New rap 'capital' wary of its crown; Hip-hop entrepreneur gets a chilly reception from Baton Rouge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BATON ROUGE, La. -- On Corporate Boulevard here -- above offices of an insurance company, an accountant and the Louisiana Tax Commission -- Silkk the Shocker looks at designs for his next album cover. Two camouflage-wearing brothers, 7 and 8, who perform under the name Lil Soldiers, practice a rap about thug life and their mother.

On a table behind the heavily fortified door is the green uniform worn in videos by C-Murder. In place of "U.S. ARMY," a label in front reads simply: "NO LIMIT."

"Yo, Tevester," says attorney Edwin Hawkins to business manager Tevester Scott. "The Colonel is on the phone."

"The Colonel" is the nickname of Master P, the president, founder and top performer of No Limit Records.

Virtually unknown outside the hip-hop world, P -- at 28 -- is the 10th-highest-paid entertainer in America, according to Forbes magazine, just behind the Rolling Stones, and ahead of Robin Williams and the Spice Girls. Over the past five years, the rapper has built No Limit into the most popular independent music label -- of any kind -- in the country.

But thisyear, P unexpectedly moved No Limits' headquarters from Los Angeles to the Louisiana capital. No sooner had he arrived here than P, whose real name is Percy Miller, had declared Baton Rouge the new capital of rap music.

'The next Motown'

To back that claim, P is building what he says will be the country's largest, most comprehensive studio, with five recording rooms, an aquarium, a movie theater and a domed basketball court. He has also purchased homes for himself, other company executives and rap artists such as Snoop Doggy Dogg in Baton Rouge's most exclusive gated community, the Country Club of Louisiana.

"Baton Rouge is the next Motown, the next Hitsville," P said in a statement to The Sun.

But Baton Rouge, a sprawling suburban-style city of 219,000, is an unlikely capital for an undeniably urban art form. And the city seems to be wearing its new crown uneasily.

Privately, the town's image-conscious political and business leaders worry about violence -- and bad publicity -- from the rappers' presence. No Limit, in an attempt to show that the move south has not cost P his edge, has taken to boasting in news releases that Louisiana has "one of the highest murder and crime rates in the Deep South."

Publicly, politicians refuse to discuss No Limit. There has been no official welcome, not even a groundbreaking ceremony for the studio that promises to be one of Baton Rouge's larger employers.

Even after they bought homes, the country club denied P and his entourage the memberships that would allow them to use the golf course, tennis courts and the swimming pool. When his neighbors learned for whom Hawkins works, he says, they forced the No Limit general counsel to build a fence around his house. The neighbors dispute they forced anything.

This spring, two country music radio hosts broadcast what they said was an account of a disturbance outside Snoop's house being broken up by police; they later apologized to No Limit for the April Fool's joke. After P's brother Corey "C-Murder" Miller was arrested near here last spring for carrying a semiautomatic weapon in a stolen pickup truck, the state's newspapers expressed concern. "C-Murder might be a nice guy, but imagine having a next door neighbor by the name of C-Murder," wrote one local columnist. "What do you call him? Mr. Murder?"

"It's been a cold reception," says Roy Maughan Jr., a Baton Rouge attorney who has done work for No Limit. "I think there is envy there, of someone who is young and black and has one of the grandest homes in Baton Rouge." He adds: "Percy is sensitive. It hurts him that people won't talk to him."

Despite the snubs, No Limit executives say P is committed to Baton Rouge. The city is 70 miles from his hometown, New Orleans -- close enough to be near family but far enough to keep hangers-on from his old neighborhood away. And Baton Rouge offered a way to escape the West Coast-East Coast rap wars that claimed the lives of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

In California, P, who wears a bulletproof vest in public, was said to be deeply concerned for the safety of his wife, Sonya, and their four children. Here, his family and his stable of rappers, he believes, can find peace of mind and create a long-term business in an industry where success has proved ethereal, and dangerous.

"We can focus here," says P. "I'm the ghetto Bill Gates, and I'm trying to build something that will last, that I can hand down to my children."

From hoops to hip-hop

Born in April 1970, Percy Miller was raised by his grandmother in Calliope, a drug-plagued New Orleans housing project. A high school basketball star, Miller dabbled in crime until he saw his brother, Kevin, killed by an addict.

After the death, Miller followed his mother to Richmond, Calif. Using $10,000 from a medical malpractice lawsuit, he opened a store called No Limit Records. In 1993, he made an album, "The Ghetto's Trying to Kill Me," under the name Master P, and sold copies from his car.

P was offered record contracts but turned them down. Instead, following the advice in attorney Donald S. Passman's book, "All You Need to Know About the Music Business," he built a company, making his own records and distributing them through a Los Angeles-based partnership.

No Limit's symbol is a tank because, P has sung, its "soldiers" will mow down all obstacles. He has said he is willing to die for the company. Already, P has sold more albums than any other Louisiana musician.

His style, which he calls "New Orleans gumbo," involves mixing rap styles and having No Limit rappers sing on each other's records. Albums by seven of P's artists have reached No. 1 on the R&B; charts and landed in the Top 10 on the pop lists.

P also writes, produces and stars in straight-to-video movies. He turned a huge profit on his low-budget first film, "I'm Bout It," an autobiographical work about life in a New Orleans housing project. His second film, "I Got the Hook Up," about two men selling stolen cellular telephones, drew the following comment from a Boston Globe reviewer: "It glorifies criminality, relies on sexism and homophobia as punch lines, employs violence to resolve muddle-headed problems, and generally sets black filmmaking back about 60 years." It also made P an estimated $10 million.

"We have total control, we stay small and we constantly put records and films out," says Scott, the business manager, who at 31 is the oldest manager in a company staffed by African-Americans in their 20s. "We know what sells in our market because we are our market."

In Los Angeles this past spring, P released a solo album, "M.P. Da Last Don," and immediately announced his retirement as a rapper. He said he wanted to focus on his business interests. What he didn't say at the time was that he had begun moving operations to Baton Rouge.

Late last year, P and his wife quietly paid $995,000 -- in cash -- for the home of prominent Baton Rouge eye surgeon Dr. Charles Williamson. P and his employees spent more than $2 million in cash on five other homes in the Country Club of Louisiana, land records show.

The development's tight security has attracted such notables as former Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. But for P, the 12-year-old country club, built around a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, was a curious choice.

It is a bastion of Southern conservatism that has played host to Dan Quayle speeches. Architects gave its clubhouse Tuscan columns and a huge veranda, to "recapture the splendor of a Louisiana plantation," according to the builders. As recently as 1993, the club had no African-American members.

'They don't like our industry'

No Limit executives say that while their immediate neighbors have been nice, the country club dismissed their membership applications. "They told us they don't like our industry, and I said, 'You don't like the entertainment industry?' " recalls Scott.

The reception has been no warmer in the neighborhood around the new $10 million, block-long studio, scheduled to open next month. Next door, No Limit is building a spa to house rap artists visiting the studio.

Marta Espinal lives in an apartment complex 100 yards away with her teen-age son, who listens to the music. She works in a jewelry store and appreciates the business she has received from No Limit rappers, who have bought thousands of dollars of merchandise in cash. But she has concerns.

"Master P may be a good man, but this business will eventually bring people who are not as good here," she says. "I'm frightened for myself and the city's image. It's the worst thing that could happen to Baton Rouge."

Winning over the locals

No Limit executives believe that, in time, they will win over locals who doubt their intentions. In his album "99 Ways to Die," Master P sings, "I'm not just your everyday rapper. I'm an entrepreneur." And since moving here, they point out, P has made Baton Rouge his staging area for new businesses.

No Limit bought and expanded a local travel agency. P has set up a shoe store franchise, a gas station, a phone-sex service. No Limit's clothing line came out in time for Christmas. Last summer, two young pro basketball stars, Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer, agreed to let No Limit Sports Management be their agent.

At the same time, P has stepped up his charitable contributions. The Master P Foundation now provides college scholarships to Baton Rouge youth, gives away Thanksgiving turkeys and donates books to school libraries. Some of the foundation's largest gifts go to violence-prevention programs.

Inside No Limit's Corporate Drive office, next to framed album covers and new song sheets with lyrics that could not be published in this newspaper, is a chart tracking No Limit's donations to the Boy Scouts.

A hip-hop capital

"Right now, Baton Rouge thinks he's a bad guy," says Hawkins, 31, a former police officer who, as No Limit's general counsel, spends considerable time getting rappers out of legal trouble.

"But at the beginning, wasn't Elvis received the same negative way?" he says. "He wiggled his hips on TV, and people thought it was lewd. Ministers preached against him in the South. Well, people say the same things about Master P."

As Hawkins talks, into the office walk two of the Sons of Funk, the Oakland, Calif.-based rap group cutting an album here. Deep Pacino and G say they have found in No Limit the stable family they never had. P is even helping Sons of Funk start a label, perhaps to be based here.

"This town is still growing," says G, who is 25. "I feel a lot more relaxed and focused here, and you learn so much from being around all these artists.

"Ten years from now, when people think of hip-hop, they're going to think Baton Rouge."

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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