Hip-Hop Goes to the Market

It’s hard for some people to believe that Hip-Hop is now more than 20 years old – and harder for some others to believe it hasn’t always been with us.

Hip-Hop was and still is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is music. Born of “Toasting,” The Last Poets, and street-side break-dancing, it spawned rap and a multi-million-dollar industry. While “owned” by the hard-core rappers of the black ghetto, it has been taken up by youth of all races nationwide and, indeed, worldwide. Its white audience is bigger than its black audience. Hip-Hop is also about clothes and the way an age-group dresses, and has its own style and fashion dictates.   Go to eBay, search on “Hip-Hop,” and you’ll find nearly as many sweat shirts and other clothing items as you will recordings.  

Hip-Hop has also given us a number of larger-than-life characters, the Players who dominate the game. One fascinating Player is Master P. He is a rapper, a producer, an actor, a director, a sports agent and a toymaker. He has made Fortune and Forbes lists.

Born Percy Miller in New Orleans in 1970, he grew up in a housing project which was notorious for its violence.   He became a survivor – streetwise and tough. His parents divorced when he was 11, and he began spending his time alternating between his grandmother in New Orleans and his mother in Richmond, California.   He became a scholarship basketball player, and earned a walk-on with the University of Houston Cougars.

When his grandfather died Miller inherited $10,000 and used it in 1989 to open a rap record store, No Limit Records, in Richmond. A smart entrepreneur, he has, as Master P, parlayed this by the young age of 29 into a $361 million fortune, earning $57 million in 1998 alone. The key is his No Limit Enterprises, which began with the store but soon included a record label as well. 

In 1991 he released his first solo album as Master P, The Ghetto Is Tryin’ to Kill Me. It was based on what he saw the boys in the hood looking for in his store, and tailored to them with its themes of drugs and violence and it became an underground hit. World of mouth, rather than MTV, was what sold it.

He moved back to New Orleans, recognizing that its own music was quite similar to the gangsta-rap coming from the West Coast. He built a business empire, producing and turning out gangsta-rap albums for other artists while continuing his own performing career. He drew on his own family for talent: cousin Mo B. Dick provides backing soundtracks, while rappers Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder are his younger brothers.

A smart business move brought No Limit Records a distribution deal with Priority Records which gave the label’s albums world-wide availability. Many of the No Limit releases made it onto the Billboard charts with little, if any, radio airplay and sales largely from mom-and-pop stores which don’t record SoundScan sales figures – the data used to compile Billboard’s charts.

In 1997 Master P produced his first movie, I’m ‘Bout It, ‘Bout It, made on a shoestring budget with intentionally poor camera quality.   After it was rejected by several distributors, he released the movie himself, direct to video. His fans found it and snapped it up. It’s still a hot rental, and even Blockbuster now carries it.

This led to a second movie, a comedy about cell-phone scams called I Got The Hook Up. This one had no trouble finding a distributor – Dimension Films, a division of Miramax, snapped it up. A third is in the works. “I wanna be the first ghetto filmmaker in America,” Master P says.   “All ghetto movies – I’m specializing in movies nobody else wants to make. We’re gonna crank them out.”

In March, 1998, Snoop Doggy Dogg left his prior label, Death Row Records, for No Limit – a sign of No Limit’s ascendancy – and perhaps a death knell for Death Row. And Master P has announced that he wants “to be the ghetto Bill Gates.” Toward that end, he is building a compound in Louisiana – complete with dormitories, a $5 million recording studio, gym, pool, sundeck, and 15 HumVees. “I want to make this the next Motown,” he says. “I’m building a legacy I can hand down to my children.”

But that’s not all Master P has been up to. A year ago he released his first doll – the Master P doll – which came decked out in full camouflage gear, Versace shades, and a mini No Limit tank medallion. When you squeeze the 16-inch doll, it responds with a voice-box rendition of his trademark line, “Uhhh/ Na-na, na-na.” It originally sold for about $30. Only 6,500 were made – making it an almost instant collectors’ item.   Other dolls are rumored to be coming this season: Silkk the Shocker and Snoop Dog, plus a No Limit toy tank and a video game.

Want his autograph?   His autograph address, as posted on the web, is P. O. Box 2590, Los Angeles, CA 90078.

He’s also set up No Limit Sports, which signed Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams in February. And remember that basketball scholarship he had? Basketball is apparently in Master P’s blood. In 1998 he came close to making the roster of the Charlotte Hornets, and this year he was waived by the Toronto Raptors, once again failing to make the cut in the NBA. Collectors are seeking out his jerseys.

Master P also had a brief fling at wrestling with World Championship Wrestling. He was the first of several musicians to join up with WCW, back in June, but two months later the relationship was “phased out.”   He’d apparently become embroiled in a feud with the West Texas Rednecks on his June 13th debut, and they capped things off by singing “Rap is Crap,” an ode to Willie Nelson and NASCAR racing.

No doubt Master P is laughing all the way to the bank.

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