Rap's Ultimate Outsiders

You'll see lots of big-name rappers on the Grammys this week, but the one who outstripped them all in 1999 didn't get a single nomination. So Wednesday night Juvenile, whose CD "400 Degreez" sold 4 million units, will work Rochester, N.Y.--taking the stage, as usual, by leaping out of a giant Plexiglas Rolex. Last month he got one nomination at the American Music Awards, but was passed over as a presenter. The New Orleans-based Cash Money Records click--including Juvenile and Lil Wayne--had to be in L.A. that weekend anyway (to do "Soul Train"), but they skipped the Dr. Dre and LL Cool J parties and chilled at their hotel in the Valley (read: Siberia) shooting craps. Not sulking; just staying out of trouble. They're rap's ultimate outsiders--and the biggest deal in the business.

Cash Money's owners, Baby and Slim (Bryan and Ronald Williams), started peddling CDs out of a car in 1997. Last year, with 7 million albums, they outsold rap's premier labels, Bad Boy and Def Jam, thanks to such Southern bounce hits as Lil' Wayne's "Bling Bling" and Juvenile's "Back that Azz Up." But the click, mindful of the recent arrests of Jay-Z and Puff Daddy, keeps a low profile. "When you're at the clubs or these parties you have no control over what happens," says Slim. "Then trouble starts and it's all on you. You go to jail, your career is over--and we're not having that." Juvenile (Terius Gray), with his head rags and full-frontal gold, is no camera-ready Puffy, but when an MTV reporter asked him how much jail time he'd served, the answer was none. Is it his street image that makes the industry leery? Or his label's untrendy origins, neither East nor West Coast? "I can't worry about what people think," says Juvenile. "It would be nice to get the respect we deserve, but what can you do? The work should speak for itself." With titles like "Back that Azz Up," that may be part of the problem. But the money talks loud and clear.