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 colorful 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 theaters 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
Master P took his music to a new level of quality on Ice Cream Man, which is his first to feature the production stable known as Beats by the Pound (i.e., KLC, Mo B. Dick, DJ Daryl, Carlos Stephens, Ken Franklin, Craig B). Themes of drugs, violence, and ghetto life are prevalent and well exploited. Ice Cream Man was Master P's best-selling album to date, and it created a significant buzz in the hardcore rap underground, setting the stage for his chart-topping follow-up, Ghetto D (1997).
Words: Jason Birchmeier
On the surface, Ghetto D may look like another piece of product from Master P's No Limit empire, and there's a certain amount of truth to that. Master P is a master marketer and knows how to create demand for his product, which means informing the public that it is out there. He spreads the word about future No Limit releases throughout Ghetto D: artwork for forthcoming albums forms 90 percent of the album's artwork, and No Limit artists rap on the record as much as Master P himself. As a result, Ghetto D plays much like one of the West Coast Bad Boyz discs -- it sounds like a various-artists sampler. And not only does it sound like a various-artists record, it also sounds like a virtual catalog of '90s rap styles, from wimpy Bone Thugs-n-Harmony ballads ("I Miss My Homies") to Wu-Tang craziness ("Let's Get 'Em") to G-funk ("Weed & Money"). Master P is a consummate rip-off artist, capable of copying any number of popular records and styles with flair. He's done this on almost all of No Limit's records, but what makes Ghetto D different is the ease of the whole thing. Master P is using better equipment this time around, which helps him make better, more seamless records, thereby making his facsimiles sound similar to the originals. The shameless rip-offs make Ghetto D an entertaining listen -- it's fun to guess who the No Limit crew is ripping off now -- yet it's hampered by its ridiculous 80-minute running time. Theoretically, it gives you more bang for your buck, but by the ninth song, "Captain Kirk," the album seems endless. However, that overindulgence is a hallmark of Master P and No Limit, and that's what makes Ghetto D his definitive statement.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The double-CD set that No Limit godfather Master P envisioned as his final solo album, MP da Last Don was greeted with reams of press clippings by the media and open arms by the public, who sent it to 112 on the charts, the week before it was scheduled to be released. All this means is that Master P's master business plan worked -- he was able to position himself as the leader of the underground just to sell records. And there's no other way to view MP da Last Don; it's nothing but product, albeit well-made product. Spanning two CDs and 29 songs, the album is more of an advertisement for upcoming No Limit releases than a last will and testament. All of the No Limit roster appears somewhere on the disc, and info about upcoming releases (some of which have been in development for a year and a half) litters the liner notes. Master P himself makes his presence felt only because the formula MP da Last Don follows is one he invented.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Master P has always expressed himself in the bruntest of terms, but the underlying message is clear - go to school and work hard! You can be a doctor, lawyer or accountant. The only thing that matters is that you improve yourself. So many people complain about No Limit artist's lack of deep lyrics, but one listen to "Stop Playing Wit Me" shows that Master P has an excellent grasp on worldly matters. When was the last time you heard a rapper rhyme "Horatio" (a reference to Horatio Alger) with "Mercutio" (from Shakespeare)? Say what you want, but Master P is tops in the game!
You'd have to be a die-hard No Limit soldier of the highest degree to deny that Master P's output has been spotty. He's mainly a singles artist with the occasional satisfying album, a man who seems more concerned with flooding the market as much as he can, as quickly as he can, and with as many side projects as possible. That's why his well-chosen Best Of is a desirable addition to his overstuffed catalog, saving CD buyers from emptying their wallets to catch the one or two -- sometimes three -- ghetto classics from his full-lengths. The early, West Coast years are missing as is everything post-2000, but it's just as well because what's represented here is his golden age, and if there were anything else added, the collection wouldn't sound as tight as it does. From signature tracks like "Bout It, Bout It II" and "Make 'Em Say Ugh" to numbers that never quite crawled out of the hood, Best Of keeps things moving by sequencing the tracks in a way that makes sense. Bangers are upfront while four melancholy tracks close the affair, bringing the listener down from all the sleazy thug music. A couple memorable tracks are missing (the great "Weed & Money" for example) but not enough that it harms this overview. The most beautiful thing about the collection is that a Master P newcomer could listen to this in total, think of P as top-notch, and be totally befuddled by his weak reputation.
Words: David Jeffries