It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)



P. Diddy

Posted on | October 20, 2008 | No Comments

He’s hated, admired, envied, always watched: The world still belongs to Sean “Diddy” Combs. Now, about those shades …

THE OTHER DAY, HIP-HOP IMPRESARIO SEAN “DIDDY” COMBS STRUCK A BRAGGADOCIO pose inside a swank Four Seasons hotel room in New York and went at it pretty good. He said, “I just got that extra-confident swagger!” He said, “That energy I give off — it’s just a natural superstar energy!” He said, “I’m definitely one of the flyest, baddest motherfuckers in the game. I’m so a man of war, all I want is peace, ’cause I done been through all that, but, yeah, you ever want to be in a war, or a fight, or a dogfight, or a barroom brawl, or a knock-out, scratch-out, two-versus-motherfucking-5,000, you’re with the right motherfucker, ’cause I’m going to be looking at that 5,000 like, ‘I wish y’all motherfucking would!’ And they gonna be looking at me like, What does he have? Just what does he have?'”

He went on like that, his words bouncing around pinball-like in the plush surroundings. It was nothing new for him to say, of course. He’d been blowing similar air most of his life, and in large part, coupled with an undeniable genius for marketing, trend tapping and talent spotting, it’d gotten him to where he is today. He’s an industrial-strength entrepreneur with interests in a music label (Bad Boy Records), a clothing company (Sean John; sales, about $400 million annually), a men’s fragrance (Unforgivable, a top seller), as well as, per his habitual Sybaritic want, the giving of great big parties (in Ibiza, St. Tropez, the Hamptons and so forth), the insouciant sporting of fluffy white bathrobes (on Jet Skis), the seeing of women too numerous to count (but including J. Lo and model Kim Porter, the mother of one Combs child, with twin girls in the hopper), and the constant, nearly obsessive wearing of sunglasses, everywhere and on all occasions, even as darkness approaches and beyond.

At the same time, though, all that extra-confident-swagger stuff seems a little out of keeping with his current message, as he claims is reflected on Push Play, his first new album in five years. The album has some rap on it, some catchy R&B and dance sounds, some great lower of Power horns and a host of collaborators, including Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige and Jamie Foxx. But what it’s about, Combs says, is love — “the love for my music and the love you have for a woman. It’s about being the best I can be, and evolving. So now it’s not just about what I got, because after it’s a reality, that 500-foot yacht, talking about it is just corny. I mean, when I’m watching CNN, and people talking about not eating, and we’re sitting here with all this food, chicken just overflowing — it just starts to shake your mental and change your spirit. So things have become deeper.”

He pauses.

“Tim?” he says to an assistant, a big blond-haired kid with lots of gold teeth.

“Sir?” says Tim.

“Got toothbrush and toothpaste?”

“Yes, sir,” says Tim smartly.

Combs nods, says, “You talking a lot, you got to be fresh.”

And then, after a bit, he says, “I’m going to expose myself to you tonight. Not in a physical way, ha-ha. But I tell it all to you.” He doesn’t, of course — that’s him blowing air again. But he does reveal a few things. For instance, that he used to be a big-time bed-wetter. So, there’s that. And why he constantly wears sunglasses. He goes there as well, really, uncomfortably. But none of it can happen before he brushes his teeth, because that’s just the kind of natural superstar he is. He always wants to be fresh.

FOR A WHILE, AFTER ALMOST A decade of releasing monster records — among them Bilge’s What’s the 411?, Craig Mack’s Flava in Ya Ear remix, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die and Combs’ own Grammy-winning No Way Out — it looked like Bad Boy was on the way out. The hits stopped coming, and Combs, as a rapper himself, came under fire following the release of his widely panned Forever album, in 1999. Suddenly people started doubting the man who’d almost single-handedly made hip-hop palatable to the masses. He continued to live the high life, throwing his annual “white parties” in St. Tropez and becoming a gossip-column staple. But in 2005, he sold a minority interest in his company to Warner Music, for $33 million, and said, “I think I’ve gone as far as I can as a solo artist.” After that, though, he settled back and began producing hits again, first for Bad Boy artists Cassie and Yung Joe, then for Danity Kane, the act he cobbled together during the third season of his MTV show, Making the Band, and whose first CD debuted at Number One. And now he’s trying to do the same for himself with Push Play.

To that end, he’s been working on it almost constantly. He has a crew following him around for a making-of film. He’s been plugging the thing on his My-Space and YouTube sites. He’s formed marketing alliances with Burger King and the Rhapsody online-music service. And while he’s doing all that, the rest of his crew are supposed to be working the street, “putting together mix tapes for underground energy and stuff like that,” he says. “Like when I’m running around on CNN and Access Hollywood, my team’s getting out the mix tapes to hold me down on Flatbush and 125th.” Only, on one recent day inside his Manhattan recording studio, it came to his attention that they’d been dogging the job, and here was one of the culprits right now, sitting on a couch, shuffling his eyes around nonstop.

“I’m bugging off the fact that I didn’t ask but for one thing, to get the mix tape done, and you haven’t even listened to it,” Combs said. “That’s what I’m talking about. Hey,” he said sharply. “Look at me when I’m talking to you. Look at me, yo!”

“Yeah, but it’s supposed to be a Bad Boy mix,” the guy said, “but it’s got other niggas’ shit on it.”

“What you talking about?” Combs said heatedly. “Hey, yo, pres, look at me when I’m talking to you!”

The guy didn’t, though, and pretty soon he squirmed out of the room, just as two other team members slid in. “I can’t do it on my own, baby,” Combs said to these two. “I’m a bad motherfucker, but I can’t do it all. You know what it’s called? It’s called getting it done. The only thing we know in life is when it’s done. And when you want to get it done, you get it done. Am I right or am I wrong?”

Then he laughed and the guys heaved big sighs of relief. They were in trouble but not in beat-down, end-of-the-world trouble. Combs used to hand that out all the time. Now, maybe not so often.

“It’s another thing I’m working on,” he says when his boys aren’t around. “How I speak to people. When I’m in the heat of battle I sometimes can’t hear how I’m expressing my disappointments, and it may cut certain people who work for me all the way through. That’s not my intention. Yeah, I’ve had to add some sensei to my whole thing. And I’ve got to say, it’s worked out real good.”

INSIDE THE FOUR SEASONS HOTEL room, an assistant drapes a white towel around Combs’ shoulders, switches on an electric razor and begins shaving Combs’ cheeks.

“D’ya like it, sir?” the assistant asks.

Combs strokes his skin and nods.

“This?” the assistant goes on, packing up his shaver. “It’s a Panasonic ES8167. Braun is generally the best, but this particular Panasonic works better.”

Meanwhile, Combs is placing calls, receiving calls, reading text messages, writing text messages, picking at some chicken on a big buffet spread and plopping himself in an overstuffed chair. All of his assistants and helpers are gone, and when he speaks now his voice is soft. At times, he tends to stutter, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He just keeps on rolling.

Any childhood fears?

“No, not really.”

Any recurring childhood nightmares?

“Nah.”

Weren’t a bed-wetter, were you?

“Yeah, actually,” he says, perking up. “I wet the bed. I was definitely a bed-wetter, probably until six. I used to be afraid of going to sleep at sleepovers. ‘Oh, my God, do not go to sleep!’ I actually started reading books about how to stop wetting the bed. That’s how bad I wanted to stop. I’d be like, ‘I gotta figure this out.’ Which is how my brain works.” He pauses. “I don’t like being embarrassed. That’s probably one thing I don’t really like.”

How else are you vulnerable?

“When it comes to relationships,” he says, easily enough, “I don’t like to hurt people, but I can’t say I’m a good boy. I’m a ladies’ man, and I love women. I mean, being an international rap superstar, and being known to be a wealthy one, sex is one of the easiest things to get, so there is a point where you get tired of it. But I just like being around women. You don’t gotta talk. You could just look at them. Watch them sleep. Watch them walk. Watch them wake. Everything about them is beautiful. But that love of mine — it’s both my gift and my curse. Sex is my hobby. But one woman has my heart, and she don’t be having no bullshit, and I’m trying to be the best I can be. But I got that contradiction. And to be honest, it’s problematic for me.”

Actually, he’s a man of probably 1,001 contradictions, all of them categorizable under either saint or sinner. On the saint side, for instance, there’s his participation in the 2003 New York City Marathon, which raised $2 million for charity (and which also, happily, no doubt, earned him a lot of good press). On the sinner side, one hardly knows where to begin except to say that haters have a lot to work with. There’s the death of his best friend, Notorious B.I.G., who was gunned down in 1997; the killer has never been found, and Diddy has been accused of maintaining the hip-hop code of silence by withholding valuable information from the police investigation. There’s the time he beat a rival record-label executive with a chair, a telephone and a bottle of champagne; he was arrested and let off with a wrist slap. On another infamous occasion, he was murkily involved in a 1999 nightclub shooting, fleeing the scene with his then-girlfriend, J. Lo; charged with gun possession, he was eventually acquitted. And so it’s gone, highs followed by lows.

“My most appealing feature?” he continues. “My genuineness. You might not be able to see that from the outside, but my internal self is real quiet and real childlike. I never lost my child spirit. If anybody looks into my eyes, they see there’s just a fuckin’ child in there. You see my eyes, you know what I’m thinking. If I’m mad, you’re going to be able to tell. If I’m sad, no way I can hide it. Looking into my eyes, you can touch my soul.”

Do you remember when you first started wearing sunglasses?

He stops talking then and just sits there, silent, for a good long while.

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE, BUT ONCE upon a time the only place Combs was a somebody was in New York. He was twenty-two years old, the son of a hustler who’d been killed when Sean was an infant. He’d gone to Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and used his own hustle to become an A&R man at Uptown Records and a local rap-party promoter. Then, on December 28th, 1991, the doors opened on a celebrity charity basketball game he’d put together in New York, which led to a stampede that ended with Combs standing all by himself in a hallway, surrounded by the bodies of nine kids who’d either been trampled to death or crushed and smothered. “Nobody else was there,” he once said. “No police, nobody. Just me and nine bodies.”

Combs’ first public appearance after the tragedy, on January 2nd, 1992, marked the end of his relative anonymity and the odd beginnings of his swerve to national prominence. It was at a press conference held inside the “ornate, gilded salon of the Plaza Hotel,” reported The New York Times, in one of its first stories ever to mention Combs. The article went on to call him “powerful” and “ambitious” and noted that when he spoke his voice quivered and that he was “baby-faced and thin.” Around that time, photographs were taken, and in them you could see Combs’ eyes.

In the years since, you most often don’t see them. Today, probably nobody owns more sunglasses than him — made by Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and about 1,001 more — and where he goes, they go, ferried around in a valise by one of his assistants, importantly.

“What happened at City College,” he says later on, “is the worst thing that ever happened to me. I felt such a form of sorrow and remorse. And then I saw a picture of myself going through it. I saw all of myself revealed, all in my eyes, and that’s why I wear shades. It’s a protecting thing.”

Just then, one of his people comes in to drop off a kamikaze martini. Combs takes a sip, then goes on, “But you know what? One of the working titles of my new album was No Shades. Like, the time is right to start showing more colors. It’s a scary thing, and I don’t want nobody fucking with that. But the time is right.”

It’s a nice, quiet moment here with Combs, human and a little melancholy. It doesn’t last for long, though. “I’m still Diddy!” he’s saying soon enough. “Shades, no shades, whatever the fuck it is, you hit that switch, and I’m still a man of war.” And just like that he’s off and running, as if certain colors are still too much for him, or someone unseen was shaking his mental right in the room.

“BEING A RAP SUPERSTAR, AND BEING KNOWN TO BE A WEALTHY ONE, SEX IS ONE OF THE EASIEST THINGS TO GET.”

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