Rapper and producer Puff Daddy turns everything he touches to gold

By Degen Pener
Updated December 26, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

Now this is showbiz muscle. During each of Puff Daddy’s sold-out fall concerts, the houselights come up. Blink, blink goes the crowd. And Puffy, a.k.a. Sean Combs — the 26-year-old impresario who glamorized, revitalized, and just plain ruled rap this year — directs the throng to make three movements: Stand up, put their hands in the air, and sit down. Soon the entire arena is performing, of all things, the wave. ”The wave is some silly s—,” says Combs. ”For hip-hop, there’s never been no wave done.”

Nor has rap seen anyone like Combs. Not content to be a producer and remixer (although everyone from Mariah Carey to Aretha Franklin clamors for his services) and not happy simply owning his own record company (although his Bad Boy Entertainment could bring in more than $150 mil this year), Combs created Puff Daddy, his supersize alter ego, and last summer released his own album, No Way Out. It sold 561,000 copies its first week. A more incredible statistic: Beginning in November 1996, six hit songs in a row either sung or produced by Combs held down the top spot on Billboard‘s rap singles chart for 42 consecutive weeks. ”Almost a whole year,” he says.

Rappers have always sampled, but Puffy stepped up to the pop buffet and made meals of other artists’ hits. Heard his new single ”Been Around the World”? Sure you have; it’s composed mostly of samples from David Bowie and Lisa Stansfield. And the boost works. ”I’ll Be Missing You,” his reworking of the Police’s ”Every Breath You Take” into a heartfelt tribute to the Notorious B.I.G., rocketed to No. 1 in 16 countries.

Critics may wail, but the result is more than the sum of his appropriations. ”He’s brought back fun party records,” says Carey, who had a recent No. 1 hit with Puffy. ”He’s broken down barriers and made hip-hop accessible to the masses.” Fueled partly by his links to British ’80s pop, Puff Daddy began his crossover just when rap was in danger of imploding after the violent slayings of Tupac Shakur and Biggie. On his current tour, multiracial crowds have been the norm. ”It’s a dream come true. I made my music for the urban community, but I want everybody to feel it,” he says. No wonder Warner Bros. wants him for Lethal Weapon 4 and Fox is talking about a variety series called Puffy’s House.

Combs, of course, has denied he helped provoke the tensions that took Tupac and Biggie’s lives. To his credit, he’s turned his tour, dedicated to B.I.G.’s memory, into one big love-in. No, we’re not talking expletive-filled odes to raw sex. They’re there, but Puff Daddy also praises God, takes a moment to remember Tupac, and pleads for togetherness. ”If I had no hits for the rest of my life and had Biggie, I’d do that in a minute,” he says. ”Me and him could be mailmen. I’d be ecstatic with that.”