By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
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When Vyshonn Miller was a little boy, he learned to stick close to his big brother, Percy, as much out of a survivalist instinct as out of brotherly love. Well-respected in the community for his hustling prowess and basketball skills, Percy was someone people tended not to mess with, even in the rougher corridors of the New Orleans housing project the family called home. Today the younger Miller's ties to his brother are still tight: As Silkk the Shocker, Vyshonn is one of the biggest-selling artists of No Limit Records, a million-dollar empire run by Percy, aka Master P. Add brother Corey (C-Murder) to the lineage and it's clear that in the Miller clan, success is a family affair.
Growing up in a city that consistently topped the charts as the murder capital of the country, the family was a close one--so close that since Mom usually had to work late hours to pay the bills, anywhere P went, Silkk went, too. "I was always with him all the time, and when he made his first lyric. I was there, but I didn't rap, because I was too young. The first album he made, I was on it--I just did a little hook," says Silkk of Master P. "I learned a lot more from my older brothers, and what they went through, I tried not to go through, and that's what P and them tried to teach me."
Which is not to say Silkk didn't learn some lessons on his own. As a kid, he was no angel. In fact, he had a hard time staying in the public schools in New Orleans because of his penchant for duking it out with other students. "I got my own fair share of trouble, because sometimes you don't listen," he says.
Silkk eventually did listen and began to follow the guidance of P, who led the way for the family to experience a life beyond the ghetto. When their parents divorced, P moved to live with his mother in Richmond, California, just outside of Oakland. Though he maintained a residence with his grandmother in New Orleans, it was in the Bay Area that the seeds of No Limit began to sprout. After inheriting money from his grandfather, P opened a record store in Oakland and named it No Limit Records. It wasn't long before the other brothers moved to join him. After the store turned a modest profit in 1991, P used some of the money to pursue a higher goal of developing No Limit as a record label as well as a retail outlet. With that in mind, he put out his first release, "The Ghetto Is Trying to Kill Me." Success, though, was a long way off for the Miller boys, and the expense of putting out even one record exceeded what the No Limit store was generating.
"We struggled for a while, and we kept hustling," recalls Silkk of their early stint in the Bay Area. "It wasn't bad, because we never had much. The only thing it did was make us work harder. It made us stronger people." Not helping matters was the fact that Bay Area hip-hop artists were slow to warm to the area newcomers and their fledgling label. "I think everybody was like, 'Those are those dudes from the South,' Silkk says. "I don't think nobody wanted to be on our album at the time, because I think they was trying to be politically correct. I can't say I wouldn't feel the same way if some new people came in thinking they can just take over."
Determined to launch No Limit with Master P as their premier artist, the threesome looked to local entrepreneurs like Too Short for business models. They produced their product independently and sold it at swap meets, out of the trunks of their cars--anywhere they could. After they'd logged many miles, people from all over California began to talk about the Southern upstarts. The buzz resulted in massive album sales of "The Ghetto Is Trying to Kill Me" in the West and the South, which was quite a feat considering the fact that No Limit had virtually no radio airplay or club support. "We just kept doing it on our own, going from city to city, and the next thing you know, it was like 10,000 records sold," recalls Silkk.
On the strength of their self-styled success and sensing No Limit's earning potential, Priority Records signed P and company to a distribution deal. Priority, the former home of gangster legends N.W.A., was a label with definite street cred, and P was finally able to get No Limit's product in stores nationwide. Sales took off, and escalating profits allowed P to recruit and nurture talent for his label. From the beginning, Master P sought to create recognition value for the No Limit artists--many of whom were family--by building a company repertoire and aggressively marketing each artist's persona. This strategy launched the careers and mythologies of artists including Skull Duggery, Mia X, Fiend and Silkk the Shocker.
For Silkk, though, trying to escape from his brother's rather impressive shadow and carve a niche for himself was sometimes difficult, which is understandable considering the scale of P's achievements. (In 1998, P was named by Forbes magazine as the tenth-top-grossing entertainer in America, with earnings of $56.5 million.) Though Silkk has unquestionably benefited from being P's little brother, sibling relationships alone do not ensure record sales--just ask LaToya Jackson.