NEW YORK — As millionaire hip-hop impresario Sean “Puffy” Combs nears the end of a protracted criminal trial for handgun possession and bribery in New York State Supreme Court, keeping his myriad businesses running smoothly isn’t likely to be high on his list.
But even as the rapper/producer/entrepreneur’s legal fortunes grow increasingly dark, industry watchers maintain that his label, Bad Boy Entertainment, will persevere, whatever its leader’s fate.
Combs, who has built a $300 million empire that includes music, fashion and restaurant interests, faces charges related to a shooting incident at Gotham’s Club New York in December 1999.
Prosecutors claim that the rapper brandished a gun at the club, fled the scene when shots were fired by his rapper-protege Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, and later bribed his driver, Wardell Fenderson, to say a gun found in the getaway car belonged to Fenderson.
If convicted, court sources say Combs could face up to 15 years in prison. Barrow, who is charged with attempted murder after shooting and wounding three people inside the club, is looking at as many as 25 years.
For Combs, any jail time would, of course, leave him physically cut off from the Arista-distributed label he started in his New York apartment eight years ago. Under his watchful eye, the Bad Boy imprint has spawned such platinum-selling acts as Notorious B.I.G., Craig Mack and Mase.
There’s also a raft of civil suits filed against both Combs and Bad Boy by people involved in the Club New York incident — including one for $100 million from a club bouncer. But court watchers say there’s no way of telling as yet how much money the aggrieved will actually be able to wring out of Combs or his company.
Attorney Steven Beer of the entertainment firm Rudolph & Beer maintains that the rapper won’t allow himself to be totally cut off from Bad Boy, no matter what his living arrangements.
“Suge Knight shows that you can do just about anything while you’re incarcerated,” says Beer, referring to the jailed prexy of Death Row Records, erstwhile home of Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. “Not for a second would anyone other than Puffy call the shots.”
In fact, Knight, who is serving a nine-year sentence for violating probation, has had a mixed record in running the label from his cell. Death Row has been dropped by distributor Interscope Records, and most of its marquee artists have departed. However, the label recently announced that indie distributor DNA will reissue some of its biggest hits, giving Knight a temporary financial reprieve.
Combs will likely have better luck because of the strong staff he has assembled at Bad Boy, insists J Records A&R guru and former top Bad Boy exec Ron Gillyard. That lineup includes chief financial officer Derek Ferguson, who Gillyard calls the “lifeblood” of the company, and marketing VP Tracy Waples, a former Interscope exec.
“One thing that Puff doesn’t get a lot of credit for is that he found people who share his vision,” Gillyard said. “They’ll never be 100% like him, but he teaches them his way of doing things.”