THE POWER OF ONE MAN
RICK ROSS IS THE CENTER OF THE MMG UNIVERSE. RAPPER BY RAPPER, SINGER BY SINGER, THE CEO IS ROUNDING OUT A ROSTER THAT WILL DEFINE HIS LEGACY IN HIP-HOP. AND IF ANY OF HIS SQUAD SURPASSES HIM? WELL, THAT’S THE BIG IDEA Words: John Kennedy l Photos: Armen Djerrahian
IN ROOM 2323 OF Times Square’s Inter-Continental Hotel, Wale is venting. His arms are flailing and dreads are shaking as he stands over his king-size bed wearing near-white socks and 10.Deep camo pants that are hanging on for dear life. It’s supposed to be an evening off for the sports-obsessed MC to unwind and watch basketball’s top prospects find their spaceship at the NBA Draft, yet it’s hip-hop’s rookie class that has him on the defense. “Our genre prides itself so much on finding new shit that we don’t appreciate nothing no more,” Wale proclaims. “They’re so busy telling niggas that they’re not great or not future legends, that they anoint niggas that haven’t done nothing! I’m not taking nothing away from Chief Keef, but they just jumped so fast! Y’all was just on A$AP hard! I sold 165,000 in the first week in the face of niggas that blatantly didn’t want to see me win. But y’all concerned about who’s next…” This rant will continue for three minutes. But the implied keynote of the speech—which peaks with a nasally imitation of a hypothetical Pitchfork.com writer—is that, despite hip-hop’s infatuation with new faces, Wale and his Maybach Music Group family have now. To the naked eye, Rick Ross assembled his diverse unit to grapple with loaded rap rosters like G.O.O.D. Music’s and Young Money’s for the No. 1 spot. It’s his own musical Dream Team that lives up to Ross’ bigger-is-better mantra. There are over-the-top antics, like a May press conference with open bar Cîroc and disoriented guest speakers announcing project release dates, business ventures and an artist signing. Everything is a Spliff TV-directed motion picture. Wale was way more subdued yesterday, when the bulk of MMG occupied a Manhattan photo studio for this cover shoot. Independent schedules prevent frequent fraternity-like chill sessions, yet the camaraderie between the Maybach men is so evident it’s almost tangible. “I see you getting pretty, Wallace,” Ross quips at a slouching Wale, who’s being tended to in a makeup chair. The D.C.-bred rapper has no idea how Ross’ preferred pet name (Wallace) arose, but it has stuck; even Jay-Z uses it. Always one for the last word, Wale swivels and counters, “Yeah, you next!” No matter how many times you’ve witnessed Rick Ross in person, you can’t help but gawk at his size. That is, until you see his towering bodyguard, Ghost, who makes Rozay look like a bearded kid brother tagging along. Take a walk out to the lobby and you’ll find Stalley idling on a couch, wearing his native Cleveland Indians fitted, awaiting styling. The oft-reserved rhymer is a bit anxious (“I’ve never worn all white,” he confesses), but excited about popping his magazine-cover cherry. Over there, Maybach O—MMG’s new soul bastion, aka B2K survivor Omarion—pop-locks his way around the set. A bit chunkier, but just as chiseled, O, for the purpose of passing time, challenges a member of Ross’ security team (not Ghost) to a push-up contest (he loses). Dreadlocked rapper Gunplay is en route on a plane from Miami with an arsenal of kooky expressions stowed for the camera. And finally, right here is Meek Mill, front and center, focusing a menacing stare into the lens. The Philly rap standout will be the next progeny that Ross unleashes on the mainstream. Today, though, Meek’s still dealing with the hangover of past street deeds—he must hustle through his looks to make his 2:30 p.m. parole officer visit in Philadelphia. Unlike Yeezy’s and Weezy’s sets, MMG’s demographic directive is funneled. They occupy different lanes—from illegal regal (Ross) to blue-collar rap (Stalley)—but ultimately are all attuned to the streets. This leaves players with a Wild West mentality, contending not only with team members but also their own captain. After signing with MMG in February 2011, Wale joined Ross in the gold club by moving more than 500,000 copies of his sophomore LP, Ambition. When Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers 2 mixtape dropped in May, it more than doubled the DatPiff downloads of Ross’ monumental freebie Rich Forever. And in June, the crew’s second and latest compilation Self Made 2 upped its predecessor’s 59,000 first week with 98,000 initial sales. Sure every Rick Ross project is legitimately considered an iCal-worthy event; God Forgives, I Don’t, arguably the year’s most desired rap album, is no different. But what’s most intriguing is that Meek, with his upcoming release, Dreams and Nightmares, is in a position to eclipse the man that gave him his shot. Apparently that’s the intention. “We’re like some type of rock ’n’ roll super group,” says Wale. “Ross wants us to be bigger than him; he’s setting it up for us to be bigger. I wanna win so bad for Ross, because I see how hard he goes. This nigga don’t sleep ’cause he wants niggas to win so bad.”
MEEK MILL STRETCHES OUT in a white cloth metal chair on the balcony of the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles. A frosty gold Jesus piece lies against his white Ralph Lauren V-neck. Like the late-afternoon sun, Meek is finally cooling down after a day of press and sound checks for a BET Awards MMG performance. A disemboweled blunt lays in an ashtray on a table, while a few of the 25-year-old’s entourage puff and pass in the cut. It’s been a hectic week of SM2 promo—including a teeming album signing and concert at New York sneaker speakeasy Alife. The rising star is beginning to feel conflicted about his ballooning image. “Little kids, they cry when they see me. I don’t want no little kid crying for me,” says Meek, lifting his black polyester pants to scratch his left ankle. “I don’t think I’m the one to cry for; I did a lot of wrong things. I ain’t perfect.” Whether Robert Rihmeek Williams realizes or not, his coming of age could spark a shift in the hip-hop tide. While many rappers were either copping glow sticks or singing their emo hearts out last year, Meek kicked in the door with a few anthems that were as energetic as they were aggressive (“Tupac Back,” “Ima Boss” and “House Party”). He’s a return to unadulterated radio-friendly street rap without blatant mainstream pandering. “He’s got star power,” says Stalley. “He makes great records.” Gunplay adds: “He’s like a rap machine—he doesn’t stop.” “I think I can be the biggest rapper in the game,” Meek says matter-of-factly. “Ross is the boss of the team, but he’s not the limit to how far you can go. I got plans on being bigger than Jay-Z—and [Ross] wants that. Ross ain’t the type of artist that just wants artists under him. He loves to see me shine, he tells me that all the time. I don’t feel like I’m being used with Rozay. I feel like I’m being helped, and we’re working together as a team.” Ever since Meek flipped the city on its head with the catchy mixtape single “In My Bag” in 2007, he’s claimed the Philadelphia crown that Beanie Sigel wore for most of the oughts. He keeps a fresh memory on more modest times, often revisiting YouTube clips of himself as a teenager rapping on sidewalks with cornrows so outgrown you can barely see any rows at all. “I see the hunger and try to remember where I was at that day and how much money I had in my pocket,” Meek recalls of his days splitting time between hustling, rapping and working part-time shifts at Denny’s restaurant. “Them old videos, I might’ve been 16, [had] $4 worth of gas and a dutch. That just reminds me of the hunger.” Creating music has been the least of Meek’s troubles with blowing up; it’s the burning spotlight that comes with it. Like the night he attended Teyana Taylor’s G.O.O.D. Music signing bash at New York nightclub W.i.P and found himself present during a much publicized skirmish between Chris Brown and Drake. Press reports immediately implicated him in the bottle-throwing frenzy, allegedly rooted in a love square between the three male artists and Rihanna. All false, according to Meek. “The media be having you tangled up… Me and [Chris Brown] have nothing to beef about. I’m big on not even doing the rap beef shit, ’cause in my ’hood, I know guys that got killed at rap battles. Killed over putting somebody’s name in a rap, so I’m not really big on that. You talk to that person as a man and leave it at that.” As for those Rihanna rumors: “I got a girl at home, so it ain’t nothing I can entertain or say I’m involved in when I’m not. Yeah, Rihanna is my type, [but] pretty chicks are my type.” Meek has a way of muddling his answers with sweeping statements. He much prefers riding dirt bikes, recording music or spending time with his 1-year-old son to answering invasive questions about singers and rappers not in his MMG fam. Yet, today he’s handling it like a champ, even occasionally smiling with teeth. He’s in better spirits than yesterday, when he was in downtown L.A. trying to squeeze his size 10-and-a-half feet into size 9 low-tops (wardrobe screw-up) for a five-hour Puma shoot. For the new face of the athletic brand, it’s just another cog in the ever-pumping fame machine.
“Nine interviews a day, going to the studio and doing two shows at night. Every day. It becomes like a job,” Meek says, alluding to his recent tweet about needing a break. “I gotta pace myself. This game, it’ll burn you out and then it’s on to the next rapper. I’d rather move at my pace and be here as long as I wanna be here.”
IT’S SELDOM THAT A plus-size man who appears shirtless more often than some WWE wrestlers feels out of place. Yet, here stands Rick Ross on a February afternoon at the 2012 Grammy Awards, donning a striped (is that velour?) sweater, blue denims and white-and-blue tennis shoes. He sticks out even more than his bushy beard. It’s the Miami native’s first time at the big show, yet gramophones are the furthest from Rozay’s mental.
“I was sitting there, looking around at people’s faces, accents, everyone wearing suits; there was talent on the stage, but I was really thinking about smoking some weed,” Ross remembers. “Those faces, names, I just don’t—it isn’t me. After 15 minutes, I left.”
In addition to his grandiose tunes, Ross’ caricatured likeness—those ubiquitous shades, the bossisms, grunts, moobs—has placed him at the cusp of the mainstream’s antenna. Still, he’s had a hard time bursting through the pop bubble. Figuratively (and physically), Ross is one of hip-hop’s biggest bosses, yet none of his first four albums have hopped that platinum hurdle. As he prepares for the release of God Forgives, Rozay makes it clear that charting Kanye’s and Nicki Minaj’s levels of Billboard success isn’t priority—he’s more concerned with street certification than RIAA’s. Perhaps that’s why the man born William Leonard Roberts II is so set on mantling his MMG draftees on his broad shoulders. Or, maybe, it’s simply the money. “It’s making me overwhelmingly wealthy,” says Ross of his brand’s value. “I’m good at this shit. It could be I was made for it.”
In the beginning, this MMG powerhouse was all a dream. Born beneath a Def Jam distribution umbrella, Maybach Music Group commenced with the foursome Carol City Cartel (Triple C’s), comprised of Rick, fellow MIA rappers Gunplay and Young Breed, and Torch from the Bronx. While Ross continued delivering successful albums (2009’s Deeper Than Rap and Teflon Don in 2010), his Triple C’s compilation project Custom Cars & Cycles stalled just above 10,000 copies. By the top of 2011, Ross signed a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. that positioned MMG as a multilabel venture. While Wale and Meek Mill were off to the races, the rest of the crew watched and learned.
“I just sat there and rolled with the punches,” says bubbling rhymer Gunplay, hours away from signing his solo Def Jam contract. “I played my position to the tee. I gotta roll a blunt, carry bags, and be a hype man—that’s what my job on the road is? Let’s go.”
As the outfit continued to expand with the additions of Stalley and singer Teedra Moses, Ross put his solo output on pause to don both coach and executive producer fedoras. And as MMG grew, so did Ross’ profile. “[Kanye West and Lil Wayne] were bigger when they created their crews than Ross was when he created his,” says Amanda Seales, cohost of MTV’s roundtable show Hip Hop POV. “They were already established. I feel Ross gained a lot of his accolades and grandeur by having a crew.”
Ross diversified his lineup by adding some forgotten R&B star power. He and Omarion crossed paths in North Carolina earlier this year, bonding at a strip club over clear heels and ticker tape bills. Once Rozay heard Omarion’s in-the-works material, he was sold. “If you go to [Rick’s] house, there’s a G-box with just a whole bunch of old songs,” says 27-year-old Omarion, who supplied Self Made 2 with its soul sheen. “Our music just gelled.” Ross concurs, insisting that you won’t hear O confusing himself for Big Meech or Larry Hoover.
“I need him to sing to those ladies, touch that crowd, have fun,” says the Don of his dance-crazy recruit. “He’s a songwriter and brings a lot of different talents to the table. I don’t want any pressures to feel you have to dress a certain way, talk a certain way. I love that individuality.” Ross’ enlistment process starts from personal admiration—he first has to enjoy your artistry. Today, during this interview, he’ll voice his fandom for rapper Rockie Fresh. By tonight, the Chicago upstart will ink paperwork and officially join the team. Not every MMG recruitment has proven fruitful, though. For all the talk of Ross’ selfless nature with his artists, former member and ATL spitter Pill openly protested his lack of attention from the team last December, announcing his departure from the imprint a month later. “Out of the whole time I was there, I only had two videos shot from MMG,” recalls Pill, who asserts that he never signed paperwork but toured and released music while rocking the Maybach chain. “It was just a ‘We ain’t fuckin’ with you’ [vibe]—it wasn’t in those words, but it might as well have been.”
Ross takes offense to the mere mention of employees who’ve been slipped that pink: “Don’t ask me nothing about no nigga that’s not on MMG or not winning,” he barks. “I don’t have nothing to say about other niggas.”
BACK IN NEW YORK, NBA Commissioner David Stern is still reading draft picks, and Wale’s tantrum has finally subsided. He’s refocused his disgust to the Thai takeout platter laid out on his desk, aside a MacBook Pro and cascade of colorful snapback caps. His feet are kicked up on an icy white comforter as he sprawls against his headboard, eating edamame beans and discarding the pods into a plastic container atop his nightstand. Wale is easily MMG’s most impassioned—the crew’s case study for its members’ no-ceilings swagger. It seems that despite reviving his career, Mr. Folarin just can’t seem to shake the chip that’s been resting firmly on his shoulder since releasing his 2009 debut, Attention Deficit, which sold 28,000 copies in its first week and effectively put his music career on life support. But these days, despite his intense soliloquy moments ago, he owns a cooler mind state (“I want the fans to know I’m evolving”) and some hardware to validate his hard work—his Miguel-featured single “Lotus Flower Bomb” topped Billboard’s rap charts, while “That Way” hit the Top 5. Clearly, Wale is no longer an underdog. So where does one advance from an album called Ambition that actually lives up to its name?
“I did a lot of soul-searching, it’s a lot more personal,” Wale says of his third studio long-player, expected late 2012. “I want to expand, man. Talk to more people, more of our culture, that urban environment. My recent music has been a little more conscious or self-reflecting. I almost fear my next album not being as commercial as Ambition, but that’s just where my heart and mind is right now.”
Meek Mill is similarly staying true with his solo debut. He moved to Los Angeles for four months to record, helping inspire his sunny, divinely sacrilegious single “Amen” with Drake and Jeremih. Yet, his unfinished Dreams and Nightmares album is sonically moodier. Once you delve into the contents of his metallic external hard drive, on which MEEK MILL is scribbled on an affixed strip of masking tape, it’s apparent. Waka pops up for a raucous, rainmaking ode to big-booty bitches (his words). Elsewhere, Meek jostles with Wale, French Montana and J. Cole on a posse cut about never returning to a piss-poor lifestyle. And, of course, there’s tough talk (“I chase you down with the metal like we was running a race, but it’s no relay/And fuck the D.A.,” he snaps over piano keys on “The Life”).
“I wanna give both sides of my life—what’s going on now, the sort of rap life… and what it took to get here,” Meek says. “Me, DMX, 50 [Cent], we came in with no fear, like, fuck everything. Fuck making pop songs, fuck making R&B songs, I’ma stick to this street shit and still get this money. A lot of people think street rap can’t get you money. People in my ’hood gon’ buy my album. It’s all about them having that connection with you.”
“Meek has the potential,” adds New York radio station Power 105’s personality DJ Envy of Meek’s breakout chances. “But if it happens, it’ll be one of those things where he makes a
record just for his people and it crosses over on its own.”
WHETHER RICK ROSS REMAINS MMG’s top seller, God Forgives is expected to be a monster release. He’s managed to one-up every solo album since his 2006 debut, Port of Miami. And although the album rollout has been bumpy—the single “So Sophisticated” received a tepid response and Ross’ Usher-guested “Touch’n You” was upstaged by the duo’s “Lemme See,” for Ursh’s recent album—Ross is in a positive space, both artistically and as a boss. It’s the personal side that’s concerning. “It’s all about grinding, going hard and hustling. That’s my strong point,” he says. “I just hope that none of this is stressing me.” Ross has been paying special attention to his sleep and stress levels since he suffered a pair of seizures last October. While he’s had several “health talks” with doctors, Ross’ 24-7 drive is the root of his happiness, so he’ll only slow himself but so much. “I try to get more rest. Do I do it all the time? Of course not. I got shit to do, goals to accomplish. I just try to balance.”
In the case that Ross ever tires of steadying the scales, he’s built a lofty musical estate featuring stars that are already shooting and some pretty anticipated newcomers. As the heavyweight approaches hip-hop’s Social Security age group (he turns 37 in January) the question begs: Is a future seat solely behind a desk—feet up, shades still on—a distant possibility?
“I wouldn’t be able to tell you that,” Ross answers. “I just love to be around music, in whatever capacity. If it’s just putting out artists or making music myself or producing, we have a lot of different things going on. I’ma be a big boy in this game for a long time.”