Brian "B-Money" Hughes has a tip for budding hip-hop producers. "The best advice I can give to anyone that's coming up: Make sure you get yourself a good lawyer," Hughes says by phone from New York City. He's been burned once by 50 Cent, he explains, but that won't happen again.
In the background you can hear the bustle of the city: truck engines humming, car horns blaring and the faint rhythm of B-Money's feet headed downtown from his home base of Queens, where he moved in 2000 after growing up in St. Louis. Every now and then, he has to pause as the subway rumble eclipses his voice, which is smooth, friendly and straight to the point.
B-Money's on his way to a meeting with yet another major label. He's been busy, he says, since his manager requested a high-quality version of one of his tracks. "My manager called me up late [October] and was like, 'Yo, I need this song. Somebody at Def Jam wants it.'" B-Money delivered the instrumental track and his manager started dropping hints. "He was like, 'This might be big. It's for somebody at Roc-A-Fella.'"
Hughes did the math; he knew Jay-Z's Kingdom Come was set to drop in a month. "I was like, 'OK, who else is there at Roc-A-Fella?' I put it in my head: 'It must be Jay-Z because there's nobody over there left.'" But the producer who most St. Louis hip-hop fans would recognize either from his DJ gigs at Blueberry Hill's long-running Friday-night party the Science or from his time spent as hip-hop buyer for Vintage Vinyl filed the information away; he's seen his share of near-misses. Then his manager called him back and confirmed that Jay-Z wanted his track.
Says B-Money: "I was like, 'OK, that'll work.'"
Nearly 680,000 people shelled out for Kingdom Come in its first week the biggest hip-hop release of the year so far. The album features tracks by some of the industry's hottest producers, including Just Blaze, the Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Dr. Dre and Kanye West.
But before the "name-brand" tracks kick in, listeners are greeted with "The Prelude," produced by B-Money. It's a smooth, rolling, East Coast-style track that samples Mel & Tim's 1974 song "Keep the Faith." The original is a slow, quiet-storm ballad ripe for a candlelit evening with a lady, silk sheets and a bottle of Bordeaux. It features soft strings, a floating alto sax melody and an odd, intricate bass line. (Madlib alter-ego Quasimoto uses the same sample on his great track "Axe Puzzles.")
B-Money adds some pepper to it. He speeds up the sample to give it a little more funk, pitches the saxophone a bit higher (it sounds more like a clarinet) and gives it more immediacy. The result is a louder storm, still relaxed but with a sense of danger. And this beat carries Jay-Z along as he wades into the first track: "The game's fucked up/Niggas beats is bangin'/Nigga your hooks did it/Your lyrics didn't." Considering the barb, it's hardly one of Jigga's best rhymes his debut, Reasonable Doubt, begins with this stunner: "I'm makin' short term goals/When the weather folds/Just put away the leathers/And put ice on the gold" but it picks up as Jay-Z, considered by many to be hip-hop's greatest-ever emcee, piles rhymes.
"The Prelude" is typical of B-Money's aesthetic. He draws more inspiration from East Coast minimalism than from the dope-infused West Coast vibe or the synthetic bounce of Southern rap. "New $$$," his track on Use Your Confusion, the new CD from New York City crew the Juggaknots, revolves around an electric-guitar riff funneled through a wah-wah pedal and contains a jerky, off-kilter drum beat. On "Cakin' Off" by Miami's Dynasty, B-Money drops a furious organ-and-guitar bomb.
Before placing his tracks on bigger releases, B-Money spent his time turning his amazing scratching skills he's a member of St. Louis turntable crew the Wax Murdaraz into cash. His scratches appear on Jennifer Lopez's 2002 hit single, "Jenny from the Block," and on Murphy Lee's debut CD, Murphy's Law. Yet the nascent producer received his big break on 50 Cent's "Hustler's Ambition," the lead-off track from the soundtrack to Fiddy's 2005 film Get Rich or Die Tryin'. On the cut, B-Money loads a falsetto vocal hook from Frankie Beverly and Maze into his funk machine, and the result is a floating, ethereal beat around which 50 Cent drops his standard-issue stutter-step rhyming.
"That was a really strong learning experience, man," B-Money says of his major-label production debut. His previous placements had all been on low-budget indie hip-hop releases, and he was used to receiving a flat fee for a track. But major-label releases, especially for something like the eagerly anticipated 50 Cent soundtrack, should have garnered B-Money a cut of the publishing royalties which is where the real money lies. B-Money, however, was a novice at the major-label game.
"It's funny," says B-Money, "because I really thought that was a good fit for me musically. But it didn't work out." When he got the phone call from 50 Cent's G-Unit crew, the producer was giddy, but the excitement didn't last long. "They called me about two weeks before they were going to use the song, and told me basically I had to take it or leave it.
"They weren't really willing to give up any publishing on the record, and my lawyer didn't have any experience in how to back them into a corner." Neither B-Money nor his lawyer understood what cards they were holding. The filmmakers, it turns out, had already included the track in the movie, and had B-Money refused the initial offers and held out for a cut of publishing, it would have cost thousands of dollars to remove the track. "So I had way more leverage, but my lawyer wasn't poised and let it slide."
So, says B-Money despondently, he received a single-payment advance, and nothing more. He's since canned his old lawyer and hired an industry veteran. As a result, he says, he'll get paid much more for his work on Kingdom Come. Exactly how much, he says, is unclear. He's got an advance on the way, and is currently negotiating publishing rights. "We're still trying to work that out to find out how much the [Mel & Tim] sample's going to cost," he says as the rumble of the subways gives way to the silence of an office building. "But that's common in this business. Just because the ink's dry doesn't mean all the business is done."
(For Andrew Friedman's review of the entire Jay-Z album, click here.)