By now, we’ve all seen the memes and GIFs of Sean “Diddy” Combs’s fall at the 2015 BET Awards. The mogul took a tumble during the show’s high-powered tribute to his Bad Boy Records, a highlight of the night even without the unexpected hilarity of Diddy’s spill. Many viewers took to social media immediately to poke fun at the incident—which happened on the heels of Diddy’s controversial fight with a UCLA assistant coach last week. According to reports, Diddy attacked Bruins strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi with a kettlebell after Alosi berated Combs’s son, Justin, who plays for the football team. Combs has been charged with three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and making terrorist threats.To some observers, the incident paints Combs as an arrogant bully—and they undoubtedly relished the opportunity to roast Diddy after his fall at the BET Awards. But the arrest, the tribute, the fall, and the public’s general annoyance with Sean Combs are all microcosms of Combs’s entire persona and legacy. He’s always been brash and egomaniacal and he’s always made an ass of himself and somehow managed to land on his feet. He’s had more than one run-in with the law; there was the infamous 1999 New Year’s Eve shooting that led to his arrest, and his altercation with industry exec Steve Stoute that same year. He’s had other head-scratching moments where he’s lost his temper; like that ill-advised tantrum at an Atlanta nightclub in 2012 after he noticed patrons weren’t drinking the Diddy-endorsed vodka brand, Ciroc. But none of those incidents have ever knocked him from his place near the top of hip-hop’s elite movers and shakers—unlike his onetime rival, former Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight, who’s awaiting trial for murder, or contemporaries like Roc-A-Fella’s Dame Dash and So So Def founder Jermaine Dupri, who have become more known for financial troubles than power moves.
The fact that there was a tribute to his label, despite that Bad Boy hasn’t delivered anything truly iconic—or even all that important—in hip-hop since the late 1990s, is a testament to his ability to sell himself and his brand. Nobody’s doing tributes to Cold Chillin’ or Ruthless Records or No Limit Records these days.In 2015, there are no award show tributes to Knight’s Death Row Records, either. The toxic image and culture associated with that label, its dramatic fall from grace and the infamy of its ex-CEO have muted Death Row’s legacy as the greatest hip-hop label of the ’90s. To many millennials, Death Row just means the late, great 2Pac—despite that the beloved rapper was only on the label for nine months until his death in September 1996 and those nine months coincided with Death Row’s fall from grace. Death Row’s amazing run of G-Funk classics from 1992’s The Chronic to 1995’s Dogg Food has become a footnote to its rivalry with Bad Boy, something that only emerged in 1995 and 1996 because of Knight’s animosity toward Combs.But Combs has ensured that we never forget Bad Boy’s history. It’s similar to the way Berry Gordy and his successors hyper-branded Motown in a way that kept the name impactful even as its cultural and musical influence waned in the ’80s and ’90s. Gordy is another music mogul with a sometimes-conflicted legacy. But unlike Combs, Gordy launched unquestionably legendary careers. Lots of them. Combs’s track record is a lot spottier.
Of course, the image and spirit of the Notorious B.I.G. are the foundation on which the Bad Boy legacy is built. But if you look at the rest of the label’s stars, there is a lot of squandered talent and false starts. After Biggie’s debut in late 1994, the label spent most of the next two years launching R&B stars like Faith, Total, and 112. By the early 2000s, all three would exit Bad Boy acrimoniously. The label returned to rappers in a major way in the wake of Biggie’s March 1997 murder, with Diddy (then Puff Daddy) taking center stage as the label’s biggest star upon the release of his multiplatinum debut album No Way Out. That fall, his sidekick Ma$e followed suit with his successful Harlem World album. Yonkers trio The LOX dropped Money, Power, Respect in early 1998. By 1999, however, Ma$e was disillusioned with hip-hop and dropped his career to become a minister and the LOX were publicly fighting Diddy to leave Bad Boy and his pop obsessions for a label that better understood their vision. Within two years of Biggie’s death, Bad Boy was floundering almost as badly as Death Row had in 1996.Diddy was obviously able to resurrect the label, but it was largely on the strength of his own star power. The cadre of rappers that Bad Boy signed in the wake of Biggie’s death, from Black Rob to G. Dep to Loon, all ran into their own legal issues or contractual problems with Combs. Black Rob’s 1999 debut album Life Story was a moderate hit, but frequent arrests disrupted any career momentum. Loon and G. Dep also released debuts on Bad Boy, only for both artists to sever ties with the label by 2003.But Diddy maintained his visibility via constant guest appearances on prominent rap albums and his MTV show Making the Band. The mogul executive produced and starred in the reality series, which featured young hopefuls auditioning for groups that would be on the Bad Boy roster. The first season showcased an ill-fated hip-hop group, creatively dubbed Da Band, who would go on to release one album before being dropped from the label. The second project was more successful, with Diddy putting together the all-girl pop group Danity Kane. The quintet released two successful albums before disagreements both with each other and Diddy led to Danity Kane’s disbanding in 2009. Aside from their long-fallen superstar, Bad Boy has never really been in the legend-making business.So is that why Diddy seems to annoy people? Is it his self-promoting persona and his seeming to embody all that is shallow about pop culture? Is it that he doesn’t really make stars in as much as he exploits young hopefuls and moves on? Is it that he just acts like a jerk sometimes? Maybe it’s all of that. Maybe it’s none of it. But Diddy’s place in hip-hop shouldn’t be dismissed or oversimplified. A lot of his musical significance stretches beyond Bad Boy Records—back to his days at Uptown, guiding seminal acts like Mary J. Blige, Heavy D, and Jodeci. He also should be commended for his entrepreneurial passions—the guy knows how to brand himself and build on it. While his reputation as an artist is fairly underwhelming, as a mogul, he’s provided a template for an entire generation of hip-hop businessmen to follow, for better or worse. And even with his latest legal snafu, there doesn’t seem to be much worry that Sean Combs will land on his feet. He always does. This likely won’t be the thing that stops him.It's hard to imagine that this would stop Mr. “We Won’t Stop." No reason to start doubting him now.