Master P, a k a Percy Miller, reigns as king of rap. The 28-year-old has two albums in Billboard's Top 100. Rappers on his No Limit record label have four more, and he has just signed Snoop Dogg, hip-hop's biggest star, to a recording contract. Master P's new movie, a blaxploitation comedy titled I Got the Hook-Up, which he wrote, produced, and stars in, has already grossed $10 million, far more than the $2.5 million he spent to make it. His No Limit empire has been valued at $100 million. Hip-hop's leading magazines, Vibe and the Source, have run adoring cover stories about him, and even the New York Times has anointed him rap's savviest mogul.
The Master P phenomenon is an object lesson in how far rap hasn't come as an art and how far it has come as a business. First: how far it hasn't come. The hype about Master P has overlooked the banality of his music. He is unapologetically ghetto. He was a teen-age hood in New Orleans--his (terrible) autobiographical movie, I'm Bout It, hints that he was a major crack-house operator--and he likes to say that his music is "authentic." Namely: It celebrates the thug life of drugs, violence, and general sociopathic idiocy.
E very man is a "nigga," every woman a "bitch," and all and sundry are "motherfuckas." The title track of his 1997 triple platinum album, Ghetto D, is a recipe for making crack from cocaine. Master P hits all the clichés of gangster rap: the elegy honoring murdered homeboys, the chronicle of his rise through the drug-dealing ranks, the tribute to marijuana, the paean to his gun. The rhymes are crude, though the beats are potent, as in this clip of his trademark groan, "unghh." The artists on his label--Kane & Abel, Fiend, Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, Mac, Mia X, etc.--hew to the same gangster themes. Master P's marketing does too: No Limit album covers are heavy on guns, bikinied women, gold jewelry, wads of cash, and No Limit's logo: a gold and diamond-encrusted tank.
Master P, in short, promotes and produces the same socially appalling (if aurally appealing) kind of rap that had parents and William Bennett predicting the end of civilization five years ago. Back then, Master P would have sparked public outcry and condemnation. Why doesn't he today? Why is there no hue and cry about this monster?
Gangster rap was supposed to be a minor perversion, a sick dead end. It was supposed to have been killed by now, murdered by public backlash, or by the resurgence of R & B, or by its own fratricidal strife. But instead of dying, gangster rap has been institutionalized, thanks to Master P (as well as Tupac Shakur and others). It has become cliché. Familiarity has bred indifference. No Limit's music does not outrage because it does not surprise.
Master P is, and I mean this in the best possible way, a hack. He sticks to the conventions of the genre and produces derivative, competent music. Even his admirers admit he breaks no new ground and is essentially a skilled imitator of more innovative artists. But hackdom, I would argue, may be the proof of a genre's maturity. Motown spawned zillions of copycat acts, and grunge joined the mainstream when Nirvana rip-offs began winning gold records. Master P, too, represents the mainstreaming of a once-outrageous art.
There is another reason why Master P doesn't prompt any outrage: the glorification of the entrepreneur. No one pays attention to what he sells because everyone is so fascinated by how he sells it. Rap has always been a commercial affair, and there is a long history of hip-hop entrepreneurs--Def Jam's Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin; Death Row's Suge Knight; Bad Boy's Puff Daddy, Master P's chief rival, to name a few--but there may not have been anyone with better business instincts than Master P.
In six years, he has turned a tiny California record store into a multimedia empire. The No. 1 lesson of the Master P school of management: ownership. Musicians have been getting ripped off by their record companies as long as there have been record companies. Master P wouldn't permit that to happen to him. He is the most independent of the independent producers. He started selling records out of his own car, and he hasn't relinquished control of anything yet. He owns his master recordings, his studio, his label. By paying the production costs of I Got the Hook-Up out of his own pocket and retaining ownership of it, he stands to make at least twice as much as he would have if he had taken Miramax's $5 million offer to buy it outright. "This is a business where everyone has a $400-an-hour attorney negotiating for them. You have to admire P for doing all this on his own, putting the records and movies out himself and turning it into a nine figure company," says rap legend Bill Stephney, CEO of StepSun Music.
The other guiding principles of the Master P operation are volume and speed. What Roger Corman is to movies, he is to rap. No Limit CDs usually include 20 songs--nearly twice as many as other hip-hop CDs. He sells double albums at single album prices. He works fast, producing his latest straight-to-video movie, Da Last Don, in 10 days, and he records albums in even less time. Everything is branded and tied together: All No Limit albums advertise coming albums by other No Limit artists. He makes movies in order to sell soundtracks. The cross-marketing works: No Limit CDs, advertised months in advance inside other No Limit CDs, sell hundreds of thousands of copies in their first week in record stores. No single Master P product is phenomenally successful, but there are lots of them, and all are profitable. It adds up. (He has taken his vast fortune and diversified: He runs a sports-management company, a shoe store, a gas station, a clothing line, and a phone-sex firm.)
The do-it-yourself, bootstrapping ethos is admirable, but Master P also represents something more atavistic. He sometimes refers to his enterprise as the "No Limit family." If it's a family, it's more like the Corleones than the Cleavers. Master P was a hood and a hustler, and even as a corporate man, he behaves like a hood and a hustler. He models No Limit on the mob, not the Fortune 500. He calls his artists "No Limit Soldiers." Some of them are named after mobsters: Gambino Family, Goodfellas, Li'l Gotti. Master P values loyalty and friendship above all: Most of his performers are relatives or homeboys. The hip-hop industry is concentrated in Los Angeles and New York, but he and the No Limit posse occupy a compound in Baton Rouge, La. They are well armed and wear bulletproof vests. And they don't welcome outsiders.
This may not be the best foundation for a durable business empire. Simmons, probably rap's greatest entrepreneur, lives in New York; schmoozes bankers, fashion designers, and record executives; and cuts deals with conglomerates such as Time Warner. He is sophisticated, urbane, wise to capital flows and big business.
Master P, by contrast, seems to be following in the footsteps of Knight, founder of Death Row Records. In the early '90s, Knight built Death Row into a phenomenally profitable rap label, even bigger than No Limit is now. Suge, too, imitated mob style, valuing loyalty and insularity over all, surrounding himself with thuggish cronies. Death Row was run more like a criminal operation than a real business, with huge, suspicious cash payments; shoddy accounting; and management by intimidation. Eventually, Death Row collapsed. Star rapper Shakur was murdered, and Knight went to jail.
Master P has avoided such chaos, so far. But can he forever? If he abandons his mob pose and posse he abandons the image and the "authenticity" that made him a millionaire. If he doesn't he could end up like Knight. For Master P, neither is an appealing prospect.