Outside of business, Young Thug plays a big-brother-type mentorship role with his artists, giving them advice about personal matters. Lil Keed and T-Shyne say Thug has helped them financially, not only putting them in a position to change their circumstances, but also advising them on how to manage their assets. “He tells me, ‘Save your money. Don’t just be trippin’ with the money. It’s going to be times when you buy shit you really don’t need, but just slow down on that.’” Lil Keed also recalls conversations about personal finances he’s had with Thug. “He said that’s what he used to do all the time. He’s telling me, ‘Don’t be doing all that shit. That shit don’t really be meaning nothing, for real.’ So I stack my money up and save it for later on.”
The advice Gunna soaked up is a little more personal. “He’s given me pointers on women before,” he admits. “I had this situation with this girl one time and she was trying to play me. He brought it to my attention and told me what to tell her. I ended up on the better side of the situation because I followed his advice. He’s always going to put me down on some game.”
The family dynamic of the label extends to 300 Entertainment. YSL is technically a subsidiary of 300, but the parent company doesn’t take responsibility for the label’s success. Instead, Liles and Bass suggest 300 acts as extended family. “Our belief and our energy is to serve a vision, which sometimes might not be clear at the beginning, but you believe in the prophet so much that you humble yourself to say, ‘I might not know where we’re going, but you know where you’re going, so we’re willing to follow,’” Liles says. “In my career, I’ve never been one to feel that we make artists or make labels. No, we believe in the people. We believe in their vision. We help finance their dreams. We’re true partners.”
The YSL team has full creative freedom, but Liles says Thug always keeps his partners at 300 in the loop on major updates. “I’ve got a special phone that’s a rare phone,” he reveals. “So I know if he’s calling that number, something exciting is about to happen. When you get a call, ‘Kevin, guess what? Are you sitting down?’ It’s that kind of thing that keeps us alive as 300.”
As a result of 300 and YSL’s strong partnership, Bass says the team is able to produce some of the most creative rollouts and campaigns in the industry. In 2018, YSL famously sent snakes to media companies to promote the label’s first compilation album, Slime Language. “Because this is Young Thug, because this is YSL, we’re so free. Thug inspires everyone who works for him to think outside the box and realize there’s no limit,” Bass says. “He gives everybody that works on YSL the confidence to think freely, think bigger, and think independently.”
Young Thug’s impact, of course, extends much further than just the label. You can’t turn on the radio without hearing Thugger’s influence on artists’ tone, delivery, and style. Perhaps T.I. said it best when he recently told Complex, “Thug is probably one of the most influential artists of this generation. The things that he’s gone out on a limb and tried, nobody else would’ve done it that way but him. I think that puts you in the boss seat, because anybody can go by the status quo. For the new generation, he’s definitely one of the front-runners for creating a wave.”
Everyone on YSL agrees that Thug has changed the landscape of rap forever, and a lot of what dominates the charts is a product of what’s happening inside the Pit. “Slime done originated a lot of shit, but he isn’t going to say it,” Lil Keed says. “But everybody knows Thug does a lot of shit first. We start a lot of trends over here, for sure. We trendsetters.”
One clear example of YSL’s dominance on culture is the use of their lingo in mainstream singles. In particular, T-Shyne and Strick suggest the word “slatt” was borrowed from YSL’s vocabulary. “The biggest record that sold this year was Roddy Ricch’s ‘The Box,’” T-Shyne points out. In the song, Roddy sings, “Told ’em wipe a nigga nose, say slatt, slatt.” T-Shyne exclaims, “Come on, it’s our lingo!”
August 2019 was a critical moment in YSL’s history. After years of praise as an innovator, Young Thug finally earned his first No. 1 album when So Much Fun debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart with 131,000 album units in its opening week. Ogunlesi says it not only marked a huge personal milestone for Thug, but it proved that the YSL ethos can be effective at the highest mainstream level.
“It was a massive turning point. You have somebody like Thug, who for years has been culturally influential and a pioneer, but when you have somebody who’s so pure and so about the art, it doesn’t always match commercially,” he explains. “It was so big for Thug and for us, because now you have somebody who’s pure to the art, and the commercial success matches who they are inside. I think that’s amazing and monumental, because it shows that you don’t have to necessarily compromise who you are as an artist to reach that pinnacle of success.
Later that year, Gunna released his debut album, Drip or Drown 2, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart. Then Lil Keed followed with Long Live Mexico in June 2019, coming in at No. 26. And this year, YSL continues to build on their successes. In May, Gunna released WUNNA, which debuted at No. 1, while Lil Keed’s Trapped on Cleveland 3, which dropped in August, peaked at No. 41 on the Billboard 200.
Ogunlesi points out, “Gunna going No. 1 is very, very important. Because it shows that not only can we identify and sign talent, but grow them into hitting a pinnacle for us in the United States.”
“YSL made my career,” Gunna adds, point-blank. “With the loyalty, and just putting the passion in, that shit is everything to me. YSL is my career.”
With just a month left in 2020, YSL is prepping the release of its next compilation project, Slime Language 2. And as they plot the next phase of their careers, the mission that launched the brand four years ago has not changed. The goal is still to rake in more No. 1 albums and continue to turn artists into multimillionaires, as YSL hopes to expand on a global scale.
“It’s always about getting better and striving for more,” Ogunlesi says. “How do we become influential in the U.K.? How do we become influential in Nigeria? The goal is to become one of the biggest and most well-known brands in the world.”
While he admits there is much more work to be done, Ogunlesi predicts, “When it’s all said and done, YSL won’t just be an ‘Atlanta hip-hop label.’ It’ll be a global brand and label. It’s about taking the right steps to get there, and also maintaining this incredibly strong brand that Thug has built. I think it’s one of the strongest brands in the industry, culturally.”
As Black-owned labels are becoming more successful, YSL is in a unique position to shift and control culture. Its biggest competition at the moment is Quality Control, but even that rivalry is founded on family and friendship. “It’s competition in the friendliest, most family-oriented way. It’s all love,” Ogunlesi says. “Especially as Black entrepreneurs and Black CEOs, of course we want them to win. We need them to win, because that paves the way for more.”
Should YSL continue to set the standard for rap’s sound, Ogunlesi says, “I think you will see it as something similar to a Cash Money. That’s what it is at the end.” But Kevin Liles draws another analogy. “Young Thug, YSL, and the mark he has already put on the game, I think we’re going to be talking about it forever,” he says. “Thug is like Star Wars, 1, 2, 3, and 4. It’s Fast & Furious. It’s any mega-blockbuster movie, and it’s just beginning. There’s so many iterations of it, and people don’t want to just see who the characters are, but they actually want to be a part of the journey.”
“YSL is not just a label to us,” Liles says. “For lack of a better term, it’s blood. It’s something that we need. It’s something that we’re never going to do without.”