Written By: Scott Poulson-Bryant
Photographs By: Butch Belair
Issue: September 1993
PROLOGUE: Before Andre Harrell fired Puff Daddy, there was another story. Before he walked into Puffy’s office on that nasty hot evening on July 8 and told his protégé that there was room for only one king at the castle called Uptown Entertainment; before Andre Harrell told Puffy that he would have to take his new record label, Bad Boy Entertainment, elsewhere; before Puffy packed up his office; before the telephone lines burned with theories )Andre’s threatened by Puffy’s success. Andre was pressured from higher-ups at MCA, Andre’s bosses never like Puffy anyway, they never understand him, never tried to, Puffy’s just a troublemaker); before Andre was saying that Puffy “had particular ways he wanted to do things that weren’t in the direction I wanted Uptown to go…” Before all that, before Andre decided that Puff Daddy was “unnecessarily rebellious,” there was another story to be told about Puff Daddy. A story that started like this…
AS hip hop makers its mad dash toward the finishing line of high capitalism, it will need a hero. And there he is, shirtless, the waistband of his Calvin Klein boxer briefs peeking perilously over the edge of his black shorts, the skull tattoo on his left breast gleaming red, mingling with the other guests at Uptown Entertainment president Andre Harrell’s party in a posh suburb in northern New Jersey. It is summer 1992 and it’s the weekend that Whitney married Bobby and the cream of black entertainment society has invaded this coast for the show. The FOAs (Friends of Andre) swim in the pool, jam to Kid Capri on the 1 and 2’s, and play shirts-on-skins b-ball on the court out front, waiting for the catered food to arrive from the Shark Bar, Manhattan’s West Side eatery of choice for black entertainment types. Russell Simmons is there, and Veronica Webb and Keenan Ivory Wayans and Babyface. But Puff Daddy is the only one with a briefcase, one of those shiny, bomb-protectant joints, opening it and closing it periodically to show folks the information inside: initial artwork for the logo of Bad Boy Entertainment. And his first words to me, as I make my way onto the back porch, are not hello or even hi how are you, but, instead, “Yo, nigga, why you frontin’?” Frontin’, as in not calling him when I said I would.
We’d actually met a few weeks earlier at a fashion show, and after introductions and small talk, he’s said to me then, “You should write a piece about me.” Not only, I thought, is he an A&R man, party promoter, stylist, video director, record producer, and remixer, but he’s also his own publicist. It’s that kind of boldness, that confident sense of purpose, that drives Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs along the path to success he has chosen. Indeed, he is a boy wonder, and, at 22 years old, possibly the second-youngest record-company president — just two months behind Dallas Austin – when Bad Boy launches this year. Codirecting and costarring in the videos of Mary J. Blige and Jodeci – the jewels in his young crown achievement – he inspires the same kind of awe and jealousy usually reserved for a front-and-center star. There is so much to do, in fact, that he employs two live-in assistants to manage his growing schedule of meetings and growing roster of acts.
And Puffy cherishes his status, thrives on the exuberance of his youth and its possibilities. He likes the hanging-out nature of his work – the club-going and party-hopping, keeping on the very edge of what’s young and black and hip. But Puffy brings something else to his behind-the-scenes machinations – he’s his own best logo. The postcards announcing the debut of Bad Boy feature Puffy in all his cultivated B-boy glory, shirtless and seated underneath a lonely streetlamp in one, poised behind jail-like bars, his arms raised dramatically, in another. He has the aura of a performer; quite possibly he is the only A&R executive in the business with as many groupies as his artists. He’s the shadowed love man in Mary J. Blige’s “Reminisce” video and the placard-carrying strutter in Heavy D’s “Don’t Cures” clip. “Puffy,” says Andre Harrell, “is the perfect icon. He embodies that kind of charisma and star power.” In the fickle world of hip hop, Puffy creates heroes and makes a hero of himself in the process.
But heroes, because they are heroes, usually bear the cross of their constituents’ sins; heroes often take falls. And just after Christmas1991, as he attempted to present a gift to his community in the form of a fund-raising celebrity basketball game, Puff Daddy’s ascendency almost came to its first abrupt and complete – some say inevitable – stop. What began as “an opportunity to get dressed up in your newest gear, a colorful event ‘cause black folks always want something to go to to be colorful,” as Andre Harrell put it, ended up as a tragedy that would reverberate around the globe. At the Nat Holman Gym at City College in Harlem, nine people were killed, victims of a stampeded of bumrushing, overeager fans. Puffy was the promoter and organizer, and in the aftermath of the event, he found himself at the center of the serve-and-volley toss-up of laying blame and anointing responsibility. His name, once synonymous with all that was fierce, irreverent, and youthful about hip hop was now the very definition of all that was fragile, violent, and immature.
“PUFFY was a ham,” says his mother, before rolling off a litany of examples like a proud stage mother. He modeled with Stephanie Mills in a Wiz layout for Essence. He was a Baskin Robbins ice-cream boy in another spread. But he’d always loved music. “ I didn’t know exactly what he would do, but he was blasting me out of the house with his mixing kit I bought him when he was 13, making that noise, scratching those records.” The house was an apartment in Esplanade Gardens, a middle-class complex in Harlem. Then, when his mother’s work for United Cerebral Palsy forced her to relocate to Westchester County, home became Mount Vernon, a mixed-race suburb just north of the Bronx. His father, who owned a limousine company, died when Puffy was three, and his grandmother raised him with his mother. “My mother was the man of the house,” Puffy says now. “She was running shit.”
But Sean — who became Puffy when he was about 12, in a game of dozens – was looking to the future anyway, to Howard University, where he would find out what being the man was really about. “I knew they had mad girls down there, and parties, but I really wanted to get a black education.” He found our in his first two weeks on campus that there was a world to conquer. “I was looking at things as a businessman by then,” Puffy says, remembering his introduction to black college life. “Experiencing black people from all different lifestyles, different parts of the country. I had to learn from this.”
He had to learn, basically, that it wasn’t who you were but who you knew. He brought his Harlem flavor to bear by throwing parties that became the place to be Friday and Saturday nights on Howard’s campus. “I started gaining friends from that. I could get anything I wanted to on campus,” he says. “If I needed to get my car fixed, I knew where to go. If I needed the English paper, I knew who to go to. If I needed an exam or some weed, I knew how to get it.”
So: schoolwork could be bought; life was easy; Puffy had it made. But he admits now that his methods were suspect. “I had a lot of immature ways about me. I don’t agree with all that stuff now. I had a lot of growing up to do.”
BACK in the late ‘80s, when Puffy was in high school and grooving into the wee hours to the beat of house music and hip hop, artists would come to clubs to film their videos. Puffy found himself dancing for Diana Ross, Fine Young Cannibals, and Babyface. Seventeen years old and hungry for a life in entertainment, he was still confused: Should he be a shaker, doing the Running Man for admiring audiences? Or should he be a mover, actually running things as The Man? When he saw the “Uptown Kickin’ It” video and the young brother named Andre Harrell at the front of the boardroom table, he decided he “wanted to be the guy sitting at the head of the table, pushing contracts aside after signing them.” Heavy D, a fellow Mount Vernonite and a premier artist at Uptown, hooked him up with an interview that landed him an internship working Thursdays and Fridays. Up at five a.m. each Thursday to get to New York by 10, Puffy would make it back to Howard by midnight each Friday for his parties. Even sneaking onto the Amtrak, hiding in the bathroom to avoid paying conductors, he was happy. “I didn’t give a fuck,” he says. “I was at Uptown.”
“My vision for the company,” says Andre Harrell, “was to create a label that was cool, that had that Harlem kind of cool hustler cachet to it.” Puffy impressed Andre, “in his shirt and tie, doing everything right, real polite and respectful.” But what he noticed underneath the polite attire was something else: “Puffy was a hustler.” So when Kurt Woodley, the A&R director at Uptown, left the company, Harrell wasn’t surprised that Puffy took him to lunch and asked to have the job. He was 18 years old.
His first project was Father MC’s debut album, which netted a gold single and respectable sales, carrying on the too-smooth style that became Uptown’s specialty with Heavy D and Guy. But gathering dust were two other projects: Jodeci, a four-man singing group from North Carolina who first record had passed without notice, and future Queen of Hip Hop Soul, a Bronx girl named Mary J. Blige.
Utilizing stereos at high volumes should be limited to VPs and Directors,” reads a memo on the walls of some offices at Uptown Records. Puffy takes this seriously. His office actually vibrates with the force of the beat. As I walk in, Puffy’s on the phone and before he cuts the call short I hear him say, “Nah, G, you think I’m gonna give the merchandising away? I come up with the flavor for my artists.” The flavor for Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, Puffy’s two biggest acts during his tenure as A&R man, came to him as a dream – soulful R&B singers in hip hop gear, a kid of mix-and-match approach that, in retrospect, seems absurdly obvious. A new genre was born. Hip hop soul, as Harrell calls it. Sound meeting sensibility at a typically contradictory African American crossroads. “And now,” says Puffy, “everybody’s trying to look like the groups that I put out, with the images I created.”
Detractors point out that the style Puffy “created” is actually just an extension of his own Harlem homeboy style – that Jodeci, for instance, are just four Puffys onstage, playing out his own narcissism. “I wouldn’t say they’re exactly like me, but it’s a combination of me and young black America,” Puffy says. He stops, ponders for a second, and then continues. “But if I was a honey, I would probably be just like Mary J. Blige. A bitch. Not in the negative connotations of the word but like, ‘That’s a bad bitch.’”
It was in this spare, busy office that the groundwork of the Puffy business occurred. The wall unit holds a small collection of books skewed mostly toward music and black studies, various Uptown artists’ 12-inch singles, and a large color television usually tuned to one video channel or another. A life-size cutout of Mary J. Blige stands at attention near the door, as if to greet visitors with the realization of Puffy’s dreams. A cactus plant, prickly as Puffy often seems, rests on the windowsill. His beeper, on vibrate mode, scurries around his desk like an impatient child; Puffy answers pages constantly. That is, when he isn’t working on the weekly column he writes for Jack the Rapper, an industry journal recounting radio activity of current records. Or when he isn’t meeting with prospective artists, who wait in the anteroom and grin at each other in anticipation of playing their demos for the man who seems to represent the increasing visibility and force of urban black boys in contemporary music. (“I saw him in that Karl Kani ad,” one of them said earlier, outside the office. “Who that nigga think he is?” “Puffy,” responded another, “that’s who.”)
He is remarkably soft-spoken, communicating mostly through body language: He might break into a sliding dance move when describing his night out at Mecca or some other club-of-the moment. Or stand stock-still with a hard-headed stare, daring you to convince him. When a young designer comes in to show a video of his clothing collection, Puffy leaves the room after a glimpse at the screen, refers the video to Sybil, his assistant, then returns to the room and describes, to a T, what he saw only two seconds of.
One day in the summer of ’92, Jodeci needed clothes for a Regis and Kathie Lee appearance. Puffy cabbed from store to store in downtown Manhattan, collecting baggy jeans and woolly skull caps, eating Chinese takeout, chatting into his cellular phone all the while. Late in the day, as I reached for my beeper, he said, “Damn, I never met a nigga get more beeps than I do.” Pause: “I bet you one of those suburban kids, got good grades in school, went to college. You wanna win a Pulitzer prize, don’t you?” This is Puffy: arrogant, boyish competition mixed with the seductive, coy recognition of ambition in others. I ask him later if he is conscious of the seduction. If, in fact, it gets him what he wants. “Anything I’ve wanted, I can say I’ve gotten it,” he says straightforwardly. “I just saw it and did it, you know? I observe. I always look at the situation before I speak and before I decide what I want. I don’t just jump my ass buck naked into the fire pit. I look at that motherfucker and see of there’s any space.
AFTER a long day of listening to demos, scheduling studio time, and preparing for the imminent debut of his own company, Puffy is headed home to the tiny suburb north of Manhattan, in his white BMW, for a much-needed rest. In a contemplative mood, he takes a circuitous route through Harlem, crisscrossing the city streets as if on a memory mission, passing prostitutes on some side streets and lost-looking children on others. Here on the road, caught for a moment between the rare field world of Uptown (the record company) and the rapidly deteriorating world of Uptown (his teenage stomping grounds), he talks about his dark side.
“A lot of my music is about pain. That’s why the masses relate to it. It’s attainable, people understand it. When Mary J. Blige sings about looking for real love, it’s fucked up, searching, you know? It’s realistic shit.”
As he drives up to a stoplight, he says, quietly, “I don’t normally be smiling, real happy, youknowhumsayin’? Ain’t nothing to be happy about. Things are fucked up. You got little kids starving, getting beat up, parents on crack, ain’t got nobody to talk to. The only time I’m really happy is when I’m at a club or the rink and they play one of my records. The motherfuckers be screaming to it. They play one of my remixes and I see the look on their faces. Or I go to the concert and see all the kids dressing and looking like my artists.
“I could have got off on the highway, but I just have to drive through Harlem to remind me about all the fucked-up shit. How fortunate I am.”
THERE’S a story about Puffy that both his detractors and admirers like to tell. When he was a little boy in Mount Vernon, he wanted a pool, refused to swim in the public pool in the park. According to one version, Puffy begged and begged for the pool and was only happy when his mother took on a second job to pay for it. When Puffy tells the story, he describes the white kids across the street and how they teased him. “They would never invite me over. I used to cry. My Moms made sure she got me a pool that was two times bigger than theirs. It took her like a year to save for it and it was the only Christmas gift, nothing else, no socks, nothing.” I ask if he thought he was spoiled. “My mother tried to get me everything I wanted. She always sacrificed and didn’t do it for herself. Maybe by some other standards I was spoiled, but I didn’t think so. I never did no flipping-put brat shit on my mother.”
When we get to his house, he tells me he bought it because of the pool. It’s a beautiful split-level, small by the town’s standards, but comfortable. Puffy shares it with his assistants Mark and Lonnie, who each have their own room off the main hall. Puffy’s bedroom is dominated by the closets and roomy, boxy shelf space filled with sneakers and shoes. Downstairs, a pool table takes up most of the space in the rec room, off of which there’s a bar and weight room and mixing room for late night scratching sessions.
Mark and Lonnie come in, carrying records and Puffy’s suit, fresh from Agnes B. Shirts need to be ironed, so Puffy challenges Mark to a game of pool. The loser will iron. “I’ma make you my bitch tonight,” Puffy tells Mark as they square up.
As Puffy wins game after game, the front door opens and his mother come sin, carrying paintings for the house. Everyone calls Mrs. Combs – a short, stylish woman with close-cropped hair – Mom. She eventually takes a seat at the bar and watches the game, telling me about her son’s hustling nature. She tells me about Puffy’s father, about how he was quite the player, the pool shark, how he would shoot pool and dice up around Lenox Avenue and 126th Street, and how Puffy probably gets his spirit, his competitiveness, naturally. Then her Mom-speak breaks in: You should ear if you gonna go out. What are you wearing tonight? You want me to fix y’all some sandwiches? And she does, heaping mounds of Steak-Umms with tomatoes and cheese.
Mark irons, Puffy dresses, Lonnie scratches on the turntables. Boys at home, before they become men in the street.
HIP HOP has always been – and will always be – about fabulousness and myth. It’s about building new stages to perform newer songs while wearing the newest clothes. But from its fitful birth on the cracked pavement that lined the blocks of upper New York City until the mid ‘80s, when Run-D.M.C. rushed up the pop charts with the other American Realness acts (Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp), “hip hop” was “rap,” ethnic and subcultural, taken for granted by the kids from around-the-way, dismissed by the High Pop tastemakers with the contempt they reserved for that which they didn’t understand. But there were a few who could keep the equation in their heads. Russell Simmons and Fab 5 Freddy, for instance, saw the “in,” saw the never-quenchable thirst of major labels and downtown art galleries as creating the next, and logical, pit stops for this new, evolving thing. Some called it selling out.
But there was another generation behind them, who could also keep the equation in their heads, as they danced to the residue of black power that seeped through the grooves of Public Enemy and KRS-One records. They were also watching the decade-defining shenanigans on Dynasty and buying into the record-breaking event called Thriller and imbibing the language of bigness, or largeness, as it would be called in hip hop parlance, where words come and got a feverishly junk-bondish turnover rate.
Puffy is from that generation. They know that blackness means fierceness in the face of adversity. They know that they can yell “Fuck white people” or call yourself a “nigga” and make millions. Their first hip hop shows were often stadium-size or live freestyling on, of all places, MTV. They are conscious of their era, and they know they exist because they spend money on entertainment that tells them they exist. And closer to home, they saw that the people with the fresh cars and nice clothes were not parents of kids their age, but actually kids their age, kids with lethally legal and illegal businesses. Gettin’ paid. Livin’ large. Whether on the money-makin’, boogie-down tip of the entertainment world or the hardcore of the street, black people could own. And what better to own and market, to turn into a mock grass-roots cottage industry, than the culture itself? Says one industry insider, “All these young boys wanna ne in the music business to get large, when they would be out in the street selling drugs. The music industry is perfect for them, ‘cause it’s just a legal form of drug dealing.”
Listen to Puffy talk about drive, about the reason he gets up in the morning: “The young kids – all the real motherfuckers across the world that’s young and black – they need that real shit. Motherfuckers need that shit, youknowhumsaying’? They got to hear it. Like, if records stopped being made, motherfuckers would be jumping out of windows or something. That shit is almost like a drug.”
That’s also the reason he started throwing parties.
HIP HOP parties had, for the most part, been banned in New York, due to an increasing amount of violence and recurrent, racist complaints about noise. But Puffy needed a nightlife. Why not just create one? “I found myself being this senior executive of A&R,” he says now, “and I was like, yo, I wanted to use my power and my money and rent some of these clubs, so we could have a place to go.” Kicking off his reputation with a Christmas party in 1989, when he was starting out at Uptown, he threw a fete for the industry, he says, “to kind of announce myself. It was real dope.”
He teamed up with Jessica Rosenblum, a downtown club fixture, who once womaned the door at Nell’s. She’d established a niche for herself by organizing social functions for the music industry and came with a reputation as a white woman on the hip hop make, one of the many white faces popping up more and more frequently on the scene. She and Puffy became partners with the opening of Daddy’s House as the Red Zone, a home for hardcore hip hop where you could roll with the flavor to the latest beats, complete with live shows and plenty of attitude. “We were equal partners,” Puffy says, “but I was more on the creative end, I knew more of the people.” Daddy’s House received the imprimatur of the hip hop tastemakers and Puff Daddy became synonymous with the hippest underground jams in New York City. Rosenblum describes Daddy’s House this way: “You know a party is a success when it turns up in a rap song. Daddy’s House did.”
But its success was short-lived. Fights began to break out. Jessica wanted to expand her own operation. Puffy had a regular job, with increasing responsibility. “It just started to become too much pressure for me,” he says now. “And I was making money from work. I didn’t want party promotions to be the main thing in my life.”
But in December of 1991, one particular party would become the only thing in his life.
IT all started when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. Puffy was upset and wanted to host a celebrity basketball game to raise both money and community awareness. Well-practiced by now in the art of promotion, on the day of the game Puffy had everything running smoothly. Heavy D had gotten involved in the plans, and by late afternoon a posse of usually reticent artists – Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Michael Bivins, EPMD – and hundreds of fans had shown up at the Nat Holman Gym.
“As it started getting dark, we had to shut the doors cause the line had got disorganized out front,” Puffy says. “The police came in through the back door and we were like, ‘Yo, there’s too many people out there.’ We told them we really needed their help. This white sergeant said okay and they all left the building out through the back and then like about an hour later, the people in the pay line started pushing on the doors. Inside the gym, it was only 40 percent capacity filled. But we weren’t gonna let nobody else in. Anybody who got caught outside with tickets, we were gonna refund their money. We just didn’t wanna take chances by opening the doors back up.
“But people started pushing from the outside and the doors just snapped off the hinges and people just started pouring in. People started jumping down the staircase. People started piling on top of each other and glass started breaking in the doors and people were getting scared and running.
“Pushing and pushing. It was more pressure. Then all of a sudden, I’m on the other side of the door, pulling people through so we could open some of the other doors, but even as we started pulling people in, more people were pushing through. We started screaming to people to get back, to back up. And like a few minutes later, we saw people passing out cause of the heat.”
He pauses, drawing in a breath. “And we started seeing some scary shit. People’s eyes were going back in their heads and I’m thinking, people could die out here. A big kid had gotten stuck in the door and we couldn’t pull him through or anybody else. The cops were being called, but nobody was coming.
“And I could just feel it. I was thinking some of the people were dying or dead. People had started to regurgitate. Nobody was trying to give mouth-to-mouth resucitation, so I started and other people started. One guy that I knew, we were trying to revive him for like 45 minutes. He was throwing up in my mouth but I didn’t care. We were like, Yo, man, you gotta live. We were pumping his chest and breathing into him. And I’m seeing my girlfriend buggin’ out because her best friend is there, not breathing, and I’m trying to give her mouth to mouth. And I start to feel this feeling, in the breath I’m getting back, that people were dead. I could feel the death going into me.
“Later,” he continues, his voice quietest now, “I went home, and I kept saying to myself that it was all a bad dream, that I was gonna wake up. But I never woke up. And the next day we contacted the police and the mayor’s office. But people just looked at the flyer and saw my name and Heavy D’s name and started blaming everybody, people saying whoever threw the event must have fucked up. And the press started drawing conclusions before the actual investigation.”
Accusations flew from all corners. The director of the student center at City College blamed the president of the Evening Student Government, claiming in the New York Times that she had misled him about “her skill in organizing such events, the size of the expected crowd and to whom the proceeds were to be donated.” It turned out, also, that the AIDS Education Outreach Program, the charity to which a portion of the proceeds were to have gone, was questionable. It had not been registered as a charity in Albany, according to the Times, and “was not known among anti-AIDS groups.”
In televised press conferences, Puffy looked shrunken and young, hesitant in speech and demeanor. He went underground to avoid ensuing melee of judgement. Even Rosenblum, whom Puffy had hired to work the door (not to co-promote, as was rumored), admits that the situation took its toll on him. “It made him learn to think things through,” says Rosenblum now. “Puffy’s used to telling people what he wants and having them execute it. Unfortunately, this time, the people working for him didn’t fully execute the plan. It wasn’t Puffy’s fault, but it was his responsibility.
Says Puffy, “I started to lose it. I felt like I didn’t want to even live no more. I was so fucking sad. The legal counsel was not to go anywhere, not to talk to anybody. But I wanted to go to the wakes and funerals and try to provide some comfort, even though I knew my presence probably wouldn’t have given comfort. But what I was going through, with the blame and stuff, was nothing compared to what the families were going through.
“I couldn’t eat,” he recalls now, sitting forward in his seat. “I was just sleeping, like a mummy. I didn’t talk to nobody. And every time I turned on the news there was something about the event of the money or something.
“I was scared throughout the whole event. There’s no big hero story to all this. I’d never had that much up against me. I had to be a man or die. And I was deserted. There was like, fake, nosy support. But a lot of people I thought were my friends just fell by the wayside. I had my mother and my girl and Andre, and a few other friends.
“But I have to live with the fact that people meet me or see me and no matter how many platinum records I have or whatever, they’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s the guy who murdered nine people at City College.’ Cause they didn’t check out the mayor’s report that cleared me of all the blame. [The City Hall report actually found that Combs had delegated responsibilities to inexperienced associates and should have arranged better security to handle the expected large crowds.] But I imagine the pain the families go through and I understand that what I went through and will go through is nowhere near their pain. And that’s the thing that kept me going, knowing if they had the strength to go on, I had the strength to go on and handle people looking at me and thinking whatever they’re gonna think.”
“The City College event grew him up quick,” Heavy D says. “He was on a path where he could have destroyed himself. He was on a high, you know, he was ‘Puffy!’ doing all this stuff at his age. But every disaster has a delight. There’s a lesson in disguise.”
Always a “panicky young man,” as Heavy D describes him, Puffy no longer moved with the same reckless abandon, rushing headlong toward whatever goal he set. And even though outsiders looked to place blame on easy official targets like City College or the police, Puff found the answer in the community that bred his style, in his music, himself. “It wasn’t that tickets were oversold like people said. It wasn’t the fire department’s fault or the cops’. And it wasn’t simply that ‘niggas are crazy,’ as people say,” he says. “It’s just that overall in the black community there’s a lack of self-love. The majority of the kids weren’t necessarily gonna put themselves in the position to get hurt, but when ti came time to love their neighbors and move back, they couldn’t love their neighbors because they didn’t love themselves.”
And that’s probably the hardest thing for Puffy to accept: that, in essence, The City itself was responsible for the nine deaths forever linked to his name – The City and its dark side, which feeds on the constant restlessness of the shut-out and put-down, which takes away the places of recreation that might be a respite from the infrequent, hyped “events” kids are attracted to, the places where their heroes can shine bright and strong.
BUT Puffy’s job was to create those heroes, and he had to go back to work soon after the tragedy. Jodeci and Mary J. Blige were blowing up around the country and bringing a whole new image of young blackness to the masses. Mary J. Blige’s blasé, Uptown Girl attitude mixed with hip hop beats, and a talent show vocal aggressiveness redefined the concept of the soul-shouting diva. Puffy was also at work on Blue Funk, Heavy D’s darkest album, full of pain of love lost and maturity gained. Jodeci became the standard-bearer of urban black-boy stoicism, but with a supple, gospel sound that made R&B edgy again.
And edginess is what Puffy likes. In the works was Bad Boy Entertainment, Puffy’s own management and record company. During the aftermath of City College, says his mother, “A lot of people showed Sean there asses to kiss. I was there for him, and we became a lot closer, we started communicating better.” She realized just how determined her son was about having his own company. “I didn’t want him going down the drain,” Mrs. Combs says now. “I told him not to worry, that we’d have our own thing. I had planned to help him all along, but this seemed like a good time. I invested in something for him.”
“Puffy is a warrior, he’ll go for his,” say Andre Harrell. Sean wants Bad Boy to embody to his own personal energy and philosophies. Bad Boy wants to be edgier, harder. They would sign a gangster rapper. I think Puffy wants to deal with more rebellious issues.”
I ask Andre about Puffy’s rebellion thing. He laughs and outlines his Theory of Black Folks: There are “ghetto negroes, then colored negroes who are upper lower class or lower middle class who want to go to college and feel the need to be dressed up everywhere they go, you know, working with the system so the system will work for them. Then there’s just Negroes, saying’, I’ve had a credit card for ten years, my father went to college. Puffy is somewhere between ghetto and colored. He is very much like Russell [Simmons]. Puffy was raised colored, went to private school. And that’s why he wants to be rebellious. He didn’t grow up where rebellious was just normal. Colored folks want to be down with the ghetto.”
LATE one Sunday night, Puffy and I sit in his white BMW, on East 21st Street in Manhattan, and I ask him about the ghetto thing and its influence on his music. He tells me that even though he didn’t grow up in the projects, he was “always attracted to motherfuckers who were real, niggas who really didn’t have a lot. Like, a person could live in the suburbs, but they may not have no friends there. You don’t really have nothing if you don’t have no friends and your mother is a single parent and she may never be around and you ain’t really got shit.”
“Are you talking about yourself?”
“Yeah, in a sense. But the majority of kids in the suburbs was made, you know? Their parents made them a certain way. These kids from the ghetto had no choice. They didn’t have shit, but they were real.”
Finally he boils it down to its essence: “I don’t like no goody-two-shoe shit. I like the sense of being in trouble. It’s almost like a girl, youknowhumsayin’? Girls don’t like no good niggas. Girls like bad boys.”
Heavy D believes that Puffy – the persistent kid from around the way, who found that all his dreams and nightmares could merge in a single moment – is “slowly yet surely realizing that what he has is a gift. In my opinion, Puffy was responsible for Father MC, Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. Especially Jodeci. You gotta remember that they had a record out before, and they only blow up when Puffy got in the loop. But Puffy has to realize that that gift ain’t for him. It’s for other people.”
With the debut of the Bad Boy artists, Puffy’s ultimate test awaits him. The four acts on the roster are acts hand-picked by Puff Daddy himself, not acts passed down for his overseeing. Although the first release, Notorious Big’s “Party and Bullshit,” featured on Who’s the Man? soundtrack, has an irresistible street flavor that seems to have caught the attention of the party people, it remains to be seen whether Puffy has the ears to go with his eyes, whether he can see a project from its inception to its fruition with the same level of success. Faith, it seems, will show him the way.
Sitting in the car on 21st Street, Puffy is preparing to go into Soundtrack studios to remix Mary J. Blige’s next single. Perhaps that, and recounting the City College nightmare, explains the sudden darkness in his manner. He leans back in the leather seat and sighs. “I just like talking to God, realizing that my shit ain’t nothing, my problems are so minute. I pray every night, every day, I talk to God a lot. I carry a Bible with me all the time.”
He pulls a tiny, tattered, dog-eared Bible from his back pocket and turns to Psalms. He reads: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even my enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat at my flesh, they stumbled and fell.”
This is the text of Puffy’s next tattoo.
EPILOGUE: Whatever the reason for Puffy’s dismissal from Uptown – and we may never know the real reason, or, for that matter, the true nature of the relationship between Puff Daddy and Andre Harrell – both men continue to speak well of each other. Harrell’s Uptown will continue to oversee the development of Bad Boy’s first three artists – at Puffy’s request. Puffy will retain the Bad Boy concept and has the freedom to develop his dream elsewhere.
Just three days after being fired, Puffy remained his cool and contained self. “My only regret,” he says, quietly, patiently, “is that if I had any flaws, I could have been nurtured or corrected, instead of people giving up on me. Somebody older may think I have nothing to be angry about ‘cause I did what they did in half the time. But I’m not ungrateful for what I’ve received.” He sighs, “But this is just another chapter. This ain’t no sad ending.”
And he is right. It won’t be long before there is yet another Puffy story to tell.