Most businessmen will tell you that behind every success is a slew of failures. Sean Combs is no different.
The 47-year-old New Yorker (a k a Puff Daddy, a k a Puffy, P. Diddy, Diddy) is worth around $820 million thanks to his successes in fashion, movies, TV, liquor branding and, of course, music.
But as covered in the new documentary “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story,” his first get-rich-quick scheme was selling drugs while a student at Washington, DC’s Howard University.
“Back in the early ’90s, I saw a lot of my friends coming ’round with big wads of cash, so I decided to try it out,” Combs told The Post. In a sense, it was in his genes. His father, Melvin, did the same hustle and was killed in a drug deal gone wrong when Combs was a toddler. But it didn’t take long for Puffy to realize street life was not for him.
“I went out on the strip in Maryland, but when I got there, within about five minutes, somebody yelled ‘Jump out!’ [a warning of undercover police] so I started to run,” he recalled. “There were helicopters; they were trying to break down doors. After that, I told God he didn’t have to worry about me going down that road.”
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Instead, Combs committed to a career in music. Not only did he re-establish the East Coast as the center of hip-hop, Combs took the music and the lifestyle into mainstream culture. He reveled in a glitzy, showy, almost Trumplike image — gilded cars and Champagne bottle service — that made him the unofficial King of New York in the 1990s and early 2000s. “When you rolled with Puff, it was like you had the key to the city,” says Quinnes “Q” Parker from the R&B group 112.
Things really took off when Combs founded Bad Boy Entertainment in 1993, scoring hits with acts such as 112, Total, Faith Evans and Mase, before becoming the label’s premier act himself. As explored in the documentary (opened last Friday in theaters in New York, and is available on Apple Music on Sunday), the label racked up hundred of millions in sales while Combs and the Bad Boy Family lived an unapologetically lavish lifestyle.
But with more money came more problems — and Combs’ empire was soon beset with legal issues, violence and the murder of his best friend and top artist, the Notorious B.I.G.
AIMING high was always Combs’ calling card in work and play, but he learned early on that it could also have disastrous consequences. In 1991, while starting out as an intern at Uptown Records, he and rapper Heavy D helped promote a charity basketball game at City College’s Harlem campus. Star-studded with names such as Run-DMC, Boyz 2 Men and Big Daddy Kane, the event would be the perfect way for the ambitious Combs, then 22, to make his name.
But the stellar lineup proved too much of a draw: Some 5,000 fans tried to cram into a gym meant to hold no more than 2,700. People in the lobby tried to force open the doors into the gymnasium, which only opened outward. In later court testimony, Combs was reported by the Associated Press as saying, “They tore the doors right off the hinges. The rush was too much and the stampede started.’’
“[I] started seeing different young ladies getting squished,” he added. ‘’You could see panic on everybody’s face.’’
In the end, nine people died — trampled or crushed to death — and 28 were injured.
While no criminal charges were filed, Combs and Heavy D had to face several civil suits, and reportedly paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements.
He’d made his name, all right.
Meanwhile, within Uptown headquarters, Combs was getting a reputation as a hothead and an eccentric — prone to roaming the offices with his shirt off or lounging on conference room tables at meetings.
“[Uptown founder] Andre Harrell couldn’t micromanage him — he was running buck wild,” recalled Sybil Pennix, Combs’ assistant at the time. “But that was part of the attraction; he was charismatic. People wanted to be around him.”
On one occasion, he punched a gaffer working on the 1991 movie “Strictly Business,” which Harrell produced. “But I wasn’t just acting crazy,” Combs said. “The guy was being very disrespectful.”
Eventually, such antics forced Harrell to fire Combs in 1993. Puffy, however, had the ultimate revenge in mind: He would found a label that would be bigger than Uptown.
Having charmed Arista Records head Clive Davis, Combs secured a key partnership with that label that would almost guarantee his success. In 1994, Bad Boy artist Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear” single went Top 10, and the Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album “Ready To Die” went quadruple platinum. He soon added the all-girl crew Total and R&B group 112.
Combs was at the center of it all — a mentor, creative director, A&R rep and stylist. Faith Evans told The Post that he would march her down to the tanning salon “every other day” to darken her skin tone. “He told us what kind of makeup to wear,” says Jakima Dyson of Total. “He only wanted us to wear natural nail color. He’d say, ‘Don’t come in here with no red or dark colors!’ ”
More hits followed, but Bad Boy’s success came in tandem with a feud with the West Coast-based Death Row Records. The animosity was heightened by the Notorious B.I.G.’s track “Who Shot Ya?” — widely perceived as a dig at Death Row’s Tupac Shakur, who had been injured in a 1994 shooting.
Shakur responded with his own diss tracks, including “Hit ’Em Up” in which he seemed to claim he had sex with Evans (Biggie’s wife).
As Dyson recalls in the film, just being around Combs and Biggie was dangerous. “I remember being in a club in Miami around 1996. We were in the VIP section and it only had one exit,” she told The Post. “All of sudden somebody started shooting. I don’t even know if they were trying to get Puffy, but that’s just the way it was at the time.”
Parker of 112 admitted that going out west as a Bad Boy artist was terrifying. “We were at a mall promoting a show, and it started to get unruly. There were guys holding up ‘westside’ hand signs and saying they were ‘Bad Boy killers,’ ” he said. “It was crazy because we weren’t in a beef — we were trying to sing love songs!”
The Notorious B.I.G. was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles in March 1997 — six months after Shakur was killed in Las Vegas. Combs was devastated by the loss of his best friend. He wondered if he might be next.
“I felt that way for about a week,” said Combs. “It was so horrific — but I couldn’t keep thinking that way. I had faith that brighter days would come.”
With the help of Evans and 112, Combs put together a tribute to Biggie in the shape of the Police-sampling “I’ll Be Missing You,” which spent 11 weeks at No. 1 in the summer of 1997. (Last year, a study by FuneralCare in the UK found it was still the most popular R&B song played at funerals.) It marked the point where Combs surpassed Biggie to become the label’s biggest act.
His debut album, “No Way Out,” earned Combs two Grammys — an award that the Notorious B.I.G. never managed to win.
“I guess it was a Shakespearean, tragic-hero kind of thing,” Combs explained. “I was going onstage without my brother, and a lot of people were coming to see the tragedy play out.”
At the same time, Combs was ascending to the A-list. In 1998, he threw one of the most lavish parties NYC had seen in honor of his 29th birthday, at Cipriani on Wall Street. Guests included Martha Stewart, George Clinton, Muhammad Ali and Donald Trump. Combs used three different firms to help plan the event, at a cost of a half million dollars.
He also broke down barriers, throwing his first “white party” — where guests who would later include everyone from Salman Rushdie to Howard Stern, Aretha Franklin to Kim Kardashian, were commanded to wear head-to-toe white — at his home in East Hampton.
Combs told the Independent, “Have I read ‘The Great Gatsby’? I am the Great Gatsby.” But in his version, Gatsby was an African-American rapper/mogul bringing the street to one of the most refined places on earth.
“He wanted to make a statement,” said Parker. “He was saying ‘I don’t care what the customs are. I’m here, and we’re gonna do it the Bad Boy way.’ ”
But hitting the top of A-list society didn’t mean that Combs’ misfortunes were over. In 1999, he attacked music executive Steve Stoute with a Champagne bottle in a dispute, and was ordered to spend one day in anger management.
In December of that year, he was with then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez at Club New York celebrating the upcoming album release for Bad Boy’s new act Shyne. Expectations were high: Shyne had been making waves with guest appearances on records by artists such as Mase. Everyone was predicting he would be Bad Boy’s next star.
But that night, Combs, who has repeatedly refused to speak about the incident, reportedly knocked a drink out of a guest’s hand by accident, inciting an altercation.
Shots were fired. Three people were injured. Although the media circus focused on the arrests of Combs and J.Lo (the latter was released by police within hours), Shyne was also arrested on weapons charges.
Combs was acquitted in court. Shyne was sent to prison for 10 years. His much-anticipated album came out in 2000, while he was incarcerated at the Clinton Correctional Facility upstate. The expectations had been right: “Shyne” hit No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts.
Upon his prison release in 2009, Shyne was deported to Belize (where his father, Dean Barrow, is the prime minister). Old wounds seem to have healed, however. In 2016, on the anniversary of his sentencing, Shyne recollected the shooting on Instagram, saying, “I defended my mentor and friends as I should have.” He even played a part in the Bad Boy reunion concert tour that year, via video.
Those shows, including a stop at Barclays Center, proved that Combs can still pack arenas. As he says in the movie, “I can make anything happen.”
For Parker, Combs’ legacy goes way beyond music. “He absolutely empowered and encouraged everyone,” he said. “For black Americans, he is on a level with Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama.”