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Cash Kings 2011: Hip-Hop’s Top Earners

These stars banked more than any of their peers over the past 12 months.

This week, Jay-Z and Kanye West dropped their long-awaited collaboration, Watch the Throne. The album’s timing and title couldn’t have been more appropriate-the Empire State of Mind rapper is hip-hop’s top earner with $37 million in the past 12 months, claiming his fourth Cash Kings crown in five years; his partner-in-rhyme ranked third.

Fueled by the tail end of his Blueprint 3 Tour and a vast portfolio of business interests, Jay-Z barely edged second-ranked Diddy-who raked in $35 million, roughly half of that total coming from a lucrative partnership with Diageo’s Ciroc vodka-but handily topped West, who earned $16 million. The duo is steaming ahead with plans for co-headlining tour starting this fall.

“Jay-Z and Kanye are hip-hop ambassadors,” says Steve Stoute, chief of Translation Marketing and author of The Tanning of America. “They bring the art form around the world, and they’ve taken production and everything to the next level. Now they’ve got a chance to grow with their global audience.”

The Watch The Throne rappers aren’t the only ones making millions by going global. Fresh off a eight-month jail stint, Lil Wayne released a new album and performed a slew of shows from Buffalo to Vancouver, netting $15 million over the past year. That sum tied him with his mentor and label boss, Cash Money Records co-founder Birdman, for the fourth spot.

“If we ain’t number one now, we’ll be there soon,” said Birdman, in the midst of discussing his billion-dollar dreams with Forbes. Farther down the list, Swizz Beatz also looked to the future: “I will be #1 next year,” he wrote in an email. Wiz Khalifa-whose high earnings landed him at No. 11-seemed pleasantly surprised to learn he’d be making his Cash Kings debut. “I’m one of them?” he exclaimed. “That’s what’s up!”

Still, Khalifa’s total was surpassed by a troika of grizzled veterans: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, who tied for the sixth spot on the list at $14 million apiece. Dre’s income got a big boost from Beats by Dre, his lucrative headphone venture with Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine; Snoop cashed in on touring and endorsements from Pepsi Max, Metro PCS and others; Eminem continued to earn from his Grammy-winning album, Recovery, as well as a handful of lucrative concerts with Jay-Z at Yankee Stadium in New York and Comerica Park in Detroit.

“There are four hip-hop artists that sell hard tickets: Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye and Lil Wayne,” says Randy Phillips, chief of concert promoter AEG. “Those are the big four. In the past, it hasn’t really been a live medium … Is it changing? When you look at the business Jay and Eminem did in Yankee Stadium, I think it is.”

Touring was one of the many revenue streams we looked at to come up with the Cash Kings list, which charts pretax earnings for all living artists whose work is primarily classified as hip-hop or rap. The estimates also include income from record sales, digital downloads, films, merchandise sales, endorsements, books and other entertainment ventures; management, agent and attorney fees are not deducted. Earnings are calculated for the period from May 2010 to May 2011 and based on data from Pollstar, Nielsen SoundScan, the Recording Industry Association of America, and individual record labels, as well as interviews with numerous lawyers, media buyers, managers and many of the artists themselves.

This year’s list features plenty of newcomers. Besides the aforementioned Wiz Khalifa, there’s Nicki Minaj, who debuts at No. 15 with $6.5 million-making her the first female rapper ever to grace the list. Another, Atlanta-based rapper-singer-songwriter B.o.B, squeaked on with $5 million. Sandwiched between Minaj and B.o.B is an additional newbie, Pitbull, who released two albums, performed 50-plus shows and inked a seven-figure endorsement deal with Kodak.

“Pitbull is great with brands,” says Adam Kluger, chief of brand partnership firm The Kluger Agency. “Endorsements hip-hop artists work because hip-hop artists typically set the most trends … It’s every brand’s goal to be seen in the mainstream, and hip-hop music has become mainstream music.”

1. Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, $37 million — Hip-hop’s reigning Cash King continues to reap the benefits of a 10-year $150 million Live Nation deal, as well as stakes in the New Jersey Nets, the 40/40 Club chain, ad firm Translation and others. This year marked the first time he out-earned wife Beyonce since their marriage in 2008.

2. Sean “Diddy” Combs, $35 million — Music now accounts for less than 20% of earnings for the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy, thanks to big stakes in clothing lines Sean John and Enyce, record label Bad Boy and marketing firm Blue Flame. But it’s his Ciroc vodka deal that led Forbes to estimate his net worth at $475 million this winter.

3. Kanye West: $16 million — The self-proclaimed Louis Vuitton Don returns to the top three for the first time since 2009. His new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, hit stores in November, earned critical raves and quickly went platinum. His follow-up, Jay-Z collaboration¬†Watch the Throne, debuted on August 8th.

4. Dwayne “Lil Wayne” Carter, $15 million — The lyricist reportedly wrote his first song at age 8 and signed a record deal with Cash Money a year later. Today he’s one of rap’s richest, despite serving eight months in jail last year. His latest release, I Am Not A Human Being, made him the first artist since Tupac Shakur to have a No. 1¬†album while incarcerated.

4. Bryan “Birdman” Williams, $15 million — The Cash Money chief continues to rake in cash from the label he cofounded, home to fellow Cash Kings Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj. Excluded from previous lists because we deemed him more executive than rapper, Birdman was included this year because most of his peers now have a similar job description.

6. Marshall “Eminem” Mathers, $14 million — Eminem doesn’t tour as much as many rappers and his outside business interests are limited, but music alone was enough to blast him back into the upper reaches of the list this year. His album¬†Recovery sold 5.7 million copies worldwide and earned 10 Gramm nominations. Normally non-commercial, he added to his coffers with Super Bowl spots for Lipton and Chrysler.

6. Calvin “Snoop Dogg” Broadus, $14 million — The ageless wonder of the West Coast turned in another strong year, boosted by new album Doggumentary, heavy touring and endorsements with companies from Metro PCS to Pepsi Max. Icing on the proverbial cake: A verse on Katy Perry’s smash hit “California Gurls.”

6. Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, $14 million — The man who launched the careers of fellow Cash Kings including Snoop Dogg, Eminem and 50 Cent keeps bringing in cash-namely from producer fees and Beats by Dre, his lucrative headphone venture with Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine.

9. Aliuane “Akon” Thiam, $13 million — The Senegalese-American singer-songwriter-producer extraordinaire caked up on a string of international concerts from Australia to Zimbabwe, a lucrative World Cup spot with Pepsi, a host of business ventures and hit song “I Just Had Sex,” which has garnered over 115 million YouTube views since its December debut.

10. Christopher “Ludacris” Bridges, $12 million — The self-proclaimed Mouth of the South makes money from much more than just music. This year, he earned big on movie roles including Fast Five, No Strings Attached and New Year’s Eve, as well as endorsements with Tag body spray and Trojan condoms. He also struck partnership deals to launch Soul By Ludacris headphones and a cognac called Conjure.

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