Combs, Sean “Puffy” 1969–
Sean “Puffy” Combs 1969–
Producer, rapper, music label executive
Although the beginning of 1997 saw the early demise of his friend, Biggie Smalls, and mid-1997 almost saw his exit as hip hop’s most prolific producer, Sean “Puffy” Combs found himself not only still in the rap game but achieving spectacular success by the end of 1997. Whether it was as rapper Puff Daddy, or the most sought after producer with sure-fire hitmaking instincts, or as chief executive officer of the New York-based Bad Boy music label, Combs in 1997 shattered one chart record after another, not only in the hip-hop field but also on the general pop-music charts compiled by Billboard magazine.
His hit single “I’ll Be Missing You,” recorded with Bad Boy recording artists Faith Evans and the group 112, roosted atop the magazine’s Hot 100 singles list for a record-tying eleven weeks. Then Combs, producing and making a featured appearance on “Mo Money Mo Problems,” by the slain rapper the Notorious B.I.G., succeeded himself at Number One, a feat previously managed only by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Boyz II Men. Bad Boy singles went on to top the charts for a staggering total of twenty-two consecutive weeks. Combs’s own CD, No Way Out, released under the group name Puff Daddy & the Family, was one of the year’s best-selling compact discs. As a producer Combs has produced many artists ranging from Mariah Carey to show business legend James Brown, in addition to his own roster of successful artists at Bad Boy and other rhythm-and-blues stars, such as Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, whose recordings had already profited from Combs’s skill at the producer’s controls. Entertainment Weekly named Combs to its annual list of the 100 most powerful people in show business—an appropriate honor since Combs, according to Vibe magazine, was responsible for roughly 60 percent of 1997’s hit pop songs.
On his way to the top Combs had overcome terrible setbacks—not just the usual career challenges, but also events of violence and tragedy. The most serious blow was the murder in March of 1997 of his best friend, labelmate, and protege the Notorious B.I.G. Combs had, until then, largely been able to sidestep the violent rivalries that increasingly often marred the rap music scene with the ascendancy of “gangsta rap” in the mid-1990s. Although the aftermath saw him seriously considering getting out of the business, he decided to stay. “I just couldn’t take it no more.… I got to live with the reality of everything that’s happened, so I might as well handle it. Biggie wouldn’t want me to stop. Biggie wouldn’t want Bad Boy to stop,” he told The Source magazine. An unapologetic entrepreneur who aims to build Bad Boy Entertainment into one of America’s 500 biggest corporations, Combs was accused by some of capitalizing on his friend’s death. But American and international consumers clearly found something moving in the musical expression of his grief: “I’ll Be Missing You” reached Number One in fifteen countries.
Full name Sean J. Combs; born November 4, 1969, New York, NY; son of Janice and Melvin Earl Combs; son Justin Dior Combs. Education: Howard University, 1988-90.
Career: Intern at Uptown Records, New York, 1990; promoted to director of artists and repertory, then vice president, 1991; founder and chief executive officer, Bad Boy Entertainment, 1994-. Successful producer and label executive; produced singles and albums for the Notorious B.I.G., Faith Evans, 112, Mase, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, and Keith Sweat, among others; as recording artist released multi-million-seller No Way Out, 1997.
Member: American Federation of Television & Radio Artists; American Federation of Musicians.
Addresses: Chief Executive Officer, Bad Boy Entertainment, 8–10 W. 19th St., New York, NY 10011.
Grew Up During Golden Age of Rap Music
Sean Combs was born in New York on November 4, 1969. His father was murdered on the streets of upper Manhattan when he was three years old, but his widowed mother worked three jobs at once and scraped together money to buy a house in suburban Mount Vernon, New York. “At first I thought nobody would accept me as a rap artist,” Combs later told Chuck Phillips of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “After all, it’s not like I came from the ’hood,” he added. But his mother maintained the family’s ties to New York’s Harlem, and it was there that young Sean Combs obtained a remarkable cultural education, soaking up the creations of the founders of rap music: Grandmaster Flash, Run D.M.C., KRS-One, and more. “I would be 12 years old, and sometimes I’d be out until 3, 4 in the morning, seeing the music. I had to sneak out to do it, but I was doing it,” he told Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore. He obtained the nickname “Puffy” from a childhood friend. “Whenever I got mad as a kid, I used to huff and puff…. That’s why my friend started calling me Puffy,” he told Jet.
Combs enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1988. Although he spent much of his time promoting rap-music events, he managed to remain at Howard for at least two years. Recommended by rapper Heavy D, he parlayed his musical activities into an internship at New York’s Uptown Records in 1990. After just three months, Combs attracted the attention of label head and former rap artist Andre Harrell, who named his young protege director of artists and repertoire, a position of extraordinary influence for a twenty-year-old with a keen understanding of the city’s flourishing rap scene. Within a year he became vice president. Combs quickly became an accomplished producer, working on such successful Uptown releases as Jodeci’s Forever My Lady and Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411?.
Things took a turn for the worse at a disastrous celebrity basketball event that Combs promoted at New York’s City College in December of 1991. Nine people were killed in a stampede at the gates. Combs received some blame for the deaths in the aftermath, but was successfully defended in court by renowned attorney William Kunstler, among other lawyers. In 1993 he was fired from Uptown Records. The split with Harrell was difficult for him. “It was like the old sensei [teacher] rejecting the student,” Combs told Rolling Stone.
A scant two weeks later, however, Combs finalized a deal with the large music conglomerate Arista to distribute the musical output of his new company, Bad Boy Entertainment. Bad Boy succeeded from the start and over the first four years of its existence posted skyrocketing sales; estimates of total sales over the period 1993 to 1997 range from $100 million to $200 million. Arista rewarded Combs with a $6 million cash advance when he renegotiated his relationship with the label in 1997.
Although Combs has produced top-chart-level recordings by Bad Boy artists Mase, Craig Mack, and others, and has worked with outside artists of the magnitude of Aretha Franklin and Sting, his greatest success at the helm of Bad Boy came with the recordings of New York rapper Biggie Smalls, who recorded under the name of the Notorious B.I.G.; his real name was Christopher Wallace. Smalls was Combs’s first major project at Bad Boy. “He saw things so vivid,” Combs recalled in a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone. “If you sat and listened to a Biggie Smalls record in the dark, you see a whole movie in front of you.” The first Notorious B.I.G. album, Ready to Die, attracted widespread attention; the second, the prophetically named Life After Death, was one of 1997’s top sellers, spawning an unprecedented two Number One singles after Smalls’s murder (still unsolved at this writing) in March of that year. Combs, who had earlier moved in the direction of mainstream R & B and was credited by some with founding a hybrid named hip-hop soul, proved himself, as executive producer of the Notorious B.I.G. recordings, master of the hardcore gangsta rap style during its period of maximum sales.
He was to achieve even greater success on his own, recording with various other Bad Boy artists under the name Puff Daddy & the Family. The No Way Out CD, released in July of 1997, included “I’ll Be Missing You;” the album took the theme of a tribute to or requiem for the murdered Smalls. Musically, the album was marked by wholesale adoption of the melodies and rhythm tracks of familiar pieces of R & B and rock from the 1970s and 1980s. Writer Sean Piccoli of the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel dubbed the practice “stapling,” as opposed to the “sampling” present on earlier rap recordings, where only short snippets of music would be borrowed from earlier sources. “I’ll Be Missing You” was directly based on the 1983 Police hit, “Every Breath You Take.”
Combs has taken criticism for this practice, both from other hip-hop artists and from fans of the artists whose work he borrows. Yet Combs was not the inventor of such wholesale borrowing; as he was putting the finishing touches on the No Way Out disc, movie star/rapper Will Smith recycled Patrice Rushen’s 1982 hit “Forget Me Nots” on the soundtrack of the film Men in Black. The style dated back at least to MC Hammer’s 1990 “U Can’t Touch This” (based on Rick James’s “Super Freak” of a decade earlier). Furthermore, those who claimed that Combs in “I’ll Be Missing You” was coasting along on the strength of the Police recording mostly failed to notice the other quotation contained in the song: the early twentieth-century Protestant hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” and, on the album, the classical orchestral work Adagio for Strings, composed in 1915by Samuel Barber. Clearly, for millions of listeners, the works blended into a convincing expression of Combs’s grief over his friend’s death.
Combs heads into the next millennium with more of the ambition that had already brought him this far. He opened a restaurant; plans to open a state-of-the-art recording studio, and aims to diversify Bad Boy’s activities, including a film unit and fashion line. He extracted from Arista the option to purchase Bad Boy outright in the year 2001. He continues trying to steer clear of rap’s violent subcultures, describing himself as an entertainer (although he planned no more work as a solo artist) and denied accusations by the slain rapper Tupac Shakur and others that he and Smalls had been responsible for attempts on Shakur’s life and his murder; Combs and Death Row artist Snoop Doggy Dogg appeared on a 1997 television program and proclaimed an end to the East Coast-West Coast feud that had threatened to boil over into violence. He founded Daddy’s House Social Programs that paid for computer instruction and summer camp trips for inner-city youngsters, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune that “I don’t suffer from any illusions about what it’s going to take to change things, but I believe it’s important for me to reinvest in the future of my community.”
Most of all, Combs seemed likely to continue thinking big, bigger, biggest. On January 1, 1998 he told the New York Times that “I’m trying to be so successful [by the millennium] that I want to rent Central Park for all the kids of Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. I’m going to throw them a big ol’ party and invite the whole world.” After his successes in 1997, few observers would proclaim any such ambition out of Combs’s reach.
(as recording artist)
Puff Daddy & The Family, No Way Out, Bad Boy, 1997.
(as executive producer)
Faith Evans, Faith, Bad Boy, 1995.
L.L. Cool J, Phenomenon, Def Jam, 1997.
Mase, Harlem World, Bad Boy, 1997.
The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die, Bad Boy, 1994.
The Notorious B.I.G., Life After Death, Bad Boy, 1997.
Billboard, August 30, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, October 31, 1997.
Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, October 19, 1997.
Jet, January 12, 1998.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 26, 1997.
New York Times, January 1, 1998.
Rolling Stone, April 20, 1995; August 7, 1997.
Source, May 1997.
USA Today, July 22, 1997.
Vibe, December 1997/January 1998.
Combs has also produced recordings by Bad Boy artists Total, 112, the Lox, and others; he has produced recordings for artists associated with other labels, including Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Keith Sweat, and the Police. And has appeared on other artists’ recordings, including Lil’ Kim, and the group SWV. He also appeared on The Steve Harvey Show as himself on the WB Network.
—James M. Manheim
Combs, Sean “Puffy”
Sean “Puffy” Combs
Producer, record company executive
Sean “Puffy” Combs bends the ear of the rap and hip-hop community with intriguing releases, combining his production savvy with relentless promotion. The 24-year-old Combs runs Bad Boy Entertainment, a division of Arista Records, and stands behind several gold and platinum artists, chief among them the Notorious B. I .G., Craig Mack, and Mary J. Blige. His reputation among his R&B peers is that of an aggressive promoter with an ear for the street and the music created there. Despite his impressive credits, Combs’s stature was threatened following nine deaths at an event he had organized. While the tragedy threatened to forever mar his career, Combs turned the setback around, emerging as a sought-after producer of hit singles and videos, ready to bring his efforts to a wider audience.
Combs earned notice in New York’s hip-hop scene at the age of 19. He landed an internship at Uptown Records after being recommended by local rapper Heavy D. Uptown, affiliated with MCA Records, was then headed by Andre Harrell, himself an ex-rapper with the group Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Combs’s tenure as an intern was brief—roughly three months—before he was selected to head Uptown’s Artists & Repertoire (A&R) department, a prestigious posting as this is the department that discovers and signs talent. “He was cool and energetic and I brought him in. He learned fast,” remarked Curt Woodly, former head of A&R at Uptown, in the New York Times. As chief of A&R, Combs managed talent and helped artists choose and produce their releases. He also became known as a fiery and obstinate young man, making a few enemies along the way.
His musical interests not satiated by his work at the label, Combs also staged hip-hop parties in Manhattan clubs, something he had been doing since his days at Howard University in Washington, D. C. It was one of these events that brought Combs down in a matter of minutes. Combs arranged a charity basketball game with teams composed of rap and hip-hop stars to be played in a City College of New York (CCNY) gym in December, 1991. Anxious party-goers, unsure that they would be able to enter the already crowded venue, stormed the entrance. Nine were killed in the crush of bodies. When one man lost consciousness near Combs, he quickly began attempts to revive him. “His eyes were going to the back of his head. I could feel his death going inside of me,” he told Newsday.
While an ensuing mayoral investigation dispensed blame to police, City College officials, Combs, his staff, and the crowd itself, Combs took the brunt of the blow. Media attacks centered on the fact that Combs had not insured
For the Record…
Born in 1971 in New York, NY; children: a son.
Began promoting hip-hop events at Howard University, Washington, DC, late 1980s; intern at Uptown Records, 1991; head of Uptown A&R department, 1991; produced records by Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, early 1990s; signed deal with Arista Records to form Bad Boy Entertainment with him as president, 1994.
Addresses: Home —Mt. Vernon, NY. Office —Bad Boy Entertainment, 8-10 West 19th St., New York, NY 10011.
the event, as required by his contract with CCNY, and that adequate security was not made available. Combs retreated to his Mt. Vernon, New York, home, depressed and angry over the event. He told Newsday, “It’s hard to teach people to respect each other. All the security in the world won’t achieve that. That has to come from inside.”
Combs was shuffled out of Uptown with a leave of absence that became permanent nearly a year after the CCNY incident. The split was difficult for Combs, who had come to view Harrell as more a mentor than a boss. Harrell had filled a role for Combs that had been vacant since his father was killed when he was three. He confided to Rolling Stone, “I was fired. It was like the old sensei [teacher] rejecting the student.” The student, though, proved he had learned enough, signing a deal just two weeks later with Arista Records to form Bad Boy Entertainment. With Combs as president and his mother, Janice, acting as owner, Bad Boy was responsible for bringing new energy to a style of music already known for its intensity. “I like things harsh and basically different to the ear. I’m trying to think about what’s not out there but still give you that same feel and vibe of the way kids are moving,” he told Rolling Stone.
Bad Boy scored big with releases by cutting-edge performers Craig Mack and the Notorious B.I.G. Reportedly, Mack was homeless, subsisting on Long Island when Combs discovered him performing in a Manhattan club. B.I.G. was selling drugs and making demo tapes in a basement before one of them reached Combs. It is this ability to scour the streets for talent that sets Combs and Bad Boy apart from other labels. Combs is among an elite group of hip-hop producers and promoters with similar ties to large labels who have succeeded in bringing new acts to prominence. These include Teddy Riley, Dallas Austin, and JermaineDupri. “Of course the record companies offer them these [custom] labels, because it’s a cheap way to get the talent they couldn’t find,” commented Motown Records chairman Clarence Avant in Newsweek of Combs and his fellow hip-hop entrepreneurs
This sort of characterization aside, Combs sees himself and his company as a direct outlet for urban hip-hop. “I’m a student of the culture that I make music for. It’s important to go out and vibe with the kids—to see what they’re groovin’ to and how they groove to it,” he explained in Billboard. Billboard rap columnist Have-lock Nelson told the New York Times,” He’s one of the best young executives who is rolling with the big guys. Right now Puffy has his finger on the pulse of the music industry. Older executives could learn a lot from him.” Bad Boy’s offices are, in fact, graced by genuine hip-hop devotees, many straight from the street and hoping to bring the next rap superstar to the public eye. Surrounding himself with a young, aggressive staff brings fresh blood into the business and allows Combs to pass on to others the opportunities he had at Uptown.
While managing a burgeoning record label, producing hit records, and making videos, the ambitions Combs has also tried to break into acting. He is nonetheless best known as a top producer in a world that reveres producers nearly as much as artists. Bad Boy Entertainment planned to boost production to four projects a year by 1996. The success of singer Faith Evans in late 1995, facilitated by a well-organized label campaign, suggested that the company was keeping to its development schedule—and that Sean “Puffy” Combs was still on the rise.
Jodeci, Forever My Lady, Uptown, 1991.
Mary J. Blige, What’s the 411?, Uptown, 1993.
Jodeci, Diary of a Mad Band, Uptown, 1993.
Mary J. Blige, My Life, Uptown, 1994.
Craig Mack, Project: Funk Da World, Bad Boy, 1994.
The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die, Bad Boy, 1994.
Raymond Usher, “Think of You,” LaFace, 1994.
Faith Evans, Faith, Bad Boy, 1995.
Also producer of records by Supercat, 7669, Keith Sweat, and Caron Wheeler, among others.
Billboard, January 25, 1992; May 20, 1995.
Newsday (New York, NY), January 3, 1992; January 6, 1992; January 15, 1992; January 16, 1992.
Newsweek, May 8, 1995.
New York Times, January 5, 1992; January 16, 1992; November 6, 1994.
Rolling Stone, April 20, 1995.
Source, January 1995.
Schwann Spectrum, Summer 1995.
Washington Post, December 31, 1991.