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The Ice Cream Man Cometh

How Master P laid the groundwork for the No Limit empire with his 1996 album

Richard A Chance

No year in hip-hop history sticks out quite like 1996: It marked the height of the East Coast–West Coast feud, the debut of several artists who would rule the next few decades, and the last moment before battle lines between “mainstream” and “underground” were fully drawn. The 1996 Rap Yearbook, a recurring series from The Ringer, will explore the landmark releases and moments from a quarter-century ago that redefined how we think of the genre.

You are asked to believe a parade of tidy metaphors, an unbroken string of meaningful coincidences: The gun that jams at a life-altering juncture. The championship basketball game marred by threats of violence. The chance encounters with Michael Jackson’s lawyer, with Tupac. The grandmother who makes the hero recite King’s “I Have a Dream” speech until it’s memorized and tells him there will be “no limit” to his success, then strikes the fear of God in him when she starts planning outfits for his funeral. Taken individually, these are the sort of moments on which entire lives hinge; as a whole, they become a web of parables that strain credibility. But at a certain point, with the Soundscan numbers and gold-plated tanks as supporting evidence, you’re forced to admit that something truly out of the ordinary has happened.

These are the stories Master P tells about himself, on his records and on TV, in the biopics he commissions and in the magazine spreads he poses for gamely. The New Orleans native’s No Limit Records was a family business that was also voracious the way they teach you to be in business school. It was always ready to grow—from music into movies, from phone sex to sports management and, inevitably, to real estate. It was one of the more intriguing ventures of its time, creatively significant to rap music and almost perfectly representative of a media landscape that was reshuffling rapidly as it approached an unforeseen breaking point.

Master P’s fifth album, the languid, swaggering Ice Cream Man, was released 25 years ago this month. His breakthrough to national audiences, its sound is a close precursor to the one that would soon become No Limit’s signature: big and bombastic but with plenty of negative space, whining synths, and ad-libs as architecture. Yet it retains the silk and funk that marked his earlier music, which is heavily indebted to the West Coast, where he spent the crucial early years of his career. Like nearly every record No Limit issued during its heyday—of which this album marks the beginning—Ice Cream Man scans immediately as the sound of a counterculture that, at the end of the 1990s, was quickly becoming central, in terms of bankability as well as controversy.

Percy Miller was born in New Orleans in 1967, the first child of Percy Sr., a security guard in the French Quarter, and Josie, who worked in hotels. He would soon have a younger sister and three brothers; before long, his parents split and his sister, Germaine, went with two brothers, Corey and Vyshonn, to live with their mother in the Magnolia Projects. That left Percy and his brother Kevin with their father in the 3rd Ward’s Calliope Projects. These Miller men lived with Percy’s paternal grandparents, Claude and Maxine, and with a rotating cast of relatives. At its most crowded, their three-bedroom apartment slept 16 people. But Claude spun his social security check into tuition for young Percy at the Catholic school nearby—a formative place for him, although he’d often have to fight his way home, an easy target in preppy uniform.

By high school, Percy had developed into such a good basketball player that he was a minor celebrity. People sometimes gambled on these games, which led to that almost-too-cinematic crossroads at the free throw line: Either make the shot and send his team to the playoffs, or brick it, as the spectator who flashed a pistol in the stands clearly hoped he would. “If basketball don’t work, the circle is going to close in on me anyway,” he recalled thinking in a 2020 BET documentary. He made the shot—of course he did—then ran to the waiting team bus.

Distinguished college basketball men in linen suits descended on the projects: P says that powerhouse programs like Louisville and Georgetown sent representatives to the Calliope. He accepted a scholarship offer to the University of Houston, which had that decade produced Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. But shortly after he arrived, he tore his ACL during practice. The NCAA allows schools to revoke scholarships if athletes become injured, and that’s exactly what happened; to hear P tell it, the injury was so demoralizing he might have left school anyway. He took the seven-hour bus trip back to New Orleans with no concrete plans for the future.

At this point P started hustling. Things went well until they didn’t. (Here he likes to tell the story of blanching when a college dean tries to buy crack from him; he claims the dean asked, “You gonna sell me some crack, or are you a dope dealer with a conscience?”) When P’s cousin was shot during a dice game robbery, Maxine, his grandmother, apparently grabbed a black dress, threw it over her nightstand, and told her grandson that it’s what she planned to wear to his funeral.

So he went West. This was 1989; P had married his wife, Sonya, who gave birth to their first son, Romeo. The young family moved to Richmond, California, with $10,000 in seed money, which they used to open a music shop called No Limit Records and Tapes. At first things were slow: Mother, father, and infant slept in the back of the store, surrounded by moldy walls and not much else. But P learned the business fast, filling an underserved market for gangsta rap and forging relationships with Bay Area rappers like E-40, Too $hort, and Spice1, all of whom stopped by No Limit to drop off their own LPs. After studying consumer behavior and the successes and failures of those established Bay artists, P sensed that with shrewd marketing and enough legwork, he could make a fortune selling a new batch of rap records—his own.

But as he was preparing to shift from proprietor to star, word came from back in New Orleans: His brother Kevin, who was planning a move to Richmond to join the burgeoning music venture, had been killed. An acquaintance of whom he was always leery took Kevin out for a ride with another man and, from the back seat, shot him in the head and torso, then left his body on the side of the I-10, just west of the city.

P and his siblings came running back home. He drove the 2,200 miles from Richmond without stopping. Corey, who was serving in the Army, was not granted leave to be with his grieving family—so he went AWOL to meet them. The three surviving brothers each got portraits of Kevin tattooed on their arms and vowed to make something of this new family enterprise. On P’s arm at least, the portrait is underlined with text: “NO LIMIT SOLDIER.”

By the end of 1990, P was back in the Bay, securing studio time through less-than-conventional means. He offered to paint the house that producer K-Lou’s mother lived in, but did such a bad job that he was asked to stop. K-Lou granted him a session anyway. That grew into many more, and those sessions yielded records—demos, really—that were, to be kind, very rough. His first album, 1991’s Get Away Clean, is derivative in predictable ways (there’s the “Friends” bass line, there’s the same Steve Arrington sample N.W.A used for “Gangsta Gangsta”) but lays the foundation for what would come next. It was truly a family affair: It featured not only his brother, Vyshonn, who had taken the stage name Silkk the Shocker, but also Sonya, rapping alongside her husband. Some songs on Clean presage the occasional moral confrontation of P’s later records: Narrators wave pistols to buy milk for starving babies and dope money is wired back to relatives overworked in retail jobs and call centers.

There is, however, one curious bit of misdirection. In this early stage of his development, P sounds better the quicker he raps. At this faster clip, he’s able to retain the bend and personality of his speaking voice. But when he slows down, there’s none of the appealing legato he’d access later—he sounds, instead, almost shockingly amateur, as if he’d internalized all of rap’s signifiers and few of its rhythms.

As P grew into himself as a performer, No Limit grew into something more than a vanity label. The third surviving brother, Corey, also began rapping. Against P’s wishes, he chose the name C-Murder—obvious given his real initial, but with extra gravity when you consider that it was inspired partly by the things he saw as a medic during the Gulf War. (You know: One who sees murder.) With the help of his brothers and other mostly Bay-bred artists, P set about building the No Limit brand through sheer sweat: bouncing around the country, playing tiny shows or paying promoters for the honor of rounding out bills led by more established artists. P struck up a relationship with Tupac, who lived in the Bay from the time P moved there until 1993, and was able to join him on brief tours as an opener.

Soon the label’s tank logo, a nod to the Millers’ military ties, was everywhere: on posters the founder pasted up himself, on the tapes he sold out of his trunk, on the T-shirts he handed out to the homeless. It was around this time that the crew supposedly got into a scuffle at a club in Oakland, which culminated in P pulling a TEC-9 from his trunk and pulling the trigger on one of his enemies. The gun jammed once, then again; P and his associates fled the club. Had he killed a man in such a crowded space, one imagines, he would have been tried and convicted. “I realized God had a bigger plan for me,” he said of the incident in the BET documentary.

E-40’s uncle, St. Charles, an independent music industry fixer with decades of experience, was helping to guide P and to make No Limit profitable. This allowed the Miller brothers to turn down major-label deals that offered short-term money in exchange for control over No Limit’s release schedule and master recordings. All this time, P was framing his album covers and hanging them on the walls of his Richmond apartment—as if they were platinum plaques. And he was nudging reality in that direction: His 1994 album, The Ghettos Tryin’ to Kill Me!, was both a creative leap forward and an independent juggernaut, selling over 100,000 copies with no radio play to speak of.

In 1995, three things transformed No Limit forever. The first was that the brothers moved the label back to New Orleans. (They would eventually establish a permanent studio in Baton Rouge.) The second is that P landed a sweetheart distribution deal with Priority Records: By fronting marketing, recording, and other costs himself, he was able to retain between 80 and 85 percent of the profits, giving up just that small remainder in exchange for Priority’s help getting No Limit into giant retailers. This gave P a degree of creative control virtually unprecedented for a rap label so profitable, and would soon make him cartoonishly rich.

The third thing that changed No Limit was the addition of Beats by the Pound, the production collective that would soon handle the lion’s share of each album the label put out. These producers—Mo B. Dick, O’Dell, Craig B, KLC, and Carlos Stephens—churned out a dizzying number of beats and quickly forged an unmissable style, characterized by punishing drums and slick melodies, sometimes isolated but often competing with one another. KLC in particular would go on to distinguish himself as one of his era’s most innovative producers.

Beats by the Pound had a slight flattening effect on some of the No Limit roster: See, for example, the way Mia X’s bounce roots are only intermittently shown in her work for the label, or the way Mac (a former child star who had worked with a young Mannie Fresh) rapped on beats very similar to those they gave to Silkk, a radically different vocalist. The saving grace was simple quality. Combined with reliably vibrant, still-imitated covers by the Houston design firm Pen & Pixel, BBTP confirmed the impression of No Limit as a high-volume factory, but one with increasingly exacting standards.

Ice Cream Man was made against a deadline: K-Lou claims that the entire LP was tracked in a single weekend, because P had promised it to Priority before he had a single song mixed and mastered. Whether the timeline was quite this compressed or not, the album seems to have come together quickly; despite the broader No Limit move back to Louisiana, it was tracked mostly in the Bay, at a Berkeley studio called Live Oak and in K-Lou’s own studio. Twenty years after the fact, P would contrast the recording experience with some of his earlier setups, which were compromised by “crackheads standing outside … knocking on the window.” The new environment sees P become a more distinct vocalist. He leans into his tics and—perhaps because of the time crunch—leaves compelling imperfections in his final takes. At points, his voice wavers the way it occasionally does in interviews, as if he’s leaving a placeholder that will later be replaced by something more forceful.

Ice Cream Man is an amusingly clear example of a record label in transition between regions. There has, of course, long been a good deal of exchange between the West and the South when it comes to hip-hop production and vocal styles. But at times the album seems to dart between the sounds of California and Louisiana rather than blend them. At their best, each is executed superbly: On the one hand, you have shimmering California cuts like “Watch Dees Hoes” or “Playa From Around the Way,” in which Mo B. Dick serves as a delightful budget Nate Dogg; on the other you have KLC’s sparse, sneering “Back Up off Me,” where P’s vocal development is more clearly on display, in the form of a serrated growl that makes him a magnetic presence—including and especially at the slower paces he couldn’t handle earlier in his career.

There are rappers whose writing styles you might describe as “deceptively straightforward”—Too $hort’s hyper-slow verses, or even the early, epigrammatic Jeezy stuff—but Master P’s is, simply, straightforward. He’ll taunt, for example, someone who is “all screwed up, like DJ Screw.” But this is in part what makes the elegiac “No More Tears” touch a nerve, or the social commentary in “The Ghetto Won’t Change” so defiant: There is no sleight of hand, no artifice, because there is no space for either.

The record’s best song is the “Bout It, Bout It” remix—this is where P’s new growl is most impressively deployed, and then punctuated by a verse from Mia X that would be show-stopping even if left naked, but is so expertly produced, through its doubling and ad-libbing, as to be percussive itself. “Bout It, Bout It II” is also Ice Cream Man’s one phenomenal act of synthesis: Here KLC meshes the post–“Funky Worm” West with P’s 3rd Ward bounce to come up with a new, alchemic blend so potent that when the next remix was gifted to Cam’ron, P was convincingly cast as an exporter of sound, rather than a map-hopping omnivore.

Though a dogged self-promoter, P seemed to understand that his records were best served by sharing the spotlight. He smartly cedes much of “Bout That Drama” to Silkk, whose entrancingly chaotic flow knocks around the beat in a way P never would, or could. And “Break ’Em off Somethin’” benefits greatly from Pimp C’s beat—if not his verse, which is just a little dulled compared to the usually animated MC’s best work. (Bun B, the consummate professional, compensates for his partner; he brags that your local police department must be “getting somewhere” if they’re targeting him.) Pimp C would more than make up for this a couple years later by giving No Limit one of his signature verses: the opening 16 on C-Murder’s “Akickdoe!,” the one that opens “The game fucked up, I ain’t got no friends / And I done spent my last $70,000 on a drop-top Benz.”

And then there’s Ice Cream Man’s title track and lead single, which betrays both P’s marketing philosophy and something more elemental about the way he saw the world. To him, the drug dealer could be a destructive force, or at least a cog in a destructive machine, but was always defensible as someone looking after his own, and often after his neighbors, too. That left him with the metaphor. The hustler was also a businessman—or more specifically, businessmen were also hustlers, and he was simply beating the suits at their own game.

Given what came later, Ice Cream Man can seem like a mere prologue. No Limit’s unquestionable peak was 1998—that was the year the label signed Snoop Dogg away from Death Row and put out 23 albums, including a handful of classics; it was also the year P played the lead in two movies. “Make Em Say Uhh!,” technically released the year prior, became ubiquitous, the rare kind of crossover hit that actually doubles down on its regional idiosyncrasies. He was even able to live out his adolescent dreams, suiting up for the Charlotte Hornets during the 1998-99 NBA preseason.

That supernova success overwhelmed the record industry and likely netted P more than $100 million. It also burned out relatively quickly: By 2001, the Beats by the Pound producers were long gone, and much of the marquee vocal talent had left the label. That year the label jumped from Priority to Universal, where Cash Money had found success, and rechristened itself The New No Limit; by the end of 2003, it had filed for bankruptcy.

On a personal level, No Limit’s roster was scarred by tragedy. In 2001, Mac was convicted of manslaughter despite another man confessing to have killed the victim; he has been imprisoned ever since, though there is now hope for release after he was granted clemency. Two years later, on the day before Thanksgiving, Soulja Slim was murdered in the front yard of a house he had purchased for his mother. (A legendary figure in New Orleans, Slim was one of the few meaningful bridges between the city’s two titanic rap labels; while his best LPs came out on No Limit, it was “Slow Motion,” a duet with Juvenile, that scored Cash Money its first no. 1 single.) Also in 2003, C-Murder was convicted in the shooting death of a 16-year-old named Steve Thomas. The machinations around this case have been grinding steadily away for years, fueled by allegations of jury tampering, but for now P’s brother remains locked up.

Much is made about whether art from past decades seems “dated” in the present, as if predicting or influencing future trends is the only bar with which to measure aesthetic success. Ice Cream Man’s DNA—maximalist gloss knowingly fucked up around its edges—is, in the broadest possible sense, traceable back to hip-hop’s roots in disco and forward through artists like Future, whose best work is often a pained mutation of what would be conventional radio pop. But like most of what No Limit produced, the album sounds unmistakably like the late-’90s window it took by force. In an era when works from across decades, even centuries, are stripped of context and presented beside one another or in algorithmic succession, this specificity is made refreshing.

As for Master P’s story itself: It is the type that could only be told in America, because of both the moral rot that created his circumstances and the strange, spastic infusions of capital that allowed him to escape them. Even before he learned to play on the country’s appetites and anxieties, he had extracted life-changing money from the bleakest possible events. When he was barely out of his teens and a new father with a bad knee and no prospect for making legal money, he was able to make that New Orleans–to Richmond-move—and set up the original No Limit store—because of the aforementioned $10,000 he had on hand. That was not the detritus of a volatile drug trade. It was his share of a hospital malpractice settlement check: P’s grandfather, Claude, was killed after receiving another patient’s medicine. The morbidity baked into that transaction—a dollar figure for a patriarch—is obvious, as is the futile nature of trying to fill that specific vacuum with any amount of eventual financial success. But what P did with No Limit—what he began, in many ways, with Ice Cream Man—was to inflate the dynamics of our world to their most extreme, stylized proportions, to accentuate what was always there.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.

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