Percy "Master P" Miller is the archetypal Southern rap entrepreneur. In 1990, at a time when record labels were still reluctant to look beyond New York or Los Angeles for their signings, he went the independent route, forming his own label, No Limit. After a slow underground start, he achieved fame and success not only for himself but for much of his stable of artists, including Mystikal, Kane & Abel, and Snoop Dogg, who signed in 1998 after falling out with Death Row. Miller also established himself as a savvy businessman with a range of investments and interests beyond rap.
Southern Star: From Basketball to No Limit Records
Born in New Orleans’ Calliope Projects on April 29, 1970 (some sources list 1967), Percy Robert Miller was one of five children — two of his brothers would go on to have successful rap careers as Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder. Miller was a talented basketball player, and gained an athletic scholarship to the University of Houston. However, he dropped out and later went to Merritt College in California, majoring in business. It would stand him in good stead for when he got his start — his late grandfather left him $10,000 which he used to open a record shop in Richmond, California, where his mother had moved to live. The shop was called No Limit Records.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, regional rappers were still finding it difficult to get the attention of major labels, so Master P decided to bankroll his own music. A big year for him, for better and for worse, was 1990: his brother, Kevin Miller, was tragically shot dead by a friend, while No Limit made its debut as a label. Mind of a Psychopath by The Real Untouchables (who would go on to be known as TRU) was a four-track cassette-only release of pure gangster rap. Only a handful of copies were made, which Miller sold out of the trunk of his car.
'Ghetto D' Takes the Cake
The early years of No Limit Records weren’t particularly successful but taught Master P the ropes and the value of releasing product steadily. His debut album, in 1991, was Get Away Clean, which was followed by Mama’s Bad Boy (1992) and The Ghetto’s Tryin to Kill Me (1994). TRU, a group with a shifting line-up that included Master P and his two brothers, was also releasing albums.
By the time of his fourth album, 99 Ways to Die (1996), Master P had signed a distribution deal with Priority Records that saw sales increase to make No Limit an under-the-radar phenomenon. The label had relocated to New Orleans in 1995 and Miller began signing numerous acts such as Mia X, Mr Serv-On and Mystikal. Master P's real commercial breakthrough came after his fifth album, Ice Cream Man (1996), and sixth, Ghetto D, a year later. Spawning hit singles such as "Make 'Em Say Uhh!," the album achieved triple platinum status. Entertainment Weekly echoed much of the critical reaction to Master P’s output: “Offensively infectious.”
However, Master P was receiving as much attention for the way he ran his label, and the undeniable success of artists who received hardly any mainstream recognition, as he was for his music. A New York Times profile focused on Master P the businessman, and found him in bullish mood: “I’m in it to make money," he told them. "I guess I want to be the ghetto Bill Gates.”
Rap Mogul: The 'Ghetto Bill Gates'
Master P accelerated towards that goal with every release. His seventh album, MP Da Last Don (1998) sold more than 4 million copies, while Mystikal and Mia X also had hit albums. The same year he scored a huge coup when Snoop Dogg left Death Row and signed with No Limit. Even dabbling in independent film proved an unexpected success, when Master P released I’m Bout It in 1997, setting a trend for other rappers to release their own direct-to-video films.
It was part of a growing portfolio of projects for the entrepreneur, who would use investments in real estate, the stock market, shops, energy drinks, clothing lines and cable television to propel him further towards that Bill Gates ambition. Even when No Limit Records' sales began to decline, his business acumen kept him ahead of the game. It runs in the family, too. His son Romeo Miller was initially an artist on his label, recording as Lil Romeo, but now acts, has several TV shows and runs the No Limit Forever label.
The No Limit Legacy
Master P’s legacy in hip hop is secure. He catapulted the No Limit tank logo and the label's pen-and-pixel covers into the public arena, and is still releasing solo albums. He is also involved in politics and philanthropy, recently establishing a New Orleans-based sports-mentoring programme for at-risk students. In 2014 he divorced Sonya Miller – with whom he has seven children – after 24 years of marriage. He has two other children.
The rapper 2 Chainz recently paid tribute to the importance of Master P for other Southern artists, when he told Vibe: “I just want to let him know how he influenced the whole South in hip hop. It was his grind, his hustle. He’s the reason why a lot of us are here, including myself.”
(Profile photo of Master P by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait)
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