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—by Rashad D. Grove
When Juvenile declared that "Cash Money records taking over for the 99 and the 2000," it was a bold announcement that seemed to be laced with blind ambition and artistic naiveté. The audacity of an upcoming rapper who's not from the birthplace and epicenter of hip hop, but New Orleans to say such a thing. As history would come to prove, though, Juvenile's prognostication would ultimately come to pass. His bold prediction signaled that a seismic shift was taking place that would forever transform the music industry. Juvenile and the Cash Money team did not come to genuflect before the icons of hip hop and the throne of New York. They came to demand their place at the table and to change the game forever.
With the cloud of controversy that's been hovering over Cash Money Records in recent years due their questionable business practices, it's easy to forget the transformative movement they ushered into the public consciousness of hip hop. It was the entrepreneurial vision of brothers Bryan "Birdman" Williams and Robert "Slim" Williams that led them to establish Cash Money in the Magnolia projects, as a hub for the New Orleans rap scene in 1991. Under the guise of a 2-man operation that focused on the rap and bounce scene, Cash Money was meticulously building an empire down south.
By 1995, the label signed teenaged rappers B.G., Turk and Lil Wayne as future building blocks of the Cash Money enterprise. Regionally, Terius Gray aka Juvenile was beginning to make a name for himself, as well. He had been a part of the fledgling bounce and rap music scene since the early 1990s and had been experiencing some measure of local success in his own right. He previously dropped his first album Being Myself on Warlock records. As his popularity began to surge, he signed to Cash Money and released his second LP, Solja Rags, which gained traction in the New Orleans rap scene. The album received national exposure as it charted on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Upon Juvenile's arrival on Cash Money, they immediately formed the supergroup Hot Boys and released Get It How U Live, which continued to build more momentum for the label.
After regional success as an independent entity, Cash Money's breakthrough came in 1998 when the executives of Universal Records caught wind of the Hot Boys and the lucrative possibilities of providing major distribution, marketing, and promotion for the boutique label. That same year, Cash Money signed a $30 million distribution deal that included a $3 million advance contract with Universal. It was an unprecedented deal that ensured that Cash Money would receive 85% of its royalties, 50% of its publishing revenues and ownership of all masters. The wheels were in motion for the boys from the Magnolia projects to become players of the national stage. They had a lot riding on their first major label release 400 Degreez and Juvenile as their flagship artist.
On November 3, 1998, after years of grinding, 400 Degreez was released. It's quite fitting that Juvenile debut came in 1998, arguably one of the greatest years ever in hip hop music. Instead of shrinking or settling into a place of an outsider, Juvenile carved out a significant space in the game that put Cash Money and himself on the world's stage. 400 Degreez was one of the most significant releases of the year.
The album's lead single "Ha" instantly took the hip hop world by storm. It immediately generated a buzz that spread from the 11th and 12th wards of the Magnolia Projects to every block, in every hood in the country. Marc Klasfeld, who directed the video for "Ha," captured the raw simplicity and the unapologetic honesty of street life in New Orleans. "Ha" was the quintessential representation of New Orleans culture and rap music. Each line of "Ha" poses a question about the highs and lows of hustling, which showcased Juvenile's unorthodox style. "Ha" peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Singles & Tracks chart and No. 68 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a more than respectable debut single for the Cash Money camp. JAY-Z -- who was enjoying his first go-round with platinum success -- recorded his own remix unbeknownst to Juvenile, as the stamp of approval. This validated Juvenile and Cash Money as the next important movement in rap music. "Ha" was a decisive introduction of Juvenile and Cash Money to the masses. It is a classic street anthem and one of the most heralded rap songs over the last 20 years. "Ha" positioned Juvenile as a prominent voice of the southern rap music.
While "Ha" was the anthem for streets, "Back That Thang Up" was a certified club banger that electrified dance-floors everywhere. Even today, whenever "Back That Azz Up" is played, pandemonium ensues. Opening with haunting strings and Juvenile's announcement of Cash Money's pending takeover of the game, "Back That Thang Up" was hugely successful. It soared to No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The video was an omnipresent presence on BET, MTV and on many other media formats throughout the year. "Back That Thang Up" propelled Juvenile and Cash Money from the streets of Magnolia into the mainstream of American popular culture.
400 Degreez is a project full of gritty, grim street tales about murder, hustling, paranoia, loyalty, and the daily task of trying to stay alive New Orleans. Despite all the existential realties of project living, Juvenile finds a way to enjoy the fruits of his labor in the hood. There's the charm and bravado of "Flossing Season," the cautionary tales of "Ghetto Children," and the hypnotizing flow and cadence of "Follow Me." Each song is a standout track that showcased Juvenile at his best. Juvenile's proclivity for delivering melodic lyrics, catchy hooks, graphic storytelling, and his signature sing-songy flow gives the album a uniqueness and an authenticity that distinguishes it from all the other albums that were released that year.
The magic of 400 Degreez is not just the provocative street narratives of Juvenile and company, but the production genius of Mannie Fresh. The son of a DJ, Mannie incorporated the bounce-funk of the Crescent City that featured live instrumentation with funky guitar riffs, brass brand horn sections, thumping bass lines, boogie influenced keyboard work, and the gospel sound of the Hammond B-3 organ. With all of these influences, he created a sonic gumbo unlike anything that was out at the time. The contributions of Mannie as the sole in-house producer and curator of the Cash Money sound makes 400 Degreez a sonically compelling album to listen to.
400 Degreez is by no means without its flaws. With 18 tracks covering almost 73 minutes, there's bound to be some filler. But, the larger than life personalities of Juvenile and the Cash Money squad make up for some of the monotony of the album. 400 Degreez is an invitation to experience Juvenile and Cash Money enjoy the success that they worked so hard to achieve. The project is the soundtrack for an extraordinary moment in time, as Cash Money announced its arrival on the rap music landscape. It's more than just an album, it's an event. It's a celebration of a team who defied the odds to make it big.
400 Degreez caught the music world by surprise. The album reached the No. 2 spot on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart, as well as peaked No. 9 on the Billboard 200. 400 Degreez also raised Juvenile's status in hip hop, as he landed high-profile guest appearances on JAY-Z's In My Lifetime Vol. 3 and the Ruff Ryders' Ryde of Die Vol. 1 in 1999. These were the first appearances by Cash Money artists on New York-based rap albums. 400 Degreez forced the hand of hip hop to take the burgeoning sound and culture emerging from New Orleans seriously as the newest expression of hip hop. The LP was evidence of the growing influence of southern rap music.
It's because of the groundbreaking impact of 400 Degreez that the world later came to know Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj -- three of the most successful artists of all time. These Young Money stars all built upon the foundation that was laid by Juvenile in Cash Money Records.
400 Degreez established Cash Money as one of the longest-running, profitable, and recognizable record labels in hip hop history. Without question, 400 Degreez is a landmark body of work that introduced a new era in hip hop.
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