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 incidents—including the Club New York shooting—the “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 bullets—only 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.”
In January 2000, about a month after Combs was indicted in the nightclub shooting, the Associated Press began to examine the so-called “Puffy backlash,” pointing out that beginning with the alleged April 1999 bat assault on Steve Stoute of Interscope Records, “Combs has suffered twin black eyes himself: a stiff drop-off in record sales and a sharp increase in negative publicity.”
Spike, Combs’s new album at the time, stayed in the Top 10 for just two weeks, and sold a fraction of its predecessor. Then came his arrest in the Club New York fiasco. This was how the AP capsuled public sentiment about Combs: “Some of Puff Daddy’s problems are self-inflicted, others seem just the inevitable product of his runaway success. But detractors have a list of anti-Puffy complaints: Puffy is a phony gangster. Puffy can’t rap. Puffy rips off other people’s hits. Puffy, with his big bankroll and his Bentley and his $600,000 birthday party, is out of touch with the street. Puffy is just dumb.” The story looked at Bad Boy record sales. “Disappointing,” the AP concluded. “While 1997’s No Way Out sold 7 million copies, the current Forever barely broke the 1 million mark.”
Bashing Combs was becoming tantamount to playin’ the dozens, subjecting him to the ultimate insult. “Puff, the Magic’s Draggin’,” declared a New York Post headline. “The Deflation of Puffy Combs,” read one in The Washington Post. Vibe magazine ran a similar piece discussing the “Puffy backlash.” Even the staid New Yorker dissed Combs, weighing in with “A Letter to Puff Daddy.” The tongue-in-cheek piece had writer Andy “Stacky” Borowitz applying for a job with Puffy’s posse, saying, “I am available to start hanging with you 24-7, effective immediately.”
Insiders say that the beleaguered Combs was forced to call up his reserves—artists working on projects that otherwise might never have seen the light of day. “Do you know how long Black Rob was on Puffy’s label?” asks a disgruntled Bad Boy associate. “Forever and a day. Puffy didn’t put him out until the shit hit the fan. He was down in the dumps. His record sales were slumping. Everything was going down the drain. The Biggie song had worn off. The group 112 was not the success he anticipated.” Flatbush scuttlebutt raked Combs for stymieing rap talents like Black Rob.
“Why you holding on to your artists so long?” asks Damien, a self-described rap historian. “It’s because you wanna drain all the wealth outta them and use them and discard them.” Black Rob, however, came to Combs’s defense. He told friends that even though it took a while for his music to hit the streets, he knew Combs eventually would release the album.
But the speculation regarding Mase’s sudden departure from Bad Boy stirred up a storm of controversy. “How do you have a 19-year-old rapper named Mase who decides one day to wake up and say, ‘You know what, I wanna get outta this shit and be a minister?’ ” a former Combs disciple told the Voice.
In 1999, Mase, whose real name is Mason Betha, quit Bad Boy Entertainment and announced the formation of S.A.N.E. Ministries (the acronym stands for Saving A Nation Endangered). He now calls himself Minister Mase “after a soul-stirring vision from God.” Indeed, at the height of his popularity, owing to the success of his Harlem World album, Mase reportedly told one radio interviewer: “Tupac [who was killed in Las Vegas in 1996] heard the call and he didn’t heed the warning. Biggie heard it; he didn’t heed it. I’m no fool.”
Some still have doubts as to why Mase left. “Puffy does not let people out of their contract so easily,” claims a Bad Boy insider. “He had Mase under contract for a long time. You let somebody walk into your office and say, ‘I don’t want to be under contract no more,’ and you just say, ‘Okay, go ahead’? I think Mase had something over him, some little secret that Puffy did not want to get out, and he used it as a bargaining chip to get out of that record deal.” Going S.A.N.E. may have saved Mase’s life. “If anybody who wants to do something to you, they’ll think twice,” the insider asserts. “When you’re with the Lord, they think twice about doing you stuff. Think about it. He’s the only one who got out on top.”
Supporters of Jamaal “Shyne” Barrow insist that his life was destroyed by the Bad Boy Curse. James Barnes, an aspiring r&b singer and record store owner, says he watched Barrow turn from wannabe rap superstar to one of Sean Combs’s most vicious creatures.
Barrow was 17 when Barnes first met him hanging around his record shop in Flatbush. “He was at that time kind of cocky, but he had that young cockiness because people were showing so much interest in him,” he recalls. “Prior to that, he hadn’t had that much interest in him at all.” Barnes had introduced Barrow to a rap impresario who knew Don Pooh, rapper Foxy Brown’s associate producer. Barrow’s rap name, Shyne, was coming up in conversations among record executives who pinned their hopes for a chart comeback on phenomenal ghetto talents like him. Then “Shyne from Brooklyn,” as the industry came to know him, began to get, as Barnes put it, “negatively cocky.”
One day, Barnes cornered Barrow in a Manhattan studio where he had been laying down some tracks on another artist’s song. “Shyne, I know you wanna do this and I know you have talent and you’re gonna make it big,” Barnes remembers telling the teenager. “But don’t let this industry swallow you up. You see that drive you have in you, that cockiness? It’s like a sponge and it attracts the negativity which swallows you up. Chill out a little bit! You’re being too cocky.”
Barnes’s words had little effect on Barrow. When a young female rapper was having trouble with synching her rap to rhythm, Barnes suggested that Barrow teach her the basics. “Shyne, you know how to flow,” he says he told him. “You know how to rhyme. Teach her.”
“I’m gonna own 50 percent of her stuff,” Barrow responded. “I want 50 percent of the royalties.”
“Shyne, it doesn’t work like that,” the shocked Barnes explained. “Just calm down a little. Each one teach one. We’re all gonna get somewhere. Just teach her.”
“No, I’m not teaching her unless I get 50 percent!” Barrow insisted. Finally, Barrow gave up on his demand and worked with the female rapper. But after she failed to “get the flow,” Barnes asked Barrow to rap on a record he was producing.
“He had a little rap that was about eight bars,” he recalls. “I remember him talking about Cojiba cigars. That was in the rhyme a lot. You didn’t necessarily understand every single word, but it had a fluidity to it. It had a good sound. It was easy listening. You wanted to hear more. So we just wanted to be able to introduce his voice so people could be looking for it.”
Barnes’s idea worked. Shyne from Brooklyn became a cult figure, an unsigned hype. Now he was being wooed by Don Pooh and famed star makers like Jermaine Dupri.
“Jermaine Dupri was supposed to be coming up to New York because he had heard about Shyne,” Barnes says. “My friend who had introduced him to Don Pooh was trying to decide whether to go with Don Pooh or Jermaine Dupri.” When Barnes found out about the tug of war, he settled on Dupri. “To me, Jermaine Dupri always did good with younger artists and I told my friend, ‘You need to steer Shyne toward that type of producer because he still needs to be cultivated. He’s not ready. He’s still very raw.’ ”
Then along came a spider. Bad Boy was in the house. “Don’t sign with Bad Boy!” Barnes told Barrow after bumping into him one day in Flatbush.
“Nah, I’m good,” Barrow said confidently. “I’m good. I know what I’m doin’. I’m good.”
Barnes made several attempts to save Barrow from being swallowed up by Bad Boy. “I knew that he should not be there because of the ferocity with which Puffy was coming at him,” he says. “Don Pooh was very interested in Shyne, but he was humble. But Puffy was just coming on and there was something very shady about that.”
One night, Combs arranged to meet Barrow at a swank hotel in Manhattan. According to the story as told to Barnes, “Puffy just hit him up with a Rolex watch and Shyne just stayed there with him at the hotel.” He adds that Shyne “didn’t come back to Brooklyn for a while” and says the next time he saw Barrow, he was “dipped in ice and dressed to a T.” Barnes told Shyne how happy he was that he was on his way to realizing his dream. But Barnes was put off by Barrow’s smug response.
“Yo, what up son?” Barrow said.
Barnes remembers thinking that this was not the same Barrow he knew. “I said to myself, ‘Damn! That’s sad. This is what happens to young people. This is a child in a candy store.’ ” Barnes felt that Barrow had fallen victim to the Bad Boy Curse. He noticed that he hung out with a different crowd. “The people I saw around him were not Shyne loyalists. He just seemed to evolve into this monster.”
Shortly after he had signed with Bad Boy, Barrow was involved in a tragic car accident that killed one of his childhood friends. According to the story, Barrow, two of his closest friends, and a cousin, were driving home to Brooklyn after partying at a nightclub in Manhattan. They were all drunk. Their Mercedes-Benz crashed, fatally injuring one of the teenagers. “Shyne basically came out of the accident with scratches,” Barnes recalls. “But the word on the street was, ‘Yo, Shyne is messed up! Heard how he was acting at his boy’s funeral; he was just laughing and talking.’ There was this terrible story in the street about how he just seemed so indifferent.”
Barnes found out that after the accident someone had stolen the Rolex watch Combs gave him. “His main focus was, ‘Puff better get me another Rolex.’ This is what the word on the street was, and it made me sick to my stomach,” he says. “I didn’t wanna believe it, but it was just the consensus on the street. He had made it with Bad Boy so it was like he was going to show indifference toward other people. Everybody was talking about it. They said that he gave his dead friend’s family $1000 for the funeral. It was just great indifference. They say he was at the funeral acting very nonchalant, not like he had lost one of his dearest childhood friends.”
These days, James Barnes wonders what will become of “Shyne from Brooklyn.” The rapper faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced on April 16. “I know he’s catching hell and I know his mother and his grandmother are catching hell,” he says. “It’s too bad they’ve only now realized that they shouldn’t have entrusted their child to Puffy. First of all, I don’t think Shyne was old enough to sign any contract. But sometimes you can’t tell black people anything. Shyne had a callous, indifferent personality that you develop once you start hanging around Bad Boy.”
Additional Puff Daddy coverage by Peter Noel:
‘Puff Love’ in the Bad Boys Family
Shyne’s Bible Is His First Line of Defense
Anthony Jones Upholds the Legend of Puff Daddy’s Bodyguard
An Impersonator Witness and Alleged Testilying Redefine Rap Mogul’s Trial
Scapegoating Sean Combs to Get Back at Johnnie Cochran
The Gangsta Life and Times of Jamal Barrow
Are Civil Rights Leaders Frontin’ for Hip Hop Gangstas?
Publicly, Rap Mogul Won’t Beg; Quietly, He Pleads
Can Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs Purchase Respectability and Buy His Way Out of the Club New York Shooting Trial?