Back in 1994, upstart hip-hop imprint Bad Boy Entertainment scored an early hit with rapper Craig Mack’s single “Flava in Ya Ear,” but it was the subsequent remix that truly turned heads.
Featuring flavor of the moment Mack, Hip-Hop Nation elder statesman LL Cool J and soon-to-be-stars Busta Rhymes and Notorious B.I.G., the track was an embarrassment of hip-hop talent. Yet the song’s musicvideo opens with none of these performers, but rather a long shot of then-little-known producer Sean Combs, clinking together two Coke bottles and reciting a line from “The Warriors,” with his label replacing the titular gang.
In many ways, that early video established Combs’ entire musical modus operandi: No matter what the names on the record might be, Combs leaves no doubt that he’s in charge.
He has found success under such varied guises as fashion maven, Broadway thesp, reality TV star and restaurateur to such a degree that it’s often hard to remember that he was once just a lowly A&R rep at a boutique label.
But it was precisely that urge to leverage himself across multiple ventures (both inside the music business and out) that distinguished him from his competitors.
“It’s about being a brand and monetizing the music,” Combs explains. “Not just the ability to have a record sell.”
“His success is equal parts pluck and luck,” says Jeff Chang, longtime hip-hop journalist and author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.”
Chang suggests that Combs had the good fortune to come of age at a time when the demand for hip-hop was at its zenith, and when media consolidation was narrowing the musical playing field to all but the biggest names in the business.
“But he’s always had a reputation for being the hardest working guy in the room,” he says.
That reputation dates back to Combs’ days as a Howard U undergrad, when he landed an internship at R&B label Uptown Records and proceeded to climb his way to the executive suite with rather alarming speed, chaperoning debuts from heartthrob foursome Jodeci and soul siren Mary J. Blige to multiplatinum berths.
As Def Jam founder Russell Simmons recalls in his autobiography, “Life and Def,” “He fine-tuned the attitude at Uptown, making it younger and edgier.”
At Uptown, Combs took an extremely hands-on, image-conscious approach to promotion, making sure the acts in his charge were always dressed to the nines in hip-hop couture and deploying “street teams” to spread the word in clubs and urban centers.
“Puffy made Jodeci look totally hip-hop, with baggy clothes and Timberland boots,” writes Simmons, who notes that at times Combs almost appeared to be a member of the group.
Combs was ousted from Uptown and formed Bad Boy in 1993 (with the support of Clive Davis), bringing with him Uptown signees Mack and Notorious B.I.G. (ne Christopher Wallace).
The latter’s 1994 debut, “Ready to Die,” launched the label into orbit, selling more than 4 million copies. Thanks to Wallace, Combs also saw his personal visibility rise, working as the rapper’s collaborator and hype man.
According to Chang, central to Combs’ strategy was “the idea of reaching up from the streets. That’s something that’s been consistent through his entire career. You see it in the way he reshaped Biggie’s image, putting him in these expensive suits holding a cane, looking like a godfather figure. It’s all about aspiration.”
As Combs became a household name, his label’s roster of platinum-selling artists began to swell, including R&B groups Total and 112, Wallace’s wife Faith Evans and rapper Mase.
After Wallace was murdered, Combs himself turned to recording, first with solo record (as Puff Daddy and the Family) “No Way Out” debuting at No. 1 and yielding massive-selling tribute single “I’ll Be Missing You.”
Yet that track also catalyzed criticism of Combs’ sampling technique. Whereas many hip-hop producers placed a premium on obscurity when selecting samples, or would take familiar refrains and recontextualize them until they were all but unrecognizable, Combs often sampled melodies wholesale from extremely popular songs, merely augmenting the beat and adding new vocal tracks. (“I’ll Be Missing You” was built around the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” while 1998 single “Come With Me” interpolated liberal doses of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”)
“It was a business thing,” Chang says. “It was Combs saying: ‘I can sample the Police, because I can pay for it.’ Then that sort of became a new paradigm.”
Bad Boy suffered a drop-off from its mid-’90s height in the new millennium, but Combs proved adaptable.
Responding to the explosion of Southern hip-hop, he set up regional branch Bad Boy South, buoyed by flagship rapper Yung Joc.
And his ventures into reality TV have been highly lucrative of late, with “Making the Band” alumni Danity Kane and Day26 battling for the top spot on the album charts last March.
“I’m looking for something special, something not already in the marketplace,” Combs says. “I don’t like to just listen to records, I need somebody to make me feel something.”