Recall New Orleans, 1998, around midnight. Your sweaty back cools against the passenger seat of a silver Maxima buzzing along I-10 under a lavender sky. From the carpet of shingles and treetops below the elevated highway, the billboard rises, white with blue block letters.
“Thou Shall Not Kill.”
A half-mile later, another billboard, a man in sunglasses puffs on a cigar, perhaps extends his gold card or oversees a fiery tank battle. Around him may be champagne bottles, crystal balls, grizzly bears, or all of the above. His album is out. The record label has an album out every month and can afford billboards as big as God’s. You marvel, “Man, Master P is taking over.”
The driver stops by the K&B, where you pick up a fifth of K&B vodka, then shuffle to the magazine stand. On Forbes’ list of highest paid entertainers, P ranks No. 10, worth an estimated $600 million. His latest release, MP Da Last Don, sits atop Billboard’s Top 200. He just signed Snoop Dogg away from Suge Knight’s Death Row Records. At the checkout line, you pluck a copy of I’m Bout It, his lo-fi gangsta flick that will inadvertently preserve life in the Calliope Projects for posterity. Reemerge on the sidewalk and hear Soulja Slim, Mr. Serv-On, and Big Ed thundering from a car stereo, suggesting that you don’t fuck with them.
Point of nostalgic reflection: Master P was the original underground king of what today’s junior entrepreneurs call “transmedia.” He was everywhere in every form to hustle every available dollar. From The Ghetto’s Tryin to Kill Me to platinum records to C-Murder’s jail cell, the genesis, rise, and fall of No Limit deserve more study.
Briefly: returning from the Bay Area in 1995, P hired the now-legendary producers Beats By Da Pound to create the label’s sound, signed hungry Parkway Pumpin’ spitters to deals that often left them with nothing but new Camaros and empty wallets, and convinced Priority Records to distribute while he kept the publishing. No Limit delivered the sound and stories of New Orleans to a national audience through relentless promotion and the sheer volume of its releases. Love him or leave him alone, Percy Miller belongs in the iconography of local music legends.
If the you-circa-1998 had tricked out that Maxima for time travel and accelerated to 2011, imagine your confusion. You’d hear the recent announcement of P’s return under the flag of No Limit Forever Records. “My main goal is to take over the game twice,” he claims in a new web series, The Next 48 Hours with Master P. Lil’ Romeo is all grown and installed as the V.P., with Silkk the Shocker as trunk of P’s car. The label is exclusively digital, and you can download P’s new mixtape, T.M.Z. (Too Many Zeros), for free. He shares a track with Gucci Mane and raps about “trending.”
You and your fellow traveler would turn to each other in shock. What happened? What is Twitter? What happened to the first takeover? This Rite Aid is not my beautiful K&B!
For answers, you could slam the Maxima in reverse, arrive in 1999, return to that newsstand and shake your head. Sports Illustrated features a story on P’s management of Saints’ draft pick Ricky Williams, the first client of No Limit Sports Management. In those days, the Saints did very little right, but they crushed P at the negotiating table. Check the World Championship Wrestling mags and wince at the No Limit Soldiers, another ill-fated attempt at brand diversification that recast P as a Captain Lou Albano-like manager against something named the West Texas Rednecks. You might consider the state of race in America, then proceed to the liquor section for more vodka.
Maybe after you’d slugged your fill, you’d see the contours of the near future. Boundless ambition eventually reaches the ceiling of cultural relevance and business acumen. Producers resent the absence of royalty checks. Soon enough, the neighborhood champ is chased out of town, ridiculed nationally, forced to close up shop. And there you’d be, a little drunk, raising a bottle to the just-vanished old days.
Today, your average American knows Master P from Dancing with the Stars. Tonight, the kids on St. Claude or Frenchmen Street will Bounce for the Juvenile or catch a DJ set from Mannie Fresh, but don’t expect them to remember Mr. ServOn. New Orleanians will back that azz up forever, but who still rounds out the tank? The billboards are gone; the digital mixtape is here. The old mogul returns to the spotlight’s edge, but what relevance will he have? Download T.M.Z. and hear that familiar growl declare, “My pockets fatter than Britney, Kevin Federline / I’m still famous in 2012 like it’s ’99.” The boast suggests several outcomes, none particularly flattering.
Still, with his track record of game-changing dominance and celebrity missteps, Master P deserves a wait-n-see reception. Before you celebrate or scoff at his resurrection, remember 1998 and 1999, and watch out for those potholes on memory lane. Hoody Hoo.