Bad Boy Records and its founder, Sean "Diddy" Combs, helped shape much of what we take for granted in pop culture: Bigger is better, reaching for money and power is nothing to be ashamed of, everybody wants to be a millionaire. The new documentary Can't Stop Won't Stop, available on Apple Music June 25, tells the label's story around a concert that reunited some of its stars last year.
We know Combs for grandiosity — we know him by his stage names, P. Diddy and Puff Daddy. Everybody's heard Bad Boy's records. And most people can picture the parties in the Hamptons, helicopters in the videos, the choir behind him as he danced in tribute to his fallen friend, Biggie Smalls. In Can't Stop Won't Stop, he will wear fur onstage and he will demand a certain kind of lighting.
"I like God light," Combs says onscreen. "I don't want the Chrysler that looks like the Phantom. I want the Phantom."
Combs didn't do all that he's done to rub his success in your face. He did it for the kids. That's what he says when I meet him at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.
"I was gonna live life the way the kings live life," he says. "But as a man of color. And I'ma let the kids, and the world, see that. And it's gonna have an effect on them. Because they constantly getting hit and hit with images of theyselves — images of us as African Americans being unsuccessful, like when you watch the news — to the point now where they see images of theyselves actually getting shot. I have to show 'em another image. No matter how it rubs people the wrong way. It's important."
"Black people are not found to be glamorous or famous or rich," says Judnick Mayard, a writer who grew up in New York, where Combs and his label began. "So Puff has always been applying himself to the audience that was never considered glamorous."
"He knew where the money was and where the value was from the very beginning," she says. "That's pretty much why he's my hero; that's why I think he still has so much respect in our community, because Puffy has always found value in black dollars."
In the documentary, Combs describes sitting on his stoop as a kid in the summer, staring at his neighbors' pool, wishing they would invite him over. And he says he never wanted to feel that way again. The film tells the story of major labels rejecting musicians he later guided to platinum sales. But Mayard says she admires him for more than his business acumen. Bad Boy was the soundtrack of a generation.
"It was the sound of a generation that, I guess, was in between," she says. "You know, hip-hop was one thing and soul was the thing before it, and I think Bad Boy was finally the connection of all that we had heard. All the samples were from our parents' time but all the artists were very much our time. I guess when I think of Bad Boy I just think of being black in the '90s."
And it's the songs that Combs puts first.
"The legacy to me is in the bass line, and in the beat, the pocket of the beat, and the melody on the music, and the spirit that's put in the music," Combs says. "That's all you left with. ... Nothing could compare to that feeling, that feeling you're able to give people through music."
The first night of the reunion does not go well. And, in the documentary, Combs has to psych himself up to give it another shot. He starts singing in the shower; James Brown's "The Boss" is on in the background.
"Time to get on Diddy time, baby. Time to get on Diddy time," he tells himself onscreen. "I'm taking control of this. That's what I gotta get into, is that beat. Nothing else matters. That pocket. Nothing else matters. Feel it in the spirit, nothing else matters. Gotta get into that spirit. Out of my brain, and into my heart. Out of my brain, and into my heart."
In Can't Stop Won't Stop, Combs is the great motivator. Some of his artists are anxious about performing again, while others have to resolve old disagreements before they can share a stage. But Combs gets them together. Mayard saw it happen live.
"It really is a pleasure to see him on stage, cause he's so himself. And he really enjoys it," she says. "He's like a hype man for the artists and a hype man for the audience and a hype man for himself. So it just feels like you can't be in the room with him without being happy. ... It feels like you can't be in the theater with him and not be on his level."
Right before the concert, a doctor pays a house call. He asks somebody to get Combs a tissue. The tissue that materializes is printed with $100 dollar bills.
I ask Combs if the 19-year-old who started Bad Boy Records in a basement in 1993 could do it today.
"If I was 13 today I could start Bad Boy Records," he says. "Due to the accessibility and the knowledge that kids have, due to social media. Kids, actually, that are gonna be business men and women, or hustlers, they start at the age 13 right now, because the business is something that's attainable to them, it's something that they're allowed to be a part of, it's something that they rule. So if I were coming up at this time I'd have more access. And I'd probably be able to build something bigger than Bad Boy Records."