Shyne’s mother and grandmother placed this young man in the care and custody of Sean “Puffy” Combs, who they believed was a responsible executive of a company. Puffy has the same responsibility as a teacher, as a coach. This boy, Shyne, was out with his idol on that fateful night. When I put my child in your hands, I don’t expect him to end up dead or in jail. —Conrad Muhammad, the “hip hop minister”
A heartbroken Jamaal “Shyne” Barrow has accused Sean “Puffy” Combs of flaunting his arrogance and power, shunning him, and ultimately betraying him.
For 13 months, Barrow, a 21-year-old Belize-born gangsta rapper, bottled up a storm of angry emotions about Combs, the hip hop czar he once considered his idol. But one week before a Manhattan jury acquitted Combs of gun and bribery charges and convicted Barrow of assault stemming from the Club New York shooting, Barrow let it all out in a gut-wrenching interview with the Voice.
“Honestly, he never really did anything to help me after the shooting,” said Barrow, dispelling rumors that Combs footed the bill for his lawyers. Barrow said he paid for his own defense, using up every bit of the advance he had received from Bad Boy Entertainment, Combs’s high-riding label, which produced Barrow’s critically acclaimed debut album, Shyne, last year. “As soon as we were indicted, he wanted to keep me away from him. He didn’t even want to put my album out. Throughout the trial, it’s like, ‘You get out of this however you can and I’m gonna get outta this however I can.’ It [was] never, ‘This is the young man that used to live with me, be with me all the time, under my guidance. This is the young man who was with me that night, and we are all going to get out of this together.’ ”
Barrow, who had been charged with attempted murder, was convicted last Friday on two counts of assault, two weapons charges, and reckless endangerment for the shooting inside the crowded Times Square nightclub in the early morning hours of December 27, 1999. Three patrons were wounded. While Combs walked away a free man, Barrow was jailed pending his April 16 sentencing. The rapper, whose glum reaction following the verdict stood in stark contrast to Combs’s celebratory hosannas, could be sentenced to a maximum 25 years in prison. Combs was acquitted of taking an illegal handgun into the club. He also was cleared of trying to bribe his way out of trouble by offering $50,000 and a diamond ring given to him by ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez to driver Wardel Fenderson. Combs’s doting bodyguard, Anthony “Wolf” Jones, was acquitted of the same charges. Both men had faced up to 15 years in prison.
“It’s bittersweet,” Combs said of the verdict. “My heart goes out to everybody who was hurt by this.”
Barrow never believed the man he refers to as “Combs” would hurt him. “I never really wanted to admit this,” he said. “I was in a state of denial because I am such a loyal person. . . . I could understand if I was just another guy, but I am somebody that you groomed, somebody that you showed the ropes [to], and to just leave me hanging there, nobody speaking up for me, nobody trying to spin it my way, nobody trying to show that there [were] other guns fired [inside the club], nobody trying to show that shots were in the ceiling, nobody trying to show that this was clearly self-defense. Everyone’s trying to make the two shots that was supposed to be fired from the gun that I had [the act of] this desperado at the O.K. Corral.”
Every day, Combs walked into court and took his seat between his high-priced lawyers Benjamin Brafman and Johnnie Cochran—treating Barrow like the invisible man, never looking to the right of the defense table where Barrow sometimes sat as if spellbound, watching witness after witness parade into court, accusing him of recklessly firing a gun. Barrow felt some of the witnesses lied to protect Combs. Following testimony by Club New York security guard Cherise Myers, a key defense witness who claimed that she fell on top of Combs during a mad dash to the exit after the first shots were fired and never saw him with a gun, Barrow reacted angrily.
“You don’t have to prove that I did it in order to prove that you didn’t do it,” reasoned Barrow, who several days later would sever his contract with Bad Boy Entertainment. “She lied for him. Fine. But don’t let her testify against me. That’s when I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t believe it. That was it,” the rapper added. “There was no way I could continue. I couldn’t even look at him anymore.”
Jamaal Barrow had eagerly anticipated Sean Combs’s testimony. Would Combs sell him out to save his own neck? “I didn’t know what to expect,” Barrow recalled. “I didn’t know what he was going to get on the stand and say.”
Combs was the key defense witness, spending a full day testifying that he never carried a weapon on the night of his arrest and instead thought he was the target. “I thought I was being shot at,” the millionaire rapper told the jury. Disgusted supporters of Barrow commented within earshot of a Voice reporter that Barrow saved Combs’s life by drawing his 9mm Ruger and firing at would-be assailants. But under questioning by Benjamin Brafman, Combs said he had no special love for Barrow, hinting that the rapper was just another “dawg” in his pound.
“You have any greater or lesser personal relationship with Mr. Barrow than any of the other recording artists on your label?” Brafman asked.
“The personal relationship I have with all my artists is about the same,” Combs responded. “I respect all my artists.”
Barrow remembered grasping his Bible and staring in disbelief as Combs gave his version of events. “He proved that he was just there to save himself,” Barrow charged. “There are no boundaries to what he would do to exonerate himself. I had the Bible in front of me, and I was just praying that he wouldn’t continue to lie. He sort of took himself out of the situation, that [we] were never involved in meeting together that night.”
Combs, Lopez, and their entourage arrived at Club New York a little past midnight after a limousine ride from East Hampton. Trouble began when Combs tried to leave shortly after 2:30 a.m. Someone bumped into Matthew “Scar” Allen, there was an exchange of insults, and another man tossed a fistful of dollar bills at Combs. Three to six shots then rang out, sending panicked clubgoers diving to the floor or charging toward the exits. Three were injured. Natania Reuben was shot in the face, and Robert Thompson and Julius Jones were each hit in the the upper torso. Nine witnesses said they saw Barrow with a gun. Two of the shooting victims testified they also saw Combs with a gun—a charge the music executive denied.
Combs fled the club along with Lopez and Jones, with Fenderson at the wheel of his Lincoln Navigator. They were stopped 11 blocks away after Fenderson first steered the SUV onto a sidewalk to evade a police car and then ran several red lights. A 9mm handgun police found in the SUV and a similar weapon allegedly hurled out of a window during the chase led to the gun possession charges against Combs and Jones.
Lopez was arrested, but not charged. The pop diva told the grand jury that she never saw Combs with a gun on the night of the shooting. She was not called to testify, and did not appear in court. Charges were dropped against Fenderson after he agreed to testify against the others. In stilted testimony laced with malapropisms, he said his wild escape attempt was caused by fear of the gun-toting Combs and Jones. Fenderson, who twice told police that he owned the gun before recanting, also detailed the alleged bribe offer.
There was a time in the relationship between Jamaal Barrow and Sean Combs when the awestruck Barrow almost was eating out of Combs’s hands. In 1998, when Barrow was barely 18, a talent scout heard him rapping in Leroy’s Barber Shop in Flatbush and introduced him to Combs. “That was when he was like the Michael Jackson of hip hop,” Barrow recalled. “I went everywhere with him. That was the relationship. I was just watching Michael Jackson at work. Combs was one of the biggest people in the world, and I was just going along for that joyride.”
As an apprentice rapper, Barrow “dawged” Combs’s every move, spending most of his time at Daddy’s House, the Midtown business where Combs has his recording studios. “I was there all the time because one day I hoped to be on the level of a Michael Jackson,” Barrow said. “I was gonna study everything Combs did, just try to be around him as much as possible to absorb some of that energy and see what it was that got him to the level he is at right now.”
Barrow stuck with Combs through good times and bad. “I was there as well when it all deteriorated and crumbled,” he said, alluding to the sensational “shootout” at Club New York and their arrest and prosecution. “I was right there.” Barrow hinted at what his supporters believed all along—that he took the fall for Puff Daddy. “When you’re with someone all the time, it is incumbent upon you to do that,” Barrow said. “We should go through it together. We live together. We die together. That’s just the kind of person I am.”
Barrow said that after leaving the Midtown North station house on the evening of December 27, he became a pariah in Combs’s eyes. “We would speak only through lawyers,” he said. “He was afraid to put my album out because he wanted to distance himself from me. [My contact with him] was never personal. There was never a concern such as ‘Do you need help? Is everything all right? Do you need anything?’ It was never like that.”
When Combs allegedly signaled to Barrow that he planned to shelve the album Barrow had devoted his life to completing, Barrow threatened legal action. “To my surprise, he didn’t want to put my album out,” Barrow reflected. As his relations with Combs worsened, Barrow reached out to other executives at Bad Boy Entertainment. “I think the people at the record company love me and they wanted to do as much as they possibly could, but Combs wanted the relationship to remain minimal and not have me publicized. I don’t think they promoted me as much as they could have and gave everything they could have given because of him.”
Judgment day last Friday crept up on Jamaal Barrow and, like a thief, snatched the last bit of freedom he’d savored—a heart-to-heart rap over lunch with Conrad Muhammad, the former Nation of Islam leader now known as the “hip hop minister,” who had become an adviser to the MC in the closing weeks of the trial.
According to Muhammad, Barrow had no inkling he’d be convicted that day. He had given Barrow a copy of Marvin Gaye’s commemorative CD, What’s Goin’ On? and discussed with him “how an artist can really look at what’s going on in contemporary society and comment on it without promoting negativity.” Barrow promised he’d listen to the CD over the weekend. “He was pretty much resigned to the fact that he was going to do some jail time, but the important thing was that he was willing to accept responsibility for what he had done. He made it clear that he did not intend to hurt anyone. He truly felt his life was in danger when he pulled the gun. As we talked, I could see that Shyne desperately wanted to beat the attempted murder charge. He had hoped that the jury would come back with self-defense.”
But that’s not how the jury saw it. In court, Barrow made the sign of the cross each time not-guilty verdicts were read for Combs and Jones. He went through the same ritual when it was his turn to be sentenced. “When the forewoman pronounced him guilty on five counts, his jaw tightened and I could see that he was under tremendous stress,” observed Muhammad, who runs CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment).
By then, spectators were bolting from the courtroom. Before Combs left, he went to the back row where Barrow’s mother, Frances Franklin, sat with his 77-year-old grandmother, whom Barrow calls “Old Girl.” Jennifer Perry, an adviser, and a handful of Barrow’s loyal “dawgs” also had remained seated, stunned by the verdict. According to Muhammad, Combs expressed sorrow over Barrow’s conviction and departed. Then Combs’s mother, Janice, with tears in her eyes, came over to Barrow’s family and “grabbed the mother and grandmother’s hands, essentially telling them the same thing.” Johnnie Cochran followed. “Cochran said that Puffy had promised to get the best appeal lawyers available for Shyne,” Muhammad claimed. “At that point the family seemed appreciative but very cool.”
Several minutes later, court officers returned Barrow to the well. From behind the railing, he passionately embraced his mother and grandmother. He urged his relatives to find the strength to cope with the new life he was about to face. Afterward, he reached out to Muhammad and hugged him. The convicted rapper was then led away to a holding cell. Muhammad recalled asking a Latino court officer with the rank of captain for permission to go back to the cell to pray with Barrow. “He said, ‘I don’t have a problem with that’ and asked the officer in charge, who said, ‘If he goes back there, it’s your call.’ ” The captain escorted Muhammad to the holding cell.
Barrow’s eyes lit up on seeing Muhammad. “He was sitting on a bench in an opened cell and he wasn’t handcuffed,” Muhammad said. “Clearly he was bewildered. He was trying to get his bearings. He had his Bible with him.” The captain ushered Barrow and Muhammad to a private area where they sat down. Muhammad grabbed Barrow’s hand and led him in prayer. “I started prayer, thanking God for the victory over the attempted murder charge,” he recalled. “Then we both prayed that he’d be protected.”
After praying, the captain approached. “This is Satan’s kingdom back here,” he told the astonished prisoner. “These guys [other prisoners] are gonna try you if they see any weakness. But we’re gonna look out for you. We’re gonna make sure you’re OK.” Muhammad said the captain offered to request that Barrow be put in protective custody, presumably on Rikers Island, as he awaits sentencing. He urged Barrow to accept the offer. “I know the image he has as a gangsta, and I didn’t want him to have the extra pressure of having to worry about whether he should accept protective custody and how people would perceive him,” Muhammad said. “As a brother, I encouraged him to go into protective custody, at least until he got his bearings and was fully aware of what had happened to him.” He said Barrow nodded, indicating it was good advice.
“Be strong, brother!” Muhammad urged, clasping Barrow’s hand in his as he said goodbye.
“Minister, I’m gonna try,” Barrow promised.
“No, brother!” Muhammad shot back. “Now you have to be strong!”
They embraced one last time and Muhammad left, pondering how Barrow wound up in this mess in the first place. “He pulled a gun to protect Puffy,” Muhammad asserted. “When I was a young man under the leadership of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, the man I loved and respected, there were times when I wanted a gunman to jump up so that I could leap in front of the bullet to show my loyalty. This is what happens when you are young and impressionable, and admire and respect someone. I believe that is what this whole affair is all about. Shyne was just a kid.”
Jamaal Barrow has matured in the wake of the Club New York shooting, which has shattered the bond between him and Sean Combs. He told the Voice he appreciates Combs for “appreciating my talent,” but in the end dished out the same measure of “Puff love” that Combs doled out on the stand: “I’ll never say, ‘I loved him.’ ”
Research: Allegra Johnson. Additional reporting by Samuel Maull, Associated Press
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