DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So a lot of what we take for granted in today's culture of glamour and bling can be traced back to Bad Boy Records and its founder Sean Puff Daddy Combs. A new documentary that opens tomorrow tells the label's story around a concert last year that reunited some of its stars. Frannie Kelley has more.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: We know Sean Combs for grandiosity. We know him by his stage names - P. Diddy, Puff Daddy. Everybody's heard Bad Boy's records.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYPNOTIZE")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) Timbs (ph) for my hooligans in Brooklyn. Dead right, if the head right Biggie there every night.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS SOON AS I GET HOME")
FAITH EVANS: (Singing) And if I could, with you I would be forever.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLAVA IN YOUR EAR")
CRAIG MACK: (Rapping) Here comes the brand new flavor in your ear. Time for your new flavor in your ear. I'm kicking new flavor in your ear.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONEY, POWER, RESPECT")
LIL KIM: (Rapping) It's the key to life - money, power, respect, what you need in life. Money, power, respect when you're eating right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS")
PUFF DADDY: (Rapping) Three-course meals - spaghetti, fettuccine and veal. But still, everything's real in the field. And what you can't have now, leave in your will.
KELLEY: 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 the documentary, called "Can't Stop Won't Stop," he will wear fur on stage. And he will demand a certain kind of lighting.
SEAN COMBS: I like God light. When God's light comes through, it just hits you like it's God's lights. I don't want the Chrysler that looks like the Phantom. I want the Phantom.
KELLEY: Combs didn't do all that to rub his success in your face. He did it for the kids. That's what he said when I met him at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.
COMBS: I was going to live life the way that kings live life but, you know, as a man of color. And I'm going to let the kids and the world see that. And it's going to have an effect on them because they're constantly getting hit with images of us as African-Americans being unsuccessful, like when you watch the news, you know, to the point now where they see images of theirselves (ph) actually getting shot. I have to show them another image, no matter how it rubs people the wrong way. It's important.
JUDIKKI MAYARD: Black people are not found to be glamorous or famous or rich, so Puff has always been applying himself to the audience that was never considered glamorous.
KELLEY: Judikki Mayard is a writer who grew up in New York, where Combs and his label began.
MAYARD: He knew where the money was and where the value was from the very beginning, so that's pretty much why he's my hero. That's pretty much why I think he still has such respect in our community because Puffy has always found value in black dollars.
KELLEY: In the documentary, Combs describes sitting on his stoop as a kid in the summer staring at his neighbor's pool, wishing they would invite him over. And he says he never wanted to feel like that again. It 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.
MAYARD: A generation that, I guess, was in between, 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, you know. All the samples were from our parents' time but all the artists were very much our time. So I guess when I think of Bad Boy, I just think of being black in the '90s.
KELLEY: And it's the songs that Combs puts first.
PUFF DADDY: The legacy, to me, is in the bass line and then the beat, the pocket of the beat, and the melody and the spirit that's put in their music. That's all you're left with. Nothing could compare to that feeling, you know, that feeling that you're able to give people through music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL SO GOOD")
PUFF DADDY: You ready, Mase? Party people in the place to be, it's about that time for us to...
MASE: (Rapping) What you know about going out, head West, red Lex (ph), TV's all up in the headrest? Try and live it up, ride true, a bigger truck, piece all glittered up.
KELLEY: The first night of the reunion does not go well. And in the film, Combs has to pysch himself up but to give it another shot. He starts singing in the shower.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAN'T STOP WON'T STOP")
COMBS: Got to get into that spirit, out of my brain, into my heart. Out of my brain and into my heart.
KELLEY: In "Can't Stop Won't Stop," Combs is the great motivator. Some of his artists are anxious about performing again. Others have to resolve old disagreements before they can share a stage, but Combs gets them together. Writer Judikki Mayard saw it live.
MAYARD: It really is a pleasure to see him on stage 'cause so himself. And he really enjoys it. And he really - he's like a hype man for the artist. And he's 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, at least a concert room.
I don't know what it's like to be in a meeting with him. But, you know, it feels like you can't be in the theater with him and not be on his level I think is what's really dope about it. So I'm pretty sure he'll do it again like a hundred times or do it again for the 30th anniversary (laughter).
KELLEY: Right before the concert, a doctor pays a house call. He asks somebody to get Combs a tissue. It's printed with hundred-dollar bills. I asked him if the 19-year-old who started Bad Boy Records in a basement in 1993 could do it today.
COMBS: If I was 13 today, I could start Bad Boy Records just due to the knowledge that kids have due to social media. They start at the age 13 right now because the business is something that's attainable to them. It's something that they are allowed to be a part of. It's something that they rule. So if I was coming up, you know, at this time, I'd have more access. And I'd probably be able to build something bigger than Bad Boy Records.
KELLEY: Imagine that. For NPR News, I'm Frannie Kelley.