Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 10, which explores the rise of Master P and No Limit Records with guests Micah Peters and Taylor Crumpton.
“Make ’Em Say Uhh!” was the 1997 breakout hit from one Master P, born Percy Robert Miller, who rose from the Calliope projects in New Orleans to self-made multimillionaire superstardom as the colonel of his very own No Limit Records. This is a crucial moment, a crucial song, for Southern rap overall, for rap music overall as a business, as big business, as the biggest business imaginable. Ordinarily I distrust grown men who are not in the military and yet refer to themselves as “the Colonel,” but it fits here: the entire military-industrial vibe, the idea of Master P’s labelmates as his No Limit soldiers, the liberal use of camouflage, the label’s iconic tank logo. This is the guy you want to go to war with, the guy you want to go to war for.
A gold-plated tank, in fact, rolls onto the basketball court, like, 15 seconds into the “Make ’Em Say Uhh” video, which has more dudes in basketball jerseys than you’ve ever seen in your life, including during an actual basketball game. Shaquille O’Neal—this is early-Lakers-era Shaq—is chilling out on the sidelines; the tank at one point fires a missile at one of the backboards; and another guy in a gorilla suit, whose jersey has HUSTLERS emblazoned across the front, does a trampoline dunk, in slow motion, with a starburst of confetti exploding behind him, and it’s less that you see God than you see Master P seeing God.
In 1998, “Make ’Em Say Uhh” peaked at no. 16 on the Hot 100: as high as P ever got as a solo artist. Meanwhile, No Limit put out 23 albums, most of which anecdotally were between 75 and 79 minutes long. Just incredibly long listening experiences. And these were rewarding experiences, clearly, because 16 of those albums went either gold or platinum: 500,000 records sold or at least a million records sold. No Limit peaked just as the music industry, the CD era, had begun to peak. And thanks to one of the most famous business deals in rap history—a distribution deal with Priority Records that is arguably more famous and more artful than any one of the independent No Limit empire’s thousands of occasionally quite artful songs—Master P got a huge cut of all that money, compared to your average flat-footed major-label artist. That year he told The New York Times, “I guess I want to be the ghetto Bill Gates.” A few paragraphs later, Ice Cube called P “one of the best businessmen I’ve ever run across.’’
One of the best businessmen Ice Cube’s ever run across got his start, financially, with $10,000, part of a wrongful-death settlement after P’s grandfather died in a New Orleans hospital after they accidentally gave him another patient’s medicine. This is the early ’80s. Percy Miller is the oldest of five, with a sister and three brothers. By 1989 he and his wife, Sonya, have a young son, Romeo, and they’re living in the Calliope projects, and P is visibly caught up in New Orleans street life such that his grandmother sets out a black dress and tells him, “This is what I’ll wear to your funeral.”
He moves his family to Richmond, California, in the Bay Area, north of Oakland, and uses some of that $10,000 to open a record store. No Limit Records. He identifies gangsta rap as a growth industry; he figures he can magnify his own personal growth if he, himself, becomes a rapper. The first release from No Limit Records, the label, is Mind of a Psychopath, a four-song cassette—more of a demo, really—credited to The Real Untouchables, or TRU for short, a supergroup whose membership would vary wildly in the years to come. This time it’s just Master P and Sonya C, his wife. It’s not very good. Most of Richmond-era Master P is not very good, frankly. He’s impressionable, let’s say. He has clear influences. N.W.A. Bay Area titan Too Short, both for the streetwise lewdness and the I-sold-this-to-you-out-of-the-trunk-of-my-own-car DIY spirit. E-40, from the city of Vallejo just to the north, for the slangy eccentricity. Tupac’s a big influence, of course—the bravado, the charisma, the ambition—when Tupac comes around.
Master P’s not on that level. Takes him a while to find his own lane. His first solo album, in 1991, is called Get Away Clean. By now, Master P’s ambitions are to get rich, obviously, but also to save, quite literally, what remains of his family.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.