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.
Fortunately for Silkk, he had the skills to back up his status. His first release, 1996's The Shocker, went gold. His second, last year's Charge It 2 Da Game, with the club hit "It Ain't My Fault," went platinum. And his latest, Made Man, opened up at number one on the Billboard charts. The disc produced a surprise radio and video hit with its pairing of Silkk and R&B singer Mya on "Somebody Like Me," which addresses the phenomenon of "good" girls falling for "ghetto" boys. On paper, the combination seems unwieldy, but Mya's smooth R&B style both contrasts with and complements that of Silkk and his rugged raps.
Made Man shows Silkk further trying to establish his own voice. The title and the intro skit--with its beyond-cliche Mafia connotations--even suggest that Silkk has earned his high rank in the No Limit empire. To put the accent on "solo," Silkk limited the number of guest appearances; the standout tracks, though, are those that prominently feature other artists. Over a dark, sinuous bounce beat provided by Craig B. of Beats by the Pound, Silkk and labelmate Mystikal weave raps in and out of a call-and-response flow on "It Ain't My Fault 2." The cut ranks as one of No Limit's best, but Mystikal's distinctive Deep South growl tends to overshadow Silkk, juxtaposing one MC with a very distinct voice and one still trying to establish a signature sound.
To his credit, Man reflects a more diverse Silkk this time around. There are still plenty of songs for the hustlers and ballers ("It Takes More," "If I Don't Make $," "South Side Niggas") and party anthems ("Get It Up," with Snoop), but strong R&B-inflected raps are also present, including "I Want to Be With You," a classic male/female battle with Mia X backed by a human beatbox, and a Southern-flavored acoustic rap/rock cut, "It's Going Around Outside."
Lyrically, the disc peaks with the laid-back rap "Ghetto Rain," in which Silkk peels away the facade of the young ghetto superstar ("You ever felt like you were a swimmer and you were drowning?/Am I happy/Am I smiling or am I just camouflaging"). Throughout the song, P and Silkk reference their brother Kevin's death, an event with a clear impact on Silkk's life. "He just got caught up in the streets, when his friends got jealous of what he had--that's basically what happened," he says. "Ghetto Rain" is one of a few cuts that display a vulnerability and sensitivity that the gangsta-ridden tracks dominating the album attempt to mask. The tendency to place a lyrical focus on ghetto topics has led some critics to charge that the majority of No Limit's artists do nothing but promote a gangster lifestyle. Silkk disagrees.
"I think whatever you see is what you're going to rap about. I basically just seen New Orleans and rapped about it," Silkk says, arguing that people connect with the words of the No Limit crew because of the reality of their own lives. "Everybody else was going through the same thing we were going through, because a ghetto is a ghetto. There is ghettos all over, and if you just speak in the real, I think everybody will feel that, as long as it isn't out of proportion," he says. Ultimately, part of No Limit's success lies in its ability to recycle a proven formula, and gangster rap is a part of that equation--so don't expect Master P to take calls from C. DeLores Tucker anytime soon.
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Instead, the brothers will continue to explore the life of Da Crime Family, their third release under the guise of Tru; the grouping is one of several projects planned for the coming year. And Silkk, who is an occasional actor, is slated to star in Hot Boyz, a movie directed by P that features Snoop Dogg, Mystikal and, of all people, Gary Busey. He's also working on a new album, tentatively scheduled for a March 2000 release. But the project highest on the current priority list is the No Limit Army Tour, with Master P and Snoop Dogg as headliners and the majority of the No Limit roster as featured artists.
"This is like a family-based tour, so we're all gonna have fun, especially since we haven't done a tour in a long time," says Silkk. "I think basically our fans have been hearing us for a long time, and what we want to do now is...let them know we're there for them like they're there for us."
Spoken like a true family man.
No Limit Army Tour 1999, starring Master P and Snoop Dogg. Featuring Silkk the Shocker, Mercedes, Mystikal, Mia X and C-Murder, with Fiend, Magic, Mac, Mr. Serv-on and the Ghetto Commission. Saturday, August 7, Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre, 7 p.m., $20.50-$40.50, 303-830-8497.