New rap 'capital' wary of its crown

Hip-hop entrepreneur gets a chilly reception from Baton Rouge

January 10, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

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.

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