Southern hip-hop was rapidly rising when Master P released 1996s Ice Cream Man and started a rap takeover that would be amplified with his 1997 album, Ghetto D.
The Geto Boys had established Houston’s scene–and landed mainstream attention back in 1991; Arrested Development came out Atlanta in 1992; with Eightball & MJG dropping their classic underground debut Comin’ Out Hard in 1993; and Dungeon Family affiliates OutKast and Goodie Mob released commercially successful and critically acclaimed albums from 1994 through 1996.
But something else was brewing. As it pertains to hip-hop, there had always been an independent spirit throughout the South; from Luke Records in Miami and Suave House in Memphis to Nawlins’ bubbling rap scene and J. Prince’s street-level approach with Rap-A-Lot in Houston, the DIY ethos was alive and well in a region used to being ignored by the major labels out New York City and Los Angeles. But where UGK and Eightball & MJG had remained unapologetically f the beaten path mainstream rap; New Orleans native Master P was aiming squarely at the charts by 1997.
Percy Miller’s success wasn’t sown in The Big Easy, however. A short stint as a college athlete at the University Houston had led him to Merritt College, where he planned to major in business. But it was an inheritance that led his fate down an unexpected path in Richmond, CA.
Master P took money he was willed from an uncle and opened his own record store, No Limit Records, in Richmond in the late 1980s. The store soon became homebase for his burgeoning label the same name, and through his own independent releases–including collaborations with his brothers (as TRU) and indie West Coast acts–Master P built a sizable following after releasing independent albums like Get Away Clean, Mama’s Bad Boy and The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me! and he soon relocated No Limit to his hometown New Orleans and started filling his roster with local talent like Mia X, Fiend and Mr. Serv-On.
No Limit’s stock was rising amongst fans Dirty South rap; grooving beats and rhymes about the drug game were hallmarks acts like UGK; and P and No Limit had been building a buzz for years delivering the kind music that spoke to trappers from Georgia to Texas. But P wasn’t aiming to be an underground king–Master P wanted to take the hip-hop industry by storm, and he finally had the production, packaging and platform to do it.
In 1995, No Limit inked a deal with Priority and the seeds were sown for Master P to make a major push towards more mainstream visibility.In 1996, No Limit signed N.O. product Mystikal, who’d just released his sophomore album on Jive Records in 1995 and enjoyed a sizable regional hit with “Here I Go.” Also in 1996, he released his breakthrough album Ice Cream Man, and in early 1997, TRU’s Tru 2 da Game would be another milestone–eventually becoming a platinum-seller.
The new Master P album was recorded over late 1996 and 1997, and the sonic imprint Beats By the Pound had started to hit its stride. No Limit Records wasn’t known for producing stellar rhymers, but the label’s distinctive production was making waves. And on Ghetto D, Master P’s beatmaking secret weapon fully grew into its own. In August, No Limit’s ever-growing fanbase got to hear what would be the label’s next major leap.
In 1997, Rakim hadn’t been heard from in five years (that would soon change) and the time away amplified his legend amongst East Coast hip-hop heads. So it took some nerve for Master P, on the album opening title track, to take a bonafide classic like “Eric B. Is President” and reimagine it as a Down South dope boy anthem. It works better than it should, with P’s breakdown crack selling leaving no mystery as to what Ghetto D’s focus is going to be.
“Let’s Get ‘Em” was as ominous as a Suave House track, with P trading in familiar territory: dope slangin.’ Silkk’s erky-jerky flow shows up in full confrontational mode, but the standout here is a scene-stealing Mystikal guest verse made it apparent that the so-called Prince the South was fully at home on P’s rising rap label.
Twinkling piano keys form the backdrop “We Riders,” another in what’s becoming a long line Master P songs that sound like him attempting to channel 2Pac’s flow and persona. It’s hard to hear the influence songs like Pac’s “No More Pain” here, as P rails against enemies and tosses f a hook that echoes Pac’s “Ambitionz As a Ridah.” And “Throw ’em Up” features a more melancholy production, but the subject matter doesn’t waver far from the same kind street machismo that had become P’s trademark by this point.
A sped-up sample the Isley Bros’ “For the Love You” (also sampled by 2Pac on the Thug Life classic “Bury Me A G”) forms the backdrop “Tryin’ 2 Do Something” a moment for P to slip into mack mode, with guest appearances from Fiend and Mac (along with Mo B. Dick singing the hook.) The thug love theme continues on “Plan B,” on which P advises a woman interest that “I can be yo nigga, he can be yo man,” once again echoing Pac–who’d covered similar territory a year earlier with “I’d Rather Be Ya Nigga” from his multiplatinum album All Eyez On Me. The Mia X verse keeps things from being too derivative, as she injects some much-needed femme fatale energy into the track.
Master P song titles could be unapologetically blatant and one such example is “Weed & Money.” P raps about–wait for it–weed and money, over a slow-rolling groove from Beats By the Pound. “Captain Kirk” finds P doing a pretty obvious bit E-40ism. The production, P’s flow, and the subject matter and hook are clearly indebted to 40’s equally misogynistic “Captain Save-A-Hoe” from 1994. Like 40’s song, “Captain Kirk” is P’s chance to mock those who would splurge on shady women–with Fiend, Mystikal and Silkk riding shotgun.
Late 90s mainstream rap albums were built on the backs glossy 80s R&B samples and Master P was no different. “Stop Hatin” is a retread the t-sampled hit “Rumours” by Timex Social Club; and “Gangstas Need Love” features an interpolation Diana Ross’ “Missing You” (released only about six months after the Notorious B.I.G. flipped the same sample on his “Miss U”). The most inspired is “Bourbons & Lacs,” which slows down Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” for a song so laid back it almost feels chopped and screwed.
But the album’s lead single went slightly further back than the Reagan era for it’s familiar hook. “I Miss My Homies” reimagined The O’Jays “Brandy” as an ode to comrades slain in the streets. Featuring No Limit mainstays Silkk the Shocker, O’Dell, Sons Funk, Mo B. Dick and Mercedes, as well as UGK legend Pimp C, the single preceded Ghetto D by three weeks and became Master P’s first Top 25 Billboard hit in August 1997.
The musicality Beats By the Pound’s productions are most notable on the tracks that don’t sound like retreads other ideas. “After Dollars, No Cents” sits comfortably between Nawlin’s edge and Bay Area groove, and “Come and Get Some” is the most effectively menacing track on an album that has no shortage confrontational anthems.
Upon the album’s release on September 2nd, 1997, Ghetto D drew immediate controversy due to it’s original cover. The album artwork featured a crack addict sitting on a curb, smoking a pipe. The fumes from the pipe turned into a collage No Limit album covers. The original album was pulled and reissued with a new, less provocative cover. The video for “I Miss My Homies” became Master P’s first video in heavy rotation on MTV, but it would be eclipsed by “Make Em Say Ugh” in a few months.
Master P’s first major crossover hit, “Make Em Say Ugh” was a standout on Ghetto D; with its infectious synth horns and bouncing beat–it was an easy party starter in the fall 1997 after the album was released. The ficial single wouldn’t appear until January, when P rolled out the soon-to-be platinum hit with a glossy video that featured the No Limit roster on basketball court (complete with Shaquille O’Neal cameo.)
But Master P’s rise to stardom was evident. Ghetto D would eventually sell 3 million copies and over the next two years, No Limit Records would flood the marketplace with releases from Silkk the Shocker, Mystikal, Fiend, C-Murder and Mia X, alongside Master P albums, movies from No Limit Films and soundtracks for those movies.
The mainstream rise No Limit happened without the kind East Coast pandering that had accompanied So So Def and it didn’t have the kind major label cosign that the Dungeon Family enjoyed on LaFace. And it set the stage for the emergence another burgeoning Nawlins-based label: Bryan and Roland Williams’ Cash Money Records, which would enjoy a similar breakthrough in late 1998.
Master P proved that southern rappers could be unapologetically themselves–even if critics from NYC and L.A. couldn’t understand them–and still take the charts. Master P and his No Limit acolytes weren’t simply regional stars, they were on MTV and BET alongside the bigger names in the industry. Ghetto D‘s success is an important milestone in the rise southern hip-hop; it arrived in that moment after the door was kicked down but before the South began to dominate popular rap. The former period laid the foundation for the latter to take things to full fruition, and in the middle, there was Master P. The self-made man who turned No Limit into an unlikely powerhouse after the fall Death Row and the demise the Notorious B.I.G. Nobody saw him coming.
Which means that they never really knew where to look.
Watch Master P’s Video for “Make ‘Em Say Ugh”:
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Watch Master P’s Video for “I Miss My Homies”:
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Watch Master P’s Video for “Ghetto Dope”: