Have you ever wondered why Puff Daddy is famous? The hip hop mogul (real name Sean Combs) started as an intern for now-defunct Uptown Records, founded Bad Boy Records in 1993, made a splash on the scene producing the debut of a talented newcomer who went by the name of The Notorious B.I.G., and then really hit it big in 1997 with his own debut, No Way Out.
No Way Out was the first CD I bought with my own money. I was a fan then, but I only now realise that maybe Puff Daddy’s music, so commercial compared to the hip hop I began listening to shortly after 1997, was my gateway into the genre. As my tastes matured and I began to seek more artistry (and authenticity) in the music I consumed, I drifted further away from the artist that got me interested in the first place, until one day I rejected him completely, wondering not only why I enjoyed him to begin with, but why he was famous at all.
I’m not the only one who finds his fame perplexing. In the 2005 edition of Hip Hop America, Nelson George writes, “To the fan of underground rap and the purist critic, Combs was a blasphemer, a symbol of all that was whack within ‘commercial’ hip hop. […] His lackluster rhyme skills and unwillingness to write most of what came out of his mouth on records made him suspect.”
And have you ever seen one of his music videos from 1997? Many of their concepts possess a certain level of cheesiness, all the more outrageous when you consider the price tags of these productions. The over-the-top set designs and the expensive cars are obviously pricey. What isn’t obvious, to be quite frank, is Combs’s talent. It doesn’t take an expert to arrive at the opinion that he isn’t the best rapper around.
So then how would you, or anyone for that matter, explain that 1997 was not only the biggest year for Combs and Bad Boy Records, but one of the most successful years for any recording artist in music history? Combs enjoyed an unprecedented 25 weeks out of a consecutive 28 at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, spread over five songs he either released, guest-featured on, or produced. The numbers don’t lie.
1. “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” by Puff Daddy and the Family, 6 weeks at #1, from the weeks of 22 March to 26 April
2. “Hypnotize” by The Notorious B.I.G. (produced by Combs), 3 weeks at #1, from the weeks of 3 May to 17 May
3. “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy and the Family, 11 weeks at #1, from the weeks of 14 June to 23 August
4. “Mo Money Mo Problems” by The Notorious B.I.G. (featuring Puff Daddy), 2 weeks at #1, from the weeks of 30 August to 6 September
5. “Honey” by Mariah Carey (produced by Combs), 3 weeks at #1, from the weeks of 13 September to 27 September
(Fun fact: the only song that interrupted Combs’s reign was Hanson’s “MMMBop,” which Combs had nothing to do with and enjoyed 3 weeks at #1 between “Hypnotize” and “I’ll Be Missing You.”)
Combs’s biggest year might have also been his most significant. Part of his skyrocketed popularity undoubtedly could be attributed to the death of the Notorious B.I.G. The rapper, aka Biggie Smalls, real name Christopher Wallace, was at the height of stardom, still enjoying the success of his 1994 debut Ready to Die as well as being crowned “The King of New York” by hip hop magazine The Source, when he was murdered in March of 1997, two weeks before his anticipated follow-up, the eerily titled Life After Death, hit record stores.
After the death of Bad Boy’s biggest star, many people also predicted the death of the label itself. This made Combs’s 25-week reign, and the statements within those songs, all the more impressive, and slightly more significant. It’s about as grand a design as an unpredictable murder can catalyse. What made 1997 a significant year for Combs and Bad Boy was that it saw Combs deal with death and fame simultaneously, a pair of circumstances that has come to define his whole career. Though it might be sacrilegious to say, it seems apparent now that Sean Combs is much more notorious than Christopher Wallace ever was.
When Biggie was alive and in the spotlight, recalls Bad Boy rapper Ma$e, “Puffy was the greatest hype-man ever.” Combs had an empire to build, and in order to achieve that, he knew he had to back up his star player, so that was what he did. He did that effectively, probably because he did it relentlessly. Combs had always been a mover and a shaker, a personality trait he had in common with the very first hip hop mogul, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. (Come to think of it, moving and shaking is most likely a requirement for hip hop moguldom.) Before 1997 Combs dabbled here and there as a featured artist, providing guest vocals on tracks but mostly finding talent, producing, promoting, and appearing in other people’s music videos. Still, he was planting the seeds of hip hop ubiquity. His mode of thinking seemed to be: there isn’t any power in invisibility. How can people respect, or awe, or fear you if they don’t know what you look like? And so, before his first single “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” came out, Combs was already recognised as the Notorious B.I.G.’s dancing producer/sidekick. He was prepping the public for his debut, not just as a recording artist but as a man of cultural influence.
Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book, an entertaining project that selects the most important rap song of each year from 1979 to 2014, chose Puff Daddy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” for the year of 1997. For 1982, Serrano selected the song Puff Daddy’s hit sampled, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Serrano defines “most important” by what it doesn’t mean, which is “best.” “The difference might seem semantic,” Serrano writes, “and maybe it is, but an easy way to think of it is: What sort of impact did the song have on rap, or on the surroundings of rap? That’s usually how you determine the difference between what’s important and what’s just fun to move your body and arms and legs to.” It’s a legitimate way to justify selecting “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” over Biggie’s “Hypnotize” or Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph,” which hip hop purists would argue as infinitely better songs of 1997.
Having said that, not only is “The Message” an indisputable choice for the most important rap song of 1982, but the song could very well be considered the most important rap song of all time, and Combs knew that when he chose to sample it.
In truth, an important rap song can’t really exist in a vacuum, just like rap can’t exist without the socio-economic contexts that make the genre enduringly important. Before “The Message,” rap mainly existed as party and dance music, the underground bastard child of dancehall and disco. While rap lyrics eventually evolved from simple calls and chants to get on the dance floor and move your body, the vocal element during rap’s early years hardly conveyed much more meaning than that. Even the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first commercially successful rap song, favoured vocal rhythm over message and meaning, which meant you were largely dancing to complete lyrical gibberish.
“The Message” is literally titled. The lyrics viscerally describe the harsh living conditions of the inner city, ushering in the utlisation of rap vocals to convey message and meaning, then a new element of hip hop. This was no small accomplishment, considering that, for many critics, this new element legitimised hip hop not only as a musical genre but as an art form (and later, as a money-maker). However, despite pioneering the oft-venerated “message rap” subgenre (as opposed to “party rap” or “gangsta rap”), the song’s creation was as artificial and commercial as it was considered groundbreakingly truthful.
“The Message” is credited to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but the truth of the matter is that many of the group’s members, Flash included, not only resisted being involved in the song, but actually never were. To them, the song wasn’t hip hop; it was too depressing. I remember that it broke my heart when I learned that Flash, hip hop’s legendary DJ, had nothing to do with the song’s iconic, mesmerizing beat. In actuality, much of the song came from the mind of Ed Fletcher, a session musician for Sugar Hill Records who went by the delightful moniker Duke Bootee. Sylvia Robinson, the driving force behind Sugar Hill Records, the very first hip hop label, was searching for a hit and felt that Bootee’s composition was the foundation of one. Despite the strength of Robinson’s intuition, the only member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five that she successfully convinced to participate in the song was rapper Melle Mel.
Not only could it be argued that money was the root of all the evils presented in its lyrics, but once “The Message did in fact become a hit, financial disputes between the group and the label escalated. Additionally, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were struggling to keep up with the music they pioneered, and it was clear that “The Message,” the song that facetiously beared their authorship, was steering hip hop in a different direction. Flash and Melle Mel in particular found themselves on opposite ends of more frequent arguments, which inevitably led to an acrimonious split. While that turmoil unfolded, “The Message” was on its way to becoming one of the most recognisable songs in hip hop.
In Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang writes, “It’s among hip-hop history’s greatest ironies that ‘The Message,’ so artificial and marginal by the standards of the culture then, would prove at once to be a song so truthful about the generation’s present and, in its righteous retail math, so influential to that generation’s future culture.” (The irony doesn’t stop there; despite who was and wasn’t involved in the formation of the song, people nowadays are more likely to recognise the name Grandmaster Flash than Melle Mel.)
In the last verse of “The Message,” Melle Mel raps:
The places you play and where you stay
Looks like one great big alleyway
You’ll admire all the number-book takers
Thugs, pimps, and pushers and the big money-makers
Drivin’ big cars, spendin’ twenties and tens
And you’ll wanna grow up to be just like them
Fast forward to 1997, the “future culture” of hip hop’s first generation as Chang puts it, the year of Puff Daddy and Bad Boy, commenced by “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” On its surface, the lyrics and imagery of Combs’s debut single couldn’t be further from those of “The Message.” While the latter evoked squalor, hardship, complete with a music video filled with documentary footage of grimy New York City streets, the Bad Boy music video features Puff Daddy and Ma$e driving a Rolls-Royce convertible through the California desert, walking away coolly as the car blows up, flashy sets and flashier clothing, not to mention a look of wealthy indifference on both their faces that gives the impression of being largely unfazeable.
In the last verse of “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” Puff Daddy raps:
We spend cheese in the West Indies
Then come home to plenty cream Bentleys
You name it, I could claim it
Young, black, and famous
With money hangin’ out the anus.
Complex Media’s Noah Callahan-Bever refers to “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” as Bad Boy’s manifesto. It was a statement, punctuated by the confidence to boast that “we are here to be the A-Team players. We are going to run popular music.” In fact, it goes much deeper than just boasting. Behind the lyrical and visual displays of wealth and decadence lies a certain, if not singular, level of self-awareness, to which much of Combs’s success must be attributed. “There’s no way overnght I could be the best rapper…” Combs said, “but I know visually, I could be strong as a performer, as an entertainer.” Despite considering his first single as “an experiment to see if people would receive me as an artist,” Combs makes it difficult for us to question his cocksureness, that he ever had any doubt his formulas would do less than succeed. In fact, he approached these choices as if he had legitimate proof they had already worked. It wasn’t so much “fake it til you make it” as it was “flaunt it if you got it,” but the entire display still had a smoke-and-mirrors effect about it, a commercial artifice that echoed Sylvia Robinson’s moulding of “The Message” into a hip hop hit, despite the odds. It seems that “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” has much more in common with “The Message” than just the beat.
The bankability that Combs placed on recognisable sampling cannot be underestimated. His appropriation of familiar sounds is 100% deliberate. He employed multi-generational coverage, this idea that anyone who paid some attention to pop music over the years could automatically recognise a Puff Daddy song even if that person didn’t know who Puff Daddy was. His intentions ran with the bet and the notion that recognisability can quickly, even subconsciously, masquerade as likeability before eventually morphing into it, and that was the bet that Combs took to the bank repeatedly in 1997.
If you call it artificial, then you’d be right. Much of Combs’s aesthetic, and certainly the formula for 1997, was built on the foundations of artifice. In 1997, I, like the rest of country, fell victim to the trap Combs had laid. We heard “The Message” in “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” and we heard “Every Breath You Take” in “I’ll Be Missing You,” which to varying degrees transported us to different places and times, when things might have been different for some of us. That kind of transformation, even to a time that might’ve been difficult, still has the power to generate nostalgia, since you are not there anymore (or else the transportation wouldn’t have occurred in the first place). You feel like a survivor, which relates directly to Combs’s overall aesthetic, and the message of “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” the manifesto that made him famous.
This idea of familiarity masquerading as likeability before eventually morphing into it came full circle in 2013, when rapper Drake, in his own song “Worst Behavior,” interpolated the first lines of Ma$e’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” verse and I immediately thought I liked it, possibly only because I felt like I already knew it. Combs’s foundation as a businessman masquerading as an artist, artificial though it may seem, relied on his ability to perform. That particular skill, paired with his ability to bend commercialism creatively (taking what has worked in the past and altering them to work in the present), is undeniably real, if just not obvious. Furthermore, it took his perch as an already wealthy mogul-in-the-making to be able capitalise on his particular set of skills. As Biggie raps in “Hypnotize”: “You got it? Flaunt it.” Combs did, and nobody was able to hold him down for all of 1997 because of it.