Mo' Money, Mo' Trouble

It ain't easy being a millionaire businessman and a notorious thug

Is Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs still cool?The answer to that question is more than just a matter of taste. It speaks to the future of hip-hop and specifically to the economic fortunes of Puff Daddy's $300 million conglomerate, Bad Boy Entertainment. It may even determine whether we one day address ol' P. Diddy as "Mr. President."

Any conversation about the audience for hip-hop eventually leads to someone bringing up the trusty statistic that three out of four rap CDs are bought by white kids. But that demographic factoid is incomplete. It doesn't reveal that those three white fans are buying the same CDs they believe the fourth black fan also is purchasing. Implicit here is the conviction that by plunking down their $16.99, white teens can take home a slice of authentic blackness, or at least what they perceive to be authentic blackness, no matter how one-dimensional or cartoonish.

Of course privileged white youngsters obsessing over, even offensively mimicking, inner-city black youngsters is nothing new; sociologists have been tracking the phenomenon at least since Norman Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro." And if you doubt Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's recent pronouncement that rappers have "taken the children of the rich," just hang for a while in the Aventura Mall parking lot. It won't be long before some Phat Farm-attired white kid drives by in Daddy's Mercedes while hollering along to Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'."

There is something new, however: the growing number of black entrepreneurs attempting to snatch back some of the corporate profits generated by this fascination. Enter Puff Daddy. Bad Boy Entertainment has moved far beyond even the ancillary streams of music-industry revenue (publishing, management, marketing) and is now attempting to meet a consumer's every need. There's the Sean John fashion line, Justin's restaurants in Atlanta and Manhattan (with future locations planned), film and publishing ventures, even a projected line of frozen foods.

It's no accident that Bad Boy's media image reflects the video-stoked fantasies Anglo teens conjure about black life: luxury SUVs, sprawling waterfront mansions with an accompanying thong-clad harem, and a private jet to whisk you off to St. Barts when the rattling of all that jewelry begins to give you a headache.

But this isn't your father's empty materialism. Living large and keeping it real -- Puffy-style -- means quaffing Cristal straight from the bottle; going upside the head of some record company executive with that bottle when he refuses to heed your wishes; traveling all the way to Italy expressly to physically assault your ex-girlfriend's current paramour; getting entangled in a nightclub shootout when someone disrespects you; or simply pissing against the wall of crobar's VIP room when an attendant fails to fetch you a bathroom key fast enough.

Interestingly all this loutish behavior took place after Puffy had achieved such a degree of stardom that the likes of Martha Stewart and the Duchess of York were thrilled to attend his $600,000 birthday party. Perhaps not coincidentally this also was around the time that Puffy's chokehold on the charts began to loosen. According to SoundScan his 1999 album Foreversold only 1.4 million copies, a dramatic slide from its predecessor's sales of more than seven million.

"A lot of people in the industry are saying Puffy did [his gangsta routine] on purpose to get his ghetto credibility back," a Sony music executive told New Yorkmagazine. "He did it to have the kids on the street respect him again. No one cares about the Bad Boy insignia anymore. White kids are only gonna buy what black kids buy, and Puffy thinks that by doing this he'll win them back."

Ascribing these violent incidents to an out-of-control thug does seem awfully naive. After all, Puffy wasn't raised by wolves. A strict mother in the middle-class New York City suburb of Mount Vernon and demanding Catholic priests at the all-boys Mount St. Michael Academy would be the more accurate bio. It's also worth remembering Puffy's career path. In 1988, at the age of nineteen, he dropped out of Howard University to take an unpaid internship at Andre Harrell's Uptown Records. In less than three years, he advanced to become a prominent A&R director there. By 1994 he had his own label and a ten-million-dollar deal with Clive Davis at Arista Records. This is the trajectory of a canny businessman who knows precisely what he wants and how to get it.

So what does Puffy want now? Given hip-hop's "nothing succeeds like success" aesthetic, a hit album is crucial -- as Puffy's ongoing grueling promotional schedule would affirm. And The Saga Continues, his new Miami-recorded CD, demonstrates that he is more than willing to keep courting controversy if it'll place him back atop the Billboard charts. Just listen to the record's R&B shuffle "I Need a Girl," in which Puffy pines for a woman like his ex, Jennifer Lopez, one who will post his bail, hide weapons from police, even "step in the courtroom and lie for me." Is this a telling reference to Lopez's grand-jury testimony on his behalf? Artistic license? Or just the lyrical work of a man who knows how to keep people talking?

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