At the turn of the century, there were two clear kingpins in hip-hop –both self-made men with vast, far-reaching empires that stretched into film and fashion, a knack for finding top talent, clearly defined approaches to production, and senses of rhythm that could charitably be described as unique.
In one corner: Sean Combs, who was transitioning from being called Puff Daddy to just Diddy (his reasoning for that remains as unclear as ever). His New York-based Bad Boy Records spent the end of the century churning out huge albums by the likes of Notorious B.I.G., Lil’ Kim, Mase, the L.O.X., Junior M.A.F.I.A., and Faith Evans, all fueled by Combs’ pop-minded production sensibilities and a distinctly New York approach to rhyming.
In the opposite corner: Master P. The Oakland native launched No Limit Records as a way to distribute his own albums, but once he shifted his operation to New Orleans and recruited a stable of like-minded MCs (including C-Murder, Silkk the Shocker, Mystikal, Mr. Serv-On, and Mia X), P became the dominant voice in the rapidly growing hip-hop scene in the south. His label’s music was far more raw and rudimentary, built around basic bounce tracks continuously cranked out by No Limit’s wholesale production crew Beats By the Pound.
Several of the No Limit MCs (P included) were sort of terrible on the mic; compared to a polished performer like Snoop Dogg (who joined No Limit after fleeing the psych ward that was Death Row Records), P was competent at best and sometimes laughably inept. His voice was typically monotone and nasal, and the whole operation felt pretty lo-fi.
Still, while C-Murder and Silkk the Shocker weren’t necessarily household names, the No Limit name commanded an incredible amount of brand devotion. No Limit albums regularly went to the top of the Billboard chart and sold platinum based solely on the label’s tank logo and wonderfully garish album covers dreamed up by the surrealist minds at Pen & Pixel. The whole thing peaked with 1998’s MP Da Last Don, a double-album released by Master P that had a crazy 3D effect and sold an astonishing half million copies in its opening week on its way to going platinum four times over.
No Limit was bankrupt by 2003 and has only recently been reconstituted by P’s son Romeo Miller. But the No Limit sound has been way more influential on today’s batch of MCs than any other camp.
It’s easy to hear in the guttural flow of A$AP Rocky, who digs the No Limit sound so much that he brought some of the No Limit Soldiers on stage at Coachella for a run through P’s signature tune “Make’Em Say Uhh.” But it runs deeper than a shout-out. Those heartfelt rap-croons that Drake kicks? P was doing that on Ghetto D‘s single “I Miss My Homies” way back in 1997. Ever notice how many DJs and producers shout over their own tracks as a way to provide an audio signature? That’s P’s old trick; his signature “Uhh!”—an animalistic whine that somehow became a catch phrase—is all over most every No Limit release.
That Beats By the Pound production is also popping up everywhere, mostly fueling the mixtape minimalism favored by the likes of Rick Ross (whose laconic flow owes something significant to P’s drawl) and Nicki Minaj (when she isn’t collaborating with RedOne, of course). At this point, it makes sense that technology has advanced to the point where you could likely produce an entire No Limit album with the most basic laptop production program. Master P accidentally saw the future of hip-hop.
It wasn’t Diddy’s splashy, expensive version of radio rap; instead, it was the sort of stuff that could be made in 10 minutes, put on a mixtape, and circulated within 24 hours. No Limit cranked out releases at an excelerated rate in the years before major Internet distribution; had they taken that approach in the current era, we’d be evaluating Silkk the Shocker mixtapes every 16 hours or so.
If you made a list of the 100 greatest rappers in history, it’s doubtful that Master P—or any of his No Limit Soldiers—would end up in the top 50. Major rappers were not decamping to New Orleans just to work with Beats By the Pound. But No Limit was a phenomenon, and if you were buying P’s records at age 12 and thinking about a rap career, you would logically be deeply inspired by his work when you began your career at 24.
Just in case you missed out on the No Limit phenomenon, check out the playlist below. After one spin, you’ll be regularly amazed how much of it you’ll hear in contemporary hip-hop—and how often you’ll want to say “Uhhh!”