Master of His Game
Part 3 of Gambit Weekly's Music Issue.
By C. Wagner
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: Question: How do you take $10,000 dollars and turn it into millions? Answer: You start your own record company, sign yourself up as the label's marquee artist and then conquer the nation's music sales charts.
The formula may sound improbable, but it's just the route that New Orleanian Percy Miller, aka "Master P," has taken on a journey from his rough childhood in the Calliope public housing development to his new role as a chart-topping musician and a nationally renowned rap impresario.
Now that Miller has become the best-selling artist ever to hail from New Orleans -- and now that his four-year-old company, No Limit Records, is expecting to move 10 million units by year's end -- everybody on the New Orleans music scene wants to know how the guy did it.
"[The No Limit artists] are the first to hit the top of the Billboard charts like that from New Orleans. They've sold more records than Fats Domino," says Steve Picou, assistant director of the Louisiana Music Commission. "Everybody else is scratching their heads in this industry while rap records are selling."
Before he founded No Limit Records, based in Louisiana and California, 27-year-old Percy "Master P" Miller was a University of Houston point guard. After a knee injury ended his hopes of a basketball career, Miller returned to New Orleans and the Calliope project and started formulating Plan B. It soon arrived in the form of a mixed blessing. A malpractice settlement following the death of his grandfather brought Master P a $10,000 check, which he used to open his No Limit record store in Richmond, Calif. in 1990. Two years later, Master P recorded and released his first album, The Ghetto's Tryin' to Kill Me, and sold thousands of copies out of the trunk of his car. Thus, with limited distribution, a shoestring budget and sheer willpower, No Limit Records was born.
Jeff B., a disc jockey at KHOM Radio and hip-hop promoter for the New Orleans-based XXX company Sleeping Giant Entertainment, acknowledges rap music's large and enthusiastic grassroots following, but he believes those who think rap sells itself are seeing only part of the big picture.
"These labels spend money on promotions," he says. "I mean maybe not the same amount as the majors. But they're out there. Master P did a lot of promoting during Bayou Classic last year."
In the beginning, No Limit didn't woo its huge following with the big billboards and city busscapes you see plastered around New Orleans these days. One promotional strategy, in fact, was as simple as including ads for future releases in the packaging of current releases. But the strategy worked.
"No Limit's the only label that's been able to do that since Death Row records with Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dog," says Jeff B. "Master P has a tremendous amount of support."
Today, the No Limit Records promotion arsenal is significantly higher powered. Artists like TRU, Mr. Serv-On, Mia X, Kane & Abel, Mystikal, and Silkk enjoy the benefits of an exclusive national distribution deal Miller inked with Priority Records, an established rap label. And No Limit's high profits have paved the way for splashy marketing campaigns.
The result, no matter how improbable, is that Master P and some of the artists on his label have become household names.
Master P became a powerful marketing machine over a few short years.
While operating his retail store, he learned the rap business from the ground up. He got a firsthand view of what his customers liked and didn't, what they bought and what they wouldn't, and then he went out and made records tailored to his target audience.
By the time he was producing records, Master P had perfected another strategy: he developed a loyal fan base by offering record buyers more for their money. In fact, No Limit Records is known for delivering more music per release -- 19 or 20 songs per CD for the same price as the usual 12 cuts -- than just about anybody. By contrast, this year has seen full-price double albums from Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., and Wu Tang Clan.
Above all, Master P has been able to cultivate a tremendous cult following.
Reginald Dennis, editor of the national hip-hop magazine XXL, spoke the minds of many in a recent story when he described Master P as "a runaway slave" and a "rap Nat Turner." Master P, say critics, connects to his audience through his larger-than-life tales of surviving an existence at the bottom of the poverty-stricken ghettoes of New Orleans. He raps about drugs and violence -- including the brutal murder of his brother, Kevin -- and fans connect to the music because it reflects life as they know it, but it also promises a turn for the better. Master P himself offers living proof that every day good men and women go through the wringer and still come out on top.
These days, of course, Master P isn't the only one in the winner's circle. His company has launched the careers of several local rappers. And his success has inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs.
Without a doubt, P's success is also a badge of honor for the New Orleans music industry, which has embraced its new hero like an old friend -- even if he is an expatriate with offices in Baton Rouge and Los Angeles.
What's good for Master P is good for the Louisiana music industry, points out Bernie Cyrus, executive director of the Louisiana Music Commission and host of WDSU's local music show New Orleans after Midnight.
"I know we're the music capital of the world. The thing is we have to be the commercial capital of the world too," says Cyrus. "Louisiana is really making its comeback very strong and I'm very proud of that. Five years ago we were very bleak. We didn't have any records hitting the charts and now we're doing well in almost every genre. I couldn't be happier," says Cyrus. "I think Master P is filling a void in black Louisiana musicians getting their due."
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