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POP MUSIC

Master P's Theater

Rap artist and budding mogul Master P grew up under difficult circumstances and didn't like the life he was leading. A little talent and a lot of hard work got him out.

September 14, 1997|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

The land of dreams.

That's what Louis Armstrong called the festive and mystical New Orleans in his 1938 version of Spencer Williams' anthem "Basin Street Blues."

The Crescent City is a rich musical locale whose tough streets have spawned musicians from Jelly Roll Morton to Armstrong himself, paving the way for what some consider the only truly American musical art forms--the blues and jazz.

With the likes of Fats Domino and the Meters, among others, the city was also a cradle for rock 'n' roll and funk--thus serving as a crossroads where all these great forms of American popular music intersect.

It's fitting, then, that New Orleans has now become fertile ground for another wildly popular and controversial form, gangsta rap--and that one of the most successful members of the genre was born and raised there: Master P.

Master who?

Never heard of the Ice Cream Man? That's the nickname of the founder and CEO of No Limit Records, which boasts six albums on the latest Billboard Top 200 chart --including Mia-X's "Unlady Like," Tru's double CD "Tru 2 Da Game" and Master P's fourth solo album, "Ghetto D," which entered the chart last week at No. 1.

On top of all this, Master P, 27, wrote, directed and stars in "I'm Bout It--The Movie," a $1-million, self-financed feature about a drug dealer trying to go legit in a web of crooked cops and rivals that is the fastest-selling music video of the summer. Estimated sales to date for the straight-to-video project: more than 200,000.

While the mainstream press and the rap world at large have been slow to acknowledge Master P's presence, his phenomenal numbers now make the sound emerging from the Mouth of the South impossible to ignore.

"Master P is a runaway slave, a rap Nat Turner," says Reginald C. Dennis, editor-in-chief of XXL magazine, a New York-based hip-hop publication. "He built his company from the ground up and learned all the nicks and knacks of the business. He can talk about rap from a retail standpoint because he owned a retail store. He can talk about it from an artist's standpoint because he is one."

In some ways, the Master P/No Limit Records story is typical of a grass-roots art form like hip-hop, where a fatherless young man who was surrounded by hustlers in his rough neighborhood can start a record label on a shoestring budget, then build enough of following with tales of his troubled past to attract a multimillion pact with a national distributor.

What's rare about No Limit's deal with its distributor, Priority Records, however, is that Master P has been able to keep his company completely independent. He has retained ownership of everything from his master recordings to his studio. Priority merely distributes and manufactures whatever albums he decides to release.

It's a formula that has made Percy Miller a very rich young man, and given Priority a nice presence in terms of total market share.

"If you have something you control, you're the one writing the checks," Master P says, leaning back in a chair in a Priority Records office suite high above Sunset Boulevard.

The sunlight makes the pink diamonds in his heart-shaped pinkie ring sparkle brightly. When he smiles you can see an M and a P in the middle of the upper bridge of his gold-capped teeth.

"Owning my own company was important, 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," he says. "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."

Master P is on such a roll in the record business that he can't stop the buzz that surrounds him. During an hourlong interview, his beeper goes off 15 times.

"I've never seen a more dedicated worker," says Priority Records' Dave Weiner, who first became aware of Master P in 1994 when the rapper was moving thousands of copies of his debut album, "The Ghetto's Tryin' to Kill Me," out of the trunk of his car.

"He works almost 22 hours a day, seven days a week," continues Weiner, the label's director of distribution. "He'll do three states in one day--a morning meeting in Louisiana, moving to Texas by midafternoon and on to Los Angeles by the early evening. I wouldn't believe it if I didn't see it myself."

Supervising artists in the studio, going to marketing sessions, setting up publicity campaigns and directing music videos are only a few of the things that Master P does by himself.

"P's just an all around good guy trying to go down in history as one of the most important black music figures in the business," Weiner says. "But music is just the start for this guy."

To hear Master P tell it, he wasn't born just into a bad situation, but at the bottom of it. Coming up hard in New Orleans' Calliope housing project, where he lived with his mother and three younger brothers, he experienced random violence, hunger and perpetual dreams of a better life.

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