The Game Is To Be Told: A Celebration Of No Limit Records…By A Hater (Food for Thought)
Published By: Bandini
Long before Hip-Hop was ever reported dead, I was once of the belief that Master P was trying to kill it. No Limit Records sprouted into mainstream success in the closing credits of the Death Row dynasty, and anyone who loved the chicken seemingly scoffed at the egg.
Conveniently Hating On Master P & No Limit Records
In 1996 and 1997, this Head was searching for musical heroes. 2Pac had been tragically murdered, with Biggie reaching the same fate just six months after. A Tribe Called Quest was beginning their own complicated exit, and Mobb Deep, Nas, Tha Dogg Pound, Black Moon, and Snoop Dogg were in difficult transitions: trying to commercially exist in the Shiny Suit Era while not being “of” it. While Southern artists like OutKast, Geto Boys, and Kilo were a part of my CD collection, I knew nothing of Bounce music. The notion that Rap music could be centered around vibe and sound rather than substance and content was foreign to somebody who grew up listening to KRS-One, Gang Starr and Ultramagnetic MC’s. Master P, with his colorful CD jewel cases, ceaseless stream of releases, and Pen & Pixel cover art was an author I disdained before ever reading so much as the book-jacket. The tank was treading over my own personal convictions.
Like nearly all the Heads around me, my cousin disagreed. His music library had the green, orange, and blue cases, all stacked accordingly, with artists I’d never heard of or seen on “Rap City,” The Box, or “Yo! MTV Raps.” Lil’ Italy, Skull Duggery, Mean Green—was the world kidding? Increasingly curious, I started borrowing these albums. Upon listening, Master P and No Limit had a sound that made no sense in my Sony Discman earphones. P’s ad-lib growls colored the tracks, while busy production, big on accenting sounds and low-end bass thumped around simple lyrics, filled with threats and laundry lists of material gains by southern-drawled braggadocios. The term wasn’t popular yet, but I spent the late ‘90s as a true hater.
The hate only grew. No Limit took one of my all-time favorite artists in Snoop Dogg, and made one of the most disappointing albums of all time (in my estimation) in The Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told. While the label I grew up supporting blindly in Death Row waned, No Limit seemed out to occupy that spot—in sales, in branding, in reaching marginalized Middle America, Black and White alike. However, while Death Row had unpredictable figures like 2Pac, Dr. Dre, and Suge Knight, No Limit seemed as fabricated and animated as their covers suggested. Kids in my school were quoting “Ghetto D” as if it were a Betty Crocker chocolate chip cookie recipe, and Master P was appearing on Nickelodeon shows at the same damn time.
How Master P & No Limit Records Pioneered So Many Contemporary Rap Trends
At the very top of 2000, I had a rather unusual turning point with No Limit, and perhaps my own development as a listener and as a man. I’ll get to that shortly. But just as a sports dynasty that you loathe, or an award-winning movie you just don’t connect with, time would allow me to see something special in No Limit Records, and its owner, Master P. While figureheads of Hip-Hop such as Scarface, Nas, Jay Z, Bun B, E-40, Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg are touchstones from the present day to the wild times and big sales of the 1990s, I think Master P is deeply overlooked. In 2014, Percy Miller is a lesson in ephemera. The record store owner, who made a name for himself outside of the Bay area (in Richmond, California) and came home to New Orleans, Louisiana to build an empire, seemingly turned the lights off overnight. However, while Master P’s profile may dwarf in comparison to his executive-rapper contemporaries like Diddy, Jay Z, and Birdman, he is the trailblazer to so much of what is happening in music, fashion, and the business of Rap right now.
In my last days of junior high school, “I’m Bout It, Bout It” was one of the most played records on radio. Released on TRU’s True album in Summer of 1995, the song took on a two-to-three year life-cycle, courtesy of sequels, remixes, and movies. To understand No Limit is to listen to this record. The Beats By The Pound bassline has always been catchy, eerie, and despite being slow by East Coast Rap standards, the type of beat that makes you want to get out of your seat. Like Three 6 Mafia’s “Break Da Law” or Redman’s “Soopaman Luva,” the record has many iterations, in a sequence of motifs, all harping back to the original. This was the pocket that P and KLC made best, and they came back to it as often as possible. Whether it was TRU or Master P, Curren$y or The Diplomats, the record is always the moment that No Limit truly was a force to be reckoned with—a tank. While expansive DJs long knew of Bounce records, and spun the bass-heavy joints across the globe, P made it “a thing.”
In an interview, Jay Z once waved off luck, explaining his uber-success as a product of “just staying ready.” After an independent, regional first half of the 1990s, one of Master P’s greatest strengths was his readiness. The minute “Bout It, Bout It” broke through, P went public. In the early days, Master P filled his albums with rappers from the Bay area and from the Bayou. To outsiders, they had funny names like Mr. Serv-On, Silkk The Shocker, and C-Murder. When No Limit found its first hit and subsequent first platinum album (P’s own 1996 LP, The Ice Cream Man), these artists were fully developed and ready with projects of their own. Immediately following that breakthrough album, NL dropped a Top 50 debut self-titled album by Silkk, who had long been marketed through TRU. Then came Skull Duggery with a debut of his own, and twin-rapper duo Kane & Abel with their own debut.
In this era, it’s almost comical how new artists have full rosters of acts signed to them. In what could be cynically dismissed as Rap’s great pyramid scheme, French Montana, J. Cole, and Meek Mill all have artists signed to them. While fans of EPMD or Gang Starr know the value and importance of a posse, No Limit never stopped signing and never stopped developing. Moreover, Master P sought out the best possible distribution for this strategy. Priority Records put anything in stores. From their days working with Rap-A-Lot and Ruthless Records, Bryan Turner’s label and distro arm was all about reaching the masses, with colorful and ideally, controversial product, as often as possible. With P’s courageous release schedules and distribution that was willing to blindly back anything, it was matrimony.
However, as Beyonce, Kanye West, and Jay Z collectively shocked fans with either surprise albums or extremely short notice announcements, Master P was carefully calculated. Today’s rapper-exec could learn a lot from the Miller family. Before No Limit was gold and platinum plated, Master P ran his small label like a general should. A year and a month before Silkk released his August 20, 1996 debut album, The Shocker, a promotional advertisement appeared for the project in P’s 99 Ways To Die. So when the embers got their hottest, it could never be said that Master P taped together his roster’s projects.
Beats The Pound: The Sound That Made No Limit Records Global
The label stayed working, and a major part of that was due to the fact that No Limit employed in-house producers. Since the beginning of Hip-Hop, artists and producers have been tied together. In the early ‘90s, through debut albums by Fat Joe, Mobb Deep, and Nas, a la carte production grew into vogue. However, whether Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, or N.W.A., artists seemed to have a producer within the group. No Limit took it a step further and employed a collective of hit-makers. Before “Puffy’s Hitmen” or even the coined “Death Row Players,” No Limit took a page from Motown Records and built Beats By The Pound. In the early days Master P and No Limit’s early albums included a host of underground producers as well as guys like E-A-Ski & CMT, who had been known for work with Spice-1 and Tha Luniz, as well as beats by JT The Bigga Figga, who would work with Mac Dre, Game, and Rappin’ 4-Tay. However, as the label grew and wanted to make its N’Awlins origins clear, P enlisted a crew, led by KLC, that included Mo B. Dick, Craig B, and Odell—as Beats By The Pound. Both Mr. Serv-On and Fiend where said, at times, to be part of the collective. However, the group, a sum of its parts, greatly phased out all other contributors to No Limit Records releases. After the successes found in 1995, 1996, and 1997, who could blame P for re-directing his attentions?
Interestingly enough, No Limit’s reasons for success played greatly into their eventual downfall. If you read the interviews, the true fade from glory of No Limit is said to have happened when Master P and KLC parted ways. Over money and an alleged phone conversation that K was never supposed to hear, Beats By The Pound walked (Master P kept the name, and in turn, a new era of producers assumed the role). Signing with Tommy Boy/Warner Bros. Records for millions, The Medicine Men left the label they scored. The rapper and his producers were never as good apart as they were together. While Death Row struggled without Dr. Dre, guys like Daz Dillinger, Johnny J and Sam Sneed were waiting in the wings—and DJ Quik, DJ Pooh and L.T. Hutton were recruited to add depth and versatility to the roster. When DJ Reddy Red broke from Rap-A-Lot, Mike Dean, Tone Capone and N.O. Joe were in the wings. Master P had a roster that would have rivaled an NFL team in the early 2000s, but he lacked the sonic masters. With his money, Master P could have had any producers he wanted on retainer or a la carte. As The Neptunes and Jermaine Dupri checked into the late 90’s Hip-Hop sound, the belief that Carlos Stephens and Donald “XL” Robertson could replace the trademark thump of KLC, Mo, Craig and Odell proved to be a deathblow.
How Young Bleed Made Me A Fan Of No Limit Records
Strangely enough, this era was my buy-in. Around the turn of the millennium, Young Bleed, a rapper from Baton Rouge, released his sophomore album, My Own. Previously a No Limit act, Bleed released My Balls & My World two years prior on No Limit. Now just a Priority act, Bleed released a video for “Give & Take.” Years before internet videos and YouTube, this low-budget production made me see and feel a place I’d never been: the Bayou. As GZA said, sometimes things can be very simple and quite clever.
Two years too late, because of the visceral response engendered by Bleed’s video, I started revisiting some of the No Limit stuff I dismissed or just overlooked. Interestingly, an uncle of mine, now in his upper fifties, has long collected the label’s releases on cassette. I borrowed the collection and dove in. Artists like Mac and Fiend, relative unknowns to people outside of No Limit fan-dom, especially appealed. Like Devin The Dude or Z-Ro, Fiend had a soulful, drug-induced presentation that felt gritty, fit for the open road of the south. It’s little surprise that along with his 504 Boyz band-mate Curren$y, Fiend has endured. The pair work together in Jet Life, both a product of a bygone era that many of their new fans may fail to realize birthed them. Mac, in two albums before his conviction for murder, was deeply introspective. Shell Shocked, although busy and disjointed, has moments that shine, with the kind of truths that years later made guys like Killer Mike, Trick Daddy, and Witchdoctor celebrated by critics and fans alike. While Snoop’s third album was an abomination, his follow-up’s Top Dogg and Da Last Meal are some catalog gems, especially to purists like myself. Mystikal, who began outside of the No Limit wheel-house, and was a critical acquisition in the late ’90s, was highly influential to many artists today. The same is true of the late Soulja Slim, who deeply influenced the sound from everybody to Spitta to Trill Fam today.
When you look closer at No Limit, it’s hard to hate Master P. Sure, he was winning in the most ostentatious way Heads had seen. The music’s appeal was completely subjective as well, but No Limit really tried to have something for everybody. P was handing out money and opportunity to artists outside of his label, whether it was UGK working with C-Murder, or getting RBL Posse, Mac Dre, and AllFrumThaI on a Top 20 release, in 1997. You will hear about Master P’s mistakes, but artists rarely accuse the No Limit founder of cheapskate tactics or skimming money from the artists he signed and made into charting stars. Master P was a gold-plated Midas, and in 2014, as artists are signing acts off of Twitter and in green room auditions, P’s ability to win is something everybody is out to replicate. Master P was an “MTV Cribs”-era rapper. Today, as artists release tour vlogs and constantly try to give access to their personal lives and creative inspirations, Master P seems like a fitting figure. Kanye West knows like the rest of us that P had gold leaf ceilings and a collection of cars that would make Lil Wayne blush. From his glasses, now re-popularized by Big Sean and French Montana to the cigars and royal scepters, and silky clothes, Master P was the poster-child of decadence. He was also viral, from theatrical films and home videos show that make today’s YouTube clips look like high art to the comical cover art and album titles, P baited critics to poke fun at him; it kept his name going. Moreover, every interview where an artist promotes an upcoming project (think of Pusha T’s campaign for his sophomore solo LP beginning upon the release of My Name Is My Name). This strategy began in the No Limit CD and cassette inserts. Before other labels started making promises, No Limit was marketing—and most of the time, they actually kept their promises. From 1-900 numbers, hood DVDs and theatrical releases, shoe deals, television, clothing, and an attempt at pro sports, Master P planted the No Limit flag high on the mountain all artists seem to be climbing. After a year where Roc Nation Sports is co-brokering some of the biggest deals in sports, remember Ricky Williams’ draft day? Onetime hate quickly aged into respect. Years later, I’ve got some No Limit in my CD collection—and not a trip to the record store goes by that I don’t miss that feeling.
As with all great empires, the No Limit dynasty eventually fell against the rise of labels backed by consolidated titans like Universal, Sony and BMG. In the “this or that” world of the Rap industry, P’s vulnerability at the production helm of No Limit was exposed by the catchy sounds of cross-town rival Mannie Fresh, who was making addictive club tracks for B.G., Juvenile, and their Hot Boys outfit. In the midst of it all, P just lost interest. He handed the keys to his son, Lil Romeo, and evaded the spotlight with his millions. Artists like Mac, Mystikal, C-Murder, and Kane & Abel ended up serving felony incarcerations. Magic, Soulja Slim, and Big Ed passes away in the 2000s. P pursued his other passion, basketball, and just walked away.
Master P & No Limit Records Today
Remember the closing sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Casino? Sam “Ace” Rothstein watches sports from his tropical home, far removed from the antics of the Las Vegas desert and menacing enforcer Nicky Santoro. These days, Master P, now in Hollywood, is seemingly the same. In recent years, Master P served as a mentor to Fat Trel, who recently inked a deal with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group. P hit the studio, and made tracks with Gucci Mane, Game, and Chief Keef. Quietly, the 43 year-old appears creepin’ on a comeback. Once the target at “rocks at the throne,” Master P is now the underdog. Seeing his deserving place as the architect of so much of what’s going on in Rap music, I cannot help but root for him from those unforgettable golden bleachers.