Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 008: Fiend - "Big Timer"

Fiend - "Big Timer" (No Limit Records, 1998)

No Limit Records’ late nineties success was so all-consuming and their rise was so rapid that it’s kind of amazing that they aren’t talked about more. The label released its first album, Master P’s lackluster Get Away Clean, in 1991, and developed a regional following around its home base of New Orleans in the years following. Despite becoming Louisiana’s premier hip-hop label, No Limit struggled to break through nationally. Then 1996 rolled around, and Master P’s Ice Cream Man went Platinum. A few months later, Silkk the Shocker’s debut hit #6 on the hip-hop/R&B charts, but the rest of the No Limit stable was still inactive or commercially unsuccessful. 1997 was a marked improvement for the label, as TRU, Steady Mobb’n, Mia X, and Mr. Serv-On released high charting albums on the label. Three major successes toward the end of that year pushed No Limit firmly into the mainstream consciousness. First, No Limit made its first foray into film with I’m Bout It, and the accompanying soundtrack featuring most of the label’s artists debuted at #1 on the Billboard hip-hop/R&B chart and quickly went Platinum. Master P followed this up with Ghetto D. With the singles “I Miss My Homies” and “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!,” the album hit #1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and went Platinum three times over. Soon after, Mystikal, No Limit’s greatest rapper, put out his debut with the label.

In 1998, No Limit quadrupled their output, putting out twenty-three albums, almost all of which went Gold or Platinum. After his defection from Death Row, Snoop Dogg signed to No Limit that year, bringing further publicity and sales to the suddenly inescapable label. They dropped down to fifteen albums in 1999, but their popularity was so high that even the terminally off-beat Silkk the Shocker was able to debut at #1 with his third album. In spite of this continued success, the seams began showing. I’m Bout It was such an unexpected success that Master P and No Limit tried to expand their empire further into film, toys, books, and sports management. Due to poor business practices and lack of resources, most of these endeavors failed almost immediately.[1] Mystikal’s contract expired in ’99 and he immediately jumped ship to Jive Records. The label’s production team Beats by the Pound had been responsible for nearly every hit single and great album track that the label had released up to that point, but they too left the label amid disputes over money. The label stretched itself too thin and quickly lost its ability to sustain itself. Only five No Limit albums came out in 2000. Outside of Master P, Snoop Dogg was the label’s biggest remaining star, but he fled the sinking ship once he fulfilled his contract that year. P hurriedly signed a bunch of new artists, including future underground stoner rap star Curren$y, but they proved unable to develop new artists. Even novelty hits by P’s son Lil’ Romeo couldn’t save the label, and No Limit quietly folded in 2003.

Growing up in Chicago, I missed out on this almost entirely. I remember hearing Mystikal and Master P on the radio, and both singles from Ghetto D were practically inescapable in 1998. One of my friends was really big on a C-Murder record (I think it was Life or Death, but I’m not really sure), and he played it constantly when I was over at his house playing Mortal Kombat II on his Sega Genesis. Regardless of my awareness that No Limit was in fact a record label and that some of their songs were popular, I was too busy listening to Rancid and Linkin Park and pretending like I wasn’t terrible at skateboarding to really be aware of No Limit. I just kind of assumed that it was something I wasn’t interested in. Years later, when I was working construction the summer after high school I was always annoyed when these two other guys in the crew had their turn to pick the music because they would always put on MP Da Last Don or Charge it 2 Da Game when I wanted to listen to Mr. Lif or Jurassic 5.[2]

Fiend’s early career parallels No Limit’s arc so closely that you can identify a lot of the reasons for the label’s initial popularity and ultimate failure by taking a look at his output. After putting out a 1995 debut album that failed to chart (Won’t Be Denied on New Orleans’ Big Boy Records, best known now for putting out the earliest Mystikal records), he signed to No Limit in 1997, just in time to make an impressive appearance on “Make ‘Em Say Uhhh!” While no one on that song could hope to match Mystikal in terms of memorability, Fiend made himself known to rap fans and drove up anticipation for his No Limit debut. When There’s One in Every Family came out during No Limit’s peak in mid-1998, it hit #1 on the hip-hop/R&B charts and #8 on the Top 200, and quickly went Gold.

It’s a great record, one of the best that No Limit ever put out. It runs for 21 tracks over 75 minutes, which was standard length for No Limit albums (and really for late nineties rap albums in general), but it feels much shorter. Most albums by other No Limit Soldiers like C-Murder’s Life or Death or Master P’s Ghetto D are slogs of filler, unimpressive rapping, interchangeable features, and production by Beats by the Pound that blends together at best and is outright bad at worst. There’s One in Every Family avoids most of these problems due mostly to Fiend’s charisma and arresting rapping (he doesn’t so much rap over the beats as lumber and stomp right through them) along with some better-than-average beats from Beats by the Pound.

The album does have some problems though. Master P exerted his influence so totally on most of the No Limit Soldiers that their albums were indistinguishable from each other’s. The most charismatic rappers on the label—Mystikal and Snoop Dogg—mostly escaped P’s influence. Fiend was more successful than most at carving out his own niche on No Limit, but P’s shadow hovers over much of this record (and his appearance on four of the album’s songs doesn’t help too much either). P wanted so badly to be 2Pac, and the void left after 2Pac’s death is a big part of why P was so successful, but this desire too often led to dreck like “I Miss My Homies” and “Take My Pain,” the latter being both the first song and the first single (and the worst song) from There’s One in Every Family. On top of this, there is an overreliance on featured artists on the album, which is unfortunate since Fiend proves he is more than capable of carrying songs on his own on tracks like “The Baddest” and “All I Know.” What’s more, too many of the featured artists have no personality, and guest appearances by greats such as UGK, Mystikal, and Mia X beg the question of why Silkk the Shocker was allowed in the studio at all.[3]


Most of the guest rappers featured on here don’t stand out at all. Mia X is one of the only memorable ones, and she’s featured on “Big Timer,” the album’s second single. “Big Timer” is a great example of what No Limit music sounded like when everything was going right. The beat, driven by vibraphone just as much as drums and topped off with an ill bass line, some Blaxploitation-style wah-wah guitar and a bit of synthesizer, is classic Beats by the Pound, showing how the production team could make the live instrumentation sound that had been used so well in G-funk and by fellow Southerners Organized Noize sound distinctly No Limit. Lyrically, Mia X and Fiend are an inspired pairing. Without weaker No Limit soldiers holding them back these two are able to put together an anthem for No Limit’s financial success. The hook isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s extremely catchy and both rappers turn in top notch verses. Unfortunately, the 12” illustrates No Limit’s failings, even in its peak year of 1998. The “Big Timer” single consists of the radio version of the song on the a-side and the instrumental on the b-side. This is a three minute song, and No Limit put a 7”’s worth of material on a 12” so they could charge more. The label’s rapid success caused them to stretch themselves too thin and rush release shoddy product (and bad movies and other things) and overfilled, uneven albums in order to saturate the market. Trying to release too much product ended up with them releasing incomplete and half-assed 12” singles. Still, “Big Timer” is a great song, and No Limit’s failings don’t really weaken the impact of this song and the album it came from.

Unlike some of his labelmates, Fiend was never a major star. He managed to go Gold with There’s One in Every Family, but that was more on the strength of the No Limit brand than anything else. He put out one more No Limit album and then returned to independent labels in 2000, where his career languished for nearly a decade. Like most of the No Limit Soldiers, he was mostly forgotten by all but the biggest No Limit diehards. Unlike the rest, he was able to have a legitimate career revival late in the aughts. He hooked up with fellow No Limit refugee Curren$y as part of the Jet Life collective. By contrast pretty much everyone else on No Limit, including its biggest star and head Master P, has struggled to put out either commercially successful or good material.[4] Fiend developed a new voice and flow that’s a far cry from the angry bark of his No Limit days, and he’s managed to become a kind of elder statesman to the younger Jet Life weed rappers. He’s put out a ton of mixtapes over the last few years, and two of them—Tennis Shoes & Tuxedos from 2011 and Lil Ghetto Boy from a few weeks ago—have been great. He’s one of a very small number of rappers, No Limit or otherwise, to have a career revival that matches the quality of his early successes. I’m just happy that it was Fiend that made it back rather than Silkk the Shocker. Seriously, Silkk is so bad at rapping.

Coming Up on Spray Cans:
Schoolly D
Rammellzee & K-Rob
Cashless Society
Att Will
Black Attack

[1] Rembert Browne at Grantland recently wrote a great article about the ridiculousness that was No Limit Sports.
[2] I still number J5 and especially Mr. Lif among my favorite rap artists of all time, but I was such a relentlessly closed-minded conscious rap backpacker kid that I was unwilling to even consider that No Limit had some good stuff back then. Needless to say, my tastes have expanded quite a bit since then.
[3] Silkk the Shocker is Master P’s brother, which explains why a rapper who was completely unable to rap on beat was allowed to release albums and pop up on every other No Limit Soldier’s albums.
[4] The exceptions to this rule have been Snoop Dogg, who was extremely successful prior to No Limit so he doesn’t really count, and Mystikal, who signed with Cash Money Records after being released from prison a few years ago. He’s released a few good singles in advance of his new album due out later this year.

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