Los Angeles Times

Legal Woes Overshadow Combs' Empire

At 31, with a multimillion dollar entertainment empire at his command, Sean "Puffy" Combs plays in the same financial league as fellow New Yorkers Donald Trump or the Yankees' Derek Jeter.

After his acquittal Friday on bribery and weapons charges, the two-time Grammy winner will remain in the big leagues rather than a prison cell.

Combs, a Harlem native whose father was killed when he was 3 years old, rose from the mean streets to the top of the music business. His 30th-floor Manhattan office now offers a stunning view of Times Square.

Following in the footsteps of Russell Simmons, the Grammy-winning Combs became a hip-hop entrepreneur: CEO, producer, talent scout, rapper. His single-mindedness helped turn his unknown record company into a $300 million-a-year business.

"It is true that he started from scratch," says Kelefa Sennah, editor of the African-American culture magazine, Transition. "And I don't think that just because he was arrested, people will stop buying his albums."

But unlike Simmons, Combs' career suffered some public missteps: years of lawsuits after he promoted a December 1991 celebrity basketball game where nine people died; the 1997 slaying of his top rapper, The Notorious B.I.G., just minutes after they left a party; his 1999 assault of a fellow rap executive.

Combs survived all that. And now he has survived a 15-month ordeal that began with his Dec. 27, 1999, arrest.

Combs, reflecting before the trial, fretted over his image.

"The hardest part is the feeling that people have in the back of their minds, `Does he have a gun on him?"' Combs said. "People feeling you're a thug."

Only seven years ago, Combs, then barely 24, launched Bad Boy Entertainment. Today his interests span a variety of fields.

Besides his record label, with sales of more than 75 million albums worldwide, Combs owns the Sean John clothing line -- a men's collection that he and co-defendant Anthony "Wolf" Jones occasionally drew on for court appearances.

He operates two restaurants -- in Manhattan and Atlanta -- and is scouting new locations around the country.

Combs also has a co-production deal with Miramax Films. His first feature film, "Made," featuring Combs in his acting debut, opens this summer.

In 1998, Fortune magazine estimated his earnings for the year at $53.5 million.

After her husband's slaying, Janice Combs moved the family to the suburbs of Mount Vernon, where Sean Combs thrived at a Catholic high school. He went on to Howard University, but left early to concentrate on his career.

Combs enjoyed near-instant success, signing such soon-to-be major acts as Mary J. Blige and Jodeci for Uptown Records. It wasn't long before he was running his own label, and enjoying chart-topping hits with The Notorious B.I.G., Mase and Faith Evans.

Even while on trial, Combs' stable of artists managed to notch two Top 10 singles: 112 with "It's Over Now" and Dream with "He Loves U Not."

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