NEW YORK -- Behind the glass at Sean "Puffy" Combs' midtown Manhattan recording studio, singer Faith Evans fights back tears as she lays down the plaintive chorus to "I'll Be Missing You," a duet single dedicated to her slain husband, gangsta rap star the Notorious B.I.G.
B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace, was gunned down March 9 after a Los Angeles music industry party in front of hundreds of people, including Combs and Evans.
Combs, whose Bad Boy Entertainment has for months ruled the nation's pop album and singles charts, coaches a touching performance from B.I.G.'s widow in front of a handful of guests in the studio, including the murdered rapper's 7-month-old son, Christopher. After a few takes, Combs, himself overcome with emotion, exits the room.
"It just kills me that Biggie is gone. I miss him so much," says Combs, who produced and raps on the new single, a homage to his top act and closest ally. The record will be in stores Tuesday.
"You can have all the success and money in the world, but at the end of the day it really doesn't mean a thing. I can't be happy right now because my best friend is dead. I know God doesn't give you anything you can't handle, but I'm really struggling with it, man. I'm having a tough time here."
B.I.G.'s murder was so traumatic for Combs, he says, that it caused him to reevaluate the kind of message his company was putting out on the street. He will donate to a Bad Boy-affiliated charity his portion of the profits from B.I.G.'s posthumous album "Life After Death," a gangsta rap collection laced with violent and sexually explicit imagery.
He also is in the process of rewriting the lyrics to a number of the songs on his own highly anticipated debut album, "No Way Out," to reflect his new outlook. The album will be out in August.
Combs' impact on the record business, however, goes far beyond his association with the slain rapper. Widely recognized in entertainment circles as one of the most potent creative forces on the East Coast, the 26-year-old entrepreneur, whose record productions have generated more than $150 million, is already on his way to making an unprecedented leap from record company CEO to best-selling artist.
His first solo release, "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," has been at or near the top of the pop singles chart for nearly four months and "I'll Be Missing You," the duet with Evans, aired on 200 radio stations across the nation when it was released to broadcast media two weeks ago--and the video has been in heavy rotation on BET, VH1 and MTV.
In the past, many recording artists have dreamed of becoming moguls, but no one has reversed the process. Imagine Motown founder Berry Gordy putting out his own album and becoming as big a recording star as Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder.
Not to Combs.
"I know it's a very weird career move, but I take it very serious," Combs says. He predicts his company will become a global entertainment powerhouse, expanding from music to food and fashion and film. "At first I thought nobody would accept me as a rap artist. After all, it's not like I came from the hood. But you know what? It's all in how you market yourself."
If you believe the rumors circulating in the rap music community, Combs has been in hiding since the night B.I.G. was murdered.
The shooting followed years of tension in which Combs' success was dogged by suspicion in law enforcement circles about his involvement in a bicoastal feud between Bad Boy and Los Angeles-based Death Row Records, former home to slain rap star Tupac Shakur.
Steeped in accusations of robbery, assault and retaliatory executions, the much-hyped rap war is the target of a federal investigation probing both companies for alleged links to street-gang-related criminal activity, sources said. After B.I.G.'s shooting, reports spread that Combs feared for his life and remained holed up in his New Jersey mansion surrounded by an army of security guards.
But one month after B.I.G.'s murder, Combs is walking casually with a reporter down West 24th Street when a fan approaches and asks him for an autograph. Combs obliges and chats briefly with the woman before he continues on his stroll. A lone bodyguard follows at a distance as Combs begins to address accusations regarding his involvement in the so-called rap war.
"I wish people would judge me by my actions, not by these ridiculous rumors," Combs says. "I'm not some evil underworld mobster from the hood. I'm a young, educated, hard-working black man trying to perfect my craft and earn an honest living. I'm building a legacy here. I'm not going to go down in history for some stupid gangster B.S. No way, man. History is going to remember me as one of the greatest entrepreneurs and entertainers the world has ever encountered."
Climbing into the back seat of a souped-up GMC Suburban, Combs begins talking on a cellular phone as his driver inches through traffic with rap music blasting on the stereo. Dressed in baggy pants and a bulky jacket, the wiry six-footer tips his baseball cap back and eyes a basketball game on one of the tiny television monitors positioned near each passenger in the vehicle.
Combs' driver drops him off about a block from Justin's, a soul food restaurant that Combs is hoping to open before Thanksgiving. Named after his son and inspired by his grandmother's cooking, the restaurant is being built to Combs' specifications and includes a posh mahogany bar and an elegant dining area.
The restaurant is just the latest addition to Combs' expanding Bad Boy enterprise, which already includes a multimillion-dollar record company, a state-of the-art recording studio, an upcoming clothing line and a film sector for which he eventually will direct full-length motion pictures. The company's 14th Street headquarters houses its own charity division, which is run by rapper Sister Souljah and helps hundreds of inner-city kids attend computer classes and summer camp each year.
"I am a chicken-and-grits, ghetto-music-booming-in-the-Jeep type of phenomenon," says Combs, who plans this fall to open recreational and educational centers in Harlem and Brooklyn using his own money and funds generated by an upcoming Bad Boy gospel album and the tribute single to Notorious B.I.G.
"There's not much money in the hood, but my people go out and buy my records and have supported my company from Day One. If I earn my money from you, I can't be blind to the problems you face everyday: poverty, lack of hope, lack of leadership. I don't suffer from any illusions about what it's going to take to change things, but I believe it's important for me to reinvest in the future of my community."
Born in Harlem, Combs grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Mt. Vernon and attended a boys Catholic high school in the Bronx. He credits his schoolteacher mother for instilling "a love for music and church values" in him and for helping him finance his years in college.
Combs had no musical training, but majored in business administration at Howard University, where he became famous for staging weekly hip-hop dance parties at the Washington, D.C. school. Combs says he got his "entrepreneurial hustle on" at Howard, profiting from the dances and operating an airport shuttle bus service for students traveling home.
In 1990, he "begged" his way into the music business as an unpaid intern at MCA-affiliated Uptown Records in New York, which was a four-hour commute from Howard. The job was so time-consuming that Combs often obtained permission from his professors to skip classes and paid other students to take notes for him. He dropped out, but at Uptown he rose swiftly from gofer to talent director and began helping his boss Andre Harrell to shape the images of such newcomers as Heavy D, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige.
"I still don't know how to play an instrument," says Combs, who taught himself the rudiments of record and video production while interning at Uptown.
"I'm more like an orchestrator. You know, those guys don't actually play the violin. They just tell the violinist what they want to hear. Same with me. I say to my programmer, 'Make the drums go ba boom ba boom.' And he sets the computer up to do it. I sing the chords I want to the piano player and hum a rhythm to the bass player. Pretty soon, we got a song. That's the way I started and that's still the way I work."
Combs got his first taste of tragedy in December 1991, when eight people were killed in a nightmarish stampede at a charity event he helped organize at a New York area college. No charges were filed against the promoter of what ultimately turned out to be the first and last annual Heavy D and Puff Daddy Celebrity Charity Basketball Game.
It was while he was working at Uptown that Combs discovered the Notorious B.I.G. In 1992, he read about the 19-year-old rapper in the Source magazine, got his hands on a demo tape and called him for an audition.
Impressed by the "caliber of Biggie's poetry" and his shy, innocent demeanor, Combs signed the burly former crack dealer. From that point on, the two were practically inseparable. If not in the studio, they were shopping or hanging out at parties. Combs says they talked on the phone six times a day.
"No matter what I was going through in my life, the one person besides my moms that I knew would always be there for me was Biggie," Combs says, reflecting on the night B.I.G. was murdered. "The thought of living without him scares me to death. I'm still in shock."
By 1992, Combs had produced a string of R&B hits and was promoted to vice president of Uptown's talent and marketing divisions. But the thrill of being the youngest VP in the music business didn't last long. Within a year, he was fired by Harrell over a dispute about the creative direction of Bad Boy, his new, Uptown-affiliated label.
Because the Uptown/Bad Boy deal was not set in stone, Combs took B.I.G. to Arista Records, where he cut a three-year label deal for Bad Boy with industry veteran Clive Davis. Since its 1993 launch, Bad Boy has sold an estimated $75 million in albums by such acts as B.I.G., Craig Mack, Faith Evans and 112.
"Puffy isn't the type of executive that just throws 10 records against the wall and brags about the one that makes it," Davis says. "He is unique in that he has both a musical and a marketing vision--and he makes each artist that he signs count. Puffy's company has a phenomenal batting average."
Last September, Davis dramatically expanded Arista's investment in Bad Boy. Under the terms of the new joint venture agreement, sources said, Arista gave Combs a $6-million cash advance, a $2-million studio and established an estimated $50-million credit line for Bad Boy. The pact also guarantees Combs, who draws an estimated $700,000 annual salary, the right to buy the company (including all the master recordings) in the year 2001.
As Combs' confidence grew, he began to direct and appear more frequently in his artists' music videos and dance and sing with them on stage. In addition, he increased his presence on their recordings by interjecting rhythmic grunts and chanting in the background as well as rapping an occasional line or two.
"I've always been like a walking billboard for my company," Combs says. "Right from the beginning. The way I dress. The way I move. The way I dance. I loved being in their videos. It all became a part of the Bad Boy lifestyle. Looking back on it now, I guess it was also the start of me building my own stature as a solo artist: Puff Daddy."
Still, Combs says he was stunned when his first Puff Daddy release debuted at No. 1 on the nation's single chart in February.
As his stature increased, Combs developed a reputation among competitors for being brash and arrogant--character flaws, he now acknowledges, that disrupted his business and personal lives.
"Arrogance was a real problem for me in the past. I guess sometimes it still is," says Combs. "I can be a real selfish a--hole. The way I talk to people and treat them sometimes. It's wrong. It's a real character flaw. I'm working on it. I really need to learn how to communicate better."
Of all the people who have questioned the way that Combs handles himself, nobody was more vocal about it than rap star Tupac Shakur and his boss, Marion "Suge" Knight, owner of Death Row Records.
Combs and B.I.G. were considered rivals of Shakur, who had accused them of involvement in a November 1994 robbery in which Shakur was shot several times and lost $40,000 in jewelry. Eight months later, Knight criticized Combs publicly at the Source Awards, mocking his high-profile appearances in the videos of Bad Boy artists.
When Death Row employee Jake Robles was killed at a music industry party in Atlanta in September 1995, Knight blamed Combs for the hit. After joining the Death Row roster, Shakur escalated his verbal attacks in interviews and even wrote a song about his hatred for Bad Boy in which he taunted Combs and B.I.G. and bragged that he'd had sex with B.I.G.'s wife Evans.
Last year at the Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles, a bodyguard working for B.I.G. and Combs brandished a weapon and got into a scuffle with an armed member of Shakur's entourage backstage at the Shrine Auditorium. For more than a year, the media treated this cross-continent battle of words as if it were an actual violent war when, in fact, no one has ever been arrested for any criminal act connected to the so-called feud.
When Shakur was gunned down last September near the Las Vegas Strip, sources in rap and law enforcement circles immediately began pointing the finger at Bad Boy. An affidavit filed last September by a Compton police officer seeking to obtain search warrants for a gang raid blamed Shakur's shooting on a dispute between Death Row employees affiliated with the Bloods gang and members of the Southside Crips--a gang that, informants told police, had occasionally been hired by Bad Boy for protection.
Last year, the U.S. government launched an investigation of Bad Boy and Death Row to determine whether the companies were linked to street gangs involved in criminal activity, sources said. The police have yet to solve the murder of either Shakur or B.I.G.
Combs rejects assertions by police that he hired Southside Crips gang members for security and denies that he ever socialized with criminals in Compton.
When asked whether he or anyone associated with his company ordered a hit on Shakur or Robles, Combs adamantly denies any involvement.
"It is crazy for anyone to think that Biggie or I would have anything to do with the killing of Tupac or any other human being," says Combs. "I'm not a criminal. I don't have any malice in my heart. I couldn't shoot anybody or order a hit. I have too much belief in God. People watch too many mob movies.
"I'm in the record business. I get up every day and work my ass off trying to make my dreams come true. Do you think I would throw away everything I have attained over some stupid gangster B.S.? You got to be out of your mind."
It's noon on a Friday--the start of another hectic 18-hour day for Combs.
As usual, he was working the previous night until 4 a.m. in the studio. Now, he is talking in Bad Boy's 7,000-square-foot, high-tech headquarters with his closest advisors, manager Vernon Brown and attorney Kenny Meiselas, who have just handed him a briefcase full of contracts to review.
Combs takes off his round sunglasses, quickly peruses the stack of documents, asks a few questions and then signs several, but requests changes in others. During the course of the meeting, Combs receives a number of calls on his cellular phone from competitors seeking to book him to produce tracks for albums for such artists as Mariah Carey.
The offices are bustling with activity and Combs jets from room to room checking on a variety of recording, video and charity projects. He puts in about six hours seven days a week here, where he employs about two dozen staff members, most of them college graduates.
By 8 p.m., Combs typically is back at his Daddy's House Studio, where he works with a team of some of the hippest producers in New York, including Stevie J., Deric Angelettie, Nashiem Myrick, Ron Lawrence, Chucky Thompson, Prestige and Younglord.
Combs' creative and entrepreneurial vision draws praise from a long list of executives working in the pop, rock, R&B and rap fields.
"I think Puffy is dope and Bad Boy is a significant company," says acclaimed rapper and record producer Dr. Dre, owner of Aftermath Entertainment and co-founder of Death Row.
"A lot of people in this business talk all day about what they are going to do, but it takes a real strong individual to actually get things done. And Puffy fits into that category. He's strong-willed and extremely talented."
In the years ahead, Combs expects Bad Boy to move beyond the record business and become a global entertainment conglomerate. He counts among his heroes such impresarios as David Geffen, Berry Gordy and the man he calls "the greatest of them all," Muhammad Ali.
"Being a black man at the age of 26 is not looked upon as a positive thing in this society, but I know when it's all said and done, there will be no way for anyone to front on this right here," Combs says. "Five years from now, Bad Boy is going to be a Fortune 500 company. In 10 years, we're going to be big, like Coca-Cola--giant, everywhere, all over the world. Music, films, clothes, politics. Bad Boy is not just a company, it's a life-style."