By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
It is absolutely ridiculous for anyone to blame me for anyone else's actions.
From a statement by Sean "Puffy" Combs
Both admirers and opponents of Sean "Puffy" Combs have pointed out that people around him wind up dead, seriously injured, in jail, or bail out of Bad Boy Entertainment, the hip hop strongman's music citadel. Guns. Shoot-em-ups. Thuggery. Bribery. Shady business dealings. All, real or imagined, seem to be hallmarks of Combs's troubled history. Some are calling a recent spate of incidentsincluding the Club New York shootingthe "Bad Boy Curse," speculating that the "roots" of this tree of tragedy, from which Combs's estimated $400 million entertainment, clothing, and restaurant empire springs, run deep.
Combs and his bodyguard, Anthony "Wolf" Jones, were acquitted on March 16 of illegal gun possession and bribery charges stemming from the December 1999 shooting at the Times Square nightclub. But since 1991, nearly 20 people have been struck by the Bad Boy Curse, including Natania "Eboné" Reuben, Julius Jones, and Robert Thompson, the three victims of the Club New York shooting; the Notorious B.I.G., Combs's sidekick and a reputed don of gangsta rap, who was gunned down execution-style in Los Angeles in 1997 (a rubout some say was intended for Combs); Steve Stoute, a record executive beaten by Combs and crew in a baseball bat attack; and nine people who were crushed to death at a 1991 charity basketball game that Combs organized at City College in Harlem.
In addition, two of Combs's top Bad Boy acts left his label: Multi-platinum rapper Mase found religion, and the highly regarded L.O.X. found a new record company. "When you see me, don't ask me nothin' about us and don't definitely ask me about Puffy," the L.O.X.'s Kiss scoffs in a 2000 rap called "Blood Pressure."
Now add to this list 21-year-old Jamaal "Shyne" Barrow, the gangsta rapper who was convicted of two counts of assault, two gun possession charges, and one count of reckless endangerment in the Club New York case. In an exclusive interview with the Voice one week before the verdict, published last week, Barrow lashed out at Combs, accusing his former idol of shunning and ultimately betraying him to save himself. It's widely believed in gangsta rap circles that Barrow, who admitted in the closing days of the trial that he had a gun, "pulled his gat"a 9mm Ruger loaded with hollow-point bulletsonly after a playa hater fired a shot meant for Combs. Saying he "couldn't take it anymore" after he heard one witness allegedly lie to protect Combs, Barrow demanded that Combs release him from his contract with Bad Boy Entertainment.
In the wake of the verdict, many in the hip hop community do not have nice things to say about the once vaunted king of rap. "Just think about it," says a music industry insider who knows Combs well. "This is somebody who has one of the biggest record labels. He is a self-made millionaire. But everybody who gravitates to him fears their demise and wants to get the hell away from him." Some critics have labeled Combs a modern-day Berry Gordy, but the comparison is hardly a flattering one. "A lot of artists made Gordy and Motown Records enormously wealthy but Florence Ballard of the Supremes died on welfare, with nothing. That's the type of mentality that people on the streets have about Puffy," says this source.
In Flatbush, a hip hop enclave, gangsta rap adherents are still upset with Combs for allegedly exploiting the Notorious B.I.G.'s death. "He made the bulk of his money off Biggie's murder with 'I'll Be Missing You,' " notes a Biggie loyalist, who claims he has worked with Combs on rap projects in the past. Others damn the Bad Boy Curse that they say caused the L.O.X. to split from Combs's record company. "Look at the L.O.X.," urges one supporter of the trio, who are now members of the ruling Ruff Ryders family. "They hate Puffy. If he was on fire, they wouldn't spit on him. But he has the power to blacklist anybody. The L.O.X. are talented and should have made a bigger splash than they did after leaving Bad Boy. There is a saying, 'Once you go against him, you are null and void.' "
Even Bad Boy insiders are fed up with the way Combs allegedly has treated prominent acts such as singer Carl Thomas and rapper Black Rob. "I remember when Carl was signed to Bad Boy for a long time and used to hang out with me in Brooklyn," says an r&b artist who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He was broke just from waiting to have his album put out. He was on the label for at least two years and Bad Boy wouldn't put his album out. I would ask him, 'When you coming out, Carl? What's up with your stuff?' His album came out after the Club New York shooting.
"Puffy had no choice," the artist continues. "He needed something to save the label. If you save the label, you're one of his guys. He'll take you to St. Bart's for a while, and then you're never heard from again. You hear nothing about Carl Thomas these days. Almost nothing." Adds the source: "It's just disgusting to me how nobody sees that anybody with a lot of talent who goes to Bad Boy suddenly disappears. As soon as somebody doesn't agree with him, their music goes on the cutting room floor."