originally published December 30,1991 / The Vibe History of Hip Hop: VIBE books
VIBE History of Hip Hop
UPTOWN RECORDS CONFERENCE ROOM
December 30, 1991
LAWYERS ARE HERE. PUFF’S MENTOR AND BOSS ANDRE HARRELL is here. As president and founder of Uptown Records, Andre has a lot invested in Sean “Puffy” Combs; he recently gave Puff the high-profile, high-pressure job of shepherding the embryonic careers of Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. Heavy D, Uptown’s only bona fide star, is here because he and Puff are friends—Hev put Puff on as an intern at Uptown, they’re both from Mount Vernon, and they co-sponsored the celebrity basketball game two days earlier where nine people were trampled to death.
Puff is afraid that reading from index cards will seem disingenuous, so he’s trying to memorize the short speech he has prepared: “It has always been my dream to throw parties where young black people . . .” The basketball game at City College was supposed to be a way to end a year in which Puff’s parties - weekly events dubbed “Daddy’s house” at a midtown Manhattan Club called the Red Zone- had grown mammoth, uniting the New York hip hop community on a scale not seen since the legendary nights at Harlem’s Rooftop in the ‘80s. Andre tells him “dream” sounds too affected, too dramatic. Puff’s attorney, Michael Warren, who will, years later represent Tupac at his sexual assault trial - agrees.
“But I would say that... wouldn’t I say that?” Puff searches for an understanding face at the table. He is only twenty-two. He is a dreamer, and drama - well, what exactly is too dramatic in these surreal few days?
The local press gathers at the St. Regis Hotel. They want to know how it can be that nine people, nine young back people, died, stampeded trying to get into a basketball game. Puff and Hev have been awake all weekend trying to figure out how it happened. How to be responsible without bearing full responsibility. There was a lot of crying and pacing and phone calls; to lawyers, from friends, and finally, to the families of the victims whose phone numbers they can find. Puff’s girlfriend, Misa, lost one of her good friends that night. The girl’s mother is inconsolable.
The night of the event, inside City College’s gym, when the panic threatened to create an even larger tragedy, when people around him were losing their heads, Puff scrambled from one unconscious victim to another trying to resuscitate them. “I breathed in death,” he muttered as he paced Heavy D’s basement that night. “I felt it happen.”
The morning after the press conference, the New York Post blames the tragedy on a “Fool Named Puff Daddy.” In the article they call him a rapper. Puff and Misa come to pick me up from work at The Source . It is Misa’s birthday and she is still mourning her friend. She waits in the car and Puff comes up to the office. He stands in the hallway, outside the door, to avoid the magazine’ other editors, who are all working on a story about CCNY and him.
His eyes are swollen from lack of sleep. He talks about death threats; people claiming to be relatives of the victim have been calling his office all day. Andre wants him to stay away from the job he loves so much for a while. He mentions suicide. By the time this registers, though, he’s jumped back to the death threats. “But I feel protected. By God.” He opens his black ski jacket. “See, I don’t have anything on me, no guns, vests. If the kill me, they kill me. It’s meant for me to die.”
PUFFY COMBS’S SUCCESS – And consequently, Bad Boys Entertainment’s – has always been marred by tragedy. After CCNY he began wearing a gold charm of Lazarus, the resurrected. The charm, flooded with pavé diamonds, became symbolic of Puff’s own phoenixlike rise from the ashes. In the summer of 1992, Marry J. Blige’s What’s the 411? was released and it dominated the streets of New York, receiving the Jeep rotation reserved for hip hop. Mary was a raw force with an exceptional sound and a set of compelling contradictions: shy, a little rough, too trusting, mean. The marriage of who she was with the core hip hop beats Puff selected – whole bars from EPMD and Audio Two – was definitive.
Mary was accepted as the real thing, crowned the queen of Hip Hop Soul, and Puff was considered her creator. New York buried the memory of CCNY. His peers in the music industry began to regard him with a combination of awe and envy. Hustlers in Harlem, who Puff had looked to for inspiration and sensibility, started emulating him. The weight of his links, the rims he chose, the way he wore his sweats (one leg up), the color his girl dyed her hair (honey blond, then white platinum) were all scrutinized and copied.
Bad Boys Entertainment’s image began innocently enough. Puff had his precocious godson photographed wearing size 101⁄2 Doc Martens combat boots. The preschooler had one hand on his little nuts and the other pointed toward the sky. Still vice president of A&R at Uptown, Puff hired a street promotion team to litter the hip hop party scene with postcard-size flyers. On the back of the black and white photo was the announcement: THE NEXT GENERATION OF BAD MOTHAFUCKAS.
Puff became increasingly arrogant. He would stand in the office hallway with his shirt off, and says things like, “Puff Daddy is my name as an artist, Sean Combs is my name for the movies.”
In July 1993, Andre Harrel fired him. I talked to Puff that night. He was stunned. “This nigga walked into my office saying ‘There can only be one lion in the jungle.’ ”He drove around the city in his new white BMW like a teenager who’d just been kicked out of the house, his Bad Boy business plan stuffed in the rear window, his makeshift staff, Uptown employees who had been splitting their duties, forced to choose sides.
When Puff introduces me to him, Big barely looks at me. He seems extremely shy. We are in Daddy-O from Stetsasonic’s basement studio. Big is here to add a few bars to the remix of Mary’s “Real Love.” It is his first real recording.
It is the summer of 1992. Biggie lives around the corner from me in Brooklyn, but I didn’t know him when, as an editor at The Source, I voted for his “Unsigned Hype” submission, a raw demo where he spat lyrics with authority over a Big Daddy Kane beat. But we will see each other every day after we meet, as he is, no matter the weather, posted on Fulton Avenue when I make my way to NYU each morning.
At 6’3” and a little more than 200 pounds, it’s hard to miss Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace. Plus, there is always a small crow around him. His little niggas. He is sharp and witty, hilarious and wickedly observant. People naturally gravitate toward him. They hold down the Chinese food spot, or the wall between the laundromat and the 24-hour, Jamaican-operated weed spot, and they smoke and joke a lot. Sometimes Biggie will bogle, or pay a girl a Snapple to do the Butterfly. Crackheads maintain a respectful distance till they catch some attention. They always acknowledge Big, throwing him a “Big Chris” and a quick toothless grim. Invariably one of the kids reaches into a brown paper bag stuffed in the crevice of the wall and blesses the addict with a white top.
WHEN PUFF WAS FIRED, BIGGIE sank into a deep depression. “I would have rather have never come out if I’m never gonna come out.” He said. His anthemic “Party and Bullshit,” from the Who’s the Man? soundtrack, was a club hit, and Puff put him on a half-dozen remixes within months of signing him to Uptown. A version of his album was almost finished. His girlfriend of four years, Jan, gave birth to a pretty baby girl, T’Yanna. Big paid friends to clean his room so he could wheel her bassinet next to his bed at night.
He and older brother figure Lance “Un” Rivera daydreamed aloud about future business plans. His best friend Damien was in and out of jail on a charge he caught defending his grandmother’s life. His mother’s breast cancer was always on his mind. And his entire neighborhood was counting on him to change their reality.
By the end of the year, though, the release date of Big’s album was nowhere in sight. Puff made one of his rare trips to Brooklyn was night and the three of us went to Junior’s restaurant. Over strawberry cheesecake, he assured Big that things were going to happen. That their dreams were going to come true. That setbacks are mere challenges and together they would be unstoppable. “I’m a visionary,” he said, leaning back into the circular red leather booth, decorated with Christmas lights. “You’ve got to trust me.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Bad Boy landed a home with Clive Davis’s Arista Records, and launched with Craig Mack’s Project: Funk the World . Then, on September 1, 1994, the label released the Notorious B.I.G’s landmark debut Ready to Die (copyright problems forced his official name change). And while Craig Mack’s single “Flava in Ya Ear” had claimed the summer, it was Big’s album that would shape Bad Boy’s success.
Dr. Dre’s The Chronic had an enormous effect on every rap album released after 1992. Previously, New York had shut out West Coast hip hop. N.W.A was virtually ignored until Cube went solo. Too Short was practically unheard of. Ultramagnetic’s Tim Dog released a gimmicky single called “Fuck Compton” that was like a rallying cry during the summer of 1991.
Before, L.A. would put up with the insults. They couldn’t pretend they weren’t fans of New York’s hip hop – what else was there? But The Chronic presented L.A.’s languid rhyme style and murderous mentality as a challenge. And for almost two years, its superiority went uncontested. Until Ready to Die. It was in this sublime manner, long before it was articulated or fatally played out, that the East Coast-West Coast battle began to take form.
Puff had been aiming for a sense of album-length continuity with Jodeci and Mary when he was at Uptown. After Dre unleashed The Chronic , though, Puff understood exactly how cinematic 14 tracks could be. Mary’s sophomore My life was Dre’s approach sampled and perfected; it was seamless. While Craig Mack, a producer and hip hop head from way back, shunned direction from Puff, Big became dependent on it.
With Ready to Die , Puff provided the proscenium arches for Big’s lush narrative style. He required that the album’s drama be tempered by a tone, that the action be present tense and vivid.
He encouraged Big to rhyme slower and less forcefully. Like Kool G Rap, an early influence, Big’s autobiographically grafted protagonist was all criminal. Even his pitch had a violent quality; when Big said he was the illest, it didn’t sound like braggadocio, but like a stickup.
Like Slick Rick’s, Big’s form was a storytelling style replete with costars, characters created from his own alter ego: the second shooter in “Gimme the Loot,” the eavesdropping loyal homie on “Warning.” He contextualized the intergenerational schism created by the drug trade with sings like “Things Done Changed.” Suicide was the album’s metaphor for the widespread depression, despair, and helplessness facing the kamikaze capitalist that New Yorkers simply dubbed hustlers.
The hypermaterialism of the drug game had been transported to hip hop by a new generation, and where sales may have been less important before, now they were everything. Wu-Tang had staged an aesthetic takeover of sorts – they’d at least wrestled New Yorkers from Dre’s hypnotic trance. But is would still be months before “C.R.E.A.M.,” their breakthrough hit, was released. And now New York had a new hip hop hero, Brooklyn’s first since Big Daddy Kane.
Unwittingly (and almost undetectably), with their classic albums, Biggie and Bad Boy and Dre and his label Death Row planted the seeds that would marry their respective futures. Ironically, Big was always aware of West Coast hip hop, always a fan. (While I can claim introducing him to Too Short – I played him ragged, boot-legged copies of Freaky Tales early in our friendship; he loved the pornographic profanity – it was Big who illuminated some of the finer moments on N.W.A’s most misogynist effort, Efil4zaggin. ) The music affected his sensibility, making him listenable to L.A. fans where other New York rappers had failed.
In many ways, The Chronic and Ready to Die bridged coastal gaps, crossing each other’s audiences over. Dre’s genius as a producer was undeniable. New York’s legacy of brilliant lyricists descended on Biggie as if he were a cultural apex. Their influences were immeasurable. But when the tides changed, they would become binary markers.
THE FIRST WEEK OF NOVEMEBER 1994, Puff threw himself a birthday party at Roseland ballroom. It was his first major party since the CCNY tragedy. He shamelessly repeated a videography of all his cameos on hue monitors. Tupac, who was knee deep in a rape trial, attended. He and Biggie held court in the VIP lounge. Big introduced his wife, singer Faith Evans – whom he’d married three months before following a nine-day whirlwind romance – to ‘Pac, the only nigga in the industry he considered a true friend.
A few days later, Tupac was robbed and short in the lobby of Quad Recording Studio. He recovered rapidly and his mother wheeled him into court two days later to continue his trial. He was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced. He went to Rikers Island, then upstate to Clinton Correctional Facility. From prison, he granted VIBE an interview that implicated Biggie, Puff, Andre Harrel, even his best friend Stretch, who was robbed the night of the shooting. With real conviction, he asserted that his friends either had knowledge of or involvement in his shooting. Stretch had warned Big that ‘Pac was “flip-pin’ from the stress.” But Big was unprepared for the accusations, the fallout, and, more important, the media circus that ensued.
At the Hit Factory recording studio, after reading an advance copy of the story, Puff huddled with Big. “We say nothing,” he told Big. “Niggas come up to you, start questioning you, reporters start asking you shit... nothing. Complete silence.” Big shrugged in agreement. The whole thing had thrown him into a state of disbelief. “Man... whatever. What is there to say?”
And so it went. Bad Boy had no comment. ‘Pac’s accusations grew louder. Suge Knight, cfounder of Death Row Records, began listening. Knight – who blamed Puff for the murder of one of his associates at a party in Atlanta – offered Tupac a record deal (Tupac was already signed to Death Row’s parent company, Interscope) and posted his bail. Tupac began a public assault on Bad Boy and Biggie. Puff and Big kept silent. Bad Boy released three R&B albums; from Total, 112, and finally from Big’s immensely talented wife, Faith. They all sold well.
Big stacked up his own share of criminal cases: He was accused of breaking the jaw of a promoter who tried to stiff him, beating a “fan” with a baseball bat in front of the Palladium, and illegal possession of firearms. His marriage disintegrated. His protégé group Junior M.A.F.I.A. launched Undeas Records, the company he and his partner Un formed. Lil’ Kim, with whom Big was romantically involved, shone. He began building a home for his mother in a suburb of Philadelphia.
When Big arrived in Los Angeles for the 1996 Soul Train Awards, there was no representative or car from Bad Boy or Arista at the airport. It was the first indication to Big’s core group friends, Un and his niggas from Brooklyn, that they would have to take Big’s safety in their own hands. The heated atmosphere was palpable. Big and Puff and Faith performed a medley of hits at the show wearing all white. ‘Pac stormed the aisle during the performance wearing fatigues. He had a small army with him. He and Big came face to face backstage for the first time since ‘Pac’s conviction in 1994. “That’s when I knew it was real to him,” Big said later. “That he believed all this shit. Duke was just convinced.” ‘Pac and Lil’ Cease from Junior M.A.F.I.A. threw insults at each other. A gun was fired. Then another one. The crowd dispersed.
‘Pac released the most scathing dis record in hip hop history, a B-side titled “Hit ‘Em Up,” in which he called Big a “fat muthafucka” and yelled, “I fucked your wife!” Privately, Big became weary of it all. “The fucked-up shit is that instead of my music, the shit I accomplished, I’m gonna be remembered for this dumb shit.”
But it was Tupac whose life felt the impact first. On September 6, 1996, he was shot in Las Vegas after a Mike Tyson fight. Seven days later, he died. It was truly astonishing – Tupac embodied the myth of the real nigga, an indestructible construct (“Real Niggaz Don’t Die”) created during one of the most violent periods in black history. And ‘Pac was resilient. He had walked between bullets and, when hit, away from them.
I called Big they day after Tupac’s death and asked him how he felt. “Shocked.” Would he consider attending a funeral if there was one to, you know, bury the beef? “Naw, man. This nigga – he just made my life miserable. Ever since he came home. He told lies, fucked with my marriage, turned fans against me. For what?”
At the time of ‘Pac’s death, Big was recuperating from a car accident. Lil’ Cease had crashed his Benz into a freeway median. Big’s girlfriend Tiffany, whom he’d met after a concert in Philly the summer of ’95 (Faith had recently given birth to their son Chris, but they were still estranged), broke her ankle. Big was unable to walk and entered extensive rehabilitation therapy. Two months later, in a wheelchair, he flew to Los Angeles to appear in the video for Puff’s first single as an artist, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” Suge Knight, Puff’s nemesis, was in jail for parole violation. And though Puff said publicly that he was simply in Los Angeles for the better film production quality, it was not lost on anyone, least of all L.A. rap fans, that his mere presence was the declaration of a quiet victory. A local DJ, Julio G, came to the set to do an interview with Big and Puff. They were diplomatic and sincere when they acknowledged ‘Pac’s loss.
IN JANUARY 1997, BIG RETURNS TO L.A. on crutches to work on Puff’s debut album. He is in high spirits. He talks about his new son a lot. Advance copies of his new double album arrive on compact disc from Bad Boy’s offices in New York. He plays it loudly in his rented Suburban. On March 8, he attends a party following the Soul Train Awards, at which he was a presenter. Leaving the party in the Suburban, on Fairfax and Wilshire, he is gunned down. Damien and Cease are in the car; Gee, a friend from Brooklyn, is driving. Puff, a few cars ahead, hears the shots and runs to the truck. Big dies before they can drive him the half-mile to Cedars Sinai Hospital.
A private funeral is held on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Puff speaks, Faith sings, Big’s mother reads from the Book of Job. Un and Damien and his man L are pallbearers. Big’s crew – officially called Junior M.A.F.I.A., but really just very young men from Fulton Sreet who loved him – hold one another up in the standing room area at the back of the parlor. A motor procession drives through Brooklyn, up the block where Big was raised. St. James Place, and down Fulton Avenue.
Two weeks later, Damien, Cease, Gee, and I are in front of Big’s old apartment on St. James. We pour some cognac on the makeshift altar his neighbors and fans have erected. We sit in front of the building in Big’s new customized Suburban. It is completely bullet-proof and there is a stash box big enough for a .45 Ruger. It was to be shipped out to Los Angeles three days after Big was shot. Life After Death rocks the truck back and forth. The skit that proceeds “Going Back to Cali” comes on. “You know this was playing when it happened, right?” Damien tells me. He doesn’t dwell on the irony. He fast-forwards to the next track.
BIG’S SECOND ALBUM, LIFE AFTER Death , was released just three weeks after his murder. It is a staggering achievement. In the beginning Big had been hungry, for fortune more than fame. He wanted to be rich. With Puff, he achieved that, and in many ways his life changed drastically. He went from having no car to owning four. He bought a condo in Teaneck, New Jersey, and moved his friends in. He established funds for his two children. Through Junior M.A.F.I.A. he provided an opportunity for everyone who meant something to him from his neighborhood to change their lives.
But fame had been something else. It had turned against him, or, more accurately, it had been turned against him. He felt betrayed in the most basic sense by Tupac – as undoubtedly Tupac must have felt about Big when he began to believe the stories he was being told.
Life After Death was an examination of betrayal, notoriety, excess and greed. Big’s narratives were still firmly couched in the autobiographical tradition, his first-person protagonist still our generation’s everyman, the drug dealer. That hustler still thoroughly invested in the myth of the real nigga, the myth of action. But the album is in every way evolutionary. Formally, Big exercised practically existing flow pattern. And on songs that appear quite basic at first, like the first single, “Hypnotize”, he even experimented with bran-new verbal styles.
He had achieved perfection with a remix of “One More Chance” on Ready to Die , and on his sophomore effort he extended that perfection with “Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Niggas Bleed,” and “Somebody’s Gotta Die.” Amazingly, wordy and intricate narratives like “I Got a Story to Tell” were never committed to paper; the autodidactic practice of composing whole songs in his head had become, for him, effortless. Sonically, the album was even more cinematic than the first: full, rich, and three-dimensional.
Big had never learned to separate himself from his narrative, to inject criticism of his reality – mostly because he was living it. But if his and Tupac’s lives were sacrifices, then the lessons to be garnered, the history that’s documented, will be transmitted through the immediacy of their lyrics. It is this legacy – of a generation racing toward the millennium with all of the century’s loaded symbols, its technology, its maddening war in young black bodies and our often inadequate response to that assault – that will be passed on.
A MONTH AFTER THE FUNERAL, I visit Puff at his recording studio in Midtown Manhattan, Daddy’s House. There are rumors floating around that he might take a sabbatical from the music industry, postpone or cancel plans to release the solo album he’d been working on in Los Angeles, then titled Harlem World. “There’s so much to say – but what is there to say.” I look at my boots, then at the walls in the office of the studio and the platinum plaques on them. “I don’t know... I think about suicide a lot.” I look at the healed scars on his wrists, rumored to be an attempt but actually just the nasty marks from a shattered champagne bottle that got tangled in his bracelet and lodged in his veins. That arm is cold to touch and, he says, often numb. “ But not really, not in that kind of way... You know, not like I’m going to do it...”
I know he won’t. And as I walk back to my hotel room it occurs to me that not only will he move forward and release the album, eventually tield No Way Out, but that he will also become a huge star. That he will release the album he is in the studio to mix, by the Lox. That it too will be a hit and Bad Boy will jeep making hits – as it turns out, by a slow-talking rapper named Mase and by Puff’s producing everybody from Lil’ Kim to Mariah Carey. That Puff will break and set records. That he will realize his dream to make and star in films. That while drama like his alleged assault of Nas’s manager, Steve Stoute, will follow him, he will continue to invoke the kind of envy that can become violent and that he will be emulated until the day he dies.
I think, as I walk, that he must have paid some great karmic debt, in some distant lifetime, to walk in and out of deep darkness and blinding light (and that it will be that way for this whole life), to be so protected by angels.
MARCH 9, 1997
MY PHONES RINGS. IT IS AFTER MIDNIGHT and I am sleeping. I think it might be Biggie. He always calls late. But it is not. It is someone telling me that Biggie was shot, that he might be dead. I hang up on the person. Someone else calls. They tell me Biggie is indeed dead. I hang up on them too. But I call Puff. His cellular phone is turned off. It is never turned off.
I fell the first signs of panic. I call my homegirl, who makes it to my house in a matter of minutes. We drive to Cedars Sinai, where she heard he had been taken. In front of the emergency room is the Suburban he’d rented. There is police tape around it and a tightly formed pattern of bullet holes in the passenger door, where Big would have been sitting.
The panic is real now. I call Big’s best friend Damien. A girl answers the phone, tells me it’s true. Damien is with Faith at her hotel and he’ll meet me at Big’s hotel room. He has to make all of the hard phone calls. To Un and L and Kim in New York, to Big’s girl Tiffany in Philly. To Big’s mom.
“This nigga, who ain’t never hurt nobody,” Damien keeps saying. “I could see if it was one of us.” Cease stares out the window, unable to speak or move. In a few hours, he will put his arm through the window and stitches will be required to close the wound. “One fucking bullet.” That’s how it happened. There were no last words. “I been shot mad times – niggas get shot.” Damien sounds as if he were up pacing the room, but he’s sitting on the couch, his head in his hands, exhausted. On his right arm is the psalm that Big had tattooed in the same spot a week earlier.
The hotel room floor is covered with Big’s clothes. Custom-made Versace. The gator loafers he bought when he came to Detroit. Big’s mother is on her way to the airport in Queens. Un is driving her. T’Yanna’s mother Jan and Mann from the neighborhood are accompanying her on the flight. She hears on the early-morning radio what she would not allow herself to believe when Damien called. The sun is beginning to rise in Big’s hotel room. Damien needs to sleep but promises he will not, nor will he shower, until “I get my man out of this motherfucker.”
When Mrs. Wallace lands at LAX it is scorching. She thinks L.A. is the cruelest, most awful place on the planet. She vows never to return, “except to look my son’s murdered in the face. To ask him ‘Why?’ “
“This nigga died from one ass bullet,” Damien keeps repeating as if trying to find logic in the details of the absurd. Cease stares at the rising sun. Damien tilts his head back on the couch, covers his eyes with one arm, and lets his tears flow. “One ass bullet.”
112: 112 (Bad Boy/Arista, 1996). Room 112 (Bad Boy/Arista, 1998).
BLACK ROB: Life Stories (Bad Boy/Arista, 1999).
FAITH EVANS: Faith Evans (Bad Boy/Arista, 1996). Keep the Faith (Bad Boy/Arista, 1998).
LIL’ CEASE: The Wonderful World of Cease a Leo (Queen Bee/Undeas/Atlantic, 1999).
THE LOX: Money, Power, and Respect (Bad Boy/Arista, 1998).
CRAIG MACK: Project: Funk da World (Bad Boy/Arista, 1994).
MASE: Harlem World (Bad Boy/Arista, 1997). Double Up (Bad Boy/Arista, 1999).
HARLEM WORLD: Mase Presents Harlem World – The Movement (All Out/So So Def/Columbia, 1999).
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: Ready to Die (Bad Boy/Arista, 1994). Life After Death (Bad Boy/Arista, 1997).
PUFF DADDY: (& the Family) No Way Out (Bad Boy/Arista, 1997). Forever (Bad Boy/Arista, 1999).
TOTAL: Total (Bad Boy/Artista, 1996). Kima, Keisha and Pam (Bad Boy/Arista, 1998).
COMPILATION: Bad Boy’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1 (Bad Boy/Arista, 1998).