Bad Boy Records: An Oral History

Nothing excites me more than a great “Who’s Better?” pop culture argument, where there are two major sides, only one correct answer, and everybody has an opinion. In the early 90s, only one question like this reigned: Bad Boy or Death Row?

We’ll never be at a dearth for information about hip-hop’s golden era, but every so often someone writes an article with even more information to fuel our debates, and the excitement starts all over again. “Aint Nothing Shine Brighter Than That Bad Boy,” an oral history published this week on GQ, mostly focuses on Sean Combs (fka Puffy, Puff Daddy, Puff and Diddy), founder of Bad Boy Records and easily the “Gordon Gecko” of golden-era hip-hop. After college, he took an internship with Uptown Records and was one of the pioneers in popularizing New Jack Swing; soon, he had his own catalogue of artists (Mary J! Jodeci!), and was producing their songs, his process soon becoming an industry standard.

Combs: I got an opportunity one night when [mega-successful R&B; producer] Teddy Riley didn’t show up to the studio. He had a session at Chung King, this famous studio downtown. So I said, I’m just gonna utilize this time. I had this idea, which was influenced by the mixtapes of Brucie B. and Kid Capri: They would blend hip-hop beats with R&B; a cappellas. I took one of Jodeci’s a cappellas and put an EPMD beat underneath it, and it was the first record I produced: “Come and Talk to Me,” the remix.
Cheo Coker: Blending an R&B; record with a hip-hop beat seems so elementary. It seems like peanut butter and jelly. But when you’re the first to figure out PB&J; tastes good together, it’s going to propel your career, and that’s what Puffy did.

But Combs’ biggest success, of course, is finding rap icon Biggie Smalls, who, almost overnight, re-legitimized the East Coast in the face of California’s — and Tupac Shakur’s — growing dominance. On the first time he heard Big: “My mind was blown. I knew instantly that Big was the greatest rapper I ever heard. It was like witnessing a miracle or something.” Combs instantly got him out of his contract at MCA, signed him to Bad Boy, and, well, you know the rest.

In the collected anecdotes, Combs comes off as, in his words, “dramatic”, and in others’, “a nightmare,” but it was impossible to question his importance to the game. And, what’s worse, we learn, is that he knew it:

Jayson Jackson: [Combs] steps off the elevator with his bodyguards. He’s got on a mink coat, dripping jewels, sunglasses. Looks at everybody. Goes to his office. Gets something to drink. I don’t know, some juice. He’s an apple-juice fiend. Keeps us waiting another five minutes, comes back, sits down, and looks at the room and says, “Y’all are mad as fuck, ain’t you?”

Sean Combs: producer extraordinaire, fur enthusiast, and apple-juice fiend. We wouldn’t be anywhere without him. And if you didn’t know, then now you know.