Master P: Ghetto D

You'd be hard pressed to make an argument for Ghetto D as one of the great rap albums of the '90s, or even, really, a very good album at all.

Master P

Ghetto D

Subtitle: 10th Anniversary Edition
Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2007-05-08
UK Release Date: Available as import

You'd be hard pressed to make an argument for Ghetto D as one of the great rap albums of the '90s, or even, really, a very good album at all. Anyone who has spent much time listening to Master P knows that the rapping has always been abysmal, the production amateurish, and the subject matter extremely circumscribed (when not cribbed directly from Tupac). Ghetto D itself is no different in this respect, despite its privileged position in the No Limit hierarchy: the album begins with a bald-faced Eric B & Rakim swipe and goes downhill from there. There's a rap about having sex with Captain Kirk, delivered by a man, for goodness sakes (gangsta rap not being known for its tolerance of homosexuality) -- how the hell did this fly back in the day?.

I really can't tell you, but fly it did, to the tune of some umpty-million copies. So while, from any kind of detached critical perspective, Ghetto D remains reprehensibly bad, it's still undoubtedly one of the most important albums of the last decade. You can't really say that Master P put the South on the map as a force in the rap world -- for starters, P wasn't even entirely southern, having started his career in California before relocating to New Orleans. He didn't have one one-hundredth of the charm or intelligence brought to bear by the likes of Goodie Mob or OutKast. What he did have was a sound -- loud, fast and out of control, to steal another bit of cultural shorthand -- the Southern "bounce" style that would go a long ways towards reshaping the entire spectrum of pop music.

At the time, Master P seemed like an anomaly, a completely derivative and surpassingly low-rent phenomenon with limited appeal. There was only one problem with assuming this kind of dismissive attitude: you couldn't stop listening to it. As bad as it was (and it was bad!), there was something there that simply could not be denied, some kind of insane pop instinct that insured that no matter what you actually thought of the song, there was no way you could possibly get "Make 'Em Say Ugh" out of your head once you had heard it.

The early and mid-'90s was a time of progressively more uncompromising rap, with the gangsta sound taken to its logical extremes through the nihilistic likes of Tupac, Biggie, the Wu Tang Clan and Nas. West coast G-funk had a kind of pop instinct that served as a contrast against the grit of the east coast, but there was still no mistaking even "Nothin' But a G Thang" for mainstream pop, even as it blew up the pop charts. Rap dominated the pop music world in the wake of the grunge implosion, but there was still something missing from the equation.

Little did we know, listening to Master P back in 1997, but Ghetto D was far closer to the future of pop music than OK Computer or Dig Your Own Hole or even the Spice Girls. What Master P and No Limit Records did was to take the hardest, most uncompromising cliches of the gangsta rap world, stick them atop candy-coated pop beats -- eminently danceable beats -- that served as a direct contrast to the self-consciously grim mood of hip-hop's East Coast/West Coast hegemony, and mass-produce the sound like Henry Ford. P was less a rapper or even a producer than a hustler: as opposed to those rappers who rose from humble origins and sought to transcend their criminal roots through transformative art (even if they couldn't articulate it perhaps as cogently), P was one of the very first to approach music as just another hustle, albeit on a much grander scale.

He started by selling crack to crackheads, then selling self-published CDs out of the trunk of his car -- in both instances the idea was not the individual quality of the product but an addictive rush that kept the customer coming back for more. If you bought one No Limit disc and liked that one, there were a dozen more just like it. No Limit discs were collaborative affairs as much as anything else, with a regularly recurring cast of supporting characters who could be counted on to provide pretty much the same performance from album to album -- G Unit, anyone? There was a consistency to the early No limit output that enabled them to create a solid fanbase out of, for lack of a better term, gangsta fanboys: if you liked Master P, why not pick up Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder and the Fiend and Mia X and Soulja Slim and Mystikal's albums too? Like a demented ghetto Stan Lee, Master P instinctively understood the hustle at the heart of his business model.

And sure enough, pretty soon after Ghetto D, the No Limit model took over the universe. Cash Money came up with a slightly more sophisticated version of the bounce sound, and the added bonus of having some legitimately talented rappers like Juvenile and a very young Lil Wayne. The southern sound blew up not long after that: Outkast became the biggest pop phenomenon of the decade at around the same time when people like Ludacris and Lil Jon and Nelly and TI were each taking their hustle to the next level, shipping gold and platinum on the strength of the template pioneered by No Limit Records. There were no real celebrity stand-outs at No Limit -- not until Master P succeeded in freeing Snoop Dogg from his Death Row contract in 1998 -- but there was a consistency built around an established brand name. (Of course, this dogged consistency would eventually be the label's downfall, as it very quickly became impossible to differentiate one No Limit record from another.)

As for the record itself? As much as I wish I could report otherwise, it remains as catchy now as the day it was minted. (The "anniversary edition" doesn't offer much new except a couple unreleased songs that sound identical to what we already have on the album and the, um, instrumental version of "Make 'Em Say Ugh".) Master P never met a couplet he couldn't jack, and the fact that he got away with sampling Marvin Gaye (on "Bourbons and Lacs") still astounds me, but there's simply no denying that this is fun stuff. It's aggressively dumb, pandering shamelessly to a degraded fantasy of ghetto life as romantic amoral adventure, built on a backbone of the most comically minimal 808 beats and Casio presets... but damned if it doesn't still cast a spell. I still half expect Master P to be revealed as some kind of Andy Kaufman-esque pop provocateur at some point -- I mean, seriously, the man built an empire on the virtue of an inarticulate grunt (I still have my talking Master P doll that screams "Uuuugggghhhh!" when you pull the string) -- if that's not a conceptual art prankster's wet dream, well, I don't know my Jeff Koons.

But regardless of whether Master P was a savvy pop mastermind, an idiot savant, or just a plain old idiot, Ghetto D is still one of the most important and influential pop albums of the last decade. Honestly, it was amazing to me at the time just how dumb Master P was, with tracks like "I Miss My Homies" representing what was at that point something of a nadir in popular song -- little was I to know what the future held in store for us. It's hard not to feel nostalgic for the cotton-candy halcyon days of "Make 'Em Say Ugh" when confronted with something like "My Humps". (Uuugggh indeed!)


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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