"The hustler is the unconventional anti-hero of hip-hop. He is the symbol of prosperity from poor circumstances, a personification of the street corners, blocks, housing projects and hoods worldwide. The riches that comes after the rags, and the spirit of acquiring all you never had." - "An Ode to the Brown Paper Bag, Hip-Hop’s Favorite Status Symbol"
Five years. Money Makin’ Nique was facing five long years. The Massachusetts-born, Westside Atlanta-raised rapper didn’t disclose the why, but during our interview, he spoke briefly about the six-month bout of depression that a potential bid—the case was eventually resolved without criminal indictment—in 2015 had created. No material was recorded, no songs were made―nothing but a man gripped by the suffocating feeling of life being derailed. More than just his freedom, a burgeoning rap career was also at risk of being locked away. At a time when Nique wondered about his uncertain present, though, there was still hope surrounding his future.
“Everywhere I used to go, people were excited,” Nique explained, painting the picture of elation and enthusiasm that followed the announcement of his record deal. Two months prior to worrying about what could happen in the courtroom, Nique made a decision to sign his first record deal. After being courted by seven vying labels, he accepted an offer presented by Atlantic Records.
It was a celebratory milestone for a rapper who started Money Makin’ Bros in 2009, a lifestyle label and an idea that became a brotherhood. This was a full circle moment for the son of a mother who rapped at the age of 16, who was offered a label contract but was unable follow through with the deal without a parental signature (teenagers weren’t allowed to sign deals without a parent's consent and Nique’s grandmother did not).
History has a way of repeating itself by throwing a wrench in his future at the worst time.
"We're hustlers, all of us. When you hear about Money Makin' Bros, we're all hustlers. The business model is really basic, if you want to sell a lot you have to have good product. Now, we’re in the phase of being hustlers who want some dough. What we gotta do to make a lot of money? You have to have good products. Let's make this the best it can be. Let's take elements from different sources so everyone can appreciate it. The narrative is common, but how it’s done defines people. Jay Z was a hustler but how he made it out made his story. Nas, Jeezy, T.I., the Clipse—rap is full of hustlers. We’re no different, but doing it in a fresh, bold and borderline disrespectful way."
Nique wasn’t an overnight viral sensation pending a Drake remix, he had a gradual rise that the city witnessed. He caught the blogs with a style that was smooth yet aggressive, street-edged without sacrificing his inner lyricist. He wasn’t trapped in one dimension, but one of the few in Atlanta who could make a project with J.I.D and Johnny Cinco, who could rap over beats by TM88 and The Alchemist. Alongside Two-9, Spillage Village, Wara From The NBHD and Rome Fortune, Money Makin' Nique was one of the anticipated new Atlanta artists rising through the ranks.
As Nique's name got bigger from 2010-'15, Money Makin Bros as a brand grew. They were in the streets constantly; if you didn’t attend a show you fell into one of their parties. They become faces you saw in the scene just by stepping outside.
To a world on the outside looking in, the city of Atlanta can appear to be a launching pad to send aspiring rappers into the cosmos. It’s as if our every rhyming Eastside oddity has an easier path to becoming a name known in households from Cleveland Ave to Cleveland, Ohio. This is untrue, a common misconception, a myth regularly reignited by the sudden arrival of every SahBabii and 21 Savage. When you’re here, actively aware of the scene, it becomes apparent how much talent never has a chance to shine beyond the city’s confines. Nique's record deal only further solidified that the city had another one to make us proud, especially once the potential incarceration was put behind him.
While there was a reason to rejoice to see another Atlanta artist on Atlantic, Nique confessed there was a misconception with the truth behind his deal:
"I didn’t sign a deal as an artist, I signed to Money Makin' Bros. I have distribution through ADA, which is Atlantic. That put the biggest weight on everything but I was optimistic. I would have resources. Prior to that, we did everything ourselves. Videos, shows—everything came from us. I was worried about being gone for such an extended time but when you have more resources, can you say it was a loss?"
Resources are what every artist hopes to obtain by aligning with a label. If you aren’t Chance The Rapper or royalty within the entertainment industry, you will eventually be greeted by a ceiling. Signing is a way of breaking through the glass, especially for an artist with a vision. Throughout our conversation in a quiet food court on the Southside of Atlanta, Nique would mention Roc-A-Fella and G-Unit, Jay Z and Jadakiss, albums over singles, talent over memes, and a lasting legacy over momentary gain. We talked of royal bloodlines in music, like the Marleys and the Carters, and how he would want that for his kids and their kids―impact that goes beyond the moment, into eternity.
Speaking with him only made what he told me more baffling: “They told me I should make a ‘Bitch U Guessed It.'”
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OG Maco’s massive single erupted in 2015, the song that broke him to the mainstream and introduced his name and sound to the world. Whenever something new begins to shake up the industry, there’s always a rise of replication. Nique isn’t Maco, he doesn’t have anything in his catalog quite like “U Guessed It,” and although the two collaborated on the noteworthy “Air Max 97's,” that's not what the label wanted more of.
Nique posed an interesting point:
"At what point do you say: Do I want a legacy? Do I want some money right now or do I want some money forever? We study guys like Roc-A-Fella, like Diplomats, even G-Unit. All of those niggas can still make money in today's climate because they had legacies to stand on. When it’s all said and done, when we’re done with this rap shit, I want to put myself in the position where I can still prosper based on my past work. No one will be hot forever. It’s going to get to a point where now you on the downslope. If you can stand on your legacy, you’ll always have your respect. You won’t always be the hottest in the game, but you can be one of the most respected niggas in the game. That’s what we shooting for at the end of the day."
Do you copy what’s hot to start a quick fire or do you take the far more difficult road and create something new with the hopes of creating a bigger flame? Even when a label is only in the position to distribute music, they’re able to make suggestions and discuss what the artist is creating. Behind the scenes is where artists realize what fighting for their creativity means. While his label circumstance hasn’t always been the most loving companionship, in our conversation he never went the route of dragging Atlantic through the mud.
Nique’s outlook is far more well rounded. “I don’t want to bash labels," he said. "I feel they are a necessary evil. I know myself, I know my strengths, I don’t have access to everything. I need resources. I’m trying to ascend. I’m all about working it out, everybody getting a piece and everybody benefits. Niggas gotta play ball with each other.” If you must climb in bed with a major, both parties must do their part to make it a gracious marriage. When the marriage is going through an incongruous phase, a common ground must be found, or else even more weight will fall on the artist's shoulders.
In that regard, time was ticking, the years were flying by, and no new Nique had made it online.
In 2014, before signing, Nique didn’t know what his next project would be. “It didn’t have legs at first, just shooting in the dark. Like a painter just throwing paint at the canvas,” is how he described the early process. Eventually, the canvas started to resemble the best A&Rs in Atlanta―a stripper. The strip club culture is intertwined with rap, especially within Atlanta’s music scene. But the vision Nique had was much bigger than portraying strippers as eye candy trophies or taboo sex workers, the concept was to give a slice of life portraying them as hardworking women with jobs:
"I got the most help putting this project together from women. My girl dance, but she’s also a photographer. She shot the cover of a dancer. All my homegirls are dancers and I put them on the project. I kept everything authentic. Everything was put together about the strip club and made possible because of strippers. I couldn’t believe with a storied past with strip clubs in the city of Atlanta, no rapper has made a project directly zooming in on strip clubs. Records get tested out in the clubs before they can go anywhere else. It’s necessary representation to see them as women. Working women."
For his first solo project in five years, Nique sought to pay homage to the unsung heroes in Atlanta while proving that he hasn’t lost a step. Released this past February, Bring Money Witchu juxtaposes these elements with songs like “Cascade Skate” and “Apple Head” for the heads who care about lyricism while “Locker Room” and “M” allows the women a voice to give their taboo work realistic representation. When you have an artist like Cardi B who has to scream for respect due to her background as a dancer constantly being thrown in her face, it only further reinforces why this concept is needed. Admittedly, Nique knows the topic is too broad to explore on a 13-track mixtape, but he wanted to give the voiceless a piece of his project. Stripping is an art like rapping, both can be seen as a hustle.
Bring Money Witchu may not have been the project the label expected when they signed Nique. I’m sure executives were baffled to hear a Zaytoven beat used as an interlude or being the fly on the wall of a strip club locker room, overhearing dancers being rained upon with dead presidents―but the project is still rooted in Atlanta aesthetics without leaning upon the city's most trite clichés.
“We’re inner-city children at the end of the day. Hustling, strip clubs, money, women, clothes and cars. We present it in a way that it’s music.” It's a quote that stuck with me long after our interview. It's very easy to get typecast in the music industry, for people to believe who you are based on perception. Seeing a naked woman on the cover of a mixtape could inspire both positive and negative reactions, but is it seen as art or shock value? Can you be a backpacker and still adore luxury cars and glowing chains? How do you quietly fight for your freedom and creativity while it’s perceived a label deal will be your road to prosperity?
There’s been an ongoing argument between major labels and going independent in this new internet era. Nique's story shows both sides and is still towing the line between the two. He carries the Jay Z method of moving in silence, never truly knowing if he’s grinding through the darkness or bathing in the sunlight. Roadblocks, derailments and even extended detours will happen regardless of whether you sign to a major or decide to do it yourself.
The reality is nothing is promised, you have to fight at every turn to move an inch for your vision, for your success, for your chance to make it. Hustlers never make it to the end of movies, tragedy always strikes, but Nique has survived each trial and tribulation thus far—the sign of a hustler who might just make it to the credits and join the ranks of all those who came before.
Hip-hop loves nothing more than a hustler who refuses to lose.
By Yoh, aka Money Makin Yoh, aka @Yoh31