In 1988, nineteen-year-old Sean "Puffy" Combs graduated from high school, packed his belongings, and moved to Washington, D.C. A thin teenager with his hair styled in a "Gumby," Sean was majoring in business administration at Howard, a predominantly black university filled with New Yorkers who enjoyed hip-hop. On campus, Sean wore his polka-dot shirts, played his hip-hop loud while driving his Jetta, and displayed exceptional dance skills in front of the school cafeteria. After the novelty of being in a new place wore off, however, the driven young student from Mount Vernon, New York, threw himself into his studies. By this point, however, he knew he wanted more: "I knew I didn't want to just get a degree, like I was reaching to be the greatest stockbroker or the greatest lawyer. I had made up my mind that I was going to be successful, a multimillionaire."
He had inherited his drive for success and love for fashion from his parents. Puffy's father, Melvin, had worked for the Board of Education and as a cab driver. "My mom was modeling," he said. "She was always like the fly girl of the neighborhood, and my pops was the fly guy of the neighborhood. That's what attracted them. That's how they got together."
When Sean was born in Harlem on November 4, 1969, one million people of color were squeezed into four square miles. Many middle-class families had fled the area nine years before, forcing property owners to lower rent, lose interest in buildings and the neighborhood, and inadvertently create what the media called one of the most feared ghettos in America. Unemployment and the infant mortality rate soared. Rampant poverty encouraged riots, drug abuse, and despair. While neighborhood organizations requested federal funding to rebuild the community and create jobs, no help arrived.
The Combs family, however, lived in a cleaner, relatively safe middle-class section, while Sean's grandmother Jessie lived in the well-kept, government-subsidized cooperative building Esplanade Gardens.
Sean's interest in performing seemed to come from his mother. She'd been interested in fashion since she was six, when her mother, Jessie, had turned a brocaded slipcover into an elegant dress. When Sean was two his mother included him in a fashion show she staged at a day-care center. "I came out and tried to steal the show," said Puffy. "As soon as that spotlight hit me, I just embraced it." An executive from the Baskin-Robbins chain in the audience hired him to appear in a print ad, and since then, his aunt Geri Garcia remembered, "He was such a ham."
In 1972, Sean's sister, Keisha, was born, adding yet another mouth to feed. His father had gone from playing cards and shooting pool at the Rhythm Club to running numbers and dealing drugs. He bought the family a Mercedes and developed a reputation as a Robin Hood figure, but Sean's mother, Janice, claimed his life in the drug trade was "a new thing": "I never knew about the drugs stuff because he always worked. He did it in between times."
Soon after giving Sean a birthday party -- tossing him in the air, Sean recalled -- his father went to meet some people near Central Park. It was January 26, 1972, and he was sitting in his car. Someone else arrived, something went wrong, and this person shot him in the head. Janice had to identify his body. After his father's death, Puffy remembers, "my mom and grandmom pulled together and kept me off the streets."
Today Janice is a fashionable woman with platinum Lil' Kim-styled tresses and a penchant for designer clothing and boots; she charms reporters, supports her son, associates with his ex-girlfriends, and attends fashion industry events.
Back then, she was a young woman with two kids to feed, a high school diploma, bills to pay, and concerns about the future. Back then, she recalled, "I wasn't going to be homeless. I wasn't going to be on welfare, if I had to work all day and all night." She threw herself into work, becoming both mother and father to Sean and Keisha. She found part-time work as an assistant teacher at a local day-care center and as a school bus driver, and a night job as an attendant for children with cerebral palsy while her mother watched the kids.
Sean continues to count his mother as a major influence, and some of her behavior seems to have inspired his own. When she drove the school bus and kids left their seats, she used lollipops and candy as incentives for good behavior. "When I told them, 'sit down'," she said, "they sat down." Later, critics like Jeru and The Lox would accuse him of using champagne, designer clothes, jewelry, and cars in like fashion with his artists.
The drive to be a millionaire also seemed to come from her; she'd tell him conformity would guarantee success. "Go to school and pay close attention to your teachers if you want to be a millionaire," she'd say.
By age eight, Sean was aggressive and stubborn. "He wouldn't take no for an answer," said Garcia. He was already a loner when his mother enrolled him in the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit organization that arranges for city kids to vacation with host families in the country. He spent a summer among the Amish in Pennsylvania Dutch country, wandering through empty fields and roads, then returned to Harlem, where he got into a few personality-shaping confrontations.
One afternoon, while leaving a store with a pack of his grandmother's cigarettes, he saw a kid approach; the kid asked for a dollar. Sean put his grandmother's change away, put his hands up, and started fighting. The other kid hit him in the face a few times, took his money, and left him thinking, Before I get into a fight, I gotta make sure I can win it.
Another day he came home in tears and told Janice that another kid had beaten him up and taken his skateboard. She forced him to leave the house and not return until he got it back. Outside, he ran into an older, taller kid and asked him to handle the job. Thus began his habit of forging alliances with tougher kids. He ran with a crew of rap fans called The 7-Up Crew, but viewed himself as a loner.
In 1982, his mother moved Sean and Keisha to Mount Vernon, a working-class suburb in Westchester County, north of the Bronx. Sean was able to escape Harlem's claustrophobic, tenement-lined streets and tougher residents. He had room to breathe, trees, private houses, car culture, well-trimmed lawns, and a less congested, racially integrated Montessori school to attend. He was also enamored with hip-hop: "From Run-D.M.C. to KRS-One to the Beastie Boys to L.L. Cool J, I was there. I seen that." At age twelve, he claimed, "I'd be out until three, four in the morning, seeing the music. I had to sneak out to do it, but I was doing it."
Soon he started looking for a job. His mother was already holding down two of them -- at the day care center and driving a bus -- and searching for a third; she later began selling clothing in a shop: "Like a lot of kids who grow up in single-parent homes, I had to get a job much quicker and start thinking about the future much earlier. I had to help out and become the man of the house sooner, so I had my paper route when I was twelve."
When the newspaper delivery service said he was too young to apply for work, he added a year to his birth certificate and got his route. He had another student apply for a second route and took that one as well. Seeing his mother work numerous jobs inspired his own legendary work ethic.
At age fourteen, Janice enrolled him in Mount St. Michael Academy, a private Catholic school in the Bronx that expected him, as she put it, to "dress accordingly," in a suit and tie. Each morning, he put on his school sweater, slacks, and dress shirt and accepted lunch money from her.
At school, sheltered suburban white and Asian classmates praised the music of Ozzy Osbourne and other rock musicians. He liked hip-hop records, including 1979's Top 40 hit "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. He also liked having extra money.
During lunch each day, he later told Rolling Stone, he would put away the money his mother had given him and wander the cafeteria to "ask everybody for fifty cents." Soon he was earning money from two or three jobs, including one at an amusement park. Other students laughed at the sight of him working at the park when they came there to relax and enjoy the rides, he said, "but I would always say to myself that I wanted to be somebody who makes history, and not selfishly, not for me. I just wanted to make a change. I didn't want to be a person who just lived and died." He ignored taunts from schoolmates and asked his employer to let him work double shifts.
After school, he traveled to Harlem to attend an afterschool program, hang with old friends, and keep up with developments in hip-hop. He was coming of age during a time when the genre was rising. At the same time, many kids were beginning to deal crack cocaine, to earn fortunes, and to become ghetto celebrities.
Sean immersed himself in hip-hop, having a barber carve trendy musical notes into his Gumby, dancing in clubs, rocking then-fashionable polka dot shirts, and answering to the nickname Puffy. Later, he'd be evasive about his stage name, but finally said, "It came from a childhood friend. It's a silly reason. Whenever I got mad as a kid, I used to always huff and puff. I had a temper."
It was at age fourteen, when he "knew about street life [and] knew who was hustlers," that he learned what really happened to his father. While his mother told him Melvin had died in a car accident, people in Harlem alluded to his father's stint as a dealer, his father's furs, and his family being "the only people in Harlem to have a Mercedes-Benz." Soon, he says he wondered, "Come on, man, my pops was hustling or something?"
Determined to learn the truth, he went to a public library, did some research, and found old newspaper stories that described Melvin Combs as "the biggest of his time when he was here."
The articles also attributed his murder to people eager to take over his number-running and drug operations. "It was just a transition," Puffy decided. "He was the ruler. It was time for a new ruler. That's the life that he led."
By now, hip-hop was boosting his self-esteem. He had dreams of turning his love of hip-hop into a business of some sort. He began to hang out at The Rooftop nightclub on 155th Street, a place where up-and-coming rap producer Teddy Riley, old school rappers like Kool Moe Dee, and future celebrities rubbed shoulders with their fans. After a week at his restaurant job, cleaning dirty stoves, mopping floors, and waiting on tables, Sean would sneak out of his suburban home, travel to the club, and wait outside. After a while, bouncers would let him in and he'd draw attention with his dancing.
At first, one employee at MTV revealed, he planned to form a group with another dancer. But he also dreamed of recording albums. At the time, hip-hop was moving from message rap and toward the stripped-down hard-core of L.L. Cool J's Radio and Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell. "Everybody has a dream when they're watching Run-D.M.C. or L.L. Cool J," he told one interviewer. "And I was always somebody who closed my eyes and dreamed, but then opened my eyes and saw what I had to do."
He harbored dreams of performing, and continued to attend a racially mixed private school and an afterschool program in predominantly black Harlem. He wore a school sweater and well-pressed slacks and shirt, played on the school football team, and began to play suburban classmates the latest rap records. He also hung out with rap fans, met artists like Doug E. Fresh, and practiced dance moves while listening to WBLS-FM, to many of the records he'd later set his music to. By the time he graduated, he had danced in music videos by Doug E. Fresh, Babyface, the Fine Young Cannibals, and singer Stacy Lattisaw.
When he arrived at Howard, he felt, "I was nurtured into wanting to be somebody special." Ron Gilyard, who would later work with him, remembered fellow students seeing his videos and idolizing him even more. They had their own dreams and believed hitching a ride on his coattails would bring them closer to achieving them.
He soon had an entourage but wanted more than their adulation. During this period he was so ambitious he later described himself as a "savage." He was single-minded about making history and earning his fortune.
Seeing a promotional video for the compilation album Uptown's Kickin' It strengthened this desire. During one scene, Uptown CEO Andre Harrell, a young, clean-cut former rapper in wire-rim glasses and corporate attire, marched into a conference room and methodically signed a stack of contracts for the camera. Puffy later said this businesslike image inspired him to pursue a career in music.
Another day, on the set of a video, an imposing limousine deposited well-dressed executives with cell phones and briefcases. To his young eyes they exuded as much power as Harrell. Watching them coordinate details of the shoot, he thought, I don't know what they do, but I want to do that! The "Puff Daddy" persona was born.
He formed a company with schoolmate Deric Angelettie, who was impressed by Puff's ability to cater to voids in the marketplace and by his drive to earn money. Though he was flamboyant, loved being the center of attention, and was pursuing a degree, he still found time to run a shuttle service to the airport, to allegedly sell old term papers, and to even hawk T-shirts and sodas.
Most telling was his reaction to an incident in which rebellious students took over an administrative building. That day, reporters took notes for stories as students protested. After the incident, Puffy collected magazine and newspaper clips that described the event, turned them into poster-size collages, and sold them to the "revolutionary" students.
In Puffy, Angelettie saw someone who could profit from even "a crazy situation," and Puff's idea to throw and promote parties could pay off, especially since Howard had a built-in audience just waiting for these events. As Howard alum Ron Lawrence remembered: "At the time, probably seventy percent of Howard was New Yorkers. So we brought the music with us; we brought the style of dress with us. And in trying to keep that vibe, we would throw parties all over the campus. You had guys like Puffy and Deric forming their little team as party promoters just to keep that New York spirit alive."
"When Puffy came, he was a very flashy guy," Angelettie remembered. "He was always out at the clubs, and the young girls loved him. He'd be in the middle of the floor doin' all the new dances. And his style of dress was a little more colorful, bolder. Everyone took notice of this cool, overconfident young dude. I was deejaying at the time, and one night he came up to me and said, 'I'd like to throw a party with you. You're pretty popular.'"
Operating under the name "A Black Man And A Puerto Rican Productions," Sean and Deric prepared for their first event. Sean wanted to invite as many celebrities as possible, and reached out to twenty-one-year-old Heavy D, a Mount Vernon-based rapper who recorded for Uptown Records. Puffy overwhelmed Heavy with his interest in music, his ambition, and his constant flattery, and Heavy accepted his invitation. Almost immediately, Puffy included his name on promotional materials with Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, and the R & B group Guy. Remarkably, every celebrity appeared. "And ever since that first party, everyone made it a point to go to Puff's parties," said Gilyard.
Puff's success united music-minded students Ron Lawrence, Chucky Thompson, Nashiem Myrick, and Harve Pierre. Soon they formed a group that held events on campus or in nearby clubs, and drew paying customers by promoting and advertising the events as an ongoing movement. Puffy also was promoting himself heavily. On his first business card, in the bottom left-hand corner, he had engraved "Sean (Puf) Combs." He was officially in business. "For the next two years, we threw one damn [party] near every week," Angelettie remembered. "Even Howard came to us to do their parties. Our biggest was Homecoming Eighty-nine at the Masonic Temple. I expected maybe fifteen hundred. Forty-five hundred people came. The D.C. police shut down the whole block and brought out the dogs. We had to get on our knees and beg them not to lock us up."
If Puffy learned a popular group was in town, he'd travel to where they were staying and personally invite them to a party. He focused less on his studies, which he felt were keeping him from his dream. "I was like, 'Four years?'" He says he told himself, "I got to get my hustle on now."
Since people from the industry attended his events, he reached out to them first. He took the four-hour train ride to New York to let industry executives know he was looking for work but learned no record company would hire him.
He adapted to the situation by lowering his sights. When he approached Def Jam, he asked for an internship. Executive Lyor Cohen, who helped Run-D.M.C. land their lucrative endorsement deal with Adidas, agreed to meet with him. Puffy got into his Sunday best and made the trip. He sat with Cohen, discussed what he was doing, and announced his reasons for wanting to work for Def Jam. The meeting ended, and he figured he'd hear from Cohen within days. "I didn't get a callback. I had on a polka-dot tie at the time. It wasn't hip-hop enough for them."
He returned to Howard and learned that his friends Ron Lawrence and Deric Angelettie were leaving to form a rap group. As Two Kings and A Cipher, or Amen-Ra and D.O.P., they would record a single and achieve minor success in a glutted rap market. That people he knew entered the industry, when he'd been rejected, inspired him even more.
Stinging from what he considered rejection by Def Jam, Puffy reached out to Heavy D, who was working as vice president of artists and repertoire (A & R) at Uptown Records. Heavy agreed to speak with Andre Harrell and do what he could to get Puffy an internship at the label.
At the time, twenty-nine-year-old Andre O'Neal Harrell was an up-and-coming music executive. In 1984, Harrell had performed with high school classmate Alonzo Brown as the group Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. They wore suits and ties onstage, rapped about office politics over crossover R & B tracks, and saw their 1984 album, The Champagne of Rap, sell a mere seventy thousand copies. It probably would have sold more if Harrell had not tried to foist his version of Chic's suit-and-champagne image on an audience that wanted drum machines and loud horn blasts. But Harrell, raised in a Bronx housing project by a grocery store supervisor and a nurse's aide, needed more; he "wanted the music to be fabulous, ghetto fabulous."
Later he claimed that he wore a suit on stage because, at age twenty-four, after graduating from Lehman College, he was working as an account executive at radio station WWRL. Wearing the suit made his life easier; after a night of performing, he didn't have to change clothes; he'd make it to the station's daily 8:00 a.m. meeting on time. Either way, rap fans rejected his album, and Harrell, sharing an apartment with rap manager Russell Simmons, soon took a job at Simmons's management firm, Rush.
In 1985, Harrell promoted Simmons's crossover client Run-D.M.C., but also tried to promote his own flamboyant group, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Simmons recalled that "he booked himself in a show in the Beacon Theater on top of L.L. Cool J!"
Harrell paid attention to how Simmons ran his company and decided he could also run a business, but his company would be "fabulous." It would shun rap's working-class pretensions, make black music "star-studded," and promote his "ghetto fabulous" marketing strategy as an exclusive philosophy. In short, he'd present music "that made champagne popular."
When Harrell received a demo tape from Heavy D & the Boyz, he saw that his dream was possible. Myers, born in Jamaica and raised in Mount Vernon, wrote songs with his deejay, Eddie F, and had his friends Trouble T-Roy and G-Wiz dance behind him. Anxious to leave Rush, Harrell quit his day job in 1986 and formed his own production company, Uptown Entertainment. He hired staff members with an affinity for R & B, including A & R man Kurt Woodley, signed seventeen-year-old Heavy to a deal, and funded the recording of his best-selling album.
Though Simmons claimed that Harrell had a vision for R & B "when R and B was worth zero, nothing," Harrell simply continued in the vein of early commercial rap groups like Whodini. Instead of yelling insults, that Brooklyn trio had recorded mild-mannered story raps over R & B and had sold millions of copies of "Freaks Come Out at Night" to a receptive white audience. Harrell wanted the same success for Heavy and his production company, Uptown.
Uptown's first deal was with MCA for a one-off compilation album called Uptown Is Kickin' It, which introduced middle-of-the-road rap groups Finesse and Synquis and Groove B Chill. Next Harrell had producers fill Heavy D's debut album with swing beats, James Brown samples, and R & B keyboards. Away from the studio, the former salesman developed a marketing campaign around the phrase "The Overweight Lover M.C." and contrived an image that fused L.L. Cool J's angry young man pose to the historically effective dapper "big shot" image.
Heavy D's clean-cut image and mild-mannered rap style helped sell half a million copies of his group's debut, Livin' Large. But Harrell's next project, an album by Teddy Riley's first new jack swing group, Gyrlz, flopped, then MCA passed on singer Al B. Sure!'s debut. Harrell sold Sure!'s album to Warner Brothers Records; it became an immediate hit and Warner offered him a deal for A & R and production.
By 1989, Harrell was enjoying success with Heavy D's second album, Big Tyme. Heavy had replaced his designer tracksuit with a suit and tie, and delivered pithy raps over commercial new jack swing. While white listeners enjoyed his million-selling single "We Got Our Own Thang," hip-hop's core audience rejected his glossy rap and viewed Heavy as a sellout.
It was at this point that D asked Harrell to meet with Puffy.
Harrell had to travel to Washington, D.C., anyway, to visit Rare Essence, a go-go band he signed in 1988. By the time he met with the group, Harrell had Puffy by his side. According to guitarist Andre Johnson, Harrell said, "This dude is probably gonna be interning with me, and I'm gonna have him work with you."
Puffy's first project was to find music producers willing to travel to Washington, Johnson added, "because Andre wanted to use a hip-hop producer with a go-go beat. We tried that a couple of times and it didn't really work, and Puffy ended up going to New York."
Puffy had arrived right after MCA signed Uptown to a deal that gave Harrell money, major distribution, offices, and checkbook power to sign, record, and promote new artists. Guy's debut album -- driven by the hit single "Groove Me," which Harrell called the most important record of his career -- quickly sold two million copies, and the group drew more fans with a look that Harrell instantly dubbed "ghetto fabulous."
As Harrell's intern, working in the office two days a week, Puffy had to take a four-hour train ride each weekend from Washington, D.C., to New York to make it to Uptown on time. In the office he was one of many young college students handling menial tasks in the hope that they would rise through the ranks or make profitable connections.
In the beginning, Puffy was a compulsive note-taker, trying to learn everything he could about the industry; he was one of the most devoted interns industry veteran Harrell had ever seen. Once, Harrell asked him to pick up a tape from another building. Puffy returned within minutes, out of breath and disheveled. Harrell asked him what was wrong.
"I ran," he answered.
"Even at nineteen, Combs was natty: crisp polo shirts, khakis, tight coif," Barry Michael Cooper once wrote. "I don't ever remember him wearing sneakers. What I can't forget is how he watched everything and everybody."
Back then, Cooper added, "Harrell would lead the drunken revelry of his Champ(agne) Pack, of which I was a temporary member, in the lobby of Manhattan's tony Royalton Hotel." Puffy watched flashy people drink Cristal and Veuve Cliquot champagne,3 and listened to Harrell explain why "Harlem drug kingpin Leroy 'Nicky' Barnes," actor Wesley Snipes, and Duke Ellington were "ghetto fabulous." Soon, Cooper claimed, after not speaking with him for two months, Puffy approached him outside of Uptown/MCA's headquarters and broke the ice by saying he had lived near Cooper in Esplanade Gardens. Then, Cooper recalled, Puffy said, "When you write your next movie, keep me in mind. My name is Sean, but they call me Puffy. And I'm gonna be a big star. Remember that."
"For some reason," Cooper added, "I knew he was deadly serious. And he was."
By May of 1990, Puffy was asking Harrell to let him handle A & R chores for new artists. By now, Guy had imploded; members had feuded with each other and producer Teddy Riley, who had tried to sing with them on their follow-up, The Future. Just as Guy had disbanded, the group Jodeci arrived at Uptown's offices, from North Carolina, with twenty-nine songs on three cassette tapes.
While sitting in the waiting room, they decided to practice their singing. Heavy D, working in the office and walking by, heard them, then rushed to Harrell's office to urge him to listen to this group. Harrell did, and signed Jodeci on the spot. A & R man Kurt Woodley reportedly was unimpressed by their sound. Puffy, who told coworkers he had "platinum ears," felt they were superstars in the making. After helping the group find a place to live in a Bronx housing project, he monitored their progress.
By now, Puffy's hard work and self-promotion had paid off. Andre Harrell realized he was working eighty-hour weeks and commuting weekly and decided to mentor him. Puffy dropped out of Howard, much to his mother's dismay, and "Andre became like my big brother. He bought a mansion, gave me a room -- not a mansion, a big house."
Andre invited Puffy to live in his New Jersey home, which was replete with two BMWs and a swimming pool. Puffy's living arrangement with Harrell, similar to Harrell's own living arrangement with Simmons back in 1984, gave Puffy his own room, a pool to swim in, a salary, and endless networking opportunities at Harrell's industry parties.
Puffy also accompanied Harrell wherever he went, publicly supporting Uptown but striking some people as too competitive. When Harrell introduced him to Russell Simmons in a Brooklyn gym, Puffy bet Simmons he could outlast him on the StairMaster. When Simmons agreed to the bet, Puffy, who'd never been on a StairMaster before, spent a grueling ninety minutes on it. He won seven hundred dollars, which he used to have his car repaired.
When Kurt Woodley resigned from Uptown in 1991, Harrell tapped Puffy for the A & R position. As head of artists and repertoire, Puffy had to shape artists' careers, predict trends, discover new groups, and help everyone personally and professionally. At the time, Uptown's roster consisted of singer Christopher Williams, the groups For Sure and Key West, and rap acts Finesse & Synquis, white rapper Lucas, and Father MC. Heavy D was the label's only bona fide star.
Puffy began working with Father MC. Born Timothy Brown, Father had grown up in Brooklyn and Queens, drifted into rap at an early age, and won a 1985 talent contest at a local roller rink. By 1989, when Harrell signed him to Uptown, Father had a number of nonthreatening love raps written. In the studio, Puffy had the new group Jodeci sing on Father's "Treat Em Like They Want to Be Treated."
As with Heavy D, hip-hop fans viewed Father as corporate pap. For one, Father was a Big Daddy Kane clone right down to his name. His raps serenaded the ladies, during a time when hip-hop was in its black nationalist period. Eric B. and Rakim were promoting Islam on Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em. Kool G. Rap and DJ Polo warned about street life on Wanted: Dead or Alive. Brooklyn group X-Clan and Public Enemy encouraged political activism on To the East Blackwards and Fear of a Black Planet. NWA and Ice Cube railed against brutal police on 100 Miles and Runnin' and AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted.
Father, meanwhile, borrowed half of "Treat Em's" title from Slick Rick's classic "Treat Em Like a Prostitute," bit Kane's rap style, and dressed like Hammer in one video. In fact, Hammer's 1990 album, Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em, and record-breaking hit "U Can't Touch This" informed much of Puffy's work with Father.
Puffy was targeting the same audience that liked seeing Heavy D & The Boyz wear matching suits and dance to tame numbers like "We Got Our Own Thang." For "I'll Do 4 U," he put Father's love rap over Cheryl Lynn's familiar "Got to Be Real," had then new artist Mary J. Blige sing backup, and saw the single reach Number 20. Despite initial success, rap fans rejected Father's Day, disposable love songs "Lisa Baby" with Jodeci, and "Why U Wanna Hurt Me," and Father's Hammer-styled posturing.
Puffy signed producer Hitman Howie Tee's wife, Lady Kazan, discovered Dave Hollister (later of BLACKStreet) in Central Park, and prepared to work with Jodeci after Andre Harrell decided the group could use a bit of development.
He had his work cut out for him. Jodeci had a unique sound, but major labels had glutted the market with the glossy boy bands Color Me Badd, Milli Vanilli, and Motown's market leader, Boyz II Men. "They were like a piece of clay I thought I could help mold into something," Puffy said of Jodeci, "so I just decided to take the way I was seeing kids dressing in the streets."
Actually, he asked his then girlfriend, Misa Hylton, to think up a few ideas. Hylton, who hailed from Mount Vernon, would later make a name for herself by styling Lil' Kim. But at this point, styling artists were something new; she had only been doing it for two years, since leaving her 1989 internship at Def Jam. However, at seventeen years old, Misa had reached her own conclusions about how R & B artists should look. "At the time," she recalled, "R and B singers were really dressy." Misa told him to style Jodeci in baseball caps and jerseys, jewelry, leather outfits, and sunglasses. He added the bright-colored hair, the cell phones as fashion accessories, and the Harrell-like champagne-and-swimming-pool pose.
Many coworkers didn't understand the image, but Puffy urged them to have faith. Through his racially mixed "Daddy's House" parties, held every Wednesday night at the Red Zone nightclub for street kids and preppy students from Columbia University and New York University, he saw what fans were dancing to and wearing. He continued shaping Jodeci to fit his personal vision.
Until this point, the pop audience had revered their singing idols. After seeing Michael Jackson's regalia for Thriller, fans of both sexes had rushed to buy corny red leather jackets, hair gel, sunglasses, and glittering gloves. The same with Madonna: Teenage fans quickly copied her raunchy outfits and blunt makeup. With Jodeci, Puffy planned to turn the tables; the stars would now resemble the audience. In rap music, Run-D.M.C. had already shown the way. The Queens-based duo, which included Russell Simmons's brother, Joe, had shunned the leather outfits, thigh-high boots, spiked bracelets, and outlandish costumes that characterized old school rap. Instead, Run-D.M.C. won their devotees over by appearing on stage, in videos, and in photos in working-class gear: black jeans, black-hooded sweatshirts, Godfather hats, and Adidas footwear. Their working-class image aided in the downfall of the old school look and became the new embodiment of rap culture.
But in R & B some labels refused to relinquish the image of the slick-haired, champagne-swilling lover. R & B singers continued to dress in square-shouldered suits, holding flowers in one hand and a mike in the other. But Puffy knew that era had ended and that kids wanted something more in tune with their tastes and their world. Actually, a few of his coworkers felt Puffy was simply styling Jodeci to look exactly as he looked, but he ignored them.
Later, Puffy's approach would become standard operating procedure for boy bands 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys and soloists such as Sisqo. But in the early 1990s, the look he designed for Jodeci -- bright orange hair, army fatigues -- was nothing less than shocking. When their debut, Forever My Lady, was about to ship to stores, they no longer resembled gospel singers, R & B artists, or even a rap group. Puffy also asked them to build their mystique by posing for photos with their backs to the camera, which he borrowed from Guy's stage show.
His other marketing ideas were just as shocking. He assembled a team of twenty teens and asked them to spread the word about Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, and Christopher Williams. While most record labels felt standing in the middle of a nightclub and handing out stickers was enough, Puffy dispatched his new "street team" to housing projects. If his team appeared at a nightclub, it was to personally hand copies of a new song to a deejay, charge onto the dance floor, and dance as if Uptown's new song was the greatest hit ever recorded. "Supa" Mario Pizzini, a member of the team, told reporter Denene Millner: "We would just go out and make it seem like Uptown was putting out the dopest shit in the world." Soon, labels with bigger budgets would imitate this relatively simple concept; eventually, street teams would wander from label to label, indiscriminately promoting any album, whether it was good or bad. Still, Puffy originated the concept while at Uptown Records and sold a few more albums.
Thanks to him, Jodeci now had the right image. But while their album brimmed with sensitive themes and haunting melodies, Puffy felt they needed to move past the R & B market and into hip-hop, where young people bought millions of albums and viewed R & B musicians as "suckers." Musically, they had a way with words. But their music confused him, especially since they openly enjoyed beat-driven hard-core rap. Since Jodeci already had a producer, he would have to improve their sound through the format called the "remix." Before this time, the remix had been essentially reserved for dance music. In that genre, a remix producer typically would bring a copy of the original song into a studio, strip off every track but the vocal, then add his or her own elements and backing track.
Sometimes a remix could revive sales of an album; other times, it inspired listeners to scratch their heads in confusion. At worse, a remix went ignored and became a complete waste of time and money, since record companies charged them directly to an artist's royalty account.
For Puffy, the remix was a way in. He wanted to produce records but didn't know much about actually creating a song. At Daddy's House events he heard what contemporaries in hip-hop did with old break beats and decided that he could do the same, even though he couldn't play instruments or program a "pattern" into a drum machine. At those parties he paid special attention to which songs made guests move and decided that "I would figure out a way to bring that record to life. Make it like it was some brand-new shit."
In short, he was about to try to outdo Teddy Riley, who had set new jack swing to bouncy rap-style shuffle beats. Puffy would have Jodeci vocals set to melodies already market-tested on hip-hop songs.
He was soon in the recording studio, replacing the drums and melodies from Jodeci's ballad "Come & Talk to Me." He added his favorite record of the time: EPMD's "You're a Customer," itself set to the obscure breakbeat "Five Minutes of Funk."
With the remix, Puffy learned that his idea of adding hip-hop samples to traditional R & B songs could move records from both genres higher on the Billboard pop chart. Thus a formula was born, and Puffy went from acquiescent team player to ambitious young executive who felt he understood the audience and could run Uptown better than Harrell did. He became increasingly vocal and assertive and, much like Harrell at Rush Management, dreamed of running his own company.
In addition to silencing his critics in the office, the Jodeci remix showed Harrell that the Father MC hit had not been a fluke. With Riley gone, Puffy could develop a sound that would make hip-hop more commercial, R & B tougher, and Uptown the market leader.
At the same time that he was making a name in music, he increased his visibility on the party circuit. By March 1991, Puffy and Jessica Rosenblum, who promoted events for the downtown nightclub Nell's, were drawing larger crowds at his weekly "Daddy's House" party. They moved the event from Wednesday to Thursday night and continued to attract over a thousand guests. In addition to street kids and college students, Puffy rubbed shoulders with Ice Cube and Doug E. Fresh, executives such as Russell Simmons, and editors from the national rap magazine The Source, which had begun to promote him heavily. When fights broke out, Puffy would mount the stage with mike in hand and remind guests that police shut many clubs down because of violence. Already, the club's neighbors were complaining about the noise, and the NYPD was wary of large crowds attending rap-related events. Puffy, meanwhile, already was envisioning a larger event.
After "Magic" Johnson's revelation about having HIV, Puffy worked to arrange a basketball game featuring rap artists as a way to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis. Heavy D decided to help.
Puffy asked a woman named Tara Geter to ask City College of New York to host the game. She told him the gym was available if he gave the Evening Students Group (ESG) a check for $1,850 to cover the cost of the gym and add to their evening student scholarship fund.
On December 19, 1991, he gave her $850 as a deposit for the ESG. She handed the money to an ESG rep and signed a contract on Puffy's behalf that said he would give the student group $1,850 total, "provide a minimum of 20 celebrities," and cover the cost of insurance.
When Tara returned to Puffy's office at Uptown with the signed contract, he was on the telephone. She placed an envelope on his desk and left. He looked it over but didn't give it a detailed reading. This was why he never paid insurance to cover the event, he said.
Next, he asked a man named Louis Tucker to contact KISS-FM; Tucker received ad rates from an account executive. Puffy said they would buy ten commercials that would run from December twentieth to the twenty-eighth. He also gave KISS twenty free advance tickets and allowed the station to hang posters in the gym in exchange for eighteen thirty-second spots at no extra cost.
Next, he authorized the printing of two thousand advance-sale tickets, despite the fact that the gym could only hold 2,730 people. Multiple flyers were then printed. One called the event, "our first annual celebrity holiday basketball classic," and listed dozens of famous performers near the words "A Video Music Box Presentation."
Another promised that "Heavy D's team" of stars would play Puff's squad, which included Jodeci, Father MC, Mount Vernon group Brand Nubian, and Guy. Near the bottom of this flyer, a sentence claimed portions of the proceeds would be "Donated for AIDS Outreach Education Programs."
Before the game, Puffy asked Louis Tucker to arrange security. Puffy would bring seven guards, but wanted more to handle frisks and crowd control. Tucker ultimately called X-Men Security, a licensed firm run by corrections officer Anthony Richard, and Richard agreed to send fifteen to twenty men for fifteen hundred dollars. Tucker arranged for X-men to conduct frisks of the audience entering the building. On the eve of the game, Puffy and Heavy D traveled to KISS-FM to talk the game up on a daily countdown show.
At 2:00 p.m. the next day, three hours before the doors opened and four before the game was to begin, people began to arrive at the venue. At 3:00, Anthony Richard and his X-Men employees positioned wooden barricades to form a ticket line. By 3:45, Jessica Rosenblum had arrived to arrange for ticket distribution, sales, and collection. Puffy arrived within minutes, and two tables were set up in a lobby with two women at each. Rosenblum pulled out two rolls of numbered tickets and a clicker that would determine how many people arrived without an advance ticket and paid to enter.
By 4:00 p.m., fifteen hundred people were outside. An hour later, police arrived and watched people enter the building. In the lobby, after X-Men frisked them, unarmed guests approached the tables, bought their tickets, had their hands stamped, and walked down a flight of stairs. Entering a tiny vestibule, they saw four metal doors up ahead. To control the flow of the crowd, only one, on the far left, was open, and near it, one of Puffy's employees took tickets, checked hands for stamps, then let them in.
By 5:30, the crowd outside watched Puffy's assistants escort celebrities into the building and became anxious about getting into the show. The New York Police Department and X-Men cordoned off the front area, but within fifteen minutes the crowd had knocked barricades over and charged the door.
At a second entrance, the sight of people sneaking into the building drew complaints from ticket holders on line. As Puffy stood in the lobby with his cashiers, the crowd surged forward, shattering a glass door. It all went wrong from there. He asked police to clear the lobby, demanding that they use their bullhorns. Instead, the police and the X-Men tried to control the crowd by leading them from one entrance to another, or by trying to block the doors. But nothing worked. The crowd pushed forward, dragging several people -- many of whom had passed out -- through the doors. When one guard leaned forward to help a woman who had fallen, the crowd knocked him down. After the crowd trampled him, it carried the guard toward the entrance, through a doorway, and into the lobby. By now the frenzied crowd had yanked the outer door off its hinges.
At 6:20, more cops arrived to clear the sidewalk in front of the gym and barricade doors. Within thirty minutes they seemed to have the crowd under control, but Puffy and Rosenblum decided to remove the money from the ticket tables.
Rosenblum lifted the two cashier trays filled with money and carried them downstairs to the gym. Puffy and other staff members stayed in the lobby collecting tickets. At the other entrance, on 138th Street, no one was at the tables. One person present remembered a crowd in the lobby and another facing the metal doors downstairs. At this point, every metal door was shut. Without warning, 150 people pushed into the lobby behind him, threw him up against a wall, then ran down the stairs and into the people waiting in front of the doors.
The crowd pushed forward, crushing people directly into doors. Inside the gym a table had been wedged "as leverage to force the door closed," Judge Louis Benza would later report. Even worse, a heavy man stood on the table to keep it from budging. The crowd kept shoving and "people were banging on the doors, yelling and screaming for someone to open the doors, but to no avail," said another ticket holder.
Eventually, someone inside opened a door and began to pull bodies into the gym, already 75 percent filled. On stage, Doug E. Fresh asked the crowd to clear the area in front of the doors, to use their cell phones to call for ambulances, to use CPR and help the injured. The first call to 911, at 7:04, found a man frantically reporting that "people are dying inside of City College."
Some guests tried to perform CPR on victims lying on the floor immediately inside the doorway. At 7:28 p.m., EMS ambulance workers arrived and tried to revive victims. People were grabbing them and asking them to attend to relatives and friends. Twenty-one other ambulances arrived, and by 7:55 p.m. victims were being transported to the hospital. Within a minute, however, EMS workers pronounced six people dead. In area hospitals, doctors pronounced two more people dead. A ninth victim was stabilized on life support but pronounced dead on January 1, 1992. The cause of death for each was asphyxia due to compression of the chest.
Puffy would claim that "after the frenzy, I looked up and everybody was gone." He would say that he didn't leave the gym because he didn't do anything wrong. "I knew I would have to explain what was going on and what happened. I was there with nine bodies on the ground. Nobody else was there. No police, nobody. Just me and nine bodies."
Police Officer Sean Harris told a different story. After climbing a banister and reaching the crowded space at the bottom of the stairs, he had to push the table aside and open the door to the gym. "After falling through the door [and] into the gym," Benza continued, "[Harris] saw Combs standing there with two women, and all three had money in their hands."
When Harrell learned about the tragedy, he got high-profile lawyers William Kunstler and Michael Warren on the telephone for Puffy. The story was all over the local media, and published reports claimed that promoters had sold five thousand tickets although the gym could only hold 2,730 people.
Puffy didn't get much sleep that weekend. Dream Hampton remembered that he and Heavy spent much of this time crying, pacing, or speaking on the telephone. They called lawyers, took calls from their friends, or called the families of the victims after locating telephone numbers. Puffy's girlfriend, Misa Hylton, was with him, though one of her friends had died at the event and her friend's mother was grieving. Puffy claimed he was getting closer to God. "When I was in my crib losin' weight and cryin', feelin' sorry, and thinkin' everybody was against me, and sayin' I didn't do nothin' wrong, I started talkin' to Him," he said. "And I started getting to know Him better." While his faith in God might be sincere -- he was an altar boy in high school -- Puffy soon would develop a pattern of reacting to negative headlines by hiring powerful lawyers, and invoking religion.
By Monday morning, December 30, 1991, he was sitting in the conference room at Uptown with Andre Harrell, Heavy D, and his lawyer Michael Warren. They were going over a statement he would give to reporters. Later he would tell a supportive journalist, "Nobody can know what I went through. Everybody was saying, 'Did he oversell the tickets? Did he kill those kids?' The world turned against me."
Eventually he did what he had to do. He sat at the conference table, faced a stack of index cards, and tried to memorize the speech he had written. He had to sound sincere. Harrell and the lawyers were there to edit the statement. He began to read aloud: "It has always been my dream to throw parties where young black people -- "
Andre cut in. The word "dream" was pretentious.
Michael Warren agreed.
"But I would say that," Puffy snapped. "Wouldn't I say that?"
By the time the meeting had ended, Harrell told him that he should stay away from the office until things died down. Puffy began to feel that even his friends were shying away from him, that only his immediate family and Misa were on his side. "It was too much for me to handle," he later said. "After the incident, it was like I was crazy, losing my mind...thinking about the people who died, thinking about the families, thinking about their pain. For a while I was probably clinically insane."
He made it to that afternoon's press conference at the St. Regis hotel and provided the New York Post with ammunition for the next morning's story -- the Post blamed the deaths on a "FOOL NAMED PUFF DADDY."
Though it was Misa's birthday, and her friend's death had depressed her, he was obsessed with what the tragedy could mean for his name. He dragged Misa down to The Source, where editors were writing a story about the event, and hid in the hallway until a friend, Source employee Dream Hampton, appeared. Hampton was a talented writer whose alleged antics included dating Heavy D.
During their conversation, she later wrote, Puffy mentioned suicide and death threats from people claiming to be related to the victims, then opened his black coat and said, "But I feel protected by God. See, I don't have anything on me, no guns, vests. If they kill me, they kill me. It's meant for me to die."
Eventually, the mainstream media began to research the AIDS Education Outreach Program listed on Puffy's flyer and found that no AIDS service organization had ever heard of it. It wasn't a registered charity, every state and city agency reported. Some reporters claimed the charity worked with the city's health department, despite the fact that the health department could not accept charitable funds.
When Deputy Mayor Milton Mollen reported on the tragedy, he revealed that Puffy and other promoters -- including Heavy D -- hadn't set any of the proceeds aside for any specific charity. The city wanted to learn more about the ticket sales, but the money was missing. On December 30, 1991, attorney Martin Garbus wrote Mayor David Dinkins to say he was representing Puffy, who would cooperate with the investigation, but the money was still missing.
Deputy Mayor Mollen called Garbus the next morning to ask about the estimated twenty-five thousand dollars the party had pulled in. Garbus said Puffy had given him permission to turn the money over to the city, and sent Mollen a check for $24,581 the next day.
The CCNY tragedy would haunt Puffy for years to come. He would defend his actions that night by saying that he had entered the gym that night to help others get in as well. It was impossible to let people in, he'd explain, because the metal doors opened out into the crowded hall, and out there the crowd was slamming into the doors. In 1998, Judge Benza decided that Puffy was lying. Puffy's guards knew there was a crowd in the tiny seven-by-twelve-foot space outside and purposefully shut the only door that could have allowed them into the gym, Benza wrote. By doing this, they created a barrier that forced people to crush into each other and squash the life from young bodies. Police officer Sean Harris's statement, Benza felt, "places a strain on the credibility of Combs' testimony that he was caught up in the melee and attempted to help the people who were trapped in the stairwell."