On a hot street of chain-linked yards in North Nashville, not far from the hot-chicken joint 400 Degrees and the auto detail shop known to the neighborhood as Pinky's, sits a small abandoned house. Paint peels from its railing in ragged strips. Plywood sheets stand where windows should be. On its porch, a lifetime ago, Young Buck used to fall asleep.
What dreams he had back then usually involved money. When he was 8 years old, he pumped gas at the Shell station over on D.B. Todd, for money. When he was 9, he cut his neighbors' grass, for money. As he got older, he found other ways to make bank.
"I used to hustle at that car wash back there," Buck says, gesturing past a scrubby fencerow. A guy could get lost in that thicket if he needed to. A lot of times in those days, Buck needed to.
"I could cut straight through my backyard, go straight through the car wash, so when the police came, I was just runnin'," he says, with a touch of nostalgia. After that, Buck never stopped running. Only the hustle changed.
For decades, the local club scene complained about a "Nashville curse" that kept non-country Nashville acts from making it big. Six years ago, the curse was broken — not by Kings of Leon, now filling arenas around the world, nor even by Paramore. No, the artist who busted the curse wide open was a rapper from hardscrabble North Nashville, who parlayed his life and hard times on Seifried Street into a golden ticket.
It seems longer, but it was only three years ago that Young Buck, his label chief 50 Cent, and the crew collectively known as G-Unit were on top of the music industry: selling out stadiums, dominating headlines and releasing an avalanche of celebrated albums. The collective LP Beg For Mercy, featuring Buck, 50 and Lloyd Banks, has sold 6 million records worldwide. Buck's 2004 solo debut, Straight Outta Cashville, sold a quarter-million copies its first week, marching on to platinum. His 2007 follow-up Buck the World has been certified gold in America (while selling 1.2 million copies worldwide).
Only something massive could slow such momentum. To the mystification of many, however, it did.
Rap careers are notoriously short, even by the standards of music-industry fickleness. But where the Tone Locs, Chingys and Coolios of the world have fallen into obscurity because of age, changing trends or weak material, Young Buck's situation is unique. At a time when labels are recycling artists with a history of high sales before taking risks on new talent, Buck's label chief is contractually blackballing his own multiple-times-platinum artist from releasing an album. It's not business; it's strictly personal.
Despite the legal odds stacked against him, Young Buck is defiant in his belief he can maintain his success. He released a track titled "The Flood" to raise awareness of the recent disaster, and on Aug. 27-29, he and his Young Buck Foundation are hosting a Celebrity All-Star Weekend to raise money for flood victims and provide back-to-school supplies for kids. He's never forgotten that his rap career started in Nashville.
But that doesn't mean he wants it to end there. Thanks in part to 50 Cent, he made it straight outta Cashville once. And now, thanks to 50 Cent, he's got to fight to do it all over again.
The man who sits alone in a recording booth, during downtime in a Music Row studio, comes across as anything but a temperamental thug lifer. He answers an interviewer's questions without bravado or evasion; he looks people right in the eye, giving the impression he has no reason to look away. He doesn't seem like someone who'd stab a man on camera — even if the weapon of choice was later found to be a fork — as he did in a headline-making melee at the 2004 VIBE Awards, after someone threw a punch at rap elder statesman Dr. Dre.
Instead, Young Buck is a generally affable guy. Quick to joke and smile, he has a charismatic demeanor that dominates whatever room he enters. His energy is never higher, though, than when he's recording. His excitement when he steps into the booth matches any athlete — Brett Favre, Derek Jeter — who is celebrated for "having fun" on the field.
He bobs, he sways back and forth grinning at the bars he's just thought of. He shouts his trademark ad-libs with passion, punctuating them with yelps of "Yea!" and "Aye!" Forget the game, the business: Young Buck really loves to rap. He claims to have over 100 tracks recorded for his latest project.
"Do the math, averaging around five records a day," he says. "It's very seldom a day I'm missing being in the studio. If I'm not right here on Music Row, I have all of this [recording equipment] in my own home. I never stop working. The hardest part for me is actually choosing the record — it's a good problem."
The man who named his solo debut and his independent label after Nashville certainly still lives Music City. Along with Mason jars of weed and gutted blunt shells, the studio where he's recording is littered with Swett's carryout (which naturally spawns the Swett's v. Arnold's debate). One crew member's chain dangles a sparkling figure of the Volunteer State's parallelogram outline.
"I grew up on a street called Seifried in North Nashville," Buck says. "From there we moved to South Nashville and I lived from J.C. Napier homes all the way down to the Square. From there we moved to the South Seven Projects. I went to Hillwood sometimes, I went to Overton sometimes, I went to Whites Creek sometimes — all in one year. I never made it past ninth grade."
Even as a 12-year-old Buck had gathered a reputation for rapping locally. By his teenage years he was in the battling circuit.
"If you go in depth in any ghetto, you're gonna have individuals that rap — that's like an outlet for the inner-city youth, period," Buck says. "I had created an awareness like, 'Lil dude right there, he be spittin'.' The reputation of me being known for rapping made other individuals, my age and older, seek me out to prove they were better than me. It wasn't like the East Coast type of battles, it was a battle of 'how many raps you got', 'how long can you rap,' ya understand? 'Who's gonna quit' — that was the Southern way of battling."
His buzz got him signed to Cash Money Records in New Orleans at 16. The deal didn't result in success, but he learned the importance of working his hometown when brushing shoulders with Southern-rap royalty.
"I was blessed to run into Scarface as a child and he told me, 'If you don't have your home behind you, you ain't got nothing,' " Buck remembers. "So when I left [New Orleans] I had this mentality that I was going to get my city behind what I do."
Nashville is Buck's birthplace and where he almost died, as well. In 2000, while involved in narcotics distribution, he was shot and required a blood transfusion at Vanderbilt Hospital.
"I would involve myself in whatever it took to get money, and it led to an individual that kicked in the door, to try and come and take it," Buck explains. "I only took a couple leg shots, but they were basically life-threatening, because they were so near my arteries I lost too much blood.
"After making it through that whole situation, I just vowed to myself that I can't do the both of 'em, I gotta choose. Either I'm gonna be in these streets and hustle, or I'm gonna be in this music business and hustle.
"That's when I discovered it only cost $300 to press up a thousand CDs," Buck recalls. "I sold 'em for 10 dollars a piece at the Citgo gas station by TSU at the time. I started to realize, 'Damn, I'm making more money sellin' my CDs than I am sitting up in this house trying to sell this stupid-ass shit.' "
Buck is reapplying that DIY attitude as he tries to resurrect his career. He's taken a workmanlike approach to his forthcoming mixtape Back on My Buck Shit Vol. 2. He doesn't write his rhymes anymore. The process is nothing like clips of Jay-Z smashing the entire "99 Problems" verse off his head in one take. Instead, Buck meticulously crafts and records two to six bars at a time, then loops the beat back and continues the verse.
But it signals something more. After rapping for nearly two decades Buck is still committed to elevating his ability, perfecting his craft. That may explain why he's still standing despite his current predicament — a head-on collision of wills, whims and egos that has largely played out in public, yet isn't any easier to understand because of it.
Theories for why G-Unit Records head 50 Cent and Young Buck had their falling out fly back and forth — money owed, money held, drug abuse, disloyalty. Attempts by the Scene to contact Angel Martinez, G-Unit Records' product manager, and Laurie Dobbins, 50's handler through Violator Management, never materialized into an interview.
But there's no disputing the result. Before he can sign to another label, Young Buck contractually owes G-Unit Records two more albums. And with his hand contractually around Young Buck's throat, 50 Cent has no intention of releasing them.
"His reaction, being so harsh, is to basically stall me out to a position where I lose everything, to where my numbers drop," Buck says. "Because if you don't have a new product out, then you can't go get the big dollar for your shows. [He wants] to pretty much destroy my life from a silent-sided way of doing things. That's his angle, and my contracts allow him to be able to do that."
With no official album forthcoming, Buck and his own local label, Cashville Records, have relentlessly released free mixtapes to stay in touch with fans. (Most people snag them online, but you can find them around town at outposts such as hip-hop clothier Hang Time in Swett's Plaza.) Signed rappers generally use mixtapes to garner buzz before an album release; the resulting free music is often inferior work. But anything less than major-label grade is a privilege Young Buck can't afford, without an upcoming album to garner buzz.
"You give the mixtapes out to stay relevant, and to fulfill the fans' needs," Buck says. "The difference of Young Buck compared to other artists is that I treat each project like it's an album. The average mixtape is 10 already heard tracks. My music is always unheard, brand-new music. A lot of artists really downgrade their mixtapes."
But mixtapes don't keep the lights on. The man who once rapped, "My bank roll's swollen, a nigga can't fold it," now relies on restless touring to pay bills. While the product is still an invigorating, high-energy show, the process has become less glamorous. Young Buck's manager, G.I., who doubles as president of Cashville Records, explains their blue-collar approach to the game.
"It's like he [50 Cent] can put the pause button on his [Buck's] career if we just sit back and let him do it, vs. get out here and start grindin' and doing shows and driving to the shows," G.I. says. "[Buck] drives to his own fuckin' shows, ya know what I mean? Fuck some G4 jets, dude, we in Suburban trucks, doing it the real way."
Young Buck has relied on shows for income his whole career. Indeed, a controversial 2008 interview, where he claimed to depend on show money because he never got a royalty check, is one of the bees in 50's bonnet keeping Buck in contractual limbo. But without a major label's promotional muscle, his shows today face twice the struggle drawing a crowd, even if the effort onstage is unchanged.
"Honestly, I've been blessed to see soccer stadiums filled up, and come out on the stage and rock with Eminem," Buck recalls. "[Now I'm] going to smaller venues where it's 10,000 to even smaller than that to the thousands to even smaller down to the hundreds, the twenties. That doesn't make me no difference. Whoever is there, I treat 'em as if it was 100,000."
Though Buck gives his all for any size crowd, he does still bring in the masses — particularly at regional shows.
"With no album out I'm selling out venues," he says. "I think it's because people are aware of what I'm going through, and we put out so much music."
But Young Buck's career freedom extends no further than mixtapes and shows. While 50 Cent has casually made Buck a professional pariah in the rap world, Buck remains a favorite of prominent Southern rappers. Recently, New Orleans rapper B.G. (a longtime friend of Buck from their time together on Cash Money Records) wanted Buck for a verse on his song "Owe Me Some Money." The collaboration was scrapped when 50 Cent deemed it impermissible.
"I'm actually friends away from the music with some of the hottest artists that are runnin' hip-hop," Buck says, citing names such as Lil Wayne, T.I. and Juvenile. "All of these individuals that have a lot of success, they want me to be a part of their projects.
"The problem is, I go to be a feature on their hit record, and then they have to go to 50 Cent to clear me on the record, and he says, 'No.' And they're looking like, 'Well, damn' — cause if it wasn't for that I would probably be on every record that's out right now, cause everybody and their mama reaches out and gives me support."
It appears that 50 has made a modus operandi out of petty disputes and huffy paybacks. He similarly belittled ex-G-Unit member The Game in another conflict over "rap loyalty." He habitually fabricates rap beefs as marketing schemes for his albums. New York rappers Jadakiss and Fat Joe received 50's wrath simply for doing a song with former rival Ja Rule. In an obvious publicity stunt feud with Miami rapper Rick Ross — conveniently prior to the release of 50's 2009 LP Before I Self Destruct — 50 Cent flew the mother of Ross' child to NYC and took her shopping.
So what did Young Buck do to incur 50's smiting? G-Unit did not return requests for an interview. But elsewhere, on radio and in print, previous explanations have been floated, either by 50 himself or by G-Unit underlings. 50 Cent has accused Young Buck of owing him money, or having a drug habit.
But the charge that seemed to matter — to 50, anyway — was disloyalty. In the balkanized rap world, where hip-hop impresarios expect their subordinates to toe the line in any squabble with rivals, be it real, imagined or trumped-up, it wasn't looked upon kindly when Buck performed with one of 50's "enemies," such as Lil Wayne.
This may have created inconsistency in the group's image. But to Buck, G-Unit's ever-growing beefs had become fake, a marketing masquerade.
"In the beginning everything was so real to me," Buck recalls. "When I met 50 Cent, honestly Yayo [G-Unit rapper Tony Yayo] was still in the street, he had substance on him at the time. What I'm saying is, everything was real from when I met them. When it came to me being part of the beefs and things of that nature that came along with 50 Cent, I treated it like it was real."
Buck acknowledges that 50's initial feud with Ja Rule was "a real situation." But he came to understand that his role playing enforcer in myriad rap beefs was a repeated gimmick.
"I made the decision of jumpin' in all those situations," he says. "But after I started to get amongst these individuals, run into these individuals and realize that some of these beef situations — we didn't have issues with these dudes. I ran into Jadakiss in Las Vegas, I ran into Game in Las Vegas, Jim Jones and the Dipset I ran into in New York, Fat Joe I ran into in Chicago. I'm runnin' into them and taking these approaches like it's real. [But] they like, 'Naw, Buck, it ain't like that, we fuck with you.' I didn't feel right continuing going at this dude when I just ran into [him] and we cool.
"It was an act to sell records, without a doubt," Buck says. "I think the fans started to catch on to that — 50 doesn't know when to say enough is enough. The money that he's been blessed to be able to get has instilled the feeling of being untouchable. Because the things that he does now are things that he would have never thought about doing if the finances weren't there."
Tensions between the two came to a head after a March 2008 interview with the online magazine Yo! Raps. "I've never seen a royalty check since I've been signed with G-Unit," Buck was quoted as saying. "So, hell yeah, I'll tell you one damn thing, the show money is that good. I've never in my career cashed a royalty check. How you like that?"
Clearly, 50 didn't. But Buck chalks up the subsequent beef to miscommunication and a lack of context. His album Straight Outta Cashville, he says, is the only G-Unit album to recoup the label's investment.
"The money it made, so I'm told, was being put back into other projects," he says. "That's the way a lot of contracts are written out to be. When I made a statement, 'I've never received a royalty check in my career,' I was just answering a question: 'How important are doing shows to you?' I said shows are everything — that's how I pay my bills, that's how I feed my family — because I've never seen the back end. I didn't make that statement [to say] 50 Cent was stealing from me, I said it 'cause it's true."
Nevertheless, in an effort to spin the comment and maintain the perception that everyone in G-Unit swims in tanks of gold like Scrooge McDuck, Buck says his then-manager Sha Money XL released a statement claiming the interview was false, and that Buck had made over $10 million with G-Unit. While Buck notes that his manager was just trying to keep things copacetic with 50 Cent, he says the figure was totally fabricated.
"Ten million dollars is a lot of money," Buck says. "I ain't never seen nowhere near 10 million dollars. Sha Money at the time wanted to dress the situation up but it didn't work."
By that point, Buck says, 50 Cent was no longer returning his calls. The next thing he knew, a couple of days later, on April 7, 2008, he got a call from G.I. "Yo, you might wanna go to the Internet," his friend and future manager told him. "Your man is live on Hot 97 saying you are no longer a part of G-Unit.' "
Sure enough, 50 Cent had gone live on New York radio station Hot 97, essentially the CNN of the rap world, to deliver the news that Buck was out of his crew. He told the on-air jocks that Buck had aired G-Unit's dirty laundry in interviews, and he essentially compared Buck's behavior to another excommunicated former ally. "You can look at that and see that's Game all the way," 50 Cent explained to the hip-hop nation.
"I think you have to give them something to blow it out of proportion," 50 Cent told an MTV News interviewer, taking it even further. "Buck did that. I think that what he was saying, in order to validate himself as a man, he feels he has to go against what I'm doing, similar to some of the things we've seen from Game. ... [But then] he'll back off of it, when we're in direct conversation. When he's out in public, he'll say something."
According to Buck, however, the split began before 50 Cent took offense to his interviews. He says in 2007, around the same time as his sophomore LP Buck the World, 50 had a dispute over money with Sha Money XL, then G-Unit Records' president as well as manager to Buck and other G-Unit members. According to Buck, 50 asked them all to fire Sha Money. But Buck's relationship with his manager — he was best man at Sha Money's wedding — made him balk at the order.
"Of course [Tony] Yayo got rid of him, [Lloyd] Banks got rid of him," Buck recalls. "Me? That's my friend. I didn't have an issue with him, and then I have an album out. So I made a decision to stand with Sha Money, and from that day the resentment started." Phone calls to Sha Money XL's desk at Def Jam, where he's now senior VP of A&R, were not returned.
Long before his public dismissal from G-Unit, Young Buck says, the group ostracized him. They began touring without him, and 50 Cent withdrew all effort promoting Buck's second album. After months without speaking in 2008, Sha Money finally got 50 Cent on the phone with Buck.
The conversation that followed is the now Web-famous recorded call featuring a choked-up Buck pleading to end differences. In the conversation, he asks to stay in the group, cites problems paying his taxes, and hovers on the verge of tears. Though most of the time these days he's generally upbeat, Buck still feels betrayed.
"I hadn't spoken to 50 Cent in eight months, they had been touring [without me], they got this mixtape without me," he says. "I had run into a lot of bad situations, my tax situations. I was really going through a thing financially. I've always looked at 50 as a big brother from the beginning because that's the feeling he gave us all."
Though unconcerned what affect a cracking voice and tears may have had on his image, Buck is still hurt that 50 used the moment as a public jab.
"If you listen to that conversation, the last words 50 Cent says [are], 'OK, I know what to do, we gonna get this right,' " Buck recalls. But instead of getting things right, 50 posted the emotional conversation on his website a month later, after Buck's royalty check comment surfaced.
"I don't feel less of a man," Buck says. "It was real. It was me speaking from the heart to what I thought was my brother."
The sense of betrayal is perhaps only matched by Buck's regret over what might have been, if seemingly minute differences hadn't snowballed into professional captivity. Beyond the two albums that now weigh around his neck, Buck was poised to expand the once insatiably popular G-Unit brand as head of a record imprint.
"There was so much that we had that was planned," he says. "I was looked upon to be the CEO of G-Unit South Records. I had so many movie offers at the time to get off into other things besides music. Never in my worst nightmare would I have imagined being in the situation I'm in now."
Considering how raucous Young Buck was during his time in the spotlight, it is startling how quietly 50 Cent has exacted his revenge. It doesn't seem to matter that by stifling one of his own label's most popular artists, he's arguably hurting his own wallet. His contractual imprisonment has effectively — and Buck's fans hope, temporarily — hushed the Nashville rhyme-slinger in an industry known for quickly forgetting former stars.
Buck hopes to use his local appeal to fight the situation. From visiting his old North Nashville haunts, it's clear he's a superstar in these parts, a dream up and out personified. At Northside Auto Clean Up, known to everybody as Pinky's, the proprietor — Pinky — walks past a garage wall papered with innumerable ancient Polaroids to a bookshelf, from which he proudly withdraws a huge Young Buck poster.
He still remembers the day after the 2008 CMA Awards when Buck brought his pal Snoop Dogg to shoot a video in the adjacent parking lot. Word got out, and hundreds of people flooded the lot with posters and signs, clamoring for Snoop's and Buck's attention. Pinky jokes that if somebody'd had it in for Snoop, who's had his own feuds over the years, it would've made the easiest site in the world for a hit. But a friend of Buck's had little to fear.
"He felt like Buck said it was all good," Pinky says, "And it's Buck's city, so it's gotta be all good."
While the obvious obstacle in his career is 50 Cent's contractual sabotage, Buck is still looking to diversify his brand. In one song being considered for his next mixtape, he raps about "remixing hits like this with Tim McGraw."
"My goal is to venture off and start doing more music with the country music artists here," Buck says. "There is no reason for me to be born and raised where country music has such a popularity, for me not to be somewhere in that loop. Because music touches so many genres of people. There's something that country music can introduce to this hip-hop world, and there is something that this hip-hop world can introduce to country music. For a long time I was biased to a lot of things of that nature because I didn't listen to it. I'm basically growing up and turning into a better artist and I'm trying to expand my music."
But just like his scrapped plans with G-Unit Records, Buck's new aspirations all hinge on getting out of his current contract. The situation recently became more complex when G-Unit Records (except for 50 Cent) was dropped by its parent label, Interscope. So the label contractually binding Buck's hands is now an independent entity itself. But Young Buck says there are plenty of options to alleviate his situation — if the offended party would allow it.
"He [50 Cent] can get a percentage of whatever album I put out — say, at Atlantic Records," Buck says. "I could work it off that way, or he can open up my budget and let me complete the two albums I got left. It's so many variations that my situation can be worked, but he's not even come to the table.
"So I'm left to tell you that it's strictly personal with dude, for what I have no idea. I haven't fucked his bitch, I haven't stole nothing from him, I haven't done nothing to him to make him not want to see me feed my family."
The fact that the two parties have had basically zero communication since 2008 intensifies the stalemate.
"To this day 50 Cent has not been man enough to give me a conversation face-to-face or over the phone," Buck says. "I did everything a man could possibly do to try to grow some type of understanding. I come from the ghetto, from the streets. So taking a legal approach about things is not my way of doing business in the beginning. If we can do business without going that route I'm always down for it. "
Unfortunately, Buck's uncertain grasp of the finer legal points of his plight further hinders his cause. In conversation, Buck has a hard time pinpointing the specifics of his deal. If he didn't sign the contract without understanding it, at the very least he signed without ever expecting to run afoul of 50 Cent. Buck feels the insulting public nature of his exile is a result of his independent character, as well as the animosity 50 has for him.
"I think 50 had pre-planned what he would do if ever my separation came about 'cause I was the only individual he couldn't basically Muppet-play, control like that," Buck says. " 'Cause I was my own man."
He has certainly seen the peaks and troughs of the rap game, and Young Buck isn't that young anymore. Born in '81, he's staring down 30 harder than he used to mean-mug rap rivals in his prime. But his ability has continually improved, his charisma is as captivating as ever, and his hunger suggests an all-time high. He might have a few more stalwart Southern-rap albums in him. Until his current contract malaise is settled, Buck is one of countless hard-gigging Nashville musicians hoping to catch a break. Buck seems certain he is destined for another dance with stardom, describing himself as "a multi-platinum artist — point blank."
"I don't want to sound conceited, but I know," Young Buck says. "My thing now is to be better than I was the last time. I know the hustle never stops with me."
And if his luck holds out? He'd really like to buy that house on Seifried Street — the one where he grew up looking for ways out, the one where he honed the skills he rode to the top of the charts. He laments that the people who own it would rather just let it sit there abandoned than sell it to him. It could really be something, he believes, if they'd only turn it loose.
"If I had that house," he says, "I'd make it the best house on the street."
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