This is Master P's breakthrough year. Now no one can ignore him. A lot of people are scrambling, saying, Hey, where'd this guy come from?' He's been there all along. He's had a chart presence all along, but he's been just one lone voice."
- Reginald C. Dennis, editor-in-chief, XXL (1997)
1997 was going to be a banner year for Percy Miller.
The burgeoning rapper/mogul was watching as, after years of labor and hustle, his vision was beginning to bear some serious fruit. Actually, to say it was "beginning" to yield results is misleading: the rapper known as Master P had been making major strides for the better part of three years. Miller had come from the hardscrabble Calliope Projects in New Orlean's notorious Third Ward. The eldest of five, young Percy thought his way out of poverty was to be basketball; as he attended the University of Houston in 1990 on an athletic scholarship. He would only stay there one year, however, before transferring to Merritt College in Oakland to study business. It was while there that Percy's uncle would pass away, leaving the young man an inheritance that P would turn into his own record store. The store soon became homebase for his own record label: No Limit Records.
"When you want something out of life, you always have big dreams about doing all kinds of stuff that the average person probably wouldn't think about doing," P would tell The Washington Post in 1997. "I used to dream about this type of stuff—making movies, getting a number one record—but I ain't never thought it could really come true, even though I always knew I could do it."
Southern rap's independent spirit is well-documented: it's built into the very DNA of the music and the industry that sprang up around it. With no homegrown major labels and only middling interests from the powers-that-be, locals like Memphis, Houston, Miami and New Orleans got their rap bonafides straight out the mud. And with his No Limit Records, Master P came to be the embodiment of that mindset and hustler's spirit.
He'd founded No Limit after opening his record store, launching his career in the early 1990s and seeing regional successes with Richmond-based In A Minute Records releases like Get Away Clean and Mama's Bad Boy. He'd spend those early years building his name opening for Bay Area acts like E-40 and 2Pac. 1994's The Ghetto's Trying To Kill Me saw P take No Limit to SOLAR Records for wider distribution. All the while, as he grew his brand and built his name, he was focused on ownership.
“Owning my own company was important," P explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Because instead of being signed to a label and maybe at best making 15% of the money, now I make 100%—giving away 15% for distribution if I choose to. See, this way I could sell only 100,000 records and make more money per album than some famous [expletive] who doesn’t own [expletive] and sold 2 million albums.”
By 1995, Priority Records was paying attention to what Master P was doing. He'd relocated No Limit back to his native New Orleans and set to work on his fourth album, 99 Ways To Die. Once Priority saw the kind of leverage P had generated on his own, he landed a major distribution deal. His fifth album Ice Cream Man would become his first platinum-seller in 1996.
When you want something out of life, you always have big dreams about doing all kinds of stuff that the average person probably wouldn't think about doing..."
- Master P, Washington Post (1997)
TRU had always been part of the plan. He'd formed the rap group even before he launched No Limit officially, with Grandmaster Scratch, King George, Big O, Chilly D, King George, Chill, Magic Mark all listed on Mind of a Psychopath in 1990 as members initially. By the mid-1990s, the moniker had come to be applied to a trio P had formed with his younger brothers Corey "C-Murder" Miller and Vyshonne "Silkk the Shocker" Miller. By 1995, the group was making serious noise with their third album True and the single "I'm Bout it, Bout It." And P's new distribution deal was set to kick things into high gear.
"I had the 'Ice Cream Man' record. I was selling independently already," P would explain to HipHopDX in 2015. "That was going to be my big project to enter the music game. I ended up getting a deal with Priority which was a distribution deal. I think people didn’t think it was gonna happen. Michael Jackson’s attorney told me, 'You know, you need a distribution deal. That’s an 80/20 deal. But you gonna need $200,000 for marketing and promotion.' I’m a hood dude that went to college so that stuck in my mind. I didn’t really know what it was at the time. I just kept screaming “I need a distribution deal. That’s it.” I finally found someone who would give it to me, which was Priority. I had the marketing money. That’s how I did it."
“I’ve never seen a more dedicated worker,” said Priority Records’ distribution head Dave Weiner back in 1997. “He works almost 22 hours a day, seven days a week. He’ll do three states in one day—a morning meeting in Louisiana, moving to Texas by mid-afternoon and on to Los Angeles by the early evening. I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it myself.”
Alongside his solo releases, P had been dropping albums as a member of TRU and now things were primed. The success of Ice Cream Man heralded a boom in southern indie rap that P was uniquely positioned to take advantage of; and the next TRU album would be another homerun for No Limit as a label. If Ice Cream Man made the industry pay attention to P, Tru 2 Da Game served notice that No Limit was gunning for the top.
Michael Jackson’s attorney told me, 'You know, you need a distribution deal. That’s an 80/20 deal. But you gonna need $200,000 for marketing and promotion.' I’m a hood dude that went to college so that stuck in my mind."
- Master P, (2015)
Tru 2 Da Game dropped in February of 1997, and No Limit had suddenly become too big to ignore. P's hustle and his vision had melded into a movement that was sweeping the Southeast. He'd taken what he'd learned during his time in the Bay Area and made it work for NOLA. His time in Richmond deeply shaped his approach to the business of music. But he was always determined to show New Orleans—and to show New Orleans.
"I was born in New Orleans," he told XXL in 2016. "I was getting in trouble in New Orleans and I thought I needed to get away. A lot of my friends were dying young and I wanted to live to be over 19. I thought I was gonna die before I met 19, because all my friends were getting killed—15, 16, 17. So I jumped in my car and moved to Richmond, Calif. That's where I learned my hustle game from and then I decided to come back home to New Orleans.
"I wanted to show my hood and my people that if you really invest in this music and you believe in yourself... the hustle game that I learned in the Bay, [I wanted to] teach that to the South, how to be independent. We don't have to just do no record deals, we could do it on our own."
Musically, the album was commercially ambitious—a slicker affair than even Ice Cream Man had been, though it clearly followed that album's template. Beats By The Pound, No Limit's in-house producers, had grown by leaps and bounds; and now were delivering a distinctly infectious brand of rat-a-tat rap influenced by New Orleans bounce. "At that time, KL was probably in his prime, just making incredible music," P said in 2016. "He’s always been my favorite. Once we get in the studio and I hear something, it just comes."
Songs like "No Limit Soldiers" became street anthems for the label; while singles like "FEDz" and "Somebody's Watchin' Me" landed TRU, Master P and No Limit on mainstream music video channels. No Limit's profile was raised significantly, and Tru 2 Da Game was a success. "Heaven For A Gangsta" became one of the label's most popular album cuts—the song became a fixture on rap radio around the South. And "Freak Hoes" became a popular club staple; so popular, in fact, that it would inform Future's 2015 track "Freak Hoe" almost two decades later.
In the vein of a lot of popular mid-90s rap music, Beats By The Pound was suddenly sampling well-known hooks for their slick singles. It was a sign of the times, but it also got No Limit radio play in places that the label had previously been ignored. "FEDz" borrowed it's hook from Aaliyah's "If Your Girl Only Knew," which had been released only a few months prior. "Pop Goes My Nine" was a direct interpolation of 80s R&B hit "Pop Goes My Mind" by Levert; and "I Always Feel Like" used Rockwell's hit "Somebody's Watching Me" as it's basis.
"At that time, it was like going into the crates of records and grabbing the best songs and being able to flip it," P said of the album's heavy reliance on familiar samples and hooks. "I think that’s what we was able to do good: Flip some stuff that might’ve been a singing record and turn it into a street record. It made sense with the code of the streets."
The album was a major success for TRU and No Limit; peaking at #8 on the Billboard 200 and hitting #2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, selling 200,000 copies in its first week. Tru 2 Da Game would go on to sell two million copies, the most successful TRU album to date.
The hustle game that I learned in the Bay, [I wanted to] teach that to the South, how to be independent. We don't have to just do no record deals, we could do it on our own."
- Master P (2016)
Now, No Limit was a major player. By the summer of 1997, Master P would drop his blockbuster fifth album Ghetto D and No Limit's takeover of the mainstream would be complete. P would release I'm Bout It, the first No Limit film also that same year. He was the rap game's Dark Horse who was suddenly it's greatest success story. No Limit would eventually land major names like Mystikal and Snoop Dogg, en route to becoming one of the game's most iconic labels. And P is now a sage in Hip-Hop business.
"People started checking for us because they knew we was making money," he said in 2017. "They know we was printing money. They making money now. We was printing money. Everybody reached out."
Tru 2 Da Game was an announcement that No Limit Records was a major player, Ice Cream Man was no fluke, and Master P knew exactly what he was doing. He'd fought his way up through southern rap's ranks and now he had his eyes set on the top spot in Hip-Hop. By the end of 1997, he'd get there, and in doing so, Master P helped cement the South's rise and NOLA rap forever. Never again would the industry take New Orleans for granted. P had always had the vision, but most importantly, through all of the battles and the persistence, P had the drive.
"People don’t know the struggle that we’ve been through," P said in 2015. "So I salute everybody that gets something else and makes it out. People even criticize like, “Oh man, you used to hustle.” Yeah I hustled. I did all that. But that ain’t what I wanted to do. If I got a better shot, a better chance at life, I’m gonna do something else to it. That’s what I’m doing."