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HomeMusicThe Hardest Working Label In Hip-Hop: Inside the Rise of Yo Gotti...

The Hardest Working Label In Hip-Hop: Inside the Rise of Yo Gotti and Collective Music Group

Yo Gotti can’t sleep. “When I lay down at night, my mind can’t stop running,” says the 41-year-old rapper-executive, sitting in his pristine, tan-toned trailer in the parking lot of a photography studio as the sweltering Miami sun descends outside.

Discussing something as personal as his life-long battle with insomnia is out of character for the fiercely private rap mogul. In most interviews, Gotti remains strictly hustle-centric, doling out advice on investments, ownership, and artist marketing techniques, imparting gems of wisdom picked up from billionaire friends Jay-Z and Michael Rubin. But as the sky transitions from baby-blue daytime to a twilight gradient, Gotti digs a little deeper. “I damn near feel like it’s a sickness or some sh-t,” he says, “because even at this point, my hunger and eagerness to win is something scary.”

Kept awake by an incessant stream of plans and questions — where he will be in 2023, the offices he still needs to build, purchases to be made — Gotti typically lies awake until 5 a.m., catching five hours of sleep until around 10 a.m. Even as a teenager, Gotti (born Mario Sentell Giden Mims) pulled all-nighters — but instead of being kept awake by lucrative deals, he was in the streets of North Memphis, hustling alongside friends from dusk until dawn and releasing raw, mile-a-minute rhymes under the name Lil Yo. A 15-year-old pushing his body to the limit, Gotti would lay his head to rest when most of the block’s alarm clocks began buzzing, almost never making it to school in time for homeroom.

“It just became a lifestyle — I’d be like, ‘I ain’t going to sleep. I’ma be getting to the money all night.’ ” Gotti adds with a smile, “So, I guess it’s the same now.”

Yo Gotti

Leaning back in his leather seat, Gotti unleashes a jaw-cracking yawn. He is inching towards the end of a nine-hour shoot day spent wrangling his latest class of label signees amidst 50-plus entourage members — and a couple of AR-15-toting security guards. Nevertheless, spirits were celebratory all day: Boisterous Memphis standout Blac Youngsta paraded around with a British accent and dished out real estate advice, while Louisville rapper EST Gee, surrounded by a handful of concerned onlookers, was caught in a struggle between a stain removal pen and the smeared lunch leftovers on his pristine white pants. (He eventually prevailed.)

Bay Area newcomer Mozzy coolly strolled around with a grateful smile after being surprised by Gotti with his own diamond-encrusted chain, interacting with a just-high-enough Moneybagg Yo, draped in Prada and Michael Kors, as recent R&B signee Lehla Samia quietly soaked in her moment. Gotti got almost everyone to Miami, save for Detroit star 42 Dugg — stranded 660 miles away at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport after missing his flight. (“I tried everything in the world to get there,” he said in a mid-interview FaceTime call to Gotti.)

Surrounded by his chosen family, Yo Gotti has every reason to be satisfied. He has painstakingly built an enviable career as a rapper — five top 10 albums in the past 10 years alone — but that’s only half of his story. Through his record label, Collective Music Group (CMG), the hip-hop mogul has achieved what most household-name rappers with imprints have not: breaking prominent underground names into a mainstream audience while continually shattering his own personal records. With his 10 signees, Gotti has established CMG as a formidable brand in the streets and on the charts, one with 50 Hot 100 hits and 12 top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, with the label scoring its highest-charting projects within the past year to help kick off a new partnership with Interscope Records.

“It’s rare to find somebody who’s an amazing creative but also a great businessperson,” says Interscope CEO John Janick of Gotti. “I think he’s a needle in a haystack, [because] he has mastered both of those things.”

Moneybagg Yo

When he’s not calling the shots at CMG, Gotti finds other ways to build wealth and influence, expanding his entrepreneurial portfolio into uncharted territories. The former college business major has investments across industries including food and beverage, gaming, restaurants and cryptocurrency. He owns “too many” properties spanning across the United States and recently entered the sports world, becoming a part owner of the D.C. United soccer club — one of only three people of color among fifteen club owners.

Really, it’s no wonder he’s so sleepless — but for Gotti, who finds the idea of taking vacations to be pointless, time to decompress is just time wasted. “I enjoy working,” he admits. “I actually feel like, if I weren’t working, I’d be bored as sh-t.”

As a teenager, Gotti focused on rapping as a “hobby” while hustling as a means to get by. He released his first mixtape, Youngsta’s On A Come Up in 1996, charging nothing to open shows for other acts and handing out his CDs from the trunk of his car. For the high schooler, becoming a full-time rapper was a pipe dream — until he received his first check. “I come from a street family. Everybody before me did the same thing, repeated the same cycle: sell drugs, go to jail, sell drugs, go to jail. We changed it,” he says. “Music changed it.”

Gotti got his first taste of musical revenue when local Memphis distributor Select-O-Hits bought a few thousand of his CDs for $6,500. That number pales in comparison to the $750,000 cash advance Gotti recently gave EST Gee upon his signing, but back then, it was exactly what Gotti needed to stretch his dreams just a little further — and start thinking big-picture.

“I started achieving things little by little, but I’m in the room with the person who’s 10 steps ahead and I’m like, ‘I could probably get to where they at,’” he says. “As you keep seeing doors open, that’s when it gets interesting.”

As Gotti rose through the local ranks in Memphis, 395 miles away in New Orleans, Lil Wayne was gearing up to release Tha Carter, a landmark album which would mark the start of the rapper’s meteoric rise and eventually go double platinum. Months before its release, a 23-year-old Gotti sat in rapper-turned-CEO Bryan “Birdman” Williams’ cushy New Orleans mansion, watching the Cash Money head listen to Wayne’s album for the first time alongside label co-founder Ronald “Slim” Williams. “This is just to give perspective of how close Birdman and Slim allowed me,” Gotti says. “I always give them high respect for a lot of the things I’m doing today.”

Throughout Wayne’s next five albums, Gotti remained close to the Cash Money team as he continued laying the foundation for his own rap career and label (originally called Inevitable Entertainment). Although Gotti never signed to Cash Money, Birdman became a mentor, taking the budding rapper under his wing and involving Gotti in the A&R and artist development branch under Cash Money.

Seven years after Tha Carter, Gotti was back with Birdman and Slim, this time stage-side during Wayne’s 2011 arena tour. As thousands of fans greeted Wayne with adoring screams, Gotti’s gaze was fixed on label leader Birdman, watching his home-grown superstar from the wings. “He had this look on his face, like, ‘N—as ain’t f–king with us, we done this sh-t,’ ” Gotti says, looking far beyond the interior of his trailer. “I was amazed by that. I wanted that.”

Since his formative experiences with Bird and Slim, Gotti has continued to evolve. In 2013, he signed a deal with the Antonio “L.A.” Reid-led Epic Records, officially shifting from Inevitable to CMG, and signing the first artist to the imprint, Memphis rapper Snootie Wild. (Wild died as a result of gunshot wounds in February.) At the time, CMG was colloquially known as Cocaine Muzik Group — a nod to the music’s “addictiveness,” says Gotti — and retained its hold on the underground scene in the south, but a mainstream surge had yet to come. Then, thanks to a bit of advice from a fellow label-running rapper-turned-entrepreneur, a turning point came.

“I was having a [phone] conversation with 50 Cent, and he was like, ‘Yo, you’re winning, but you can’t be Cocaine Muzik Group — that’s too harsh. They’re going to be scared of that,’ ” Gotti explains. “[I] thought about it like, ‘Damn, he’s right. What else does CMG mean?’ He put it in my head to start thinking in that direction.”

EST Gee

Gotti embraced the learning moment. Soon after, he officially tweaked the name to ‘Collective Music Group’ — a natural tweak, considering Gotti’s dedication to strength in numbers and the success of those around him. “He always got good game and [advice],” says Mozzy. “I try to soak up everything I can every time I encounter him.”

Gotti was keeping tabs on Mozzy, a widely respected MC whom rappers like YG have revered as a modern-day Tupac, for five years before officially signing him in 2022. “He sat me down and told me, ‘It’s a plate at the table, whenever you ready,’ ” Mozzy explains. The formerly independent rapper says he hesitated to sign with other labels, whom he didn’t trust when it came to his lifestyle and vision, but that Gotti was unequivocally genuine from the jump. Like Moneybagg and Youngsta, Mozzy aspires to transcend music, planning to try his hand at filmmaking and screenwriting. “One thing that stuck was when Gotti said, ‘One movie check could change your life,’ ” he adds.

Meanwhile, Gotti caught wind of 42 Dugg in 2019: “He saw me perform at The Big Show in Detroit and offered me a deal the next day,” Dugg told Billboard in 2021. Gotti visited Detroit frequently during the courting process and eventually signed him in a joint venture with Lil Baby’s 4PF Records. The acquisition of Dugg was momentous for CMG, expanding the label’s roster beyond the borders of the south.

“You know how many times I heard, ‘42 Dugg, he sounds different than Memphis rap, you think that’s going to work?’ Of course I [thought] it’s going to work,” Gotti says triumphantly. Dugg has scored eight Hot 100 hits since the signing, attracted huge festival crowds and collaborated with artists such as Marshmello, Meek Mill, Big Sean and Latto. In April, Dugg and fellow CMG rapper EST Gee’s collaborative project, Last Ones Left, debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200, a new chart high for Dugg. (Whether his recent arrest due to failure to report for a six-month sentence quells the burgeoning rapper’s momentum remains to be seen.)

When it comes to adding to his all-star roster, Gotti is aggressive, but doesn’t chase. “As a label, one thing we don’t do and will never do is be in a bidding war,” he says. “You want to be with us? Then we’ll work out business terms that make sense for both of us.”

That process was organic for Blac Youngsta, who gained Gotti’s attention in 2015 after showing up to the Memphis king’s video shoot and blasting his own music. “Within however long it took to film that video, we pulled off talking about him,” Gotti says of his second signee. “I took over,” Youngsta jokes with a soft laugh. “We thought it was dope,” Gotti adds.

Blac Youngsta, who has lost two younger brothers he helped raise in recent years, now says he rediscovered family with Gotti and CMG. “I trust Gotti with my life,” he says. “Believing in his vision, I made it to a stage where I could stop rapping if I wanted to.”

According to his signees, Gotti says to chase the dream, not the money. “That’s my go-to line,” he confirms with a smile. “Young artists are blinded by dollar signs. Everybody wants a new car, to move their momma out to a bigger house, jewelry, the nice things in life. I think everybody should have exactly what they want, but there’s methods, strategies and tactics to get everything. Artists turn me off when it’s all about money.”

So, they’ve got to have heart? “They’ve got to have the it-factor,” he corrects.

Case-in-point: Moneybagg Yo. In 2016, “Me and [Blac] Youngsta start working, and he immediately asks me, ‘You looking for another artist?’ ” Gotti recalls. “There’s this dude Moneybagg Yo, he’s hot.’ ”

Around that time, Moneybagg Yo was 26 and a member of the rap collective Memphis Greatest Underrated (MGU) alongside Youngsta. Moneybagg himself was about six mixtapes in and had built a considerable fan base in his native Memphis when the group broke up. “Youngsta blew up first, then I blew up — there were too many egos,” Moneybagg says.

Upon hearing Moneybagg’s music, Gotti began flying him out to collaborate on a handful of songs with a vision to expand the rapper’s reach far beyond Tennessee — which would have been difficult for Moneybagg to do on his own. “I had the mind frame to be independent,” he says. “But then I started looking at my career differently, and I was like, ‘Man, certain doors won’t open if you ain’t connected, so it’s just a sacrifice I have to make.’ ”

CMG’s $220,000 signing bonus made that sacrifice a little easier, as did seeing his performance rate explode overnight. “I was getting $2,500 a show, then I signed with Gotti, and I started getting $25,000,” he says. “My career just kept going up, then I started doing the Chitlin Circuit — Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee — and the rest was history.”

Moneybagg’s 2021 album, A Gangsta’s Pain, debuted atop the Billboard 200 — his first chart-topper and another watershed moment for CMG. Its third single, “Wockesha,” spurred a viral trend on TikTok and amassed over a quarter-million videos, further proving the Memphis hitmaker’s potential to dominate as a crossover artist. While pushing Bagg’s career forward, Gotti found time to reach personal peaks as well: His eleventh studio album, CM10: Free Game, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in February, a new career high.

“That was crazy, right? Like sh-t, I’m trying to chill and this sh-t going up,” he reflects. Naturally, Gotti doesn’t like to take full credit: “Everyone on the team plays a part in the win” — as he adds with a chuckle, “that’s why it’s called Collective Music Group.”

Blac Youngsta

It’s evident to Yo Gotti’s team — many of whom have been by his side since the beginning — that Gotti’s own form of mentorship extends beyond music. The multi-hyphenate is intentional about expanding his business to build generational wealth and uplift his community and encourages those around him to walk in the same path. He notes the seven Rolls Royces parked outside the shoot location: “These guys jumping in and pulling off, they didn’t have these cars when I met them.”

Both Moneybagg and Youngsta looked to Gotti for advice when it came to launching their own respective imprints, NLess and Heavy Camp. And the CMG head honcho mentions conversations with Youngsta and Dugg on real estate investment, citing his own early mistake of renting five houses at once and owning none. Even Interscope co-head of A&R Nicole Wyskoarko has come to view CMG as family and Gotti as a mentor, noting the CEO’s humility and business acumen. “He aggressively taps into the resources we have, but at the same time, we’re constantly learning from him as well,” she says. “I’m in the trenches with [CMG] and Gotti is truly in the trenches with us.”

CMG may now be a national enterprise, but Gotti’s heart and efforts remain inextricably connected to the south. In early 2020, he learned of the human rights violations happening at Mississippi’s Parchman Prison — a correctional facility built in 1901 spanning 3700 acres and housing 4800 inmates, initially called Parchman Plantation.

“The things that were happening in the prison were just crazy, they were unimaginable,” Gotti explains of the videos he saw of life there, depicting rats scurrying between cells and feces-tinted water trickling from faucets. Determined to take action, the rapper, who is managed by Roc Nation, reached out to label founders Jay-Z and Desiree Perez, and the three got to work suing the state of Mississippi over Parchman’s unlivable conditions. Their efforts led the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Parchman and subsequently deeming the prison’s conditions as “unconstitutional.”

Gotti grew up just two hours north of the prison and says his own childhood memories of being driven to visit incarcerated family members inspired him to raise awareness and take action. “I believe there’s power within information,” he explains. “If I’m this powerful person and no one else has that information, what if something happens to me?”

In conversation, Gotti emphasizes the importance of being a good student as well as a teacher, absorbing nuggets of wisdom in every room he enters and taking time to consider different angles. When asked a question, he may at first seem as if he doesn’t hear it — he doesn’t flinch, and stares off into the distance for an almost awkwardly long pause. But then his gaze shifts back, newly equipped with the most methodical response.

“[Gotti] is always learning and is not afraid to take advice,” says Interscope’s Janick. “I think any great person in business needs to have that attribute.”

In early 2020, Gotti announced via Instagram that he had ended his deal with Epic Records, masters in hand. “Shoutout to Epic for that,” he says today, “Because they could’ve made that way more difficult for me and they didn’t — they made me pay something heavy, but I appreciate them letting me purchase it.”

While his departure from Epic was amicable, the rapper was hesitant to reenter the world of major labels. A year later, however, his cold feet thawed, opening the door to negotiations with Interscope. Janick recalls a brunch meeting in Malibu with Gotti, after the details of the deal had been ironed out (a several month-long process) but prior to the signing of any paperwork. “[Gotti] said, ‘Before I sign the deal, I just want to make sure I’m a partner, and you realize I do my thing,’ ” Janick says. “Fortunately, he’s had a high batting average. It’s a tribute to his learning over a long period of time, but he’s also in the weeds on everything with his artists.”

Mozzy

Since announcing the deal in June 2021, Gotti has developed a friendship with Janick — the pair text, FaceTime, and wine and dine together frequently. With the partnership, “the stats, the plaques,” for CMG are different, Gotti says. But “I don’t think anything severely changed for me. The things that changed are the things that were supposed to change. We were already on a path, we just got into a bigger magnitude of working.

“One thing I like about John is that at the end of the day, he wants to win, and I want to win,” Gotti continues. “We ain’t going to go to no restaurant to get drunk and talk about how good the alcohol is. We both wolves at the end of the day — we’ll be talking business.” As for the rumored $10 million price tag: “Oh no way, incorrect. I would’ve never done that,” Gotti says with a laugh. “I’ll tell you this though: The number had to be right, but more importantly, the structure, the opportunity, the partnership, the people I was going to be building with for the next three to five years are way more important to me than the number.”

For his second interview with Billboard, Gotti is seated in the office of his Atlanta mansion a little after noon, a vast green space peeking out from the window behind his swivel chair. “After 1 or 2 a.m. is when it gets silent for me,” he says. “When everybody else sleeps, it’s my personal time. It’s just me and my thoughts.”

While Gotti is happily a workaholic, the father-of-three does wish for a little more time to spend with his kids, including his 18-year-old son Mario Jr. and two daughters. Soon, he’ll head to Washington D.C. to check in on his latest acquisition, D.C. United, which came about last September through Mario Jr.’s love for soccer. The proud father admits that he’s unsure how his son gravitated towards the sport. “No one that I know ever played soccer,” he says, then jokes, “We don’t even know what soccer is in Memphis. We thought a soccer ball was like, a flat basketball or some sh-t.”

In his earliest meetings with international soccer stars, Gotti had no clue who they were. “I’m in between pretending I know you and texting my son at the same time to figure out who you are,” Gotti says, noting that Mario Jr. would often excitedly request a signed jersey from the players. But as usual, Gotti watched, listened and learned, and was undeterred: he eventually bought into the sport, reportedly for around $730 million.

Lehla Samia

Most recently, Yo Gotti has set his sights on conquering the R&B space, by way of his latest signee, Lehla Samia. “People look at Lehla like, ‘Why would you sign an R&B girl? Why would an R&B girl sign with you?’ ” Gotti says. “Sh-t like that only fuels me. Like, oh okay, catch us next year.” In the meantime, he turns his own interview into a teachable moment, bringing in the recent signee to sit within ear’s reach and undergo her own informal media training.

By next year, the CMG mogul plans to have opened an office in London, entertaining the possibility of signing a UK drill artist, and sooner than later, releasing the label’s all-star compilation album. At a stage in life where many popular artists start to slow down, it’s obvious the magnate is moving in the opposite direction, with the same all-consuming drive that kept him awake as a 15-year-old in the streets of North Memphis. “Hustling is a talent. It’s no different than how an NBA player or rapper is born with that gift,” he says.

Reflecting on the moment onstage with Birdman and Lil Wayne, Gotti says he knows that feeling now, looking on as his own rising stars soar on their respective stages, and with that comes a singular type of fulfillment. “Seeing Moneybagg perform at an award show, Blac Youngsta building houses, that’s a different feeling for me — to know I play any part in that story,” Gotti says. “And money can’t buy that.”

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