The biggest hip-hop impresario of the mid-'90s, Sean Combs -- known as Puff Daddy both here and in the world of rap until his professional name change to P. Diddy -- created a multi-million dollar industry around Bad Boy Entertainment, with recordings by the Notorious B.I.G., Craig Mack, Faith Evans, 112, and Total, all produced and master-minded by Combs himself. Responsible for over 100 million dollars in total record sales and named ASCAP's 1996 Songwriter of the Year, Combs was, on the other hand, criticized by many in the hip-hop community for watering down the sound of the underground and also for a perceived over-reliance on samples as practically the sole basis for many of his hits. A very successful A&R executive at Uptown Records during the early '90s responsible for sizeable hit records by Father MC, Mary J. Blige, and Jodeci, Combs formed his own Bad Boy label, signed Notorious B.I.G., Evans, and Craig Mack, and earned enough hits to cement an alliance with Arista Records. A highly publicized feud with Death Row Records (in which Tupac Shakur and label head Suge Knight served as West Coast/Dark Side equivalents to the Notorious B.I.G. and Combs) was summarily ended in late 1996, when Shakur was murdered and Knight jailed. Six months later, Notorious B.I.G. was dead as well and after Combs mourned his friend's death, he hit the pop charts in a big way during his biggest year, 1997.
Born in Harlem in 1970, Sean Combs spent much of his childhood in nearby Mt. Vernon, NY. Already a shrewd businessman through his two paper routes, Combs applied to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and while attending, convinced childhood friend Heavy D to sign him up as an intern at the label he recorded for, Uptown Records. Several months later, he was an A&R executive with his sights set on the vice presidency, serving as the executive producer for Father MC's 1990 album Father's Day, which became a hit. Successful albums followed for Mary J. Blige (What's the 411?) and Heavy D & the Boyz (Blue Funk) during 1992, though Combs was fired from Uptown by the following year (probably because he was a bit too ambitious). He worked as a remixer during 1993 and set up Bad Boy Entertainment as his own venture, running the label out of his apartment during long hours with only several employees. After more than a year of hard work, he finally signed two hit artists, former EPMD roadie Craig Mack and the Notorious B.I.G. Mack hit the big-time in mid-1994, when a remix of his "Flava in Ya Ear" single (featuring LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Rampage, and Notorious B.I.G.) hit the Top Ten and became the first platinum record for Bad Boy. B.I.G. notched the second at the beginning of 1995, when his own second hit "Big Poppa" reached number six on the pop charts. Mack's album Project: Funk Da World eventually went gold and Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die was certified double-platinum.
Sean "Puffy" Combs began branching out Bad Boy during 1995, adding platinum R&B acts Faith Evans and Total (both of whom were connected to B.I.G., Evans as his wife and Total as his former backing vocal group) plus another platinum seller, 112, in 1996. He also produced for many outside artists (including Aretha Franklin, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, TLC, SWV, and Lil' Kim) and added two straight-ahead hip-hop acts, Mase and the LOX. By that time, however, Combs and B.I.G. were embroiled in a feud with Death Row Records' head Suge Knight and star Tupac Shakur. Shakur accused Combs of involvement in his 1994 shooting, mocked B.I.G. by saying he had slept with Faith Evans, and threatened the two in the lyrics to his hit song "Hit 'Em Up." (The video for the track featured two characters, P.I.G. and Buffy, who are humiliated in various ways.) In September 1996, however, Shakur was shot and killed by unknown assailants; just six months later, in March of 1997, B.I.G. himself was killed in the same fashion. Just three weeks later, his second album debuted at number one and was eventually certified six times platinum. The single "Hypnotize" also hit number one, and stayed on the charts for months after B.I.G. was killed. Though Combs had been preparing his own solo debut, under the name Puff Daddy, he quit working for several months out of grief for his longtime friend. When he returned in mid-1997, it was with a vengeance, as the single "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" held the top spot on the singles charts for almost two months. Following quickly behind was another monster number one hit, "I'll Be Missing You," a tender tribute to Notorious B.I.G. with Faith Evans providing background vocals. Combs' subsequent LP as Puff Daddy, No Way Out, shot straight to number one and was certified platinum several times over; in 1998 it won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album and "I'll Be Missing You" won the award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
Forever followed in 1999, but the rushed release and lack of any new ideas disappointed fans and dampened sales. On top of that, on April 15 of that year, he was accused of severely beating Interscope Records exec Steve Stoute and was brought to court for the incident. Puffy managed to get his sentence trimmed down to second degree harassment when he finally reached the courts in September, much to his detractors' dismay.
More controversy started brewing when his relationship with singer/actress Jennifer Lopez was made public around the same time. Engagement rumors haunted them for a few months, but the real problems began when they were present at a shooting in a New York City club that December. The couple was brought in for questioning, and eventually both faced charges for illegal possession of a firearm. Meanwhile, rapper Shyne was indicted for the incident, but Puffy was not dismissed because of the weapons charge. His trial date for the club shooting was finally set, while October found two new lawsuits facing the rapper. First, his driver sued for three million dollars due to personal injury and stress, followed by a $1.8 million suit from the club owner stemming from poor business following the shooting. Though Lopez initially supported Puffy, she broke off their relationship on Valentine's Day 2001.
A planned gospel album was pushed back to a summer release during the mess, but by March some good news finally hit the Bad Boy camp. Puffy was acquitted of all charges stemming from the club incident, which also snuffed out the civil suits also revolving around his involvement in the club situation. In a move sure to spark comparisons with Prince (and not the good kind of comparisons), he announced that he was changing his professional name to P. Diddy at the end of the month, and also predicted a new direction for himself and his label. By the summer, he had released his gospel album, Thank You, as well as a new solo album, The Saga Continues. "Bad Boy for Life" became his biggest hit in years late in the summer, and a collaboration with David Bowie appeared on the Training Day movie soundtrack. He took a serious blow in the spring of 2002 when Arista Records stopped distributing Bad Boy Records and took Faith Evans with them. A collection of Bad Boy Record's remixes entitled We Invented the Remix became Combs' last album for Arista. 112 attempted to also jump ship to Def Jam, but Combs filed a restraining order before the group could make a clean break. Diddy celebrated a new distribution partnership with Universal by releasing an overview of his label, Bad Boy's 10th Anniversary... The Hits, in March of 2004.
Heralded instantly as one of New York's leading rap voices, Nas expressed an outspoken, self-empowered swagger that rallied the streets of his city and elsewhere. Whether proclaiming himself "Nasty Nas" or "Nas Escobar" or "Nastradamus" or "God's Son," the self-appointed King of New York battled numerous adversaries for his position atop the epicenter of East Coast rap, none more noteworthy than Jay-Z, who vied with Nas for the vacated throne left in the wake of the Notorious B.I.G.'s 1997 assassination. Such headline-worthy drama informed Nas' provocative rhymes, which he delivered with both a masterful flow and a wise perspective over breathtaking beats by amazing producers: legends like DJ Premier, Large Professor, and Pete Rock; hitmakers like Trackmasters, Timbaland, and Dr. Dre; street favorites like Swizz Beatz, Megahertz, and the Alchemist; and personal favorites of his own like L.E.S., Salaam Remi, and Chucky Thompson. Nas likewise collaborated with some of the industry's leading video directors like Hype Williams and Chris Robinson, presenting singles like "Hate Me Now," "One Mic," and "I Can" with dramatic flair. Throughout all the ups (the acclaim, popularity, and success) and all the downs (the pressure, adversaries, and over-reaching), Nas continually matured as an artist, evolving from a young street disciple to a vain all-knowing sage to a humbled godly teacher. Such growth made every album release an event and prolonged his increasingly storied career to epic proportions.
Born Nasir Jones, son of jazz musician Olu Dara, Nas dropped out of school in the eighth grade, trading classrooms for the streets of the rough Queensbridge projects, long fabled as the former stomping ground of Marley Marl and his Juice Crew as immortalized in "The Bridge." Despite dropping out of school, Nas developed a high degree of literacy that would later characterize his rhymes. At the same time, though, he delved into street culture and flirted with danger, such experiences similarly characterizing his rhymes. His synthesis of well-crafted rhetoric and street-glamorous imagery blossomed in 1991 when he connected with Main Source and laid down a fiery verse on "Live at the Barbeque" that earned him instant respect among the East Coast rap scene. Not long afterward, MC Serch of 3rd Bass approached Nas about contributing a track to the Zebrahead soundtrack. Serch was the soundtrack's executive producer and, like much of New York, had been impressed by "Live at the Barbeque." Nas submitted "Halftime," and the song so stunned Serch that he made it the soundtrack's leadoff track.
Columbia Records meanwhile signed Nas to a major-label contract, and many of New York's finest producers offered their support. DJ Premier, Large Professor, and Pete Rock entered the studio with the young rapper and began work on Illmatic. When Columbia finally released the album in April 1994, it faced high expectations; Illmatic regardless proved just as astounding as it had been billed. It sold very well, spawned multiple hits, and earned unanimous acclaim, followed soon after by classic status. The two years leading up to Nas' follow-up, It Was Written (1996), thus brought another wave of enormous anticipation. The ambitious rapper, who had begun working closely with industry heavyweight Steve Stoute, responded with a significantly different approach than he had taken with Illmatic: where that album had been a straightforward hip-hop album with few pop concessions, the largely Trackmaster-produced It Was Written made numerous concessions to the pop crossover market, most notably on the two hit singles, "Street Dreams" and "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)." These singles -- both of which drew from well-known songs, Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and Kurtis Blow's "If I Ruled the World," respectively -- broadened Nas' appeal greatly and awarded him the MTV-sanctioned crossover success he sought. This same crossover success, however, undermined some of his hip-hop credibility while his subsequent albums -- I Am and Nastradamus (both 1999) -- and their crossover tendencies did so to an even further extent.
Around this point in the late '90s, Nas nonetheless reigned atop the New York rap scene alongside few contemporaries in the wake of the Notorious B.I.G.'s assassination. In addition to his endless stream of hits by the industry's most successful producers -- "If I Ruled the World" (produced by the Trackmasters), "Hate Me Now" (Puff Daddy), "Nas Is Like" (DJ Premier), and "You Owe Me" (Timbaland), among others -- he popularly co-starred in the Hype Williams-directed film Belly (1998) alongside DMX and contributed to the soundtrack. Furthermore, he led a short-lived supergroup of New York rappers known as the Firm (also comprised of rappers Foxy Brown, AZ, and Nature, with producers Dr. Dre and the Trackmasters) and assembled a broad coalition of fellow Queensbridge rappers for the QB Finest compilation (2000). Amid all of this publicity, though, criticism began to mount. For every crossover fan Nas won with his dramatic MTV-aired videos, he lost support in the streets, where many initial supporters felt he had sold out and abandoned hip-hop ideals in favor of commercial success. Nas' sales reflected this fading support, as each subsequent album sold less than its predecessor despite the consistent hitmaking.
A series of incidents in 2001 provided a key turning point for Nas' declining career. The rapper's personal life became increasingly conflicted, as his mother began suffering from cancer and his woman betrayed him. To make matters worse, longtime rival Jay-Z pointedly dissed Nas on "Takeover," the much-discussed leadoff song from his universally acclaimed Blueprint album (2001). Jay-Z called out Nas for not having put out a "hot" album since Illmatic, among other reasons, and also made demeaning comments about Nas' woman. And it didn't help that Jay-Z had indeed rose atop the New York rap scene, giving him ample justification to call out Nas, who had fallen from favor and receded from the public eye while he dealt with his personal issues. Following a much-circulated underground freestyle over the beat to "Paid in Full," Nas responded strikingly in December 2001 with Stillmatic, the title a reference to his one undeniable masterpiece, Illmatic, which had been released nearly a decade earlier. Most notably, Stillmatic opened with the song "Ether," a very direct response (featuring the chants "f*ck Jay-Z" and "I will not lose"), followed by perhaps Nas' most aggressive single ever, "Get Ur Self A...." These two songs in particular rallied the streets while the moving video for "One Mic" received heavy support from MTV. Throughout 2002, Nas continued his comeback with a number of guest appearances, among them Brandy's "What About Us?," J-Lo's "I'm Gonna Be Alright," and Ja Rule's "The Pledge," as well as yet more headline-worthy controversy, this time involving his no-show at popular radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam.
Amid all of the drama, Nas managed to salvage his esteemed reputation and reclaim his lofty status atop the New York scene. Stillmatic earned immediate wide acclaim from fans and critics alike and sold impressively, while Columbia furthered the comeback fervor with two archival releases, one of remixes (From Illmatic to Stillmatic ), the other of outtakes (The Lost Tapes ). Then at the end of the year Columbia released a new studio album, God's Son, and Nas once again basked in widespread acclaim as the album sold well, spawned sizable hits ("Thugz Mansion," "Made You Look," "I Can"), and received rampant media support. Two years later Nas returned with Street's Disciple (2004), a sprawling double album that delved deeply into various issues, most notably politics and his impending marriage to Kelis. The two-sided "Thief's Theme"/"You Know My Style" single dropped in summer 2004, several months before the album's release, and was followed that fall by the proper lead single, "Bridging the Gap."