Monday, March 9, 2009

Sean John Combs: Once Upon A Time In America

by Barry Michael Cooper


"Remember what we talked about so much?" Bigger asked in a flat neutral tone.


"Old Blum."...Bigger took a deep breath and looked from face to face. It seemed to him that he should not have to explain. 

"Look, it'll be easy. There ain't nothing to be scared of. Between three and four ain't nobody in the store but the old man. The cop is way down at the other end of the block...Can't you see? This is something big," Bigger said.

Richard Wright,
Book One: Fear
Native Son, 1940.

"What nigga, you wanna rob the muthaf-----' train? Is you crazy?!"

(Background noises inside a New York subway station: Biggie responds
to his hesitant accomplice)

"Yes, yes, you muthaf-----' right! Nigga, it's '87, nigga. Is you dead broke?!"

"Yeah, nigga's a train, ain't nobody ever robbed no muthaf-----' train!"

"Is your mother givin' you money nigga? It's time to get paid. Is you wit me?" (Biggie clicks the cartridge on his 9 milimeter.) "Muthaf----, is you wit me?!"

"Yeah I'm wit you, come on!"

"Alright, nigga, let's make it happen, then!"
(Biggie and his accomplice step onto an arriving subway train and brandish their guns. Biggie barks out his instructions to the passengers.) "ALL YOU MUTHAF-----, GET ON THE F-----' FLOOR!" (Biggie fires two shots into the air. Screams of fear and pandemonium fill the subway car.) "GIMME ALL YOUR MUTHAF-----' MONEY!..."

Christopher Wallace and Sean Combs,
Intro Skit from Ready To Die, 1994

I didn't always know that Sean John Combs was a genius: I had a difficult time recognizing it. Maybe it was all of the personalities that confused my cultural GPS: Puffy, Puff, Puffy Combs, Puff Daddy, P.Diddy, Diddy, Sean John, and now, Sean Combs. That's a lot of people living in one body. A lot of different faces. A lot of different personalities. Like David Bowie and Madonna before him, Sean Combs recognized there is strength in the number of times you can reinvent yourself. More is mo'. Mo' people, mo' celebrity. Mo' celebrity, mo' opportunities. Mo' opportunities, mo' money.

Mo' money, mo' problems.

Unlike Zelig--Woody Allen's brilliant mock-doc about a man with the bizarre ability to morph into the people around him--Sean J. Combs various transformations had nothing to do with conformity. His protean talent is a jamming device in the spinning blades of the big machine called Famous. The machine that loves to taste the flavor of the month before chewing it up and spitting it out.

The "Frenzy Of Renown"--to borrow the title of Leo Braudy's great meditation on the definition of fame--is suspended between the moral polarity of the sacred and the profane. Supplication at the throne of celebrity always becomes the toilet primed for the royal flush. It's the Great American Past Time: build 'em up to woosh 'em down the sewer of irrelevance.

Lest we forget, Elvis died on the commode.

Sean John Combs is not about to be irrelevant. To paraphrase Oscar Levant, S.J.C. is a study of a man in chaos in search of frenzy. The chaotic need for attention, recognition, adoration, love, understanding. The frenzied blowback of controversy, rumor, innuendo, gossip, and misinterpretation. The blogs love the online parlor game called, Wrap This Blind Item Around Your Eyes And Pin The Scandal On The Jackass. Somehow, Sean Combs continues to slip away from the collective pin-stick of heated condemnation. Somehow, Sean Combs continues to make news about house-guests in glass houses dodging judgmental stones, club preferences and story retractions, successful haute couture at Fashion Week, a box office smash, the epicurean distinctions between Popeyes and KFC.

What gets lost in the translation of the inscrutable writ known as Sean John Combs, is his stature as one of the greatest music producers of all time. Time to rewind: before Ciroc, before Saint-Tropez, before Gatz bullet'd into Gatsby, before I Am King jet-skied into our subconscious group-think, there was "Ready To Die". On the 12th anniversary of his untimely death, it's long overdue to take another look at the musical birth certificate of the greatest MC who ever lived, Christopher Wallace. The same Christopher Wallace who transformed into "Biggie Smalls", a monster created in the lab of a Frankenstein crack economy, who looked in the mirror and saw a dude "fat, black/and ugly as ever/however..." 

The Biggie Smalls who was the 1994 model of Richard Wright's 1940 "Bigger Thomas", from his storied classic, "Native Son". The impact of "Ready To Die" is even more powerful in this futuristic age of a Black Commander-In-Chief, President Barack Obama--this age of Obamica-- because I don't think that Bigger Thomas nor Biggie Smalls could have ever imagined that reality in their lifetime. Smalls would probably say it was "un/believe/a/bowl"...

Once upon a time in America--Reagan's America--Biggie opined that a young black kid only had two exit strategies out of the hood: slinging crack rocks or having a wicked jump shot. Part gangster melodrama, part soulful tone poem, part 1930s radio play ("The Shadow Knows"), part porn film (was Biggie really getting his socks blown off by that groupie in that skit?), and part suicide note, "Ready To Die" gets my vote for the greatest Hip Hop album of all time. It was the album that gave a voice to a generation of young, fatherless, disillusioned, and disenfranchised black males, who assumed nihilism and death were the only answer to life's puzzling absolutes. Maybe "Ready To Die" was Hip Hop's first existential album: I bang out, therefore, I am. I don't know.

What I do know is this. It took a hungry and visionary Sean Combs to harness and direct the unmatched lyrical brilliance of Christopher Wallace. In my interview with Combs last week, at the New York headquarters of his Bad Boy Worldwide media empire, I asked him if he and Christopher knew they were recording the greatest rap album of all time, and other questions about the making of "Ready To Die". Some of his answers may surprise you. This much is clear: the story of Sean John Combs is truly an American dream. Even if "Ready To Die" is the epitome of a tragic American nightmare. Without question, it feels as if some Things Done Changed--to borrow the title of track from "Ready To Die"--on 20 January 2009. However, ghetto life now--as it was on the release of "Ready To Die" in 1994-- sadly reminds U.S. that the song remains the same.

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

Part Five:

Part Six:

Part Seven:

Part Eight:

Be sure to pick up my new anthology, "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," available exclusively on Kindle/Amazon. Amazon/Kindle has a free, downloadable app for all computers and mobile devices. Click here to go to the "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1:New Jack City Eats Its Young" Kindle store site.


gfm said...

Great series of interviews. And throwing B-More into the Pt. I mix, makes it even better.

Anonymous said...

This is a remarkable post and interview. This is what success looks like when the lights go down. I hope this interview inspires countless young people to hunker down and become excellent at something they love to do. Peace

Bmc said...

Thank you graviti and Carmen D., for the kind words. I appreciate it. Bmc

Just Be said...

Excellent Job!!!

your questions were right on point. I agree that Sean Combs' music producer talents are very underrated. This man has produced music for a generation. While watching the Biggie movie I thought to myself, wow, how interesting might Sean Combs life's journey be? It may be time for his autobiography.

Bmc said...

Thank you Bennie!I appreciate the kind words!

JB said...

This was a great interview.
Excellent job!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this interview !

The whole execution and especially the questions were perfect. You really got Diddy to talk, not like most of these bs interviews you mostly see nowadays.

Props from the other side of the world man :-)

Bmc said...

Jonny B and Andreas, thank you for the kind words. I appreciate it!

Laurence Pinckney said...

Barry Michael Cooper ... what an amazing series. Congratulations.

Sean continues to impress me. I remember Dick Scott, Dick Griffey, Barry Gordy and Cecil Holmes. Legends and Sean will be too. Keep bringing it young man.

Best to you both.

Bmc said...

Laurence thank you for your kind words. I appreciate it.

Good Life said...

Great art...This is very inspiring. As a product of Hip Hop, the essense of our art is rarely appreciated. In this day of the internet, we are allowed to witness and support works like this. I hope you continue spread our stories......

Bmc said...

Thank you for the kind words, Good Life, yes, I am going to continue to expand on the culute I love...Hip Hop.

Bmc said...

I meant "culture", lol

Anonymous said...

Hey Barry I love the content you post. I tried watching the interview. One of the illest Diddy interviews ever. It was so in depth, and very well orchestrated. Would it be possible to re upload some of the video links. Some of them don't work. It would be greatly appreciated. Would love to post your interview on my blog.

Bmc said...

@3y3-Q: Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate it. Re: the links-yes, they are not working, and GOD Willing I am going to re-edit the interview into a longer piece, and upload it in the near future. Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Sounds good. Looking forward to it!