Watching the recent Bad Boy Reunion Concert on the Today show brought back many jiggy memories of yesteryear when the label launched by a lanky kid, called Puff Daddy, created music that became the soundtracks to our lives. From Day One, with the debuts of Craig Mack and The Notorious B.I.G, the Bad Boy roster prided itself on creating the perfect synthesis of street beats and, with the remixes of “Flava in Ya Ear” and “One More Chance,” soul sensibilities and club banger power. Throughout the decade, whether in the spot, hanging on the block or watching videos at the crib, a bangin’ Bad Boy track by Faith (“Soon As I Get Home”), Total (“Can’t You See”), 112 (“Cupid”), or The LOX (“Money Power Respect”) was bound to be blaring from somebody’s speakers.
Bad Boy spread its buttery Hitmen-produced sound across the world, cultivating a lifestyle aesthetic that spread beyond the borders of pop music as their (mostly) young fans tried to emulate Puff and company’s lavish taste in expensive clothes, cars and cocktails. Though some people saw the glam videos and records as preaching materialism, in 1997, Puffy Daddy and producer Stevie J (yes, that Stevie J) decided to balance that message with the creation of the label’s first gospel album, Thank You.
For old-school Bad Boy Records enthusiasts like me, Thank You remains one of most interesting “lost albums” of the ghetto-fabulous generation. Describing “lost” as music that was recorded but, for whatever reasons, never released, Thank You joins D’Angelo’s much anticipated James River and Dr. Dre’s much-hyped Detox as one of the great “what if’s” in contemporary Black music. Spearheaded by Diddy’s spiritual advisor, Hezekiah Walker, the timing was perfect for Bad Boy to do its own contemporary R&B gospel album. After all, this was 1996, when artists like CeCe Winans (Alone in His Presence) and Kirk Franklin (Whatcha Lookin’ 4) were topping the charts and winning Grammys. Thank You was supposed to include B.I.G., Faith, Tanya Blount, Brandy, Carl Thomas, John P. Kee, Brian McKnight, Boys II Men and Total.
“You” – Bad Boy Family
Originally scheduled to drop in the summer of 1997, after the murder of B.I.G. on March 9, 1997, and the launch of the best-selling No Way Out (Puff Daddy & the Family) album and tour, Thank You was shelved indefinitely. In 2001, Bad Boy revisited the project and removed former label artists The LOX and Tanya Blount, replacing them with Thelma Guyton and Joe; that version of Thank You also was shelved. Although never officially released, many of the tracks slated for Thank You, including the collabo first single “You,” were released in some form on other projects.
Rewinding back to the winter of 1997: A few months before the death of Biggie changed the direction and focus of Bad Boy, I was researching a story about the Black church and hip-hop when Arista Records/Bad Boy publicist Gwendolyn Quinn invited me to Puff’s Midtown studio Daddy’s House to talk to the man himself as well as producer Stevie J and singer Tanya Blount (whose Bad Boy project was also never released) about Thank You.
After making my way through three security checks, I entered the sonic headquarters where Puff was in the main room blaring tracks from the then-upcoming B.I.G. masterwork Life After Death. Turning down the music, Puff gave me a pound and sat back down. Playing devil’s advocate, I asked Puff, “So what does a label associated with weed smoking, Moet drinking, booty shaking and Big Willydom know about making a gospel album?”
Without missing a sampled beat, Puff answered, “First of all, God is my best friend; the reason I wanted to do a gospel album was to give thanks. Over the years, Bad Boy has made a lot of things cool, from the way we dress, dance, the sunglasses that we wear and the designers we endorse. Well, now God is something we’re going to endorse. A lot of kids think it’s cool to spark a blunt in front of people, but they won’t nod their heads to pray in front of those same people. Now, we want to make God cool.”
A former altar boy, Puff was raised Catholic, but he found the services to be corny. “I liked going to a Baptist church with my grandma; she was the one who really put me up on God. I don’t go to church every Sunday, I’m not overly religious and maybe I’m not the best person to do this album, but I want Thank You to be an album from the average person’s point of view to get our message across. Not all the artists are Bad Boy artists, but they’re all part of the family.”
“I Know Now” – Brandy
Down the hall from where Puff was working, Hitman producer Stevie J, who began his career as an assistant to Jodeci, was chilling in a different studio strumming his guitar. Back then, Stevie was a 26-year-old new jack producer who had worked with Lil Kim (“No Time”) and Faith Evans (“I Just Can’t”), but he was on the come up and about to make a splash. Since then, the Rochester, New York-raised producer has won three Grammy Awards and virtually ruined his career with his “too much to handle” attitude. Currently, Stevie appears on Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta.
“My father is a Pentecostal bishop, so I’ve been involved in the church since I was a boy,” Stevie said in 1997. “I think that’s why Puff wanted me to be involved in Thank You, because I could add that element of church with his R&B beats. Although Puff wasn’t one to go to church all the time, he knows there is a God and God is real.” Throughout our brief time together, Stevie played his guitar while he talked. “Thank You isn’t going to a gospel album for saved people. This is a record for those who don’t have it (spiritually) to get it.”
Many of Bad Boy’s artists were groomed in church, including Newark native Faith Evans and Chicago crooner Carl Thomas. In 1996, singer/actress Tanya Blount, who was a church girl from Washington, D.C., signed with Bad Boy Records. At 20, she was hardly a newcomer, having appeared in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” with co-star Lauryn Hill, and releasing the solo album Natural Thing in 1994. Her second single, “Through the Rain,” was a top-40 hit, and in 1995, Blount received a Soul Train Award nomination for Best New Artist.
“Through the Rain” —Tanya Blount
Having started singing in church when she was 6 years old, Blount told me in 1997, “God is in everything I do. He’s my partner, and I can’t do anything without him. The music business can be crazy, but I love it; it’s just that I have to understand the boundaries.” While working on her Bad Boy solo album, which was also later shelved, Blount recorded “I Love Him” for Thank You. “It’s all about God and how I feel about him; I think they’re thinking about changing the name to ‘Scratchin.’”
Though I might’ve been skeptical about Bad Boy’s foray in gospel, talking to Blount made me a believer.
“I think Puffy is looking for a different way to go; he feels a responsibility to the Big Willies and hustlers to understand. A lot of people from the streets have a strong background in church. Maybe it’s time to send the message that they can party and still love Jesus.” Although her Bad Boy career fizzled, in 2016 Blount (now Trotter) and her husband Michael Trotter Jr. formed the wonderful soul/folk duo The War and Treaty and released the single “Hi Ho” in April.
“Hi Ho” – The War and Treaty
In the September 22, 2001 issue of the industry magazine Billboard, it was reported that after two delays Thank You would finally be coming out, and, judging from the tracks we’ve heard, it would’ve been another hit for Diddy and Bad Boy.