That Time in 1999 When Magic Johnson Managed Ma$e
In the late 90s, artists like DMX, Jay Z, and Master P were driving the culture, but one name has somewhat been written out of history as one of the era's biggest stars: Ma$e.
Illustration by Michael Alcantara
Old Rap Shit is a column dedicated to unearthing the bizarre corners only found in the weird and wild history of hip-hop.
1999 was a wild year. Y2K was lurking, and people weren't sure what to make of the big bad 2000s looming around the corner. It was the end of an era in more ways than one, however. By the end of 1999, Napster would change music—and the world—forever. But most of 1999 was paved in gold for the music industry; it was a time to celebrate. CD sales hit their peak in 1999, giving the music business their most successful year in history, with some sources estimating revenues of $28.9 billion dollars. Business was booming. Labels were literally printing money. Sure, the pop princesses and boy bands of the world played a huge role in this, but one of the biggest driving forces was hip-hop. Artists like DMX, Jay Z, and Master P were driving the culture, but one name has somewhat been written out of history as one of the biggest stars of the late-90s: Mason Betha.
In the spring of 1999, Ma$e was literally sitting on top of the world (yes, this is a joke about Brandy and Ma$e's hit "Top of the World," did you catch it?) He was a year and a half removed from his monstrous four-times-platinum debut, Harlem World, and had dominated radio for the past two years. He had scene-stealing verses on two Hot 100 #1 records ("Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" and "Mo Money Mo Problems"), and was one of the most desired feature rappers in the game. From Brian McKnight to 112 to Cam'ron, his guest 16s were guaranteed to keep you on radio nonstop. He even had the first single from the Rugrats movie soundtrack—a song that also featured Blackstreet and Mya. Ma$e was the rap game golden goose.
So what was the next logical step for a rapper of this magnitude? To start his/her own label, that's what. In the late 90s, labels were literally giving away boutique labels to hot shot artists—and the budgets were wide open. If lightning could strike once, it could possibly happen again. Or at least the cosign would be powerful enough to push these vanity projects to gold or platinum. Easy money, right? In the spring of 1998, it was announced that Ma$e was partnering with Jermaine Dupri's So So Def label to create his own All Out record label, and his debut project would be from his group Harlem World, which included a little-known rapper by the name of Cam'ron.
Ma$e's side project and debut for the label, Harlem World: The Movement, didn't arrive until a year later—March 9, 1999 to be exact. Cam'ron was no longer in the fold (he was enjoying his own success as a solo artist, and was embattled in small beef with Ma$e over Ma$e not appearing in his "Horse & Carriage" video), and the nepotism was present as the group heavily promoted Ma$e's brother and sister, Blinky Blink and Baby Sta$e, who were both featured on the polarizing first single "I Really Like It." Full disclosure, I really liked "I Really Like It"—still do. But many rap fans thought Ma$e had gone totally pop, as the track flipped New Edition's teeny-bopper hit, "Popcorn Love." People were beginning to tire of the Bad Boy formula that had dominated radio for years.
Harlem World: The Movement was a moderate success, moving a reported 73,000 copies in its first week in stores. It eventually crept to gold, but was largely seen as a failure by Ma$e and Jermaine Dupri standards. But that wasn't the biggest surprise of March 1999 for Ma$e, not even close. Two weeks later, Ma$e was back in the headlines, this time for announcing that his new manager was none other than former NBA legend, Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Yes, you read that correctly: Magic Johnson was managing global rap sensation Mason Betha. Ma$e was the flagship artist for Magic's new company Magic Johnson Music Management, which had also added Boyz II Men and Kelly Price to the roster. And as I mentioned, label heads were giving seemingly anyone record labels back then, as Magic brokered a deal with MCA for his very own imprint, Magic Johnson Music. Magic had tremendous success as a businessman, launching his own line of movie theaters and franchised a number of Starbucks and TGI Friday's. Hell, he was a monster in the business world, so why couldn't he make a splash in the music game? Everyone was doing it.
Magic and Ma$e made their debut together at the 1999 Soul Train Awards. Both parties were elated to be working together, with Magic telling MTV News backstage: "We play ball, we work out, we talk about different things. What Ma$e needed in his life was a man who could understand his goals, his dreams, and also what he's going through as an artist, and I know all of those things."
"I want to help Ma$e reach his goals," Johnson said, "and I just sit in the back and let him do his thing. Watch out for Double Up, because we're gonna rock the world. Then he's gonna go on tour, Ma$e is, and then you'll see what we're talkin' about. It's a new Ma$e now, smilin', happy. He's been offered four or five movie parts already, two deals with TV, already people want to do deals with him. This guy is gettin' ready to blow up."
Random, but whatever. The 90s were filled with awesome randomness. But the bad thing about the 90s is that the internets were still in their infancy, so not much else is known about Ma$e and Magic's management partnership. I can't even find a picture of them together. In fact, there's only about half-a-dozen articles online that can prove this partnership even existed.
The twists and turns of Ma$e's career in the spring of 1999 didn't end there, as just three weeks after announcing his union with Magic Johnson, Ma$e abruptly retired from rap. On April 20, 1999 (4/20, maaan!), Ma$e released a statement through Magic's firm announcing his plans to retire from hip-hop in order to pursue a life of God. It was huge news and sent shockwaves throughout the industry. A rapper in his prime calling it quits? Sure, Master P and Too $hort toyed with clearly fake retirements, which the public largely saw through as publicity stunts; but Ma$e's announcement was clearly not a stunt. To put it into today's context, it would be similar to Travis Scott just up and quitting.
To put it into today's context, it would be similar to Travis Scott just up and quitting.
It was even more confusing because Ma$e had just gotten his own record label, signed with Magic Johnson, announced a tour, and claimed to have four or five movie parts coming. Not to mention his sophomore solo album, Double Up, was due out in June of 1999 (he vowed to only promote this album via spoken word engagements.) This was perhaps the weirdest month for any rapper in history. I can't knock any person who decides to change their life for religious purposes, but Ma$e's change flipped like a light switch. In rap's non-PC era he became a punching bag and a punchline favorite. I'm not here to speculate on why Ma$e retired or entertain any of the street rumors on the subject, but it was shocking decision to say the least.
With Ma$e unable to promote the album, Double Up flopped. His first single "Get Ready" featuring Blackstreet, was a sure shot smash, but without his support became his lowest charting single to date. Nothing was heard from All Out Records again. Nor about the partnership between Ma$e and Magic. I'm sure all parties involved were pissed—a lot of money was wasted, even more left on the table.
Five years later, Ma$e returned to rap and rejoined Bad Boy Records where he dropped a family friendly album titled Welcome Back. A year later he attempted join G-Unit. Twenty years after the release of his debut, Harlem World, one can only wonder what would've come from Magic and Ma$e's musical partnership.
Magic Johnson is now worth an estimated $500 million dollars.