It’s now 2013. As online music lovers, we’ve had widespread file-sharing for 14 years, Youtube for eight years and full-fledged communities dedicated to pop-culture preservation and video obscurities for at least five. At this point, every banned music video, live TV blooper or controversial performance once relegated to word-of-mouth memories is now a mere double-click away. With Ja Rule’s infamous 9/11 discussion with “TRL” resurfacing in 2010, it would seem only one tumultuous music moment has yet to find a new life online. That moment is the crucifixion of Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Combs was at the center of one of 1999’s biggest music controversies stemming from his appearance in the second single from Nas’ i am… album, “Hate Me Now.” The Hype Williams directed video initially featured Nas and Combs carrying crosses until they are crucified at the video’s climax. The clip’s world premiere was to be one of the first momentous video debuts on MTV’s fledgling “Total Request Live,” but a few days before the clip’s April 15, 1999 premiere, Combs contacted Nas’ manager Steve Stoute requesting all footage of him interacting with the cross be removed. Unfortunately, an error in communication resulted in the original edit with a crucified Puffy hitting the airwaves, resulting in Combs allegedly showing up at Stoute’s office within minutes and assaulting him. By the time that episode of “Total Request Live” re-aired five hours later, that cut of “Hate Me Now” had already been swapped-out with a version having all the offensive scenes edited out, presumably never aired anywhere again.
Nas told VH1’s “Behind the Music” last year that he’d wanted to re-appropriate the Jesus iconography for sometime, originally envisioning it as the cover of his acclaimed debut Illmatic. Nas was no stranger to controversially invoking religious references before, having done so on early posse cut appearances such as “Live at the BBQ” and “Back to the Grill Again.” But, in that same interview, Nas misremembers the precise reasoning for it finally being enacted in the “Hate Me Now” video, naming a play in New York, possibly starring Blair Underwood, with a black Jesus that was inspiring protests and caught the ire of then-Mayor Giuliani. These are actually three separate events. In the early 90s (around the time of the aforementioned Nas posse cut appearances) Underwood starred in the self-produced short The Second Coming as a Jesus returning to a world “24 hours from today” where he’s committed to an asylum and accused of a violent crime. The Giuliani outrage is probably the Mayor’s early-2000s kerfuffle over photographer Renee Cox’s “Yo Mamma’s Last Supper” which featured Jesus depicted by a naked black woman at a dinner party. As for the actual play that put the black crucifixion in Nas’ mind, that would most likely be New Jersey’s Park Theater Performance Art Center’s 1997 production of their annual The Passion Play which, for the first time in 82 years, had Jesus played by a black actor. While the casting choice was met with angry phone calls, some cancellations and one threat the Center itself didn’t take seriously, the production wound up benefitting from the controversy with ticket sales up 25 percent from the year prior.
Adding to the confusion of “Hate Me Now” is that, not including the pulled crucified-Puff edit, there’s two versions currently in circulation. The first, which is the one immediately aired in the controversy’s wake, opens with the credits in a Old English font. The second, which is the most commonly seen one, is Hype Williams’ “director’s cut” featuring some backwards lettering in the opening titles, and that’s mostly it. Both versions feature the confusing “Nas believes in the Lord Jesus Christ and this video is in no way a depiction or portrayal of his life or death…” disclaimer, both versions have the moment many cite as the peak of video excess where Puffy spits Cristal at the camera, and both versions feature only Nas on the cross.
It’s interesting to consider that now, fourteen years after the controversial video’s airing, there’s absolutely no sign of it online. For such a heavily promoted event with an even more bombastic fallout, not even an image of Combs on the cross has at any point made its way into cyberspace. Its complete vaporization has caused members of the generation of hip-hop fans born after the controversy question whether or not the clip itself ever existed to begin with. As recent years have seen religious iconography and stations of the cross reenactments becoming much more common in hip-hop videos, Nas pushing more boundaries and buttons with each album and Blair Underwood reading the story of Jesus at Disneyland’s Candlelight Processional last December, one would think by now the original cut of “Hate Me Now” would have resurfaced. But with Combs having patched things up with both Nas and Stoute (who Nas fired following the controversy) before the year ended and Hype Williams not including it on his hand-picked music video DVD compilation, it seems all parties would like to see this video never resurrected.