But unlike Simmons, who prefers a life behind the scenes, your typical rap entrepreneur these days gladly courts celebrity. Bigwigs like Sean "Puffy" Combs and Jermaine Dupri are licensed extroverts, making numerous appearances on the countless albums they've produced and the videos they've directed -- just to let everyone know who's running the show (and often supplying the capital).
Ditto Percy Miller, better known to the hip-hop world as Master P. A business tycoon first and an artist second, the Louisiana native has turned his Gulf Coast-founded No Limit label into a full-fledged media conglomerate, his gold-toothed smirk the unofficial stamp of approval for each and every outgoing product. While constantly churning out CDs from his snowballing stable of national talent, he also runs a sports agency, distributes the obligatory fashion line, and is about to publish a collection of (I shit you not) his essays.
Then there's his burgeoning movie enterprise, No Limit Films. P started making films a year ago with I'm Bout It: The Movie. Made for a paltry $1 million, I'm Bout It is a semiautobiographical, life-on-the-streets parable. P tried to sell the film to an outside distributor, only to have it dismissed as too flawed to be released in theaters. So, with virtually no chance of I'm Bout It making it to the big screen, P opted to release it as a direct-to-video feature, its packaging adorned with the eye-grabbing blurbs, "The Year's Most Anticipated Movie on the Streets" and "Banned in Theaters Across America."
More than anything I'm Bout It shows Master P's marketing genius at work -- genius, alas, that fails to carry over even remotely to the movie itself. Like a mercenary at a gun show, he lifts all the deadliest gangster-epic cliches from such well-known suppliers as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and especially Brian De Palma (after all, he directed 1983's Scarface, which is to black audiences what Pink Flamingos is to toilet-humor enthusiasts). Along with some character named Moon Jones, P directed I'm Bout It with all the flair of a dad videotaping his kid's high-school graduation. Characters blurt out "nigga" at a faster rate than they can breathe, which is of no help to a story line that is short on coherence and long on vulgarity and indecipherable narrative. Still, the movie does feature two laughingly unforgettable scenes: In one bloody deluge, a guy dashes a friend's skull to bits as he talks trash the whole way through. ("You fucked up my gear! Now how am I gonna see my bitches?") In another, sitcom veteran Helen Martin (the Ruth Gordon of the black acting world), inhales substantial amounts of ganja while calling up an escort service and asking for "a nice, warm dick for the night."
OK, so I'm Bout It might not have been Oscar material. But the number of copies it sold (around a quarter-million) made P ponder the power of video. Sure, P could take in a couple mil' here and there on the multiplex screen, as he did last May with the cheeseball, Miramax-distributed comedy I Got the Hook-Up. But he can reach an even bigger audience at home. The decision was a no-brainer: Following in the footsteps of Shannon Tweed, C. Thomas Howell, Anna Nicole Smith, and other straight-to-Blockbuster superstars, P will continue making flicks exclusively for the small screen. His increasing body of work will now share shelf space with the likes of Frankenhooker, Psycho Cop, and the cherished Slumber Party Massacre series.
To that effect MP Da Last Don is the second ghetto-based, gangsta-land saga from No Limit Films. Made with an accommodating budget (this time he could afford real stage blood) and a more experienced director in Michael Martin -- who also directed I Got the Hook-Up -- Da Last Don is P's very own Mafioso fairy tale. It's also a visual companion to his latest album of the same name. In the film P plays Nino Corleone, a college basketball coach and offspring to a bloated, pasty-white Italian godfather. (Don't even ask about the whole black/ Italian thing; the movie doesn't.) After his pops gets executed outside the steps of a church, Nino is deemed the new head of his old man's fledgling empire.
Despite the movie's polished look, the cracks in the story line couldn't be buffed out if the entire print were doused in Turtle Wax. And if that weren't enough, Master P gives, without question, the worst performance of any rapper-turned-actor captured on film. At least when Ice Cube and Ice-T toss out their lines on screen, they combine home-brewed attitude with a sense of detached irony. And even the softest rappers (Will Smith, Kid 'N Play) can come off as appealing -- if lightweight. Master P, however, is like a gawky, off-balance kid playing dress-up; the way he exhibits "true" emotion is, in a word, corny.
P's performance is oddly schizophrenic throughout Da Last Don: It seems that somewhere along the line, while filming this thing, he forgot how to be a gangster. At first he's the noble don, promising to clean up his father's slumping imperium by ridding the streets of drugs, driving dealers out of their territories by shooting them out. But later in the film, he inexplicably turns to running guns internationally and becomes a power-mad nut case. He's administered fellatio while driving his Range Rover, and he inanely drops into a Tony Montana-ish Colombian accent from time to time. ("Fuck everybody who fucks with me, man!")
In the lower-tier action realm, one person's lame performance doesn't always drag a whole film down, but that's what happens here. Every nuance, every plot point -- hell, every character -- is ludicrous. In Da Last Don's climactic shootout scene (a gangster-movie must), P actually turns moralistic about living the life of a murderous Mob thug: "I'm no different than your everyday politician," P says, dipping again into that inane Colombian accent. "Society made me like this, man."
And with that silly sendoff, whatever message P was shooting for is lost. But does it really matter? His audience seems to have accepted Master P for what he is: a rapper who wallows in style over substance. His Dapper Dan wardrobe in the movie is clearly indicative of that superficial, materialistic ethos. A merry-go-round of mindless, cheap thrills for No Limit's CD-scarfing masses, Da Last Don assures Master P's place as the Joel Silver of blaxploitation.
For what it's worth, Master P protege Snoop Doggy Dogg scores slightly better in the rapper-as-video-thespian department. On the third and newest release from P's production posse, Da Game of Life, Snoop plays Smooth, a suave-as-hell gambler who picks horses for the local Mob. When our antihero gets the chance to run his own casino, he goes all out, calling it the Dogg House and making every schmuck who walks in feel welcome. "We had a window just for cashing in food stamps," Smooth says in the voice-over. "Shit, we didn't discriminate." For security Smooth hires his characteristically psychotic jailbird cousin, Money (played by rapper C-Murder, Master P's younger brother). Predictably, that's when the bloodshed starts.
You'd have to be completely out of the loop not to recognize the remarkably similar Coppola/Scorsese/De Palma gimmicks P uses in all his flicks, including Game. But what makes this 30-minute (45, if you count the requisite video clips at the end) minimovie skirt disposability is Snoop Doggy Dogg's surprisingly affecting performance. We're not talking Olivier here, but at least he's believable. Don't get me wrong: Game is still about as useless as luxury rims on a '73 Impala, but it's tolerable. It's a third-rate knockoff, but it's a respectable third-rate knockoff.
Everything points to the prospect of Master P and his No Limit cartel churning out more video magic, if not in the same dizzying quantity as they do albums. Currently two new productions are in the works starring Master P and comedian Eddie Griffin. One of them, Foolish, should drop by the end of the year. At the very least, you gotta credit P for giving the crude and gratuitous world of low-end filmmaking a certain degree of urban credibility. In fact, he almost makes the unflattering "direct-to-video" tag seem legit.