The 1990s were a significant and pivotal time for Rap and Hip Hop. It is what most critics, journalists and Hip Hop fans consider, the Golden Age of Hip Hop. At the beginning of the decade Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet busted into the scene with its rousing and confrontational subject matter and MC Hammer also was one of the genre’s most instantly, successfully and influential stars. 1991 92, and 93 were also years were rap and Hip Hop continued to grow rapidly and its art form was one of the most successful assets to the music industry. It was during these years, that Pete Rock and CL Smooth released their biggest hit ever T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You), NWA members went solo and YO! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City were staples for rap videos and Kris Kross made me want to wear my clothes backwards. I think I did it for a few days. As cool as it was I eventually had to stop because my mother wouldn’t let me go to school dressed that way. Rap labels and or cliques were also becoming something of powerhouses and one of them was arguably at the forefront of the culture. That record label was Bad Boy Records.
Founded by former Uptown Records Intern, Sean Combs launched and started Bad Boy in the year 1993. While working at Uptown during 93’ label head Andre Harrell as an intern, Combs was unexpectedly terminated from the internship, due to what some believe was based on mishap of overbooking a gymnasium event years prior, that resulted in a stampede that left nine attendees injured and some unfortunately killed. While Combs was not charged or responsible for the security procedures for the event, he was still eventually released from the position. It was also in this same year of 93, that the young up and coming entrepreneur founded in launched his own label, Bad Boy Records.
With its first release under a fresh new distribution deal with Arista/Universal Music Group, Bad Boy’s first single was in 1994 with Craig Mack’s Flava In Ya Ear and the first album was from The Notorious B.I.G.-Ready To Die. While Craig Mack’s debut single and its remix were smashes on MTV and urban radio, it was Biggie’s debut album and its debut single Juicy that put the Brooklyn MC on the map. Produced by Poke of the famous 90’s Hip Hop/R&B production duo, Trackmasters and Pete Rock, the single was a groovy and inspirational jam that sampled R&B/Funk group Mtume’s Juicy Fruit instrumental. The rapper’s rhythmic and signature New York flow made him an instant star in rap/Hip Hop and throughout the music world in general. Born Christopher Wallace, in Brooklyn, New York, the rapper was signed to Bad Boy after Combs heard his demo tape that was submitted to the widely respected Hip Hop magazine The Source. Blown away by the demo and very intrigued by the rapping style of the MC, Sean signed Biggie and the rest was history. Ready To Die went on to become one of the most successful albums not only within the genre, but in all music ever. With anthems such as Juicy, Warning, Big Poppa and One More Chance, the album to this very day is pure classic. This newfound success for Christopher as well as Mr. Combs was the beginning of friendship and musician/rapper producer duo that would make endless hits for the following few years.
Along with the success of Biggie, Bad Boy’s roster would rapidly increase and the sales of those artists would increase also. It was around this time that R&B singer Faith Evans joined the label and also met and married Wallace. Faith’s debut album, Faith was executively produced by Puffy and the album was certified platinum. Total, another R&B act on the roster, released their debut Total in 1995 also and it was another platinum record. Bad Boy with Diddy’s vision of course, were on a roll for the mid 90s but there was another label that was also on a roll and more aggressive too. Death Row Records, led by CEO and producer, Suge Knight, was one of the most dominant rap labels at the forefront during the 90s. With a line up that consisted of former NWA member Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound and the late Tupac Shakur, the label was one of the most respected and often most feared. Tupac Shakur, who prior to signing to Death Row in 1995, was involved a string of legal woes including an alleged sexual assault that had him sentenced to one and a half to four years in Rikers Island prison. Another incident that would truly change Shakur’s life and change the tone of Hip Hop during the 90s occurred in November 1994 when Tupac was visiting New York’s Quad recording studio for a session and was robbed and shot five times by two men who Shakur thought were direct associates of Biggie and Sean Combs specifically. Combs and Biggie who were in the same studio the night of the shooting, were shocked and vehemently denied the accusations from Tupac. Sean consistently told interviewers that he was sorry for the horrible incident and he had nothing but respect for Tupac and Death Row and wanted everyone to get along and succeed.
Unfazed and angry, despite Puffy and Biggie’s countless interviews with magazines and news reporters speaking that they had nothing to do with the shooting, Tupac began a feud with the entire label that would result in two years of endless diss records and subliminal disses between Bad Boy and Death Row.
In 1996, Tupac after being bailed out of prison from Suge Knight and Jimmy Iovine in 95, released the double album All Eyez On Me and released the B-side, Hit Em Up featuring the Outlawz. Hit Em Up was an all out lyrical assault with taunts towards Bad Boy artists and several East coast rappers including Puffy, Biggie, Lil’Kim, Lil Cease and Mobb Deep. One lyric in particular, did not sit well with Biggie and Puffy though. Opening the song with a diss towards of Wallace, Tupac sneeringly mentioned sleeping with Faith Evans, Wallace’s wife at the time. The diss records from Bad Boy’s camp were very dark, disturbing and subliminal following the scathing Hit Em Up. Many hardcore rap fans enjoyed the feud for it’s lyrical excitement but other fans and journalists feared the beef between the two labels and artists had gotten too personal and would soon turn violent.
Tupac Shakur, an influential, respected and very legendary artist not just within rap/hip hop but in all music, would unfortunately be shot and killed on September 13th 1996 in Las Vegas. The loss was a great one for the Hip Hop community and one that would also sitr feelings of regret and sorrow in Biggie and Puffy. Even though throughout the very personal and bitter feud that same year, after the death of Shakur, Biggie was seen an in interview with MTV speaking of how he wished him and Tupac would have resolved he tension and moved on, as they were once very close in the early 1990s when Shakur was an East coast rapper himself. Sean Combs would also share that same sentiment and expressed that the beef was unfortunate, and that he wished peace would’ve been made, before Shakur’s passing.
In late 1996, Combs was putting the finishing touches on Big’s second studio album and gearing up to release the album in 1997. The famed and successful music mogul was inspired by the sessions and Biggie’s material and felt that the upcoming Life After Death would make Christopher an even bigger star. In late winter of 1997, while doing a listening session for the upcoming album Biggie spoke to reporters about how he was ready to release his best work and how he wanted to move on from the intense years of lyrical war with Tupac. Puffy also was very optimistic and excited for the new chapter in his life. What took place after that event would also change Hip Hop forever.
Leaving the Life After Death listening party event, Christopher was riding back to his hotel with Bad Boy artist Lil Cease and producer D-Dot Angelettie, while Combs rode with other security and another vehicle. While at a stoplight, a driver from an SUV pulled up towards the passenger side of the vehicle where Big was sitting and fired four shots towards the rapper and sped off. Panicked, Combs left the vehicle that carried him and rushed to the vehicle that carried Big and immediately drove to the Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles. The Brooklyn born rapper was pronounced dead at 1:15 am on March 9th 1997. The news immediately shook up the music world and of course left Combs shaken and saddened by the loss. Tributes from countless Bad Boy artists and several musicians poured in along with condolences to the late MC’s mother Voletta Wallace. The murder of Tupac and Biggie left a huge hole in Hip Hop music and their cases remain sadly unsolved but to this day their impact on music and culture is highly regarded.
Life After Death was released March 25th 1997 and was an instant success. Boosted with hits such as Hypnotize, Mo Money Mo Problems, and Sky’s The Limit, the posthumous album was celebrated worldwide but another album was also on the horizon that would prove to be an immense commercial success.
Following the untimely passing of The Notorious B.I.G, Sean Combs finished work on his debut studio, 1997’s No Way Out. Under the working title Hell Up In Harlem, combs constructed an album that expressed his feelings of sorrow and grief over the loss of Biggie as well as his confident approach of making hit records. Puffy himself and his team of producers including Bad Boy in-house producer D-Dot Angelettie, Nashiem Myrick, Carlos Broady and Stevie J (Stevie J now famously know on VH1’s Love and Hip Hop reality series) laid down lush, groovy, huge arena ready Hip Hop anthems that were soulful, haunting and celebratory.
Led by the Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five and Matthew Wilder samples of Break My Stride and The Message, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” was the first official single from Sean “Puffy, Diddy” Combs. With the assisted raps from fellow Bad Boy Harlem rapper, Mase, the single was an instant hit on the Billboard charts. Another standout track from the album was I’ll Be Missing You. Featuring the vocals of Faith Evans and new Bad Boy R&B act, Atlanta’s 112, the song was recorded immediately after the late Notorious B.I.G’s passing earlier in 1997 and quickly rose to the charts in the states and worldwide. Sampling the Police’s 1983 hit Every Breath You Take, Evans provides a soulful and emotional interpolation of the Police song along with the soulful crooning of 112. Combs lyrics in particular are very emotional and moving. Co written by rapper Sauce Money, Sean’s lyrics are full of reflection on the good times with Biggie as well the unfortunate murder that took place that year. While performing the song at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, Puffy, Faith Evans, 112 and Sting along with a choir and orchestra performed an epic and very touching version of the song. An emotional and energetic Combs, during the final hook of the performance, exclaimed to the audience “put your hands in the air for the late Biggie Smalls, put your hands together for the late Tupac Shakur, for anybody that’s lost somebody, we’ll be missing you”. The performance drew a huge standing ovation from fans and several artists in attendance.
No Way Out would go on to sell 7 million copies alone in the United States and is what most critics and fans consider to be his best work. I’ll Be Missing You was just one of the many hits on the album though. It’s All About The Benjamins featuring new Bad Boy rap act, Yonkers New York’s The Lox, Lil Kim and the late Notorious B.I.G, the D-Dot produced hit was one of the most aggressive tracks Combs ever released. Backed by a pounding drum pattern and a slick guitar lick, the Linda Laurie sampled banger was also another platinum hit. Biggie’s verse at the end of the track is a stand out due to not only his classic flow but the sudden sample of the Jackson 5’s It’s Great To Be Here. I personally get great nostalgia from this song because it reminds me of my years of blasting Hip Hop in my bedroom after school and wanting to be a producer and be a rapper. More so a producer though.
The hits kept coming from No Way Out with Been Around The World. Sampling David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Lisa Stansfield’s All Around The World, the Biggie and Mase assisted song was another hit for Puffy, that would eventually go platinum. No Way Out’s production and lyrical subject matter on songs was dark such as, Pain, Is This The End with Ginuwine and Twista and Do You Know with Kelly Price but there was one track that is in my opinion, a gem on this album.
The final song to be released and promoted from No Way Out was the Biggie featured Victory. Prior to No Way Out’s release, Hip Hop fans and critics did not consider Puffy to be a rapper. Sean Combs ‘only vocals on all the hits in Bad Boy’s catalog were his signature ad-libs such as “take that, take that” “can’t stop, won’t stop” “can’t stop, won’t stop, cause we can’t stop” and the simple shout out to his own label “Bad Boy”. That would change on No Way Out. On Victory, Puffy opens the track over an epic and adrenalized sample of Bill Conti’s Going The Distance, with the lyrical delivery of a hungry on the corner MC. Trading verses with the late Brooklyn rapper along with a rousing chorus by Busta Rhymes, the verses rapped by Combs are all about his drive to get to the top and overcome in face of critics and naysayers. Although his rhymes were co-written by Lox member Jadakiss, many within the hip hop community consider the verses to be some of the strongest the famed mogul/producer have ever put to tape. With an uptempo drum pattern from producer Stevie J, Victory remains a staple on several sports video games and the video for the track is listed as one of the most expensive videos ever made with costs of $2,700,000. The song would also be later remixed my Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor.
After all the embattling and intense years leading up to No Way Out, the sorrow, anger, grief, fear and consistent ambitious approach by Sean “Puffy/Diddy”Combs makes this album, in my honest opinion his most important work. The producer turn full blown rapper and release a solo album approach had been done and accomplished just fine on Dr. Dre’s 1992 masterpiece The Chronic, but Puffy’s No Way Out was done to show that producers can be rappers too and do it on an even bigger scale. I feel No Way Out was the album to really make producers such as Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, Pharell and Kanye West take the torch and carry it to higher ground and release solo albums and even rap. Kanye West being the one out of all the mentioned producers, to become extremely successful with the producer-turn rapper formula. Speaking on radio show The Breakfast Club in July 2013, Brooklyn MC, Jay-Z also spoke of how No Way Out’s amazing commercial success inspired producers such as Kanye to launch careers as MCs.
From a personal standpoint, the personal and steady confidence of Diddy should be studied and respected with this album, for the simple fact that Combs could have stopped and bowed out of the music world after Big’s death but his “never lose the passion to go platinum” (one of my favorite lines in Victory) mindset is what kept him going and why he’s still here. This album had an impact on me when it came out because the deaths of both Tupac and Biggie were saddening but songs like Victory and I’ll Be Missing You were personally cathartic. Sean’s unflinching ambition on No Way Out was also inspiring and still is to this day. Despite what many feel about Diddy’s music, his cockiness, and even his controversial business dealings with Bad Boy artists, he is still from a visionary standpoint, is one of the best music producers ever and No Way Out along with his endless string of hits over the years proves that.