This is fact: Cash Money Records, the Southern rap juggernaut that is famously home to Lil Wayne, has never signed a white artist — until now. And that's just fine with 25-year-old Kevin Rudolf, the label's latest official act. Not only is he light on melanin, but he's a guitar guy as well. In Rudolf, Cash Money has also signed its first rock artist.
"I happen to be on Cash Money Records because we just vibe musically. It's a real connection, a real label, and it's a real situation for me," Rudolf says on a recent afternoon at one of his favorite haunts, The Greek Place in North Miami Beach. "My music is definitely authentic and it's not tampered with, which is more than I can say for almost every other album that comes out right now. What I'm saying is absolutely 100 percent true to myself, and that is why Slim from Cash Money Records is backing me. He believes in me. You hear a Britney Spears record, it's been amped. If you buy my record, you're listening to something that's real."
A waitress brings a pot of Greek coffee and declares she is Kevin's biggest fan. In fact, she says, she heard Rudolf's new single, "Let It Rock," featuring Lil Wayne, as someone's ringtone this morning. Rudolf is appreciative of the enthusiasm, but relaxed. "I'm really no different from Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp; it's not a big deal," he says, clearly joking. "I'm just an ordinary superstar."
Although Rudolf isn't yet a household name, his musical contributions are instantly recognizable. A New York native, he boasts a long string of production and songwriting credits in the hip-hop and pop worlds. As a guitarist, he contributed the distinctive riffs in smash hits such as Lil Kim's "The Jumpoff" and Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right." He has also worked with Justin Timberlake, LL Cool J, David Banner, and Ludacris, among many others. So the Cash Money thing really isn't such a stretch after all.
Rudolf's debut album, In the City, is due out on the label November 25, but its lead single is already gaining serious heat. "Let It Rock" hit number five on the Billboard Hot 100 and has dominated iTunes top 10 download charts. "That track with Wayne is like a cherry on top. I am honored to have him on the album. It's an amazing collaboration, and the guy is brilliant," Rudolf says. But he wants people to know the track is more than just a hot single; it's part of a cohesive, larger work. In the City is a concept album, in fact: "It's about the people that I've met, the people that I've known, and the experiences that I've had."
As far as the style of the music, it's a blend of genres that seems raw but sounds radio-ready. Rudolf says his music has been called, somewhat cringe-inducingly, "gangsta emo," and he is trying to mix the anthemic rock styles of Sting and Phil Collins with hip-hop. "We're kind of beyond inventing new genres of music. Now we're sort of making a collage and piecing together different genres. Music is about writing a great song with a lot of heart and being true to yourself," he says. "I can choose where I want to take the listener. My music is about finding some understanding within myself — learning how to live, survive, and function in a world that tries to take away your individuality. That's why it will connect with people."
Rudolf's iPhone rings. It's Slim, Cash Money's CEO, and he's on his way to the restaurant. A few minutes later, the exec pulls up to the curb in his black Rolls Royce Phantom.
"Good music will always sell, and I love Kevin's music. He is a great producer and a great writer," says Slim, stepping outside the car just long enough to shake hands and chat. "I've been listening to Kevin's music for a while. The record was good before we even put Wayne on it. But Wayne made it even better." He gets back into the Rolls and drives away.
Back inside the restaurant, Rudolf explains his easy relationship with Cash Money. "I can just do what I do. Slim allows me to make my music the way I want to make it," he says. "That also contributed to Wayne's success, because Slim let Wayne be who he is. People love Wayne for who he is. And you need that, because you need an advocate in this business to get you through. If you don't have that, it's tough."
The waitress returns and says she just heard "Let It Rock" again, on the TV set at the bar. "Oh shit," Rudolf replies. "They play it sometimes on ESPN when they cut to commercials during a game. I heard it on Monday Night Football. They played it on the premiere of 90210." He smiles. "You've got to let the magic develop. You can't force the magic."
Watch Jason Handelsman's initiation into Lil Wayne's Cash Money world, in the latest episode of the online series PrunkTV.