Inside the Maybach: Is MMG Still One of Hip-Hop’s Most Powerful Labels?
On the day of Super Bowl XLV, before Green Bay would best the Steelers in a 31 to 25 victory, Rick Ross released The Untouchable Maybach Empire Super Bowl vlog officially announcing Wale as the latest signee to his Maybach Music Group. The very next day, Meek Mill also announced that he signed a deal to be on Rozay’s growing roster. A backpacker with style from D.C. and a street rapper with some battle rap history from Philly, an unorthodox pair. Who would’ve thought these three would still be together six years later, teaming up once again to release the first single from the fourth installment of Maybach Music’s Self Made? The song is a good reminder that Ross deciding to sign these two marked the beginning of a new conglomerate in rap.
What I remember most about 2010 is the unavoidable, charismatic grunt that could be heard on every radio station and inside every club. The summer was scored by Ross’ bangers, “B.M.F,” “MC Hammer,” “Super High” and “Aston Martin Music” seemed to have taken over the world. It wasn’t just the singles, Teflon Don, Ross’ fourth album, was immediately acclaimed as his best work yet. The album didn’t reach number one on the charts but its success should be measured in the admiration and praise it received from fans and critics. Ross was a star, relatively famous, but after 2010 the spotlight was beaming brighter than ever. One thing about Rick Ross then, he had the mafioso persona, he sold us this image of a kingpin who you would ask for a favor before his daughter’s wedding but he didn’t have the big mafia family to match his Vito Corleone.
Maybach Music Group officially started in 2009 with distribution through Warner Bros. Triple C’s and Masspike Miles were the first two artists signed under the imprint (neither are still with the label). The artist that Ross sought early on was Wiz Khalifa, there’s an episode of MTV Rapfix in 2010 where he looked into the camera and asked, “What would it take for us to close the deal, WIz Khalifa and Maybach Music?” Looking back, Wiz might be the only rap artist in history to turn down a deal with Ross and a chance to tour with Drake at the very beginning of an uncertain career.
The Ross offer showed that Maybach Music was focused on becoming a label of new faces but a place where potential stars who had already made a name for themselves could truly level up. By February of next year Ross would bring Meek Mill, Wale and Pill into his power circle.
“We coming to get this motherfuckin’ money, for real,” Mill said, while signing his paperwork with Maybach Music CEO Rick Ross. “When we talk to you niggas, we talk to you niggas for real. This is from a nigga that comes from the bottom…two years ago, I was just in my motherfuckin’ cell hoping I wouldn’t get 20 years. Now I get out, and I’m taking that shit to the next level. It’s Maybach Music.” - Meek Mill, HipHopDX
When the two first signed, Wale was looked at as the black sheep, a broken puzzle piece that you would have to force fit into the picture. Meek was seen as the raw street rapper, too raw, he had yet to crack the ground separating him from the mainstream and underground with very little belief that he could. Two underdogs in a pivotal transitional period in their careers but they wouldn’t be that way for long. “Tupac Back” took Meek from the streets of Philly to every block and corner around the country. It’s a testament to how big Ross was at the time - he mastered the formula of a street sweeper that would blaze the moment it touched asphalt. Meek was there riding shotgun, still the rapper too raw but with a street edge that was now bringing him notoriety.
Wale didn’t get the big single lob from Ross but he used Self Made Vol. 1 to prove that his prowess as a wordsmith wasn’t going to be sacrificed. He said when he first signed, “Same music, different energy.” One song that truly stood out was “Pandemonium,” the first to feature Ross, Wale, and Meek. It was a pleasant surprise how well they could create a song without compromising style or ethics. Meek didn’t attempt to become a Philadelphian Shakespeare and Wale wasn’t blasting glocks and serving rocks, each artist had room to be himself and it worked in their favor. The same approach would be used on the title track off Wale’s sophomore album, “Ambition.” The trio once again proved to be a more than adequate team. Ambition the album was also commercially successful - the first week sales were six times more than his debut.
The arrival of Meek Mill and the revival of Wale was kind of like Nicki and Drake when they first got inducted into Young Money. Wayne was the big star but his two proteges came and conquered because there was a foundation that allowed them a chance to be seen and heard. Wale’s next two albums, The Gifted and The Album About Nothing, would go number one on the charts in their first week. Say what you will if he made the right decision signing to Ross, he is the second most successful artist on the label. His story could’ve came to a close with Attention Deficit, many talented acts don’t recover from a label separation, but he turned his uncertain situation into a success story. Meek did as well. From getting out of jail, building a buzz with releasing mixtapes just so his Grand Hustle deal could fall through the cracks to putting out classic songs and have the number one album in the country last year is no small feat.
I came from quote-unquote “the most powerful conglomerate in hip-hop” [Interscope]. It’s not just Maybach Music, it’s Warner Bros. It’s a new building, with people like me. I don’t have to explain why I need dark-skinned women in my videos. Everybody knows the Wale saga: The guy that got close and something happened. It ain’t no more getting close. This time, we taking the whole shit. - Wale, Complex
Maybach’s big three made the world believe that an empire was growing over at MMG. Pill was also included during the early phase of MMG's rise, the Atlanta native was a strong addition, but years later it would be revealed he wasn’t officially signed under Ross, just Warner. Ross officially expanded the roster by signing Omarion, Rockie Fresh, Stalley, Fat Trel and a joint deal with Bad Boy for French Montana. What’s interesting about Ross' signee selection is that he isn’t chasing down the hottest artist of the moment, he isn’t caught in bidding wars for the talk of today. When the entire industry was signing Chicago artists making drill music in 2012, he signed Rockie Fresh. Instead of going out and trying to find a new singer from Atlanta, he brought Omarion on board. Ohio’s own Stalley seems more unorthodox than Wale, but he’s been rhyming alongside MMG since 2011. I’m pretty sure he was one of the few Ohio natives to sign a major since Kid Cudi. Fat Trel was the last, new signee to the label. Another D.C. kid that had made a name for himself in the underground by releasing mixtape after mixtape.
"Other than, of course, his [Rockie Fresh's] ability to make music and write choruses and putting visuals together, it's like when I was just sitting there talking with him and connecting with him, I saw that he's a reflection of every man," said Rawse of MMG's latest signee. "Everybody can see a little bit of themselves in a Rockie Fresh, and that's how he presents his music. "I like to say he has a system and I'm sitting back and I'm watching all his videos, his virals and I'm like, 'Yo, this kid is ready for the majors right here,'" continued Ross. "Because this is major, what I'm looking at is major and I just wanted it to be organic." - Rick Ross, HipHopDX
While the diversity of his label should allow his artists to broaden their target audience, only Omarion has had any success following Meek and Wale into the mainstream. “Post To Be” was a huge summer anthem and peaking at 13 on Billboard’s Hot 100 proved that Jhene’s groceries made for a huge comeback single. Gunplay’s Def Jam debut Living Legend didn’t sell well but the number of albums sold could be a reflection of the extended wait - every push back dwindles anticipation. Rockie Fresh has maintained a buzz through big mixtapes and consistent touring, though there’s still no word on when his album will be dropping. The same can be said for Fat Trel, who still has a massive underground following but has yet to transition signing to MMG into something bigger. Stalley is interesting to me. He seems fairly content being an underground darling. Releasing music to his fans and doing shows to perform for those same fans. It’s a Curren$y approach that could make him underground royalty but completely anonymous in the water that can only be reached by crossing over.
Maybach Music has had its hiccups - the public disputes between Meek and Wale that have transpired brought up questions about if the label was still standing strong. The fire between the two made headlines but their issues seem to have been resolved. That wasn’t the only issue the label was facing. Ross was going through legal trouble and then Meek right after. Then Meek’s war with Drake couldn’t have been more of a surprise, the two went from friends to enemies and almost ruined one of Meek’s biggest moments. MMG is at an interesting place as a label - still widely known and respected but doesn’t carry the same enormous title as it once did.
There wasn’t a label more promising than MMG after the Self Made Vol. 1, they were looked upon as the early stages of an empire that wouldn’t be stopped. But the years since have brought the rise of new labels that have equaled, if not surpassed, the empire's reach. Drake’s OVO has stepped in as a big label ran by the biggest rapper in the world. There was a time when him and Ross were standing on the same plateau but his growing popularity over the years has transcended not just Ross but everyone in his peer group. Drake’s focus seems to be on surrounding himself with hitmakers that can assist in keeping his conquest over the rap industry strong. It’s more of a pop label than a rap label. Roc Nation is another powerhouse label that has the biggest pop star (Rihanna) and one of the world's most revered rappers (J. Cole). TDE is probably the closest to being a comparable label to MMG. It’s a label made up of talented rappers and a female singer who all burst through the door with Kendrick at the head. If any label resembles how MMG was perceived in 2010-2011, a powerhouse empire of promising rap stars, it’s TDE.
There’s still a chance for MMG to reclaim its position this year, and their plan seems to be slowing down on expansion and refocusing on their proven assets. Wale’s S.H.I.N.E album is expected to be coming soon and from the songs he's released thus far it could do as Teflon Don once did and be this summer’s soundtrack. He’s also executive producing the fourth volume of Self Made, giving the collective a chance to be seen as a powerhouse squad that hasn’t lost a step. Meek has shaken off the daggers that were implanted by Drake and his memes, if he can return to form with the hotly-anticipated Dreamchasers 4 then all will be forgiven (but not likely forgotten.) Rockie Fresh might even prove to be the secret weapon that no one saw coming. Who knows, Ross might just let a surprise loose and reclaim a throne fit for the biggest boss in the game, or we might have already seen the peak of MMG.
Every empire eventually falls, it's only a matter of when.