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'."
Read Related New Times Story, "All Puffed Up"
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 Forever sold 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 York magazine. "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?
In any case Puffy is already plotting his next move, one that recognizes the ephemeral nature of the pop charts. During a recent interview with Kulchur, he reiterated his stated goals of becoming a figure with the artistic success of Frank Sinatra and the heavyweight clout of billionaire entertainment mogul David Geffen. Fusing these two icons would create an altogether new breed -- not just a man with friends in high places (Sinatra and JFK) or an insider's influence (Geffen and Bill Clinton) but a playa who wielded true social, economic, and, yes, political clout.
In that light Puffy's recent declarations to the Los Angeles Times that he would make a far better president than George W. Bush begin to make sense. If they were intended as merely off-the-cuff remarks, a regally attired Puffy did little to dispel them during a July 17 appearance on the Late Show with Jay Leno. As Puffy sat alongside fellow guest Henry Kissinger, Leno held aloft a copy of the Times containing Puffy's presidential feelers. In response Puffy beamed and playfully flashed a vintage Nixon victory sign. He then patted Kissinger's hand and graciously offered him the secretary of state gig in his own administration.
As Kulchur reminded Puffy of that exchange, he initially downplayed both its importance and his headlining status over Kissinger. "Oh, I think Henry held his own," he quipped. "As Jay said, it was an eclectic night." But when offered the example of front-running New York City Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg, whose sole qualifications for office are having built a successful business and being a multimillionaire, Puffy quickly warmed to the subject.
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"If I was running for any political office, I'd definitely want to be the president," he asserted, his voice rising with what sounded like his first true burst of emotion after more than an hour of press interviews. "I ain't got time to be mayor. I've got to fix the whole United States. I can't be dilly-dallying with one city." When asked what he'd actually do if elected, he launched into a stump speech that touched on expanded educational opportunities, health care, even paying down the deficit. Then, like a master pitchman, he added with a smile: "I would also give everybody Fridays off and have mandatory partying. You would have to release yourself at some local nightclub."
So this is all really a joke to you?
Puffy scowled in response. "I don't feel like George Bush cares about black people," he said. "I'm a Democrat, but I know how to switch gears with a Republican presidency." He shook his head in disgust. "What has [Bush] done for me lately?" he asked. "When I say me, I'm talking about the black race, inner-city youths. I challenge him as a president to shake it up! Go into the community, touch people, and make a change.... Spend money in places that aren't benefiting just the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer."
It's easy to dismiss this as mere grandstanding, akin to Donald Trump's own gossip-page flirtation with a presidential run last year. But at least the victims of Puffy's violent behavior have received out-of-court settlements, some sort of financial compensation for their pain and suffering. That's more than can be said for Henry Kissinger, who has yet to cut a check to any surviving family members of the thousands who died as a result of his actions in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Surely if we can recast Kissinger as a cuddly grandpa and place him on the late-night talk circuit instead of on trial at the Hague, we can make room in the power elite for Puff Daddy.