The Gatsby of Gats
The first thing I asked him to do was get me a tape from the studio. He came back with it in five minutes. The studio was ten blocks away.
-Andre Harrell on Sean "Puffy" Combs as his intern
It's a tale straight out of fiction: specifically, Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Sammy Glick, straight off the New York streets, parlays a newspaper copyboy job into control of a Hollywood studio within a few swift years. Like Puffy, he "always ran. Always looked thirsty." And like Puffy, that king of the obvious sample, he's never short on material, because "there's plenty of good, dead authors that'll hand you terrific picture plots on a silver platter." Puffy bought into the Hamptons; Glick takes tennis lessons. Puffy hired Andre Harrell, who'd fired him early on from Uptown, to serve as president of Bad Boy Entertainment. Glick makes the bully who beat him up as a kid his right-hand man. "He was the measuring stick that was always at Sammy's elbow to remind him of his rise."
The easier archetypal comparison, of course, would be Puff Daddy's fellow Hamptonite Jay Gatsby, another titan of American frivolity with a grifter streak inseparable from his Ben Franklin tendencies. That would be the sureshot sample, the bit that still rings in people's ears, the equivalent of what P.D. has done with the Police's "Every Breath You Take," Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," and Diana Ross's "I'm Coming Out." But there's no respect in sureshots. That whole "take hits from the '80s/But do it sound so crazy" philosophy, to quote former protégé Mase, gave Puff the success he immortally summarized: "Young, black and famous/With money hanging out the anus." It didn't resolve widespread doubts about P-Diddy's ability to add more to the sum of human culture than a string of interchangeable nicknames.
But how fair is all the belly-aching? Take "Been Around the World," one of several Puff Daddy hits--none of them, probably, from his new Forever album--that will outlive their time. The song does begin with a blatant "Let's Dance" sample, but that includes the opening where Bowie is referencing "Twist and Shout" by the Beatles, who were covering the Isley Brothers, who were capitalizing on the first dance trend of the rock-and-roll era fully endorsed by the jet set. (There's a great photo in Fads, Follies and Delusions of the American People of Carol Channing twisting with a cabinet member.) Bowie was then cashing in his cultishness, offering a ready-to-wear version of his membership in a global party elite that Bianca Jagger probably did as much to create as Mick. In other words, Sean Combs is hardly stripmining a virgin field.
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Rather, he's demanding a center table in the private club for himself and his entourage. Instead of rapping a verse, the track creatively has Notorious B.I.G. sing the chorus, reworked itself in a slightly less obvious borrowing from a Lisa Stansfield hit. While Big complains about being playa-hated everywhere, Mase breeds new resentments, indexing his life of luxury with raps that blur street slang and catalogue copy ("Drive with the tints that be 35 percent"). Puff shows up in the middle to justify himself on gender lines: "I make it my biz to see that all ladies come. . . . Lick 'em places niggaz wouldn't dare put they faces." Translation: I earn a living recording the soft dance music rappers can't abide. Takes a strong stomach, actually. Honor my achievement.
Arriviste wealth is flashy wealth; it feeds on the scorn of those with thinner wallets or thinner blood. "You can hate me now, but I won't stop now," Combs chants with Nas on a recent smash single, echoing a theme he's been hitting since the beginning. An old theme: the slogan of James Gatz of North Dakota, or Sammy Glick from the Lower East Side. But as rappers become the industry moguls, demand the glitz, forge the social connections, there's an added barrier, as there always is when blacks assimilate. Fitzgerald anticipated it in a little-remembered passage from Gatsby: "As we crossed Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry. 'Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge,' I thought; 'anything at all.' "
The Gatsbys and Glicks have to suffer a great downfall, so that all they symbolize can quietly insinuate itself nonetheless. Puffy's turn is next. He wants to be everywhere: explaining hip-hop to Charlie Rose on PBS, offering up a Spanish version of his new single "P.E. 2000" for the Latin market, talking about a rock band. But the center gets snatched from him as quickly as he creates it. Labels like No Limit and Cash Money swiped Bad Boy's badness. Onetime "underground" MCs like Jay-Z, Nas, and DMX decided they could put their faces into the mainstream after all. Bad Boy's teenybop side has been succeeded by teenybop rappers, epitomized in LFO's "Summer Girls." And Combs's entourage, his Family, is dissolving: Biggie's presence on Forever limited to one resurrected tape, Mase gone to serve God. It's enough to make me wonder if Puff had the director of the "Hate Me Now" video beaten up as a publicity move.
Forever isn't disreputable in the least. "What You Want" has a cool, Mobyish track. "I'll Do This for You" and especially the Jay-Z duet "Do You Like It. . . . Do You Want It. . . ." could be hits, unless the Jigga market is saturated. "Satisfy You" borrows R. Kelly to bow to the ladies. "Fake Thugs Dedication" is an MC Lyte cover far more surprising than the Public Enemy cover. "Real Niggas" successfully exhumes B.I.G., with Lil' Kim added. There's a battle medley with moments, a God tribute based on a Christopher Cross loop of all things (hey, why not, Enrique Iglesias's big hit scoops up a chunk of "Dust in the Wind"). Puffy is arguably rapping better, though he still has a .22 caliber voice and a tendency to mimic whatever guest vocalist he's playing off.
But Bo Diddy knows he's slipping. He samples dialogue from Scarface (a saga that's kind
of Glick plus Glocks): "You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers and say that's the bad guy. So say goodnight to the bad guy. Last time you're gonna see a bad guy like this again." Good idea, trying to make his fight against fate the theme here. Trouble is, when the tide turns on a type like Sean Combs, it isn't because he's a public enemy, it's just fickle attention spans moving on and no one remembering to look back. "I wasn't a selfish producer," Puffy told Charlie Rose, meaning he put his audience's reaction first. "I wasn't doing it for me." Fine, as long as you have an audience. What makes Puffy run? I believe we're about to find out again.
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