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."