FEATURE: Puffy on Life After Biggie

For Puff, talking about Big meant revisiting a dark chapter in his very storied life. It also meant reveling in one of his brightest legacies.

Photographer Jonathan Mannion
May 11, 2011

The world knows Notorious BIG because of Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs. As a young record executive, Puff sought out and molded one of Brooklyn's finest rappers into one of hip-hop's greatest artists. From good business came great friendship, but also immeasurable loss with Biggie's 1997 murder. For Puff, talking about Big meant revisiting a dark chapter in his very storied life. It also meant reveling in one of his brightest legacies.

What had you heard about Biggie before you met him? He was in The Source's Unsigned Hype. They said he was ill, but I don't think they really understood how ill he was. But also at the same time, it wasn't like everybody out there had labels. It wasn't no competition. It wasn't like another label wanted to sign him, because he didn't have that look. And also, his style. He wasn't trying to spit no radio R&B-friendly records.

What was your first impression of Big? He definitely was big, he was tall. For some reason, back then, like in the early '90s, everybody wasn't tall like how they are now. If you was a tall kid, you really stood out. He was tall and he was big, like the center of the football team. He spoke when he needed to speak, besides that he was quiet. I guess coming into my office was intimidating. Like this was his shot. I had already had a bunch of hit records, my name was real hot on the streets. That had to be intimidating for him, but in general he wasn't a loud, boisterous person. He was loud and funny around his friends, but at a party he wouldn't be the loudest person in the room. He'd be in the cut, doing him.

Was he ever intimidating? Nah. I think that was the thing that people liked about him. He would blow down any stereotypes from when you met him. It wasn't like he was intimidating or he was trying to intimidate you, that had nothing to do with his M.O., he was just doing him.

What was he like around women? Around women he was a charmer. He didn't really make the first move, and a lot of times it just happened from, "Pleased to meet you." He would get introduced to people and when he said "pleased to meet you" to a girl it rang a different way. I guess they was caught off guard by how much of a gentleman he was, how smooth he was and also how he didn't try to continue on the conversation. That made her feel comfortable. They'd lay in the cut, something else would happen, and then they'd start laughing. They'd see the humor and it was a wrap.

What is your most vivid memory of Biggie? When I think of him I think of him sitting in a room by himself, rocking back and forth, smoking a blunt down almost to the roach of it, doing that for hours in deep thought while writing. His mouth is not moving, he's not mimicking what he's going to do in the booth. It was him in deep, spiritual rap meditation.

Listening to him rhyme, he always seemed so worldly. I don't know where he got that stuff from. To this day, I'm still catching onto things he was saying, and I've been around the world ten times. I don't really understand how he knew all that stuff. I never saw him reading a lot of magazines, reading a lot of books, watching a lot of TV, watching a lot of movies. I think he was just put on the earth this way.

Do you ever remember him being hard to deal with? Never. Even when there was problems, we was able to talk about it.

Is it hard for you to look back at his death? Yeah, without a doubt. It's something that, mentally, your mind starts to take over and repress. His music is everywhere, he is everywhere. It's not like when I hear his music I think of his murder right away. It's other times. Like the other day I was talking about how there's so many suckers in the industry now, just cats that be on some negative bullshit. It's just different.

What was it like for you immediately after Biggie died? My life was over after that. You couldn't have told me that I was going to make it out of that, emotionally and spiritually, and as a man. I just didn't understand it. He was just such a nice person, and he was getting his life together. It was just crazy. He was a rapper that got assassinated. That is really crazy. To this day that is hard to deal with or fathom. I'd be lying to you if I say we really have dealt with it and we understand it and we coping with it. I talked to his mother the other day during the anniversary. It hurts the same. There's certain grief and loss you can understand. "Oh, that person had cancer," or, "that person was slinging dope in the streets," or, "that person lived by the sword and he died by the sword, that was some karma," or even, "that was a tragedy and god's will, the avalanche came..." This was just crazy, and maybe we feel that way because it is personal to us, but you can't say we're over it, or we've moved on. It's not like that. I don't think we will ever move on, and I think everybody is just all right with that. They've got to live with that and that's one of the burdens they have in their lives.

Were you ever scared for your own safety? Nah, I don't think even one of us was scared for attempts on our own lives, even after the fact. We wasn't trying to bring none of that, and we didn't fathom none of that. It's really, really fucked up. I don't really want to talk no more on that.

How did you feel about promoting Big's music after he died? After that just happened it wasn't just my choice. It was the family's choice. When it just happened, I was like, We not putting out the album. His family and friends, they were like, "Are you bugging? We've gotta put it out now." But with [the music] his legacy lives, he doesn't just become someone that was here for one album and disappeared. And then his kids was involved, so we had to make sure we had something on an estate level for his kids. But beyond all the business of it all, at the end of the day, after we was able to gather ourselves and get ourselves up, that was the closest thing to having him here, hearing his music.

What do you hear when you listen to Big today? To be honest, I listen to Big as a fan. I think people would think that I listen to him and I reminisce about when we made a record and to be honest, that's completely blocked out. I listen to it in awe as a fan. Almost like how when I listened to the first demo tape, I became a fan. And when I listen to it, I always find something new that I didn't realize he was saying. I just enjoy it. It's so crazy to say that when a Big record comes on, it's almost refreshing today. That's how dope he was that it could be such a long time ago, and be refreshing. So if I'm listening to the radio today and I go home and I put on Life After Death, from the get-go I'm in a whole different state emotionally, you know what I'm saying? I'm in a whole different vibe. It changes my day, it changes my night. It puts me where I need to be.

FEATURE: Puffy on Life After Biggie