Andre Harrell, the founder of Uptown Records, fired Sean “Puffy” Combs from his position as Uptown’s vice president of A&R in 1993. Puffy, at the time 23, started as an intern without a college degree; now, he was fired, working in the music business, a business he’s known since a teenager.
Uncompromising rule-breakers, throughout history, have always been terminated by someone or something. Puffy was a rule-breaker, a trouble-magnet, or a playmaker, depending on who you asked. Luckily, in this story, termination set the young executive free to focus on establishing Bad Boy Records—a rap and R&B label made in his image. In November of 1994, the non-sleeping, youth-driven mogul-in-the-making, after a year in operation and removed from Uptown, was spotlighted by the New York Times.
After five years in operation, with over $130 million in annual sales, Forbes Magazine knighted Bad Boy, “Rap’s most valuable label” in the 1999 profile, “I ain’t foolin’ around I’m building assets.” Although the magazine conducted their interviews separately, Combs shared the illustrious cover with comedian Jerry Seinfield. Seinfeld tells Forbes, “Every human being is a brand,” explaining how lucky he was to find a culture with a market for “nice, funny guys.”
The market for nice, funny rappers existed in the culture of rap in the 1990s, but that was not Bad Boy’s market. Being nice and funny was a part of the crossover charm, but it wasn’t why Puffy Combs made the cover of Forbes. No, he made millions from the usage of famous samples and discovering undeniable talent, rap beef and lucky business, radio dominance and record-breaking tours.
Most importantly, though, Bad Boy’s money came from a catalog of unforgettable songs, the untimely death of a hip-hop prodigy, and one man’s undying perseverance through hell and heaven. Seinfeld was right: Everyone is a brand, and Puffy Combs was one of the first men in rap to capitalize on that ideology. Combs’ former manager and record executive Benny Medina said it best in 1999:
“Bad Boy is a brand. A brand that stands for something. You’ve had them before—you think of Motown, you think of Stax, maybe you think of Def Jam—but it’s definitely a brand… and he’s the embodiment of it.”
Medina’s quote comes from “Godspeed you black emperor!” the aptly titled cover story by Peter Lyle, written for the September 1999 issue of British music and fashion magazine The Face. Last November, The Face republished the 21-year-old profile on Puffy Combs, who, by now, has gone by a plethora of names, but is most famously known as Diddy.
What makes Lyle’s lengthy profile so fascinating is the amount of time he spends with the multi-million, multi-Platinum, rap celebrity. The two traveled together from Los Angeles to London to Paris to New York in 1999, as Bad Boy was beginning to decline from its Olympus-high peak. Successfully, Lyle’s cover story made the larger-than-life “Napoleon in Pumas” into a down-to-earth human being, one who lives as a 25-percent entertainer, 25-percent politician, and 50-percent whatever brand gets the benjamins.
“This year he secured an advance of $55 million from Bad Boy’s parent label, Arista. Alongside his five-year-old music empire, there are newer enterprises he’s founded on a scale that leaves no margin for failure: Bad Boy Management (now adding basketball players to its stable of performers and producers); a restaurant chain, Justin’s, named after his first son; Bad Boy Film, in production on their first feature, King Suckerman, a Puffy-fronted adaptation of George Pelecanos’s violent crime story about a Vietnam vet; Bad Boy Television, squarely pitched at the post-rap MTV market; Daddy’s House Recording Studios, New York locus of $100,000-a-pop remixes and home of Bad Boy’s versatile production squad, The Hit Men; Notorious, the ‘Maxim meets THE FACE meets Vibe meets Rolling Stone’ magazine he recently bought; and Sean John Clothing (‘The Future Of Fashion’). He is the multi-tasking producer, company CEO, urban tycoon and black role model in excelsis.” –“Godspeed you black emperor!”
There are three significant words found inside that winded quote: Black role model. Some will say Diddy’s brand, along with his shiny suits and samples, killed hip-hop—a fact Lyle includes in his profile—but what the Bad Boy founder did best was to make hard work and capitalistic success appealing through rap music. Capitalism is the language of America, and Puffy Combs knew the lingo, and he spoke it better than anyone.
Diddy has yet to run for president, but he’s always understood, from the onset of his career, the importance of campaigning. “My philosophy is that every interview is a chance for me to make history. If somebody picks up this mag, sees this cover, I’mma get my chance to exchange my point of view,” he told Lyle while they were in London, a perspective that made me think of Drake’s Christmas day interview with Elliott Wilson and Brian “B.Dot” Miller of Rap Radar, and how the biggest rapper in the world today can make history in a two-hour podcast or a 20-second Instagram post. Drake gets to choose; Diddy didn’t have a choice.
Although he’s been wary of press over the years, making history is always on Drake’s mind. It’s on the mind of everyone who believes themselves to be legends in the making. Diddy made it okay to want to be legendary because there is nothing else to be. He told a generation coming up on his hits that it was okay to make it all about the benjamins; to rise and grind, to be cultural and be commercial, be the business, and the brand. Sell he said. Sell clothes, sell music, sell food, and sell fashion. Sell whatever, just sell-out BIG.
As a record label, Bad Boy inserted two drugs more potent than morphine into the veins of mainstream rap: capitalism and celebrity. It was shiny, and it was fun. The technicolor high of Hype Williams videos and the poetry of The Notorious B.I.G. caught an entire generation, and from there, Diddy kept their attention with his shimmy, his rants, his business acumen, and all the times he made a band.
Before everyone in the music business became a brand with a million names and businesses, it was Diddy who was on the pulse of cool—able to be on radio and reality television; selling clothes that people wore while convincing the youth to go out and vote. He is in the DNA of the hustlers, the rappers, and the executives of the world. When you see Lyor Cohen awkwardly on the cover of Billboard Magazine alongside Roddy Ricch, that’s Diddy. When you hear familiar samples like Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” or OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” woven into popular rap songs, that’s Diddy. Everything from outspoken executives to rappers not caring about their rhymes because they write checks, it’s all Diddy.
The reality of rap wasn’t shaped solely by Diddy. Everyone from Master P to Sylvia Rhone has played a part in creating an industry where capitalism and culture collide. But what I’ve always been struck by is how Diddy came into the game a music guy, not a businessman. “I don’t just listen to the music with my head, it has to give me a rush,” he said to Anita Samuels in his 1994 New York Times interview. When he was asked what separates him from the more prominent music executives like Russell Simmons and Andre Harrell, he replied, “I live for the music. I think they live for money.”
That’s the Diddy I hope young artists, hustlers, and executives remember. It wasn’t all about the Benjamins; it was also about the music. Even when critics said his methodology was killing hip-hop, he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. Diddy always believed in his path and his ideas, and where they were taking him. That’s what he would’ve never had at Uptown: the freedom to believe in himself.
“We just got a little bit more flavor,” Diddy told Samuels toward the end of their interview. The flavor is what he sold. Pairing his gift of gab with an eye for marketing, an aggressive drive, and robotic-like neglect for sleep is what made him dangerous as a young executive. Still, flavor is what he knew better than his mentors and older executives.
“That’s what the kids want: the realism, the lingo, the attitude, the bounce,” Diddy added. Now, tell me that’s not the attitude of every A&R in the business. Tell me that’s not the perspective of every rapper uploading their lingo, their attitude, and their bounce to SoundCloud or Spotify or Audiomack. Tell me we haven’t lived the past few years in a dark, twisted fantasy made in the image of the D the I the D the D the Y…