Earlier this week Revolt TV, the latest venture spawned from the mind of Sean “Diddy” Combs, was introduced into the home of millions, and nothing could’ve been more exciting. Defined by its founder as a different type of music programming channel, many folks who came of age in the 1990s—when Diddy was Puff Daddy, the shiny suit-wearing king of Bad Boy Records—were curious to see if the brother could once again reshape popular culture.
Without a doubt, it’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the launch of Bad Boy Records in 1993. Twenty years has passed since Puffy assembled an army of producers, stylists, songwriters, fashionistas, tastemakers and artists with the sole plan to take over the world. A mastermix of W. E. B. DuBois, Hugh Hefner and Ralph Lauren, Puffy, who got his start throwing parties while a student at Howard University, wanted Bad Boy listeners to be aspirational in all things.
Like Berry Gordy and Russell Simmons before him, Puffy was able to shape his own version of the ’hood into a marketable commodity. Bad Boy wasn’t merely about music, it was a lifestyle. Rocking diamonds and designer gear, sipping on champagne and Belvedere, sailing in St. Barts and chilling in Aspen, the Bad Boy motto was “all about the Benjamins, baby.”
While Bad Boy was originally supposed to a subsidiary of Uptown Records (where Puff rose from intern to head of A&R), after mentor Andre Harrell fired him in 1993, the future Diddy walked a few blocks east and partnered with music mogul Clive Davis at Arista Records. He was 23. DJ Clark Kent, who’s known Diddy since his Howard University years, says, “You have to understand, the Bad Boy era started with Puff working with Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. Puff took a little of what he learned from Andre, a little from the streets of Harlem, and a little of what Harlem sounded like when you went to clubs like the Rooftop. That was Bad Boy.”
With a sound that was slinky, seductive and funky as hell, Puffy was the captain that guided everything, and all eyes were on him. “For artists like me who have studied the industry, Puffy’s story is so inspiring,” says new jack R&B singer Sebastian Mikael. “He got fired from one job and then went on to build an entire empire.”
Indeed, years before regular people understood the concept of branding, Puffy was determined that Bad Boy Records—along with his artists Biggie Smalls, Faith Evans, Total, Carl Thomas, Mase, the LOX and others—would be a name as recognizable as Ivory soap or McDonald’s Quarter Pounders.
“Bad Boy played a big role in a lot of different areas,” Sebastian continues. “This was the years before the Internet played a role in launching artists, but Puffy had street teams in various markets grinding and going hard. He was determined to make Bad Boy a success.”
Puff’s first Bad Boy releases were albums by perhaps the two most unattractive rappers in hip-hop: The Notorious B.I.G. (Ready to Die) and Craig Mack (Project: Funk the World). Promoting them together, Bad Boy sent out “Big Mack” sampler cassettes (yes, cassettes) featuring songs from both artists. While Craig Mack’s album was a dud compared to his labelmate’s, the brilliant remix of his first single “Flava in Ya Ear” featuring LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Rampage and Biggie became a huge hit.
“In the ’90s, Puff represented what hip-hop was all about,” explains music industry veteran Vincent Davis, who’s currently directing How They Get Down, a documentary about the music industry. “Puff took the hustler street vibe and commercialized it. He took the street opulence and merged that into making good records. Twenty years later, if ‘Flava in Ya Ear’ comes on in the club, you still put down your drink and find a girl to dance with.”
With the release of Biggie’s magnificent debut Ready to Die, the overweight rapper from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn not only became Bad Boy’s premier artist, he also became a sex symbol. “Biggie had a level of charisma and a great sense of humor,” says author and filmmaker Thembisa Mshaka. As the former rap editor of industry magazine Gavin, she was there from the beginning of Bad Boy’s launch.
With champagne flowing through his veins, the abyss that separated the Notorious B.I.G. from other rappers (and Bad Boy from other labels) went beyond simply being the best. “Big was just a genuine dude and a dope lyricist,” explains Mshaka. “When he walked in the room, he was like the mayor.”
Incorporated with the “style and grace” of his Hype Williams directed videos, countless magazines covers and awards, a hypnotic stage style and a steady rise from streets to suites that caused jealous ones envy to bubble in the bitter hearts of his rap rivals.
Big’s future wife Faith Evans, a superstar in her own right, had been part of the Bad Boy family from the beginning. Before releasing her own self-titled album on Bad Boy, she worked with Puff at the Hit Factory recording studios writing songs, singing backgrounds and harmonizing on demos. Evans met the flamboyantly cocky Puffy while hanging-out at the legendary Hit Factory in 1993.
“I was with my boyfriend, and all the guys that were in the studio told Puff to give me a chance,” she recalls. “There was no one else around, so Puff agreed. I remember being like, ‘Excuse me Mr. Puff, but can I change this around?’ By the time I walked out of the booth, he was asking me if I wanted to sign with his new label. I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ That was what I had been waiting for my whole life.
“It was so hectic over there,” Faith recalls. “At one point, it seemed like Puffy had a session going on in every studio in the building. Everybody Puff grew up with or went to school with worked there. It was like a musical assembly line.” Not long after, albums by Total and 112 followed.
“America in the 1990s was defined by the sound of Bad Boy,” says Aliya S. King, co-writer of Faith’s 2008 autobiography Keeping the Faith, which spent two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. “Bad Boy was the soundtrack to us graduating from college, moving out of parent’s houses, getting our first jobs, and seriously falling in love for the first time.”
One of the main ingredients to Bad Boy’s success was an army of producers including Stevie J., Chucky Thompson, Deric Angelettie, Nashiem Myrick and many others who worked on the tracks. From what I’ve heard, a lot of screaming, laughing and cursing went into the creative process. When Missy Elliott was producing “Trippin’,” the first single from Total’s sophomore album Kima, Keisha & Pam, she and Puff riffed constantly.
“Puffy just came into the studio telling me how wack I was and that I didn’t know anything about music,” Missy told me in 2005. “Later, we battled over the phone and I just had to hang up on him.”
But in an unprecedented move for a label exec, Puffy began appearing regularly on his artists’ songs and in their videos. “While Puff was selling his brand and company vision, he was also selling himself,” says Vincent Davis. “Of course he had a team of producers and artists. But Puff had a way of making himself the most important person associated with the label.”
A few months after Biggie was killed in 1997, Puffy released the tribute record “I’ll Be Missing You,” featuring Faith and 112, which went on to become a poplar anthem and a Grammy winner.
“I was in a crazy place at that time and just needed to take time for myself and not be around everything I was unsure of,” Faith recalls. “When Puff first asked me to do ‘I’ll Be Missing You,’ I didn’t want to do it. That was my first time back in the studio after Big’s death.
“Puff said he was going to make ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ the biggest song ever. But for me, there were too many memories.” When Diddy’s first solo album No Way Out was released two months later, it would go on to sell seven million albums and win a Grammy for Best Rap Album.
Ironically, it was also around this time some critics tried calling Puff out for using too many samples. “That was kind of silly, because hip-hop comes from sampling,” DJ Clark Kent says. “If you listen to ‘Rapper’s Delight’ you hear ‘Good Times.’ So that was one criticism I didn’t think was warranted.”
Fashion and style also played a major role in defining the Bad Boy aesthetic. What became known as ghetto fabulous, stylist Misa Hylton (who was briefly Puff’s lady at the time) envisioned as urban couture.
“Before Bad Boy, lots of rappers were wearing Cross Colours or Karl Kani, but we want to change that,” Misa says. “The Bad Boy look was about aspiration, so I dressed Biggie in Versace and Coogi sweaters. I put Puffy and Mase in colored leathers. These became the styles that the street kids began emulating.”
Visually, Bad Boy also defined the era with Hype Williams directed videos that kept the planet dancing with each new song, pushing the label’s jiggy visions of fun and affluence. “Hip-hop videos never looked like that until Hype gave Bad Boy that gloss and sheen,” says Thembisa Mshaka. “Hype had higher budgets than most directors, and he was shooting in exotic locations, on boats. He set a new standard in urban videos.”
Twenty years after the launch of Bad Boy, DJ Clark Kent says, “Puff put his heart into Bad Boy and built one of the most important empires around.” While Bad Boy Records is still active today with Janelle Monáe, French Montana and Cassie, what the label has done in the new millennium doesn’t begin to compare to its cache and influence during its golden era in the 1990s.
“I’m very proud of the work we did back then,” Faith says. “Bad Boy wasn’t always perfect, but some great music came out of that chaos.”