Deadly Packaging: The Cover Art of No Limit Records

Catch one at the right lecture series and plenty a wispy, bearded music industry old timer will position you on his or her knee and rhetorically whisk you away to a delightful Eden, a time when America was safe from terrorism and its lesser cousin, file sharing. It was a roaring, cumulative moment in our nation’s history when most about anything packaged in CD form would outsell industry expectations. Cinematically, CGI-injected blockbusters like Toy Story and Jurassic Park have conveyed the promise and opportunity of those boon times with blinding, crayon-box colors and dazzling green screen chicanery. But if any one visual movement did justice to the absurd, untenable profitability of that dot-com windfall, it was the striking art of No Limit Records, the apex and nadir of commercial hip-hop thuggery.

Label founder Master P was the Ray Kroc of hip-hop, a corner-cutting mogul who could whip up a gold-selling album, McGuiver-style, out of a torn shoelace and a shotgun shell if ever it came to that, and sometimes it practically did. While bigger labels escalated monstrous bidding wars over up-and-coming starlets, the New Orleans magnate enlisted his siblings and marginally talented neighbors to churn out CDs burned to the rim with 79 minutes and 58 seconds of scorched earth, shell-shocked braggadocio/remorse voiced in drug dealer’s argot.

That quantity-over-quality approach may seem counterintuitive in strictly musical terms. But consider that, at its best, modern branding allows businessmen to curtail the production costs of an item while drastically, senselessly over-inflating its desirability. Keenly, hip-hop has recognized the artistic merit of logos and sloganeering since the days before graf squads and break dancing crews got nudged out of the temple. A few of Master P’s pricier recruits, Mystikal, Fiend, and Snoop Dog, actually managed decent albums, but No Limit’s bread-and-butter were the third-rate solo records that consistently surpassed sales targets.

To lift those units into the realm of visibility, No Limit’s marketing strategy emphasized first impressions over repeated listens, and accordingly demanded far more care be invested in the cover art than the beats. Boxed into brilliant, neon color-coded plastic cases striped with indentations, No Limit CDs stood out: you could spot one from across the Costco. Every pixel of eye space was packed with cut-and-paste hood rich mis-en-scene. Every theme discussed in the audio content, fear, persecution, compunction, mortality, was represented by clip art on the cover: say, a snarling dog on Skull Duggery’s These Wicked Streets; or an ominous crow perched on C-Murder’s Life or Death, hinting at the latter outcome. Above all, of course, the imagery dealt in bottomless, mellifluous wealth, as if even the lowly packaging department could afford to stud Master P’s stage name in diamonds, on every CD.

Inherent in all this was a change of medium. Since the dawn of Reaganomics, underground rappers had endeavored to parody robber barons, but more often than not, financial expedience forced the artists to either reclaim bauble like glossy jump suits or ante up and rent a 1948 Cabriolet from 310 Motors. Then, suddenly, all they had to do was download adobe Photoshop and the Gilded Age was only an apple-v away. This was, in effect, the same revolution that transformed Kuala Lumpur into a capital of global finance; the same restructuring of possibilities that Rap, R&B, and Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat are all about.

But the No Limit covers stand out from other illustrations of the hood rich paradox: they belong in a lineage of bathetic, hyper-tragic New Orleans death imagery, a tradition which encompasses Voodoo, Jazz funerals and Interview with a Vampire. FOX’s newest soap opera, K’Ville, as in Katrina Ville, is likely to join this list if it isn’t soon cancelled. It would have been facile for Master P to paste his rappers in front of an Andy Warhol-style cascade of $100 bills, referencing Eirc B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full. But that would have been too worldly for a city where the dead sleep above ground, and late ’60s soul singer Ernie K-Doe continues to mount inspiration mayoral bids, despite the drawback of having died many years ago.

Instead, No Limit rappers endowed wealth with a meaning at once ethereal, yet fatalistic and Machiavellian. They portrayed a No Limit paycheck, as a ticket to immortality, as if Mr. Serv-On, Sons of Funk, and the label’s other third-round draft picks didn’t just leave New Orleans’ uptown blight, they ascended from it and became platonic ideals. Usually, in hip-hop, newfound opulence signals liberation, but on the lifeless gaze of most No Limit rappers, it more closely resembled euthanasia.

For instance, on Mystikal’s final No Limit release, Ghetto Fabulous, the age-weathered veteran is pictured floating in a Mars-colored sky torn violently asunder: it is the opening of the firmaments. He is dressed in an all white suit, not unlike the once-dead Paul McCartney, and his face is condensed in a pained, but barren expression. He has not only entered a higher income tax bracket, but a higher plane of existence, though, down below, he appears again, this time wearing homely military fatigues while squatting inside of a floating blue orb. It’s all so spooky, this morbid celebration of wealth.

The same can be said for the Orpheus rendition on Young Bleed’s My World, My Balls. The cover depicts the rapper with his back turned to the world as he ascends a golden staircase. Two stoic tigers block the return route. Up above, a Tudor mansion basks in the sunlight, and it is not clear whether Young Bleed is climbing towards heaven, or abandoning us to hell. Whatever the case we cannot come with him.

Yet a startling plurality of No Limit covers depicts the album artist doing something less passive: breaching the fourth wall. On the cover of his self-titled debut, Silkk The Shocker ,(Master P’s brother), crawls through the screen of a television set. Presumably, he is moments away from crawling through the jewel case and into the CD section of Target. Authorities in the electronics aisle may have to restrain him. Purple static electricity bolts are flying across the cover and the laws of nature appear to be in a haywire position.

Silkk would revisit this theme for the cover of his second, and probably most enduring record, Charge It 2 Da Game. At first mention the title sounds like a flimsy, incomplete proverb, some sententious expression concerning the dangers of a credit card. But then you pick you up the record and realize, Charge It 2 Da Game is an imperative command. Silkk the Shocker is actually handing you, the customer, his “Ghetto Express” card, waiting for you to Charge it 2 Da Game. Does he want us to swipe it for him? Is he offering us a shopping spree? How do you charge a financial transaction to a figure of speech? The room for interpretation is profound.

Not to be outdone the big wig behind it all, Master P, literally penetrates the third dimension on the cover of his so-called retirement record, The Last Don. Thematically, the two-disc record showcases Master P’s troubled attempt to play-act the kind of rhetorically ornate, self-administered death prophecies that only seem to come true for the most iconic orators: Tupac, “Bury Me a G,” Biggie, “Ready To Die,” Malcolm X, “Speech at Ford’s Theatre,” Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have Seen the Promised Land”. Fitting for such a supposedly solemn occasion, the characteristically thrifty entrepreneur sprung for a limited number of hologram editions. Search out one of those copies, move it side to side, and Master P, (The Last Don), will politely wave his hand across your face for you to kiss. Considering the restraints album artists deal with, few have ever inspired such an interactive relationship between musician and customer as the physical, lip-to-diamond ring contact that Master P’s hologram demands.

But isn’t that what No Limit and most ’90s rap, really, was all about? Breaching the fourth wall. Previous generations of record hogs scoured the jazz bin, looking for that off-centered Blue Note pressing that promised direct access to the authentic hard bop happening uptown. No Limit album art offered a similar access, but twisted the interaction with a layer of farce.

At its most artful, branding supplants the product as the source of meaning, it drenches an objectively worthless commodity in a touching, timeless casing, in this case giving the weary mugs of No Limit rappers a second life on the hip-hop rack of some faraway Best Buy in Berkley. Or Bankshire. Or Wherever. The No Limit roster was stacked with some truly hardscrabble folks, disenfranchised bards who had trudged through the worst poverty America can dish out to a black man. No less than five of them had lost a sibling to gunfire, and two, Big Ed and Souljah Slim, would later themselves be murdered.

But in the cut-and-paste world of Photoshop, those heady realities of race, criminality, and grievous poverty were recast in a far-fetched collage, no less chimerical, and no less Hollywood than the talking dolls of Toy Story, or the bloodthirsty beasts of Jurassic Park. It would be another decade before an African-American could launch a high profile presidential bid, or the reigning hip-hop artist could crow about frat life, but in those baroque No Limit photo shoots, one can find foreshadows: clues that the old ground rules for race were eroding in that perverse, morbid process through which pestilent things decay.