Before he was Lil Wayne, and before he was even Baby D, Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. was the son of a single mother, growing up in New Orleans’s 17th Ward. As a member of the Hot Boys, Wayne put New Orleans — with its gold slugs, oversized white tees, Reeboks, and infamous housing projects — on the map. Even as a bonafide superstar with a legitimate claim to the title of “Best Rapper Alive,” Wayne’s verses were still peppered with references to his childhood, his neighborhood, and his city.
As a rising DJ and radio personality for New Orleans’s Q93 station in the mid-’90s, Wayne Benjamin, known to his listeners as Wild Wayne, witnessed the rise of Cash Money’s young prodigy. He was the first to break Wayne’s early records to the rest of the country and, in recent years, has been one of the few members of the media to whom Lil Wayne has granted in-depth interviews.
Wild Wayne recently spoke to The FADER about the formative days of Cash Money, the importance of the Hot Boys, and Lil Wayne’s legacy in the city of New Orleans.
WILD WAYNE: I started doing radio in ’91, just as a part-time little hustle in college. After doing it just for a couple of days, answering the phones and doing some show production work at the station, my character kind of was born: Wild Wayne. I was in college — I was a hot boy at that time — so it just blew up from there. It was a night show, and we were breaking all of this new music. Not just New Orleans music, but early Rap-A-Lot and Suave House stuff. That’s when a lot of stuff started happening musically in New Orleans.
The New Orleans rap scene didn’t have much of an identity yet when I first started. Most of the stuff that New Orleans folks were on, in terms of the consumer, was music from outside of the city. There were only a handful of groups at that particular time: New York Incorporated, Sporty T, Warren Mayes, who was one of the first people to get a [record] deal here. Gregory D and Mannie Fresh were a group, and that was Mannie Fresh pre-Cash Money. That was the early days.
Not long after that, Cash Money started doing their thing. Cash Money already had boots on the ground and were making waves as an independent label. We probably had more labels than anywhere in the country at that time. A lot of them were just overnight successes, one-hit wonders. Cash Money was not the player that they are now with the legendary status, they were one of those labels that was trying to get on. But they had a good formula, and if you know New Orleans music, they were a kind of a fusion: they were gangster and bounce.
When Cash Money first started, their artists were PxMxWx, Kilo G – Kilo G was their very first artist and their first release. I remember having the wax for that record. I don’t remember who serviced me, but it was Kilo G’s Sleepwalker. That was my very first Cash Money memory. Baby put out a project called Need a Bag of Dope, and they also had U.N.L.V. I was actually living Uptown on 6th and Baronne [in New Orleans’s 3rd Ward] at that time. The house where [U.N.L.V] shot the cover for 6th and Baronne was across the street from where I lived.
After Kilo G got killed, the label kept pushing, and Juvenile became their big deal. I would talk to Baby — they used to have an office at the start of Tulane Avenue — and he would always tell me about this kid that would leave a rap every day on their voicemail message at the office. They were like, “Man, this kid is really nice.” And that was Wayne, but they didn’t call him Wayne at that time. He was known as Baby D. It was him and B.G. — who went by Lil Doogie — and they had a project called True Story as The B.G.’z. It was a bright turquoise-blue cassette. I'll never forget it. Wayne was just coming off the block then.
Around that time, Cash Money linked up with a guy named Bobby Marchan. He was a star in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but as the sun set on his musical career, he became a promoter and a booking agent. This is a story nobody ever tells, but he was integral in making them into a business versus just some rap guys. That kind of set them apart from all these other neighborhood corner-store record labels. He was the guy that first started booking them in places around the country, after they had started getting some status. He was booking them in Detroit, booking them in Phoenix, booking them in Little Rock, and all of these places.
The Hot Boys were revolutionary for the music game, because nobody had ever seen anything like that before. Four dudes from the hood, some of them 13 and 14 [years old], driving cars, landing on shit in helicopters, nobody had seen nothing like that. To this day, I still meet artists that were influenced by them guys. “The Hot Boys made me want to rap,” I’ve heard that so many times over the years, and I’m talking about artists from around the country. Those projects became synonymous with hood lore: Cabrini-Green, Fort Greene. Magnolia and Calliope had that kind of global recognition, which was crazy, us being the murder capital of the world around that time. The recognition was there, heavy, and sometimes for the wrong reasons.
“The Hot Boys were revolutionary for the music game, because nobody had ever seen anything like that before.”
When you’re in the city with the same artists, you get a little jaded because you see them so much or you know their story. If you’re from New Orleans, you might have gone to school with them or you might even be related, or know somebody that’s related. People here knew, obviously, that they had arrived, and they had made it. But sometimes I don't think people knew how big they really were. You know, “My mom used to babysit him.” It has a different relevance. But when they started getting some of those big looks — The Basement on BET and stuff like that — I think people started to get it. Seeing them on some of the video award shows with whoever was a rap god at that particular time and not going in suits — Tees and Rees. That was the thing. People were like, “Wow.” Not only did they arrive, but they didn’t sacrifice their style and what they were doing. They were ignorant as shit during that time. They didn’t care, and that was kind of the beauty of it.
Juvenile had such a big personality, not only his personality but his aura, so everybody else was in his shadow. But it was pretty clear that Wayne had something different, a special kind of thing going on, this magic in a bottle, because his rap was not necessarily like other New Orleans rap at the time, but it wasn’t like the mainstream stuff either. Tha Block Is Hot really cemented him as being that dude. And he was so little, as in short, I think it made him even bigger, in a funny kind of way. He was this little-bitty guy spitting all of this stuff, and I think that was another thing that gravitated people towards him. A lot of times, people root for the underdog. His rhyme flows were different, too. He was doing punchlines before it was in vogue.
The thing about the Hot Boys that people don’t always realize — and it’s kind of a sad thing right now, for New Orleans music — was there were so many things that were uniquely New Orleans in their raps. You weren’t going to hear some of the things that they were saying anywhere else, by any other artist, ever. Just about the New Orleans experience. And I think the fact that New Orleans is an impoverished city, and the fact that we have a musical heritage beyond rap is a crazy combination, because it gives you not only the sonic quality of music, but it also gives you a different step when you're in these situations. When you’ve got high-crime, high-poverty, high-incarceration and you have a culture as well? That’s a crazy combination that really can’t be duplicated. So they had a lot to draw from, and Wayne was a wordsmith. He definitely had a huge fanbase, and they were on him.
All of the Cash Money artists would come through Q93 during that time. They had a relationship with the station, and they were cranking out music, so we broke all of those records. The thing was, they were the most consistent. Our program director was on it, and we were at a different place in radio. Whereas radio is more regimented now and has national programming and all of that business, we were able to play music from independent labels. New Orleans music was a problem for the national record companies. We were spinning more New Orleans music than national records for a time. They were pumping millions behind these groups, and we got independents that were getting more play than their artists.
With most child stars, they go through those growing pains. And he definitely went through that whole thing. When Juvenile left, and Baby put [Lil Wayne] up to doing that 500 Degreez album, it just about killed his career. Juvenile was a god at that time. For Wayne to go at Juvenile — that turned off a lot of the base around the country, but it turned off a lot of New Orleans people, too. He said in an interview I did with him a few years ago that he still had love for Juvenile during that time, and I think it was something that he got pushed into doing. Really, it was more for the label than it was for Wayne, because they wanted to make sure that the world knew that they could still stand on their own without Juvenile. But it backfired, and Wayne didn’t get his legs back under him until The Sqad Up mixtape series started to catch on. Sqad Up was on the front end of the mixtape craze. It didn’t get radio play, but people in New Orleans knew every word to every one of those records.
You still had a couple naysayers but, at that time, after the Sqad Up tapes and the start of The Carter series, Wayne was god here. Even though they had kind of listened to his music before, now they felt like the hottest rapper in the world is from my block, he's from my area, he’s from my neighborhood, he’s from my city.
[Hurricane] Katrina really moved everybody out. I stick by the statement that there’s more talent block-for-block in New Orleans than anywhere in the planet, but there’s very little music business happening here to foster growth for artists to help continue to grow the culture, and to grow a business. A lot of times, people will be hung up in this whole thing where, “They've gotta move out of New Orleans, because you won't play 'em on the radio!” No, they have to move out of New Orleans because they’ve stretched their wings as far as they will go here, and now it’s time to develop your brand and bring this unique music to the masses and have some business behind it. So they had to move. They had to get out of here.
I'm a little disappointed. Not with Wayne, and not with the people of New Orleans. But with how the city of New Orleans has not put Wayne’s accomplishments on the pedestal that it deserves. You always hear them talking about Louis Armstrong and a lot of different people that absolutely were a crucial part of New Orleans music. But you don’t hear them discussing Lil Wayne, and he’s outsold all of them.
His legacy was the people, especially the people in New Orleans that have held him on their shoulders and have bought every mixtape, read every article, seen every video, and made it a point to be at every show. But those other folks, the system I guess I’ll say, has never championed him. Not even just from a musical standpoint, but the fact that he has remained true. To always talking about New Orleans and the world knowing that's Lil Wayne from New Orleans, to me, is a huge piece. It’s kept eyes on New Orleans and this could be some sort of reciprocated respect for him, and I don’t think that’s happened.