Disrespecting the Bling
P. Diddy and the Road to Ghettofabulousness
Sometime between his stunning March 16 acquittal on bribery and gun-possession charges related to a 1999 shooting inside a New York nightclub and his April 14 arrest for driving with a suspended license in Miami (read: of driving while young, rich, black, and luxe on a Vespa scooter), the aforementioned italicized thought popped into my head about Sean John Combs.
I can't say this was a totally original concept; it could have been planted subconsciously sometime after the acquittal, as my phone exploded with various record- and movie-industry friends and childhood Harlem acquaintances weighing in with their unanimous verdict:
Puffy got away scot-free. Again.
What is it about the 31-year-old Combs--this premier record producer, this high-fashion magnate, this cultured gourmand, this hip-hop pasha and global bon vivant, this arbiter of modern urban taste (or ghettofabulousness), this metropolitician (as old-school rapper Spoonie Gee once dubbed young movers and shakers)--that incites such fervent contention? Is this upstart just too prosperous? Or are we all a just a cabal of playa haters and salt shakers? And has Combs finally careened into a fork in the road of his curiously brilliant young life?
Both Puffy-ites and Puffy-clasts alike are waiting anxiously to see if an ID change--from Puff Daddy to P. Diddy--will cancel those perks. Will Combs' name game extend his frenzy of renown, or label him as an overachieving has-been?
Here's something to remember when trying to answer that: "Has-been" is blasphemy in the can't-stop-won't-stop world of Sean Combs. He's a megastar, one who learned personal wattage at the foot of a master teacher: Andre Harrell.
In the late '80s, Harrell's Uptown Records was responsible for the rebirth of R&B, through its marriage to hip-hop rhythms. Artists such as rapper Heavy D and singers Bobby Brown and Al B. Sure! exemplified this "New Jack Swing."
In early 1990, Combs was an assistant gofer for Harrell. That's when I met him. Even at 19, Combs was natty: crisp polo shirts, khakis, tight coif. I don't ever remember him wearing sneakers. What I can't forget is how he watched everything and everybody.
Harrell would lead the drunken revelry of his Champ(agne)Pack, of which I was a temporary member, in the lobby of Manhattan's tony Royalton Hotel. As we knocked back flutes of Cristal and Veuve Cliquot, Harrell would exclaim aloud how ghettofabulous '70s Harlem drug kingpin Leroy "Nicky" Barnes was, how ghettofabulous Wesley Snipes (an unknown at the time, who would star in a movie I co-wrote called New Jack City) was, and how Duke Ellington invented ghettofabulousness from silken whole cloth. Through champagne-flushed vision, I watched Combs arrogate Harrell's energy the way Anne Baxter's character absorbed Bette Davis' essence in All About Eve.
In May 1990, I was working Harrell, writing a script for a proposed Al B. Sure! movie. For the first two months of my stint, Combs didn't say two words to me, but I knew he was ambitious. He was lobbying Harrell to let him be the A&R rep for the label's newer artists.
One afternoon in front of Uptown/MCA's New York headquarters, Combs initiated a conversation while I was hailing a cab. He told me we were from the same Harlem neighborhood, a mid-income co-op called Esplanade Gardens. Sensing my disbelief, he recalled an incident in which a kid set fire to his Esplanade Gardens apartment; the boy's grandmother was severely burned.
Combs smiled as my jaw dropped. Actually, it was not so much a smile as a sardonic look, fixed by high cheekbones, a ravenous overbite, and thickly gothic arched eyebrows. He left me with this as my cab pulled up:
"When you write your next movie, keep me in mind. My name is Sean, but they call me Puffy. And I'm gonna be a big star. Remember that."
For some reason I knew he was deadly serious. And he was.
You know the highlight reel. Sean Combs basically fashioned the careers of Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. Though MCA Records exec Jeff Redd discovered Blige, she became Combs' pet project. He drafted her tragic ghetto-princess image as a nod to Harrell's besotted but inspired rant about the importance of ghettofabulousness.
Combs produced Blige's best album to date, 1994's My Life. The album proved a breakthrough for him. Like all of Combs' work, it sounded like a sonic movie, paying as much attention to banging beats as to themes familiar to a big part of Blige's ever-widening audience: jaded young black, Latino, and white women with abusive boyfriends and children from teen pregnancies. Combs was so successful with Blige that Harrell got jealous--or, depending on whom you talk to, became so demanding on her behalf that Harrell got fed up--and his mentor fired him. (Harrell himself later left MCA and subsequently was canned by his next bosses at Motown. He never grasped Combs' superhuman ambition, nor did he ever get the Al B. Sure! movie made.)
Sean Combs had stolen the show.
Combs gave a host of hip-hop parties in New York--no, not parties, events--called Daddy's House, the first to mesh the uptown black and Latino crowd with the preppy white college kids of New York University and Columbia. He also gave a party at City College, but something went horribly wrong: There was a riot, a stampede, and nine people died. He grieved, rebounded, appealed to the legendary record-company executive Clive Davis to bankroll his fledgling Bad Boy imprint, and found success again with an MC who would change hip-hop, Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace. Combs and Wallace took the hip-hop crown away from the West Coast, where Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Marion "Suge" Knight, and Death Row Records ruled rap music. But that triumph didn't come without a price: Wallace was gunned down in Los Angeles after the Soul Train Awards on March 9, 1997, almost six months to the day after Death Row luminary Tupac Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas. Both killings remain unsolved.
Combs simultaneously grieved in public and exploited Wallace's demise. Wallace's Life After Death and Combs' unapologetic manifesto No Way Out sold millions of units. Combs opened two wildly popular restaurants in New York and Atlanta and launched the Sean John clothing line. He threw himself a half-million-dollar birthday bash in New York and kept Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas, and other stars waiting in the rain to get in. He dated It Girl Jennifer Lopez. Like Def Jam exec Russell Simmons before him, he bought a place in the Hamptons; there, as the blooming perennials framed the blue Atlantic, Combs taught Martha Stewart the finer points of MCing.
He hired a then-untethered Andre Harrell to be his assistant.
There were a few setbacks: Combs lost his teen-hop heartthrob Mason "Mase" Betha to the ministry. There was talk that other Bad Boy acts, such as the underrated singing group 112, also wanted out. Combs held on to 112, but wasn't as successful with another Bad Boy act, the Lox, and the group angrily defected to rival Ruff Ryder Entertainment.
Along the way, he signed Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, a slim, super-articulate 20-year-old, and one of the few guests on TV's Politically Incorrect able to mute the acerbic Bill Maher . The Belizean wunderkind was the apple of Combs' eye until he fired a gun in Club New York in December 1999, reportedly trying to protect Combs after he was assaulted with a fistful of money thrown in his face. Many onlookers and witnesses said Combs had a gun too. He was charged with gun possession and bribery--an alleged attempt to buy witnesses' silence--but a jury didn't buy either charge.
Barrow, however, was convicted of assault, becoming the latest in a succession of supposed sacrificial lambs in Combs' life. Barrow told The Village Voice's Peter Noel, in an interview that ran a few days after the verdict, that the man he worshiped had abandoned him.
While Barrow faithfully reads his beloved Bible on Rikers Island--and tries not to look at the possible 25-year sentence hanging overhead--Combs dances freely with his artists Black Rob and G-Dep in the hot new video "Let's Get It." He even looks at the camera and finishes a rhyme with the words "Not guilty."
Fancy steps notwithstanding, Combs has come to his own personal fork in the Road to Ghettofabulousness. One path beckons him to continue to keep it real by hitting the clubs and running with thugs. The other begs him to settle down and accept the cushy eight-figure life. He can chauffeur his sons to their soccer games in his customized Mercedes and sail the Aegean in his 57-foot yacht while setting up Dream's world tour. Either way, it's lonely at the top. No wonder he looks so lost and bewildered these days.
Have we ever seen anything like the ascent of Sean Combs? I rifle through the familiar archetypes from fiction and film. Jay Gatsby? Sammy Glick? Sidney Falco? Charles Foster Kane? Nah. The literary reference that comes to mind is Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell Tale Heart." I'm not saying Combs killed those nine people at City College, or Notorious B.I.G., or that he made Barrow pull the trigger in Club New York. But all of those people crashed while trying to follow him on the road to ghettofabulousness. And all of the champagne, honeys, money, and mad fame cannot stop the collective sound of their hearts from booming in his ears.
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