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Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Ruff Ryders boast about boozing; Cash Money brags about billfold size. At least the rap's good.

In the good ol' days a couple of years ago, young, urban (read: bus-riding) kids wanted to be lawyers, cast members on Ally McBeal or doctors.handling people's fecal matter and guts.

Not anymore.

Chances are today's youth want to be either a Ruff Ryder or a Cash Money millionaire. Hell, for the tiny amount of work invested, such a gig certainly pays well.

For the budding rapper with a dire need to be recognized by the listening public, like, right this second, hooking up with one of these cliques wouldn't be a bad idea. The pop and R&B charts are littered with albums by members of both camps. And now, both entities are touring the country in one big, happy package.

If you're a crawfish-sucking, bass-bumping, money-clothes-hoes-and-honey-covered-toes type of rapper lover, then you'll like Cash Money, featuring Juvenile. If you're more into aggressive, beer-swigging, hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-ghetto-muthafucka-scorned-type MC'ing, then the Ruff Ryders, featuring DMX, are for you.

Thanks to DMX, mostly everybody knows that the Ruff Ryders coalition is for rapping brothas and sistas who like howling at the moon. After the Yonkers-born wild man dropped his 1998 debut, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, which included the commanding "Ruff Ryders' Anthem," the Ryders production crew has been prominent in the East Coast game. Formed by brothers Dee and Waah Dean and their sister Chivon, Ruff Ryders got big buzz when the company hooked a distribution deal with Interscope and released Ruff Ryders - Ryde or Die Vol.1 last year. The album, which debuted at No. 1 on the charts, included tracks produced by the wondrous Swizz Beatz and featured DMX, the Lox, Eve, Drag-On, the R&B group Parle and others.

The Ruff Ryders camp has become a place where disenfranchised hard-core rappers can be treated with respect. Before hopping onto Ruff Ryders' bandwagon with her 1999 solo debut, Ruff Ryders' First Lady, Eve was part of Dr. Dre's talent pool at his West Coast-based Aftermath Entertainment label. But when nothing productive came from her one-year contract, she left the rap king's operation, even though the only song she cut for Aftermath, "Eve of Destruction," from the Bulworth soundtrack, was an edgy jam.

Likewise, the Lox spent most of 1999 escaping from Sean "Puffy" Combs's ice-covered clutches. Although the group and Combs managed to keep their street cred intact with the successful and widely acclaimed 1998 debut, Money, Power and Respect, the Lox still was not feeling the ghetto-glamorous attitude Combs instilled in his other Bad Boy labelmates. After a year of crying for freedom, the Lox was released from its Bad Boy contract, which gave the group the chance to work on and release its sophomore effort, We Are the Streets.

The unspoken goal of all these performers is not to come off soft or slow. Either Ruff Ryders rappers come hard, or they don't come at all. DMX, Eve, the Lox and the rest rhyme with the kind of animal gusto many of your better-known studio gangstas can't concoct with chemistry sets. The same goes for Swizz Beatz and his inventive, sample-less beats, which don't bump. They destroy. Listening to DMX's loud-and-proud "Party Up (Up in Here)" from his latest, And Then There Was X, or Eve's feisty "Ain't Got No Dough," you can understand the Ruff Ryders' solid presence in rap. Their sound may be rough around the edges, but that's the entire point -- and the attraction.

While the Ruff Ryders assure listeners it ain't just the shiny things worth rapping about, the New Orleans-based Cash Money crew let it be known that it is all about the dolla-dolla bill. Much like that other New Orleans rap empire, the guys over at Cash Money are gluttonous ghetto soldiers, not forgetting where their origins lie, but not apologizing for their financial frivolity either. Ice on their wrists, gold in their teef, and the best booty-shaking babes on their arms, Cash Money rappers are just that. Bling-bling, indeed.

Unlike the Ruff Ryders, the Cash Money Millionaires is a tightly wound boys' club. Oh, they love the ladies, as if you couldn't tell from Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up." But aesthetically, these MCs work better reveling in their own gushing manliness than scoring honeys.

Brothers Ron "Suga Slim" and Bryan "Baby" Williams formed Cash Money in 1991 as a local label that housed rappers who seemed to be anything but. After a housecleaning of deadweight performers in 1996, the label looked to start over with its sole remaining artist, B.G., and a new recruit, Juvenile.

Under the minimalist production skills of Mannie Fresh (who, like Swizz Beatz, favors original beats to samples), Cash Money began to regain indie bounce-rap status with the releases of B.G.'s Chopper City and Juvenile's Solja Rags. In 1997 Juvenile and B.G. joined forces with upstarts Lil' Wayne and Young Turk to form the Hot Boys, releasing the hit album Get It How U Live, which officially got Cash Money on the Billboard charts and a $30 million distribution deal with Universal.

With No Limit taking a self-imposed sabbatical from releasing an album every five minutes, Cash Money has picked up the Southern-rap slack. Juvenile's follow-up albums, 1998's 400 Degreez and 1999's Tha G-Code, are still Top 50 platinum sellers.

It's almost bizarre that Juvenile, the label's most recognizable artist, has a clean police record. Nearly all of the people involved in Cash Money have been struck with tragic/near-tragic despair of Death Row Records-size proportions. In 1991 one of the label's earliest artists, Pimp Daddy, was murdered. At the age of 15, B.G. (the "bling-bling" guy) was apparently nurturing a heroin habit when he wasn't on the run from the law. And as the youngest lad in the bunch, Lil' Wayne is a 15-year-old high school dropout and daddy who, while playing with his late father's gun, accidentally shot himself in the chest. So it's no wonder that Cash Money is celebrating its success like there's no tomorrow. There may not be.

It's the utter I-can't-believe-this-shit-is-happening amazement in Cash Money rappers' voices that partially explains why so many listeners are down with them. It's like they're kids playing grown-up with their fathers' CB radios. There may be a sense of crudeness to the Cash Money sound, but there's also a sense of optimism, a hope for a better tomorrow for all the inner-city brothas and sistas out there. You have to look for it, but it's there. The utopian idealism of Juvenile and his Cash Money gang perfectly complements the authoritative bark of DMX and his Ruff Ryders. One crew will bite you in the ass, the other will tell you to back it up.

The Ruff Ryders/Cash Money Tour, featuring DMX, Eve, the Lox, Drag-On, Juvenile, B.G., Lil' Wayne and Young Turk, will be Wednesday, March 22, at Compaq Center, 10 Greenway Plaza. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $41.75 and $46.75. For more information, call (713)629-3700.

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