It’s ironic that Rick Ross has become one of the decade’s most trusted voices in rap. The authenticity of his storytelling has constantly been questioned — a supposed plug who later admitted to being a C.O., taking inspiration from a real kingpin. Ross isn’t the sole rapper in the history of the genre’s 40 year plus existence that was inspired by Freeway Ricky Ross — but he is the biggest.
Rappers like Ross are often accused of glorifying the drug trade, even by the people that inspire them. An industry that claims thousands of lives and incarcerates as many more. “The record labels promote it as if it’s fact. Just like the guy that took my name… that they gave my name to. Kids believe that that’s really his name,” Freeway Rick Ross told HNHH in a 2017 interview. “When we sold drugs, it was hard to gang bang and sell drugs. Because to a certain extent, you become a public figure. And if you’re a gangsta, who put in work, somebody’s gonna be after your head.”
But, as in films like Scarface or Goodfellas, the rise and fall of the protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your POV) becomes far more compelling when the stakes are high. In both films, the lead characters lose everything they’ve worked for. Scarface was fatally struck by a barrage of bullets in one of the most iconic shoot-outs in Hollywood history, while Henry Hill not only broke the cardinal rule of the 10 Crack Commandments — getting high off his own supply — but also turned into a government informant, breaking the universal code of the streets. Omertà.
The works of Martin Scorcese and Brian De Palma solidified, molded and influenced the crime genre in the years that followed, planting an everlasting seed in hip-hop during the early years of its expansion. Ross might portray this larger-than-life figure but he’s far more of a De Palma or a Scorcese than he is a Tony Montana. A director who materializes his creative vision into a body of artwork that remains influential in his respective field. He had an ability to dive into the mud with guttural trap music, helping to define the genre. Rick Ross’ lush production sounded like a film score, while his dramatic screenplay allowed him to occupy space with the trappers and corporate figureheads alike. His pen paints vivid pictures of luxury and crime over orchestral production that amplifies the opulence in his baritone, Cuban cigar-braised voice.
The idea of being hip-hop’s “biggest boss” was truly an act of manifestation. His experiences of growing up impoverished in Carol City and his aspirations of wealth and luxury informed his art from the very beginning. On Erick Sermon’s Def Squad Presents Erick Onasis, Rick Ross appeared as Teflon Da Don, which he’d later use for his fourth, and arguably best, studio album. Rick Ross delivered detailed portrayals of poverty juxtaposed with a lush lifestyle typically only afforded through laborious years as an Escobar-type figure. Lavish yacht cruises with silk shirts blowing in the wind, accompanied by supermodels and infinite amounts of champagne. It’s a way of life led by the most dangerous, most hated, and most successful. John Gotti, the original Teflon Don, is well-known for climbing the ranks, from a life of poverty to leading one of America’s most powerful crime families. Rozay, in a sense, carries that aura with him as best as he can. His infatuation with the mafia has remained a part of his rap identity from the start. Rozay may have been hip-hop’s defacto “Fat Boy,” even after slimming down, but he emphasized the notion that if he eats, everyone around him does, too.
The Gold Rush
Wale, Meek Mill, Gunplay, Teedra Moses, Torch, Stalley, and Pill became the star-roster to Rozay’s Untouchable MMG empire. An interesting array of artists, Rick Ross’ knew what each member individually brought to the table. Wale, the backpack rapper who saw a bit of commercial success through his Interscope debut, and Meek Mill, a battle rapper who initially signed to T.I., became the label’s pillars. Gunplay and Torch were familiar faces for anyone who had been following Rozay’s career up until that point. Meanwhile, Pill, although apparently not an official signee of MMG, became the Atlanta MMG counterpart as trap continued to bubble through mainstream consciousness. With Teedra Moses as the R&B/Soul representative of the team and the go-to person for hooks, the team quickly expanded with the addition of Stalley, Rockie Fresh, and Omarion, among others.
To the benefit of Rozay, the roster of artists needed little development by the time he signed them. He was ready to hit the ground running with the major label resources that were available. The release of MMG Presents: Self Made Vol. 1 — the first, and best, installment in the Maybach Music compilation tapes — put Rick Ross in the director’s seat; executive producing the project and harnessing the strengths of his team. Songs like “No Hands” proved Wale’s versatility as a skilled MC who could deliver strip-club anthems as well as poetic backpacker shit. His fiery passion and competitive nature as an athlete was matched by Rick Ross’ own faith in his trajectory. Meek Mill, an artist whose claim to fame was through mixtapes, freestyles, and battle raps, stepped in the realm among giants and proved that he was, indeed, the next up from Philly — a city that birthed and nurtured the likes of Beanie Siegel and Freeway.
Ross played to all of their skills, though in a sense, he also applied his own sound, hustle and aesthetic onto them. While “600 Benz” is a banger, Wale’s overall sound is more fitting on a track like “That Way.” Meek stood closely by Ross’ side, more so than anyone else on the label. At surface level, one can attribute it to the similarity in their birth names — Rick Ross, born Williams Roberts, and Meek Mill, Robert Williams. Meek reflected that same hustle Ross had just years prior. Coming from impoverished backgrounds, driven by their aspiration to not only make it out of those circumstances but help others do the same. “This situation is moving fast. Usually, a new artist coming in the game wouldn’t do things at this rate. I know as a new artist in the game, I wouldn’t have done anything for another seven months. I wouldn’t be moving at this rate right now,” Meek told Complex in a 2011 interview about signing to Rick Ross.
As a collective, they charged into the game off of the brute strength of Ross’ energy. Between the years of 2009 and 2013, MMG released thirteen projects including both Dreamchasers tapes and Meek’s debut, two studio albums from Wale, three albums from Ross, French Montana’s album and three installments of the Self Made tapes with a revolving door of talent. But shortly after this epic and relentless run things started to slow down and get rocky. As with most collectives and groups, internal disputes bled onto the internet and the friction between the label’s two flagship artists quickly became public. Meek’s relationship with Rick Ross thickened while it appeared that Wale was left astray. “Wale just ain’t gone tweet a thing about my album…. He’s been hating on me long time now …don’t even text me cornball! #UNOTMMG,” Meek tweeted. Besides the pattern of Meek sporadically summarizing his issues with others on Twitter, a comment like this made it clear that Meek was acting as if he was the actual second-in-command to Ross. And while Meek would later double down on these claims, fans had already noticed the tension between the two during an interview at the BET Awards in 2011 when Wale essentially took over Meek’s camera time. It would be a few years, but they would ultimately squash their beef with Ross’ mediation.
Regardless of opinions around Ross’ past, his music has touched the streets in so many facets. And even as an A&R and talent scout, the choices in signing artists like Meek Mill, Gunplay, Rockie Fresh, and Torch — artists that truly spoke to the core of Ross’ own audience — made the most sense. Gunplay, for example, was lining everything up for his debut album that was initially announced in 2012. Within the same time he’d collaborate with Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and release his biggest single to date, “Bible On The Dash,” he wound up facing a life sentence on charges of armed robbery after he allegedly pulled a gun on his accountant. Fortunately, the charges were dropped; unfortunately, it coincided with a decline in his buzz. Stalley and Rockie Fresh stylistically leaned closer towards Wale than Meek, but the approach Ross used for the former didn’t work. Wale already had an established backing from his proximity to Jay and Ross simply helped him crossover to a larger hip-hop audience than he had before. Maybe it had to do with the fact that Ross already had his plate full. In retrospect, projects like Savage Journey To The American Dream and Electric Highway didn’t necessarily fit the mould of what MMG was representing at the time — even though those two specific projects deserve far more recognition than they get.
Even the biggest of bosses face strenuous hurdles that either make or break them. Ross is no different. A nasty feud with 50 Cent (that he’s still egging on in 2020) exposing his previous career path, health scares following multiple seizures, an alleged heart attack, a kidnapping and assault case; Ross has weathered through gargantuan storms that could’ve dismantled the very empire he built from the ground up. Coming out from the other side of that, Ross isn’t entirely unscathed, but he survived. That same hard work that contributed to Ross’ hospitalization also brought the results that he was seeking all along.
“It may be because that was our priority at the time. Establishing the brand. Make sure mothafuckas know we was here to win and win for the long-run. And guess what? We’ve been doing it,” Ross explained to Joe Budden about why MMG hasn’t really moved as a unit in recent years. He realized it was time to build his legacy outward; expanding the MMG empire by allowing his artist to build theirs. “And me being Rozay, the only way to really do that is to make sure I’m supporting their individual visions, as well. Which is Dream Chasers and Every Blue Moon… This shit, it keep goin’, you know what I’m sayin’? We winnin’ in a lot of different investments, a lot of different shit. We took our time to also invest, not only money, but our passion into it.”
Rick Ross’ “Verzuz” battle against 2 Chainz reminded everyone of the weight the “M-m-m-maybach Music” tag still holds. It’s symbolic, in a sense. It represents aspirations of wealth and power. Ross manifested the American Dream and then he sold it to the world. Then, he sold it again when he propped up artists like Meek and Wale to position themselves as bosses, too. Would Al Pacino have played Scarface if Francis Ford Coppola didn’t cast him in The Godfather? Maybe, but Coppola, much like Ross, saw the potential before anyone else did. It’s a testament to his resilience, and vision as a leader. MMG isn’t as forcefully flooding the streets as it once did. After all, every empire has to fall. The peak of MMG may be regarded as a short run but its impact will be everlasting. Ross applied the leadership and vision of a director with the relentless hustle of a kingpin to cement the MMG tag in the soundscape of hip-hop.