Growing up in his childhood home in Mount Vernon, New York, Sean Combs admits he was jealous of the neighbors swimming in their pool in front of his stoop. “I don’t like the feeling,” he recalls in his Can’t Stop Won’t Stop documentary, which premiered at the Beacon Theater as part of the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday. While a young Puff Daddy lusted for a dip, he also found his hustler’s mentality: “I want me a pool too.”
The yearning for material wealth was just the beginning for the rap mogul, who was eventually named “hip-hop’s future billionaire” by Forbes. In a March 28, 1997 interview with BET — his first sit-down several weeks after his close friend and collaborator Notorious B.I.G. was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, Puffy was aware of the media’s perception of him — as well as the success of black men. “I seen the media portray me like I’m a gangsta… a cold individual, a shrewd businessman which is just not the case,” he said. “My name is Sean Combs and I’m a young, black man and I just had a dream to be successful in life.”
Nineteen years later, Puffy is living in a Holmby Hills mansion and still signing acts to his Bad Boy roster. He also brought the band back together for a two-night Bad Boy Reunion kickoff at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the weekend of the Notorious B.I.G.’s May 21 birthday (in a twist of fate, a previous act set to perform at the venue had canceled) and had three weeks to make, what he says, “motherf—in’ history.” It’s also all hands on deck from the show’s creative director, Laurieann Gibson, responsible for pulling the show together as well as the Bad Boy team including Harve Pierre and James Cruz.
The nearly-80-minute documentary is not only a behind-the-scenes look at the Bad Boy Reunion trek, which sold out its first show in seven minutes and went on to tour across the United States and Canada last year, but a deep dive into the label that experienced lightning speed success and gut-wrenching tragedy, as well as the man who built it.
Puff groomed his incessant work ethic with jobs that included delivering newspapers and cleaning bathrooms (as well as a one-time drug-dealing gig he quit on the spot in favor of a music career) before becoming an intern at Uptown Records, founded by his longtime mentor, Andre Harrell. “I was willing to do anything to get to it,” he says. Harrell recalled sending Puff on a run only for him to come back within 10 minutes, tie disheveled, and already asking for the next assignment.
Now at 47 years old, Puff treats his grind like an athlete. He takes the cameras to his doctor’s visits, where he’s treated with acupuncture at one point or an injection in the butt during another. His mind, though, appears constantly restless. “I didn’t understand conflict resolution, I didn’t understand corporate culture,” he says in the doc. “I just knew that I was fighting for the artist and the greater good of rap artists worldwide.” He hit home-runs early in his career, creating the perfect pairings of R&B and hip-hop and earning producer credits for Jodeci’s debut single “Come and Talk To Me,” Craig Mack’s 1994 classic “Flava in Ya Ear” and Mary J. Blige’s 1992 debut What’s The 411?
Gangsta music then started to get a bad rap in the mainstream for its explicit and violent lyrics, causing Puff to start feeling the resistance at Uptown/MCA Records. After introducing his artist Notorious B.I.G. in 1992 and bringing his debut to MCA (who secured a distribution deal with Uptown), which was rejected by the president’s assistant, Puff was trying to find a home for his artists. Says Harrell, who gave him the boot: “I didn’t fire him to hurt him, I fired him to basically make him rich.”
After setting up the first Bad Boy office in Scarsdale, New York, Puff ushered in Biggie, R&B groups Total and 112, singers Faith Evans and Carl Thomas as well as rappers Ma$e, The LOX and Lil’ Kim. After the lead single from B.I.G.’s Ready to Die album “Juicy” became a charting hit, the label took off. “I was a hustler then boom, I was a rapper,” says the late Christopher Wallace in the clip. The shiny suit era had begun.
Puff Daddy and the Bad Boy Family’s ’97 debut No Way Out stacked the classics from “Been Around The World” to “Victory” and “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” Chimes in Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons, “It was too much success too quick.”
With success came struggle, though. Despite the onslaught of victories for BBE, the on-going battle of the hip-hop turfs with the highly publicized East versus West war left each coast’s rap guard, Tupac and Biggie, dead, and Puff in a haze. “I didn’t see anybody home,” reflected singer Carl Thomas, who saw Diddy in the studio days after Biggie’s murder. It wasn’t till a triumphant performance at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, where Puff — dressed in all white — and a choir performed his Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You” alongside Faith Evans, 112 and the song’s original purveyor, Sting of Police. “I just got up and started to fight,” says Puff.
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is perhaps the most apt title for the documentary. The post-premiere concert featured a crowd-pleasing set from Lil Kim, Faith Evans, Carl Thomas, Ma$e and Puff Daddy himself (alongside his sons, Justin and Christian), which had the Beacon audience on their feet, spitting every word to the label’s catalog.
The documentary and real-life interactions showed once-rocky relationships strengthened after almost two decades (Faith Evans and Lil Kim patched things up while the Total members reunited after 16 years). Mase adds, “When we started, it was about ego… ‘you known I’m better than you.’ This is more like, ‘you made me better.'” Puff even joked how Bad Boy became the “grooming ground for future pastors” as Craig Mack, Shyne and Ma$e had, at one point or another, turned away from hip-hop and more towards God.
Despite Puff — his own worst critic — not being satisfied with Night 1 of the Bad Boy Reunion show, which was riddled with stage and mic issues (“It was probably one of the worst shows of my life,” he says) in the doc, he remembers Biggie on his born day and escapes the funk thanks to words of wisdom from Nina Simone. As her soulful 1965 classic “Feeling Good” soundtracked action shots of The Fam from Lil Kim to Faith Evans to Jay Z to Nas to Puff himself from the inaugural weekend concert, Simone’s wise words — “freedom is no fear” — helped Diddy transform his vulnerable state into a cape.
While Puff’s demands may seem a little aggressive at some points, ranging from “Call me when it’s soundin’ like the record” during a rehearsal session with the live band to “Those lights look cheap as f–k… I want that god light” when assessing the stage set-up – it’s all part of his on-going mission to one-up himself and keep his team on-point as well. ???”This is an epic saga of black excellence,” Puff reflects at one point before later offering the type of monologue that would have any casual Diddy supporter walk miles to grab him cheesecake.
“We all started out as kids, the kid that was labeled bad, never stayed in a straight line to having that dream that we could be the first black billionaires, that we could become world famous and not lose our minds,” reflects Puff, who adds that he was often seen as having “no mercy” when he started in his career. “My intentions was just to make everybody the best, for everybody to eat, to make history and inspire the world. I think I did that and I still plan on doing it in a bigger way but I don’t wanna wake up old and have any regrets that I didn’t develop as a man.”
The Can’t Stop Won’t Stop documentary will premiere as an Apple Music exclusive on June 25.