Rick Ross didn’t blow off of coke raps alone. Brick by brick, the Miami MC has built his empire via a Rolodex that’s as plump as his waistline. The money trail to Rozay’s hood billionaire status, his ladder to the top of the rap game, begins and ends with his connections
Words: Juan Vidal
Failing to mention the name Rick Ross when singling out the rap greats of our time is to forgo a basic truth for the sake of one’s own preference. You might call it a clumsy oversight. No, the fact that he is great, that he is a towering figure in modern music, is not lost on anyone who only takes the time to see it. Consistent lyricism, a penchant for provocation, the ability to almost single-handedly control the airwaves whenever he so chooses—those are a few of his claims to fame. And his greatness is rooted in them all, because a boss, er, a bawse, knows how to deliver, and when. See, he’s given us two solid LPs in one year (Mastermind and Hood Billionaire), a rarity in modern rap. Thing is, Rick Ross didn’t get where he is by doing it alone. Sure, no one famous does, but Ross is very much a product of strategic relationships—relationships that he used to fuel his ascension as a rapper and business mogul. He’d be nowhere without them, and he’s learned to nurture them like a master. The opposite can be said about Azealia Banks, who’s opinionated ways can often come across as self-sabotaging. Compared to Ross’, her network can often seem as bare as a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. You get the feeling she doesn’t mind. Beginnings to “Hustlin’” To understand how Rick Ross became the force he is today is to understand the power of a cosign. While it’s impossible to know just how far he’d have gotten without his alliances, it’s interesting to note how they well they have paid off for him. It began early, with his stint at Texas-based Suave House Records, once home to 8Ball & MJG. After, he signed to Slip-n-Slide Records, the Miami label which, at its apex, boasted prominent acts like Trick Daddy and Trina, with whom Ross first made his rounds. Ross, through steady touring and memorable guest appearances on a few of the imprint’s releases, started making noise. However, not until 2006 when he released “Hustlin’”—the quintessential Miami anthem—was his presence felt worldwide. Everyone took notice, perhaps most notably Jay Z, then the CEO/president of Def Jam. “Hustlin,’” Ross’s lauded introduction and the lead single to his debut, Port of Miami, dialed in on the culture’s obsession with coke rap and capitalized on its long-held appeal. He took what Trick Daddy was peddling in the early 2000s and broadened the strokes, made it harsher and yet more palatable to a wider demographic. The first album under Slip-n-Slide’s partnership with Def Jam, Port of Miami went on to sell 187,000 units in its first week and won the top spot on the Billboard 200.
DJ Khaled and Feud with 50 Cent Ross’s friendship with radio DJ and certified hit maker DJ Khaled also comes to mind. Since his 2006 hailed project Listennn… the Album, Khaled has featured Ross on the first single for each of his seven full lengths. Together, they’ve practically dominated south Florida radio, their chanty, anthemic hooks reverberating from Opa-Locka to Cutler Bay. “Ross is my brother”, Khaled once said, pointing out that, even beyond the chart toppers they collaborate on, their ties are firm. The two heavyweights have taken full advantage of their unique positions in the pop music marketplace and translated their unity into more success. Then there was the public feud between Ross and known pot-stirrer 50 Cent, worth noting for the material it produced. For starters, it spawned a few decent diss tracks: Ross’ “Mafia Music” and 50’s “Officer Ricky (Go Head, Try Me)” and “Tia Told Me.” Not to be overlooked was a cartoon series by 50 that aimed to humorously discredit Ross in every possible way. Add to all this the highly publicized run-in between members of both camps at the 2012 BET Hip Hop Awards and you have quite the media frenzy. As is common for these sorts of rap quarrels, the beef had everyone talking. And choosing sides. While 50 clearly won, both parties benefited from the attention. P. Diddy and YMCMB Affiliation In 2010, on the brink of two major releases—Last Train to Paris and Teflon Don—P. Diddy and Ross announced their partnership. Ross’ rise had captivated Diddy and he found ways in which each could profit from the others’ influence. While Ross had already unleashed three successful albums up to that point, he still considered himself a young artist with much to glean from the Bad Boy founder. “The more time you spend with Diddy, you understand the importance of relationships,” Ross told MTV News, explaining how his teaming up with Diddy was helping to spur on “bigger and better things.” Their alliance would result in Ross signing on as a representative of Diddy’s Cîroc vodka brand, Diddy tapping F. Gary Gray to direct Ross’s “Super High” video, and Ross becoming the new face of Sean John. They even announced a tandem EP as the Bugatti Boyz, despite only releasing two records under the moniker (“Another One,” and “Fontainebleu”). //www.youtube.com/embed/moqCF6aahDU?rel=0 Perhaps most crucial in cementing Ross’ legacy has been his piggybacking of another. Premature comparisons to another hip-hop artist of great stature—The Notorious B.I.G.—were cemented via the Bad Boy founder’s cosign. It was Puff who aligned Rick Ross’ voice alongside his friend and slain legend’s on “Angels” from his one-off side project Dirty Money. Diddy approved and appears on the Rick Ross remake of Biggie’s “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You),” for Mastermind, an album he also executive produced. Grave digging or not, Puff Daddy is yet another rung for Ross’ climb toward immortality. Similarly, ties to Lil Wayne and have helped keep Rozay young. Over the years, Ross also built a close camaraderie with the Cash Money/Young Money circle. He’s shared many songs and stages with Weezy, as they linked up for two I Am Music tours. And in the studio, Ross has gelled with Drake fluidly. They too were slated to drop a collaborative project, a mixtape titled YOLO (You Only Live Once). While it never came to fruition, their classic collaboration “Stay Schemin,’” on which Drake famously pow-pows at Common, boosted the profile of Ross’ freebie Rich Forever, arguably the closest he’s come to matching Teflon Don in dopeness. Clearly being linked to a brand with the staying power of YMCMB is wise on all fronts. Steve Bartels and MMG The rapport Ross has with Steve Bartels—current CEO of Def Jam—has too been paramount. Bartels has played a crucial role in the careers of stars like Jay Z, Kanye West, and Rihanna, to name a few. Their respect for him and his leadership is a clear signifier as to just how critical the man can be to one’s overall success. At a recent listening session for Ross’s latest, Hood Billionaire, his second album of the year, Bartels had this to say: “Two albums in one year. Who does that?” Visibly proud of what Ross has brought to Def Jam, Bartels went on to present him with a plaque celebrating career sales of more than 5 million albums worldwide.
Although his Maybach Music Group lineup operates through Atlantic Records, Ross remains a solo artist under Def Jam. The MMG family, an anomaly in and of itself, is home to decorated artists like French Montana, Wale, Meek Mill, and R&B crooner Omarion. The collective is somewhat a distinction among rap labels in that each member appeals to his own fan base. And while the label has managed to consistently invade the mainstream with undeniable grit, tensions between members and a few legal woes have kept it from fully flourishing. Following Meek Mill’s prison sentencing for a parole violation earlier this year, Ross issued a statement. In it, he touched on what his intentions have been from the jump. “I created MMG years ago, my desire was to create a space where the most talented artists in the world could be nurtured and supported. With that came a commitment.” Internal conflicts and setbacks aside, Ross vowed to stand with his teammates at any cost. “Every individual signed to MMG is not just an artist, they are my family. And with family you ride, or you die. In the same way Ross has gained from his associations, he’s made an effort to put his artists in similar positions. And thus far, he’s succeeded. As proven by a host of solo achievements and MMG’s three group compilations, Ross has set each player up to win. Provided they all stay out of trouble and take cues from Ross on valuing your relationships, MMG could remain a powerhouse for years to come. You remain a hood billionaire by building bridges, not tearing them down. Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR, Esquire and VIBE. He’s on Twitter: @itsjuanlove