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Barry Michael Cooper Headshot

Once Upon a Time in America: My Interview with Sean John Combs

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FINDING OBAMICA, VOL. 3

"Remember what we talked about so much?" Bigger asked in a flat neutral tone.
"Naw."
"Old Blum."...Bigger took a deep breath and looked from face to face. It seemed to him that he should not have to explain.
"Look, it'll be easy. There ain't nothing to be scared of. Between three and four ain't nobody in the store but the old man. The cop is way down at the other end of the block...Can't you see? This is something big," Bigger said.

Richard Wright,
Book One: Fear
Native Son, 1940.

"What nigga, you wanna rob the muthafuckin' train? Is you crazy?!"
(Background noises inside a New York subway station: Biggie responds
to his hesitant accomplice)
"Yes, yes, muthafucka! You muthafuckin' right!"
"Nigga what the fuck?!"
"Nigga, it's '87, nigga. Is you dead broke?!"
"Yeah, nigga but..."
"Is you dead broke? We need to get some muthafuckin' paper, nigga!"
"Nigga, it's a train, ain't nobody ever robbed no muthafuckin' train!"
"Is your mother givin' you money nigga? My moms don't give me shit, nigga.
It's time to get paid, nigga. Is you wit me?"
(Biggie clicks the cartridge on his 9 milimeter.)
"Muthafucka, is you wit me?!"
"Yeah I'm wit you, come on!"
"Alright, nigga, let's make it happen, then!"
(Biggie and his accomplice step onto an arriving subway train:the two stick-up kids brandish their guns. Biggie barks out his instructions to the passengers.) "ALL YOU MUTHAFUCKAS, GET ON THE FUCKIN' FLOOR!" (Biggie fires two shots into the air. Screams of fear and pandemonium fill
the subway car. Biggie repeats his command.) "GET ON THE MUTHAFUCKIN' FLOOR!! GIMME ALL YOUR MUTHAFUCKIN'MONEY, I WANT THE FUCKIN' JEWELRY!..."

Christopher Wallace and Sean Combs,
Intro Skit from
Ready To Die, 1994

I didn't always know that Sean John Combs was a genius: I had a difficult time recognizing it. Maybe it was all of the personalities that confused my cultural GPS: Puffy, Puff, Puffy Combs, Puff Daddy, P.Diddy, Diddy, Sean John, and now, Sean Combs. That's a lot of people living in one body. A lot of different faces. A lot of different personalities. Like David Bowie and Madonna before him, Sean Combs recognized there is strength in the number of times you can reinvent yourself. More is mo'. Mo' people, mo' celebrity. Mo' celebrity, mo' opportunities. Mo' opportunities, mo' money.

Mo' money, mo' problems.

Unlike Zelig -- Woody Allen's brilliant mock-doc about a man with the bizarre ability to morph into the people around him -- Sean J. Combs various transformations had nothing to do with conformity. His protean talent is a jamming device in the spinning blades of the big machine called Famous. The machine that loves to taste the flavor of the month before chewing it up and spitting it out.

The Frenzy Of Renown -- to borrow the title of Leo Braudy's great meditation on the definition of fame -- is suspended between the moral polarity of the sacred and the profane. Supplication at the throne of celebrity always becomes the toilet primed for the royal flush. It's the Great American Past Time: build 'em up to woosh 'em down the sewer of irrelevance.

Lest we forget, Elvis died on the commode.

Sean John Combs is not about to be irrelevant. To paraphrase Oscar Levant, S.J.C. is a study of a man in chaos in search of frenzy. The chaotic need for attention, recognition, adoration, love, understanding. The frenzied blowback of controversy, rumor, innuendo, gossip, and misinterpretation. The blogs love the online parlor game called, Use This Blind Item To Pin The Scandal On The Jackass. Somehow, Sean Combs continues to slip away from the collective pin-stick of heated condemnation. Somehow, Sean Combs continues to make news about house-guests in glass houses dodging judgmental stones, club preferences and story retractions, successful haute couture at Fashion Week, a box office smash, the epicurean distinctions between Popeyes and KFC.

What gets lost in the translation of the inscrutable writ known as Sean John Combs, is his stature as one of the greatest music producers of all time. Time to rewind: before Ciroc, before Saint-Tropez, before Gatz bulleted into Gatsby, before I Am King jet-skied into our subconscious group-think, there was Ready To Die. On the 12th anniversary of his untimely death, it's long overdue to take another look at the musical birth certificate of the greatest MC who ever lived, Christopher Wallace. The same Christopher Wallace who transformed into "Biggie Smalls", a monster created in the lab of a Frankenstein crack economy, who looked in the mirror and saw a dude "fat, black/and ugly as ever/however..." The Biggie Smalls who was the 1994 model of Richard Wright's 1940 Bigger Thomas, from his storied classic, "Native Son". The impact of Ready To Die is even more powerful in this futuristic age of a Black Commander-In-Chief, President Barack Obama -- this age of Obamica -- because I don't think that Bigger Thomas nor Biggie Smalls could have ever imagined that reality in their lifetime. Smalls would probably say it was "un/believe/a/bowl"...

Once upon a time in America -- Reagan's America -- Biggie opined that a young black kid only had two exit strategies out of the hood: slinging crack rocks or having a wicked jump shot. Part gangster melodrama, part soulful tone poem, part 1930s radio play ("The Shadow Knows"), part porn film (was Biggie really getting his socks blown off by that groupie in that skit?), and part suicide note, Ready To Die gets my vote for the greatest Hip Hop album of all time. It was the album that gave a voice to a generation of young, fatherless, disillusioned, and disenfranchised black males, who assumed nihilism and death were the only answers to life's puzzling absolutes. Maybe Ready To Die was Hip Hop's first existential album: I bang out, therefore, I am. I don't know.

What I do know is this. It took the hungry drive and visionary intuition of Sean John Combs to harness and direct the unmatched lyrical brilliance of Christopher Wallace. In my interview with Combs last week, at the New York headquarters of his Bad Boy Worldwide media empire, I asked him if he and Christopher knew they were recording the greatest rap album of all time, and other questions about the making of Ready To Die. Some of his answers may surprise you. This much is clear: the story of Sean John Combs is truly an American dream. Even if Ready To Die is the epitome of a tragic American nightmare. Without question, it feels as if some Things Done Changed -- to borrow the title of a track from Ready To Die -- on 20 January 2009. However, ghetto life now -- as it was on the release of Ready To Die in 1994 -- sadly reminds U.S. that the song remains the same.

Here's a segment of my interview with Sean Combs:

Click here to view the entire interview with Sean "Diddy" Combs.