Master P created a Hip-Hop empire without registering on any mainstream radar. For several years, he operated solely in the rap underground, eventually surfacing in the mid-’90s as a recording artist and producer who knew exactly what his audience wanted. And what they wanted was gangsta rap. With his independent label No Limit, Master P gave them gangsta rap at its most basic — violent, vulgar lyrics, hard-edged beats, whiny synthesizers, and blunted bass. He wasn’t a great rapper, nor was anyone on No Limit; occasionally, the No Limit rappers were even talentless and clumsy. But in a time when major labels were running away from the controversy that gangsta rap caused and Dr. Dre, the father of the genre, was proclaiming it dead, Master P stayed on course, delivering album after album of unadulterated gangsta. It was recorded cheaply and packaged cheaply, and almost all of the records on No Limit were interchangeable, but that didn’t matter, because Master P kept making money and getting paid.
Appropriately for someone who operated outside of conventional Hip-Hop circles, Master P (born Percy Miller, circa 1969) didn’t come from such traditional rap locales as New York or California. Master P was based in New Orleans, a city with a rich musical tradition that nevertheless had an underdeveloped Hip-Hop scene. It also had an unspoken violent side that affected Master P as a teenager. After his parents’ divorce, he moved between the homes of his father’s mother in New Orleans and his mother in Richmond, CA.
During his teens, he was on the outside of the drug and hustling culture, but he also pursued a love of basketball. He won a sports scholarship at the University of Houston, but he left the school and moved to Richmond, where he studied business at Oakland’s Merritt Junior College. His grandfather died and left him ten thousand dollars in the late ’80s, which Master P invested in No Limit Records. Originally, No Limit was a store, not a label.
While working at No Limit, Master P learned that there was a rap audience who loved funky, street-level beats that the major labels weren’t providing. Using this knowledge, he decided to turn No Limit into a record label in 1990. The following year, he debuted with Get Away Clean and later had an underground hit with The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me! in 1994. Around this same time, the compilation West Coast Bad Boyz, which featured rappers Rappin’ 4-Tay and E-40 before they were nationally known, was released and spent over half a year on the charts. These latter two albums were significant underground hits and confirmed what Master P suspected — there was an audience for straight-ahead, unapologetic, funky hardcore rap. He soon moved No Limit to New Orleans and began concentrating on making records.
By the mid-’90s, No Limit had developed its own production team, Beats by the Pound (comprised of Craig B., KLC, and Mo B. Dick), which worked on every one of the label’s releases. And there were many releases, hitting a rate of nearly ten a year, all masterminded by Master P and Beats by the Pound. They crafted the sound, often stealing songs outright from contemporary hits. They designed album covers, which had the cheap, garishly colourful and tasteless look of straight-to-video exploitation films. And they worked fast, recording and releasing entire albums in as quickly as two weeks.
Included in that production schedule were Master P’s own albums. 99 Ways to Die was released in 1995, and Ice Cream Man appeared the following year. By the time Ghetto D was released in the late summer of 1997, Master P had turned No Limit into a mini-empire. He had no exposure on radio or MTV, but No Limit’s records sold very well, and Tru — a group he formed with his younger brothers Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder — had Top Ten R&B hit albums. His success in the recording industry inspired him to make I’m Bout It, an autobiographical comedy-drama titled after Tru’s breakthrough hit. Master P financed the production himself, and when he found no distributor, it went straight to video in the summer of 1997.
His next film, I Got the Hook Up, appeared in theatres during the summer of 1998, concurrent with the release of his album MP Da Last Don. In between flirtations with the sports world — including a tryout with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and negotiating the NFL contract of Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams — Master P recorded 1999’s Only God Can Judge Me. Ghetto Postage and Game Face followed. The double CD Good Side, Bad Side appeared in 2004 and marked P and No Limit’s new relationship with the label/distribution company Koch. Both Ghetto Bill and Living Legend: Certified D-Boy arrived a year later. The 2007 compilation Featuring…Master P rounded up some of the rapper’s collaborations.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine