Hip-hop has always been—and always be—about fabulousness and myth.
—Scott Poulson-Bryant, “This is Not a Puff Piece”
The hip-hop mogul is not intelligible without credible accounts of the lavish manner in which he leads his life, nor is he intelligible unless his largesse connotes not only his personal agency but also a structural condition that squelches the potential agency of so many others.
—Christopher Holmes Smith, “‘I Don’t Like to Dream about Getting Paid”: Representations of Social Mobility and the Emergence of the Hip-Hop Mogul” (Social Text, Winter 2003)
For all the fluff and blunder and dare I say “brilliance” of Sean Combs, it’s easy to forget why the cat is the very essence of hip-hop branding. No doubt Suge Knight’s quip about “the producer all up in the video” was motivated by the fact that the appearance Sean “Puffy/Diddy” Combs in the video of one of his artists actually had a tangible impact on the selling of Bad Boy products. Call it the “Mars Blackmon / Half-Pint / Mookie” phenomenon. As Scott Poulson-Bryant observed a decade ago, Combs was “his own best logo.” These days, we think of Sean Combs as a survivor—on par with his friend and one-time mentor Donald Trump—remaking himself in the aftermath of a well-publicized trial and subsequent acquittal (though the sun don’t “Shyne” forever).
Truth is it was easy to hate Sean Combs back in the days when he was under personal and professional siege. His larger than “bling-bling” image during his Forever period was an affront to hip-hop purist (“shiny suit rappers and flossin’ MCs”), folk not all that convinced by his mournful tributes to Bad Boys’ “cash cow” the Notorious B.I.G. or anybody sick and tired of “that nigga Puffy” talking about his “clothes, bankrolls and hoes”. Puffy believed he was so above the game that he could order the beat-down of a fellow record exec without legal reprisal. As Cynthia Fuchs wrote back in 2001, the “hypester-hustler-supreme version of Combs long overstayed his welcome”. So it wasn’t Puffy or Puff Daddy, but Diddy—finally fessing up to the madness on 2001’s The Saga Continues with the self-mocking “Shiny Suit Man”—that endeared himself again to all those folk who came to love “Puffy” in the first place, back when he was the life of the hip-hop party. And it’s that moment of hip-hop, more than anything else, that deserves to be celebrated with the recent release Bad Boy’s 10th Anniversary The Hits.
Despite the tag “Bad Boy Entertainment”, Sean Combs’s label was never about thugs. Combs’s former boss Andre Harrell, who first hired him as an intern in 1989 before making him Uptown/MCA’s top A&R person, once described Combs as “somewhere between ghetto and colored.” For all the talk of the gangsta past of Bad Boy’s signature act, the Notorious B.I.G., there was always an element of “Biggie” that was more cuddly than fearsome. And for all of the commercial success of Biggie, it was always those tracks where folk could shake their asses that kept Bad Boy on the pop charts. Even Biggie’s most successful singles were about flossin’ in the club (“Big Poppa”) and chillin’ at the waterfront crib (“Juicy’). At his peak, Combs understood that street cred and ass shaking weren’t mutually exclusive, lest we be reminded about Fiddy’s success with “In Da Club”. This aspect of Sean Combs’s , dare I say genius, was perfectly embodied in the Puffy shuffle—the slip-slide dance that garnered numerous detractors (Jamie Foxx simply clowned him) and became the vehicle for his most convincing performance in the aftermath of Biggie’s death (the 1997 MTV Video Awards).
Bad Boy started out as a boutique label within a boutique label—Bad Boy sprung out of Harrell and Uptown’s distribution deal with MCA. As the official story goes Harrell and Combs fell out over Combs’s desire to bring Biggie on board. Harrell saw Biggie as counter to the “high Negro-style” he had crafted for his label (as one half of the rap duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the ‘80s, Harrell was well known for donning business suits on stage). Understanding that Combs had his ear to the street in a way that Harrell didn’t (in many ways Puffy was his ears), Arista and Clive Diddy stepped in and gave Combs his own label deal. The Puffy revolution began earnestly as Combs’ moved to sign two unknown rappers—Long Island’s Craig Mack and Brooklyn’s finest, the Notorious B.I.G.. Mack’s debut Project Funk Da World and Biggie’s now classic Ready to Die were released a week apart in September of 1994. Mack’s futuristic single “Flava in Ya Ear”, serviced to urban radio in June of 1994 broke through first commercially (Biggie’s “Juicy” was released in August). Who can forget Mack preening and profiling—“just like uni-blab, my body kicking flab”—in front of the giant metallic globe out at NYC’s Flushing Meadows in the song’s video?
It wasn’t until the remix of Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear” dropped in October of ‘94 that Bad Boy officially became the house that Biggs built as his opening flow essentially heisted the song from its originator. Those opening lyrics (all together now)—
“Niggas is mad I get more butt than ash trays
Fuck a fair one I get mines the fast way
The ski mask way / Uhh, Ransom notes
Far from handsome ... but damn a nigga tote
more guns than roses / Foes is
shaking in their boots / Invisible bullies like The Gooch
Disappear ... vamoose ... you’re wack to me
Take them rhymes back to the factory
I see, The gimmicks ... the wack lyrics
The shit is depressing ... pathetic ... please forget it
You’re mad cause my style you’re admiring
Don’t be mad ... UPS is hiring
You shoulda been a cop ... fuck hip-hop
With that freestyle you’re bound to get shot”
—are on a short list of the most memorable lyrics of all time. (Showing my East Coast bias, that list would include AZ’s opening on Nas’s “Life’s a Bitch”, Jigga’s Menace freak on the re-mix of “Girls, Girls, Girls”, and of course Rakim’s “seven MCs…”). But the remix was also a public service announcement for the coming takeover by Bad Boy as we hear Puffy at the beginning singing “Bad boy, come out and play” while clicking two Coke bottles together (flipped right from Warriors, a film arguably more influential than Scarface for that first hip-hop generation). The appearance of Busta, Rampage (“‘BLS 97 Kiss, bounce to this”) and LL (“from Hollis to Hollywood, but is he good?”) only co-signed the forgone conclusion that Bad Boy was primed to change the game. By the time Biggie was flowin’ lovely on top of the Isley’s “Behind the Sheets” (How ya livin’ Biggie Smalls? “In mansions and benzs, given ends to my friends and it feels stupendous / Tremendous cream, fuck a dollar and a dream…”), cats were already describing him as top-ten material.
With two successes in the can—Project Funk went gold, while Ready to Die went plat—Puffy went back to the hustle, both as a producer (though increasingly in name only) and remixer (he ain’t invent the remix, that be Tom Moulton), and as the as the cat with the best A&R instincts in the game at the time. And part of those instincts included the constant selling of Bad Boy via its most recognizable product at the time. So it’s Biggie (“Give me all the chicken heads from Pasadena to Medina / Bet Big get in between ya”) that pushes the unknown Total and their “Can’t You See” (from the New Jersey Drive soundtrack) up the charts and later the remix of the ATL quartet 112’s “Only You”, which also helped shepherd, Mase—the anti-Biggie—into the game. When Christopher Wallace met his fate on March 9, 1997, there was little doubt that Puffy would maintain.
Even before Biggs’s murder, Puffy was plugging away with his own debut, the surprisingly nuanced No Way Out. Puffy was already pushing “Can’t Hold Me Down” with the future Rev. Bertha—Mase’s decidedly deliberate flow, the perfect distraction from Puffy’s own challenged flow—at the time of Biggie’s death. The fact that homie had the nerve to jack “The Message” (without even a hint of irony) set in motion the kind of hate that would be fully realized by the time he turned solo again with the bloated and self-satisfied Forever. Biggie’s closing statement, Life after Death would be both the label’s shining moment and a springboard for Puffy the artist. Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence and D-Dot’s freak of Herb Alpert’s “Rise” was pure pop pleasure and as close to crossover that Biggie’s would come. Biggie would crossover but in name only, as Diddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You”, his tribute recording to Biggie, would become a pop phenomenon during the summer of 1997. Couldn’t be helped. America loves a good mourning theme and the fact that Puffy sampled “Every Breathe You Take”, easily the most popish and mundane of the Police recordings. The song takes flight though (literally) when Faith Evans gives nod to gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away” on the song’s bridge, while 112 warbles capably in the background.
Throughout the summer of 1997, Biggie would appear on two more Bad Boy releases including Puffy’s “All about the Benjamins” and his own “Mo Money, Mo Problems”. The former, which also featured Biggie protégé Lil Kim, the Lox and Mase was a hardcore rejoinder to the pop pabulum of “Can’t Hold Me Down”. Biggie’s flow over a sample of the Jackson Five’s “It’s Great to Be Here” sounded as if the late rapper was literally phoning in his flow from some other world. But it was the video from Biggie’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” and later Mase’s debut “Feel So Good” (both lensed by Hype Williams that earned Puffy the nickname “The shiny suit man”. Sean “Puffy” Combs had become a ghetto-fab Hammer and like Hammer, who had to be handled when he dreamed he could be the “king of pop” (popcorn chicken maybe), Puffy had to be handled also, and handled he was by un-impressed peers, jaded journalists, disgruntled fans, and any cat on the corner who knew they had better flow.
But it’s not as if the cat didn’t have a come back. “Victory” the big production from Forever made decent use of “The Theme from Rocky” (a cliché, I know, but Stevie J makes the joint work) and speaks to the cat’s hustler spirit. On the DVD that accompanies Bad Boy’s 10th Anniversary… The Hits, Combs brags about how it was the most expensive video he ever made, filled with star turns (again) from Biggie, Busta, and Dennis Hopper. With so much of his energies focused on Puffy Inc. (clothing lines restaurants, Ms. Lopez), the studio rat ethos that got him in the game big time had given way the ultimate branding of the man. By now much of the work was being farmed out to his crack team of producers, the Hittman, who one by one began to branch out on their own because what they deemed unfair labor practices (Diddy often got co-production credit, while doing little of the work). No one could really begrudge him (cat was tripling his wealth), and if he struck some at a tad bit narcissistic, he could legitimately claim to be self medicating on fame and wealth in the aftermath of Biggie’s death.
If the fun and innocence of the early days of Bad Boy ended on March 9, 1997, then when Puffy and Shyne stood accused of gun charges in relation to a club shooting, it became a metaphor for the end of an era—the bling bling and booty moment in NYC hip-hop had come to an end. In many ways, the moment was best represented in the surprising success of Carl Thomas (“I Wish”), the first real R&B soloist that the label had launched since Faith Evans in 1995. For the Real World audiences of the early ‘90s, a show like Making of the Band would have been revolutionary. By the time Puffy makes his band, circa 2003, both the concept and the music itself had become little more that programming fodder for Viacom and Vivendi. But Bad Boy’s 10th Anniversary… The Hits is a reminder that there once was a revolution and the cat in the shiny suit was once revolutionary and all the hating aside, we need to give Sean Combs some credit for that.
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Mark Anthony Neal is the author of three books including the recent Songs in the Key of Black Life (Routledge, 2003) and co-editor (with Murray Forman) of the forthcoming That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (Summer 2004).