In the 1990s, when people still primarily consumed music by via aluminum compact discs, rap label No Limit Records rose to national attention in part by flooding shelf space with a seemingly endless number of releases by rappers whose albums were packaged in brightly colored cases, recognizable by their insane, perspective-defying artwork courtesy of Pen & Pixel, and musically blessed with the booming, groundbreaking production of Beats By the Pound. After its founder Master P signed a huge major label deal with EMI/Priority, No Limit became one of the biggest exporters of the Dirty South sound and forever transformed the sound of hip-hop, even if the label’s stay in the spotlight proved brief.
Master P was born Percy Robert Miller on 29 April 1967 in New Orleans. His younger brothers Corey Miller (C-Murder) and Vyshonn King Miller (Silkk the Shocker) are also rappers, as is his son Percy Romeo Miller (Lil’ Romeo). The other Miller siblings were Germany and Kevin — the latter of whom was murdered over a dispute involving drugs in 1990. The Miller family lived in The B.W. Cooper Apartments (better known as The Calliope Projects), a huge housing development constructed in 1941 in New Orleans’s Uptown.
In the late 1970s, after the elder Millers divorced, the Miller children split their time between the home of their paternal grandparents in New Orleans and their mother’s new home in Richmond, California. As a teenager, Percy pursued a career in basketball at Booker T. Washington and Warren Easton high schools and he won a sports scholarship to the University of Houston but his dreams of an athletic career were sidelined by a serious knee injury.
Following his injury, P studied business at Oakland‘s Merritt Junior College. His first attempt at music making was as the beat-maker for a Bay Area rap crew, XII Gauge and The Hit Squad. The same year, Percy and his wife Sonya gave birth to their son, whom they named Percy Romeo Miller Jr.
NO LIMIT — THE BAY AREA YEARS
Using the money from a malpractice suit following the death of his grandfather; P opened a record store called No Limit Records. As Master P, Miller formed the NWA-inspired gangsta rap act The Real Untouchables (or TRU) with his brothers, his wife, and friends Big Ed, Daniel Fry, King George, Fonzo, Milkman, and Markest “Magic Mark” Bank. The first release was four-track Mind Of A Psychopath, released 15 February 1990.
The label’s second release was Master P’s solo Get Away Clean, nominally a 12″ EP but in actuality more of a single, with “Richtown ’90’” as its flipside, and a track which again featured The Real Untouchables. The group’s early works were produced by K-Lou and recorded at K-Lou Studios, also in Richmond.
No Limit’s first official release (NLR-1001) was Master P’s 1991 debut full-length, Get Away Clean, credited to Master ‘P — also featuring The Real Untouchables. It was followed by the non-album single, “Jack Of The Jackers.” 1992 saw the release of The Real Untouchables’ “Hangin In The Hood,” “Christmas In The Ghetto,” and Understanding The Criminal Mind; as well as Master P’s “I’m Going Big Time” and Mama’s Bad Boy; and 1 Step Ahead Of Yall and “Ski $ CMT” — the latter by Oakland-based rapper EA-Ski (né Shon Adams).
1993 saw the release of The Real Untouchables’s “Tell Them What’s Goin’ On” b/w “Ghetto Is A Trap” and Who’s Da Killer?; EA-Ski’s “Straight Business“; Master P’s “Trust Nobody” b/w “I’m the Funkiest”; Sonya C’s Married To The Mob; and the Something Kind Of Funky EP, credited to a rapper known as Rally Ral.
The following year, 1994, saw the release of Master P’s “Bastard Child” and The Ghettos Tryin To Kill Me!; Dangerous Dame‘s (Oakland-born Damon D. Edwards) Escape From The Mental Ward EP and Lil Ric‘s (Richmond-born Ritchie Fontaine) “Ride Wid Me” and Deep N Tha Game.
It was also in 1994 that No Limit also released two compilations, West Coast Bad Boyz — Anotha Level Of The Game and West Coast Bad Boyz — High Fo Xmas which featured a host of rappers including Big Ed, Brother Moe, C-Bo, Coughnut, The Dangla, The Delinquents, Erase E, E.Z.S.D., 4-Tay, GLP, JT, Keylo, King George, Lil’ Ric, Mac Spoon, Mafiosos, The Perk, Rack Skerz, Ray Luv, San Quinn, Seff Tha Gaffla, Toby T, Totally Insane, and Young Cellski. 1995 saw the release of one more west coast-themed release, West Coast Bad Boyz — Peace 2 Da Streets before P moved back to New Orleans.
NO LIMIT — THE NEW ORLEANS YEARS
After relocating to New Orleans, No Limit shed most of its roster. No Limit arrived in a New Orleans already lousy with talent including the rosters of local labels Big Boy, Cash Money, Take Fo’, Parkway Pumpin’, Tombstone, and Untouchable. Parkway Pumpin’, a label operated without contracts, had been the home to several rappers who would come to No Limit including Fiend, Mac (rebranded Lil Mac the Lyrical Midget), Mystikal Mike (by-then having achieved regional success as Mystikal over at Big Boy), the duo of Mr. Serv-On and Da Hound (from Da Gert Town Hounds/Full Blooded), and Magnolia Slim (better known as Soulja Slim). As talented as several of them were, perhaps no one deserves more credit for establishing No Limit’s southern sound as Parkway Pumpin’s producer, KLC.
KLC, born Craig S. Lawson, had grown up in the Melpomene projects (officially the Guste Apartments). His father played saxophone and Lawson, nicknamed “The Drum Major,” followed in his musical footsteps, playing in the Green Middle School marching band. His first co-production, with DJ Treble, was of MC J Ro J‘s “Ain’t Nuthin Nice” in 1988. With his friends Shack (né Derrick Mushatt) and MC Dart (né Dartanian Stovall), he formed 39 Posse, who were naturally the first group with a Parkway Pumpin’ release, in 1989. With Raymond “Mo B. Dick” Poole, Craig Bazile, and Odell Vickers Jr., Lawson formed the production crew Beats By the Pound, whose first commission for No Limit was the first double-rap CD, a compilation called Down South Hustlers — Bouncin’ And Swingin’ (Tha Value Pack Compilation).
Down South Hustlers featured a lot of Texas talent (DJ Screw, E.S.G., P.K.O., PSK-13, Point Blank, and UGK) as well as CCG of Kansas City, Missouri, C-Loc of Baton Rouge, The Dayton Family of Flint, Michigan, Eightball & MJG of Memphis, as well as more obscure rappers like Chico, Coop MC, Fire, Gangsta T, Niggas Out The Ghetto, 187, and 20-2-Life. New Orleans talents included The Hounds Of Gert Town (Camouflage, Full Blooded, and Nite Tyme), Joe Blakk, Magnolia Slim, Partners-N-Crime, Skull Dugrey, Tre-8, and Mia X, the latter of New Orleans’s first rap group, New York Incorporated (which also included DJ Wop, Denny D, and Mannie Fresh).
1995 also saw the release of Master P’s “When They Gone” and 99 Ways To Die EP; Mia X’s “I Wanna Be With You” and Good Girl Gone Bad EP; Tre-8’s (Walter McCallon) Ghetto Stories; and Tru’s “Living That Life” b/w “I’m Bout It, Bout It” and TRU. 1996 saw the release of Silkk‘s The Shocker; Kane & Abel Feat. Master P & Mo B. Dick’s Gangstafied; the No Limit Gangsta Shit compilation; Skull Dugrey’s “Expression”; Kane & Abel’s The 7 Sins; and Master P’s “No More Tears,” “Bout It Bout It II,” and Mr. Ice Cream Man — the latter which became the last release of No Limit’s independent years as well as P’s first solo collaboration with Beats By the Pound and, not coincidentally, the label’s first platinum release.
In 1996, the Los Angeles rap label Priority Records had became part of London’s Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) and subsequently came knocking in New Orleans, where they signed a $30 million distribution deal with Master P in which he maintained ownership of No Limit’s master recordings and recording studio and EMI/Priority brought vastly-increased international exposure.
MAJOR LABEL SUCCESS
International fame didn’t come overnight. The first post-deal album was Skull Dugrey’s Hoodlum Fo’ Life, which failed to garner much attention outside of the South. Then TRU’s Tru 2 Da Game and Mia X’s Unlady Like both went gold in 1997.
Mystikal’s Unpredictable, containing the minor hit “Ain’t No Limit” went platinum. Master P‘s Ghetto D reached number one and produced three Master P hits, “I Miss My Homies,” “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!,” and “Burbons and Lacs.” After acrimoniously parting with Death Row, Snoop Dogg moved to No Limit. When Forbes Magazine reported Master P’s earnings at $56.5 million, making him one of the ten most highly paid entertainers of the year and yet, it’s safe to say that none of their readers had ever heard of him as No Limit made their money entirely without the support of MTV.
THE TANK BREAKS DOWN
When you would’ve expected No Limit to consolidate their hip-hop dominance, they instead seemed to expand their focus in all directions except music. In keeping with any moderately successful rapper of the era, No Limit created a requisite clothing line (No Limit Gear). They also entered the film industry with No Limit Films, including I’m Bout It, MP Da Last Don, Da Game of Life, I Got the Hook Up, Foolish, No Tomorrow, Uninvited, Hot Boyz, and Lockdown.
No Limit even operated a Foot Locker franchise, a gas station, a travel agency, a real estate company, a sports management company, and a phone sex service. P, meanwhile, auditioned for the Charlotte Hornets, the Toronto Raptors, and ultimately played with the CBA‘s Fort Wayne Fury. He even acted in a non-No Limit film, The Players Club.
In 1999, No Limit moved 22 million units but when it came to break bread, some of the artists voiced dissatisfaction with their shares. Most of the non-Miller roster soon jumped ship. Most disastrous of all, Beats By the Pound led the artist exodus (and changed their name to The Medicine Men), depriving the label of most of its best beat-makers. By 2000, the big names that remained were limited to the Millers, Mia X (then in the second year of a ten year recording hiatus), Magic, Mac, and Snoop Dog — not inconsiderable talents, mind you, and certainly better known than the label’s then-new signees Short Circuit, D.I.G., Young Gunz, Popeye, Baby Soulja, Black Felon, Afficial, Samm, Curren$y, Choppa, and Krazy. However, to anyone who was paying attention, the writing was clearly on the wall; it was now the age of Cash Money — and their Mannie Fresh-backed roster of Big Tymers, Hot Boys, Turk, Juvenile, B.G., and Lil’ Wayne.
LIFE (AND DEATH) AFTER NO LIMIT
Over the years, No Limit would reorganize and move from distributor to distributor but never recapture the magic of its heyday. Several of its former rappers had some pretty serious run-ins with the law. In 2001, Kane & Abel were sentenced to three years in a cocaine case after admitting to lying to federal agents about the activities of jailed drug kingpin and convicted murderer Richard Pena. Also in 2001, Mac was charged with the death of 22-year-old Barron C. Victor Jr. and sentenced to a 30-year term. In 2003, C-Murder was found guilty of beating and fatally shooting a 16-year-old fan, Steve Thomas, and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2004, Mystikal was sentenced to six years in prison for sexual battery and was released in 2010, after which he returned to music, signing with his old rivals Cash Money in 2011.
Other former No Limit rappers are no longer of this world. Big Ed (Edward Lee Knight) died of cancer in 2001. Then-26-year-old Soulja Slim (James Tapp) was murdered in front of his mother’s home in 2003. Tre-8 died in a car accident in 2011, aged 37. Magic died in a car accident in 2013, aged 37. Most of the buildings of the Calliope Projects were demolished following their evacuation during Hurricane Katrina.
Mia X, Mr. Serv-On, Silkk the Shocker, and Snoop Dogg continue to compose and perform music, as does KLC, who as of 2013 was reportedly working on a collaboration with the one-and-only Rakim.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.
9 thoughts on “No Limit Records 1990-1996: The Independent Years”
Loved the article! I still listen to No Limit to this day.
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This gave me some help with questions I had as a kid… I grew up listening to No Limit and we didn’t have internet back then.. so, this really helped me understand some questions and I know that it’s mostly true because I knew most of what I read…. however, still many new things to learn. Thanks
Glad you enjoyed and keep bumping that classic No Limit. KLC’s beats age like fine wine!
Great detailed article, Eric, thx! Where did you get the cool psychedelic photo above of the Beats By The Pound crew? Do you know who photographed it? (I am interested in potentially licensing the photo for a documentary series I am working on.)
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Thanks! I don’t remember where I found that photo… unfortunately it never used to cross my mind to provide credit. I probably just Google Image searched for it online. Please get at me when the documentary series is viewable!
Thanks for the article Eric it was both entertaining and informative. Master P really doesn’t get enough credit. His foresight and thinking out the box mentality really changed the game. The label owes much of it’s success to KLC and the solid production team. Beats By the Pound was the backbone of the label.
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Appreciate the article. I’m going back and listening to every No Limit album and man those early albums were amazing. West Coast P is much more focused than Down South P
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Thanks for that. I’m glad that West Coast P gets love, too. I’ll admit, though, as a percussionist I was all about the production unless someone really good like Soulja Slim or Mystikal was rapping over the beats.