets where we come from. . . . It's the same -- without freedom, that's about it."
Baby and Ronald figured that they could apply the hustle they learned on the streets to the music business, and they incorporated back in 1989. "People think it take a lot of money to start a company. I mean, to get incorporated don't cost 200 dollars. . . . So it ain't take no more than maybe a thousand, two thousand dollars just to get started. That ain't [expletive] in the hood."
By the early '90s, the Williams brothers had teamed up with Fresh, a local deejay turned producer and soon they were scoring local hits, records that sold 10,000 or 20,000 copies. The Williamses eventually signed Wayne, B.G. and Turk while they were still in their teens; Juvenile was a more established regional act. Soon all of them were turning out hits. "We was grinding, and the [expletive] got too big for the local scene," Baby says proudly. "And I ended up with Universal."
Baby prefers to minimize the "dip" that followed. "The Beatles broke up. The Jacksons broke up," he says. "I don't trip on the game. It is what it is." The rappers who left Cash Money, he says, "don't really know what they want. They doing their thing, and we did our thing together. It is what it is. It's just business." But it wasn't just business.
From his perspective, his relationship with the young rappers was paternal. "Where we from a lot of [young men] grew up without a daddy, and they all -- B.G., Wayne, Juvie, Turk -- they daddies, some of 'em was dead, and some, they probably just wasn't there for them," he says. "I'm a big homie in the hood, and I took them . . . in.
"Everybody need guidance. I even needed it in my time, because you know, youngsters just be confused," he says. "I taught them four . . . to do what I didn't do. They ain't had to go in the streets at a young age. . . . They ain't never had to sell drugs, harm nobody and do nothing. You know what I'm saying? We [expletive] with the rap game."
The rappers who left complained about unfair contracts and exploitation. Now B.G. has his own label, Chopper City Records, and recently released "Livin' Legend" his first non-Cash Money album. Now 22, B.G. says he left Cash Money because the label was not "playing it fair. . . . It was like I helped make the loaf of bread, and you can't fix me a sandwich."
After protracted legal wrangling, Juvenile filed a lawsuit against Cash Money last fall, alleging, among other things, bad faith breach of contract. Last week, an agreement was reached between the parties, and Juvenile will release another album through Cash Money. Reached through his attorney, Juvenile offered this statement: "We have settled any differences between us, and are working on completing a new album, which may be released as early as the summer but certainly by early fall."
But talk to Cash Money's current roster and you get a different picture. "For me, he's like a big brother," says TQ, a singer from Los Angeles. "He saw that what I was lacking was what he specialized in. He specializes in promotion, marketing, making something bigger than life."
Lil' Wayne, the only one of the Hot Boys who is still happily with Cash Money, says that Baby has played a crucial role in his life. "When my father passed, Baby was the only male figure that took care of me," he says. "If I quit rapping, I still have to answer to him."
Now 20, Lil' Wayne has been with the label since he was 9. "I'm always more than just a rapper to Cash Money," he says. "I'm Baby's son."
Baby has said repeatedly that he would welcome the return of his prodigal rappers. Last month, Cash Money released "Let 'Em Burn," a collection of previously unreleased Hot Boys tracks.
The Value of Cash
Baby has frequently been criticized for flaunting his wealth. Hip-hop critics, artists and ordinary folks on Internet postings have noted that Baby spends an awful lot of time bragging about what he has. Hip-hop is bereft of values, they say, and Baby isn't contributing any.
The Cash Money executive has little patience for that kind of complaining.
"I don't think music supposed to teach you values. That come from your home," Baby says firmly. "Music is enjoyment. Values and morals and all that [expletive] come from your house. That don't come from music. How music gonna teach you morals? How regular TV supposed to teach you morals?"
Baby's patience is waning, and so he takes another swig from his cranberry vodka, and begins tapping on his two-way.
"Everybody entitled to their opinion, and I don't knock it," he says. "At the end of the day, we still getting money, and that's what it's all about."
encrusted teeth say a mouthful about his earnings.Besides being co-CEO of the Cash Money label, Williams is half of the hit duo the Big Tymers, with Mannie Fresh, right.The Hot Boys -- from left, Turk, Juvenile, Lil' Wayne and B.G. -- were stars for the Cash Money label, but all but Lil' Wayne complained about exploitation.