Bad Boy’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” Celebrates Triumph Over Tragedy
by Jerry Barrow
Sean Combs’ life has always been…dramatic. The world’s most famous intern turned record mogul captured the hearts and minds of music fans by carefully constructing his narrative from day one. But he distinguished himself by how he maneuvered around adversity. The conflict. The dark cloud from which he always manages to pull nourishing rain. Not succumbing became his battle cry. The Lox’s 1996 white label promo “You’ll See” is one of the first times we hear the young bottle popper emeritus beg the question “When are they ever gonna stop?…when are they gonna stop making those hits?…when those Bad Boys are GONNA stop making all that money?!” It wouldn’t be long before he was truly tested. And the things that almost bring Bad Boy—and Combs—to a screeching halt are at the heart of the documentary, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.”
Exactly twenty years ago Puff was starting over. Bad Boy Records had been enjoying unprecedented success since its emergence in 1994. Craig Mack, The Lox, Mase and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace, helped Puff define the sound of his generation. By combining their raw talent with his showmanship they took the sound of New York Worldwide. But the black cloud that seemed to follow him since that tragic day at City College in 1991 clapped back hard, taking the life of his best friend and marquee artist in a hail of gunfire after a Vibe magazine party in Los Angeles. It was the culmination of an on-going bi-coastal feud that took the life of Biggie’s friend turned nemesis Tupac Shakur less than a year before. If there was ever a time to quit, this would have been it. But Puff persisted, throwing himself into his art. One spring day he was huddled around a board at The Hit Factory with Derrick Angelettie playing his debut “No Way Out” for me. The single “Victory,” featuring a blistering posthumous verse from Biggie, had leaked to radio early unmixed. In a rare moment of humility Puff seemed concerned that the album wouldn’t be out in time for the annual Philly Greek Picnic, where a hundred thousand Black college kids converged to party and bullshit. But none of it mattered. Thanks to his stellar job of rallying the troops, his “solo” debut “No Way Out” would enter at the top of the charts with over a half million records sold and win a Grammy for Best Rap Album. Bad Boy hadn’t been stopped. Not even close.
But over the next decade or so the label would hit bumps. His hit maker and co-writer Mase would retire to become a pastor. Shyne, his Brooklyn MC who many derided as a Biggie soundalike, would shoot a man in a night club putting Combs through a trial which ended with the rapper going to prison for eight years. Craig Mack would leave the label, resign only to leave for good. Later signees had equally bad luck with the law. G-Dep confessed to a 1993 shooting that has him serving 15 years to life and Loon was sentenced to 14 years in prison on heroin charges. Of course Bad Boy would have its successes, but it would never quite be the same.
It is against this backdrop that the film takes us into the 20th Anniversary Reunion Concert at the Barclay’s Center. The camera follows Diddy as he relives the oldest cliché in music, getting the band back together. We are offered a rare look into his palatial estate as he invites the aforementioned Mase, Lil’ Kim (who despite never being signed to Bad Boy as an artist is as synonymous with the label as Puff himself), Nas, The Lox and Total to prepare for a grand homecoming in New York City, in the borough that birthed Biggie.
From here we are treated to everything we already know about Puff, but laid out in 4K clarity. He has no off switch. During a visit, his doctor is telling him that maybe he “shouldn’t go so hard” but that warning falls on deaf ears. His no-nonsense perfectionist reputation is reinforced with every interaction, from junior staff to his General, famed choreographer and director Laureann Gibson. Sean lives up to his name combing through every detail of the show until it is to his satisfaction. But there are some things even he can’t control. Some artists refuse to perform and one strained relationship, between Faith Evans and Lil’ Kim, threatens the entire show. In one of the most poignant lines in the film Puff comes to grips with his limits. “Artists go from Bad Boy to God. There is no in between,” he says acknowledging the fate of Craig Mack, Shyne, Loon, Mase and G-Dep who all found themselves getting closer to God in a tight situation. And of course Biggie is playing dice with Phife and Sean Price at the pearly gates. But it’s unclear if this realization gives Puff a sense of solace or regret.
However, the film succeeds in revealing just how much Combs needs his family. As much as he makes them better, they in turn, give him purpose. It’s not enough for him to be a star, he needs celestial bodies in his orbit to reflect his light. He clings to a Nina Simone clip to motivate his team and open the show. She talks about freedom, the freedom of the stage and her art. “Freedom is no fear! That’s the only way I can describe it.”
It’s the nurturing side of Combs that he mixes with his stalwart leadership that he hopes to bring out more. “This is still new for me,” he confesses about his “softer” side. While his life is still dramatic, it may be a little less so in his old age.
After screening the film, Puff, Mase, Faith Evans, Carl Thomas and Lil’ Kim took the stage at the Beacon Theater to offer an almost 4D experience, performing a medley of the songs that helped make Bad Boy a household name. They bounced through “Mo Money Mo Problems,” “The Benjamins,” “Get Money” and more while the crowd of almost 3,000 lucky fans pantomimed every word and movement from the videos. It’s a Funco Pop version of the Barclay’s extravaganza but makes us glad that Puff Daddy and his family didn’t stop when the world seemed to try everything to make them.
Check out some great footage from the performances at the Beacon Theater:
The Bad Boy Family Perform a Medley of their Hits
Puff Daddy and Mase perform “Mo Money Mo Problems”
Jerry Barrow is the founder of NODFACTOR.com and is a New York based veteran journalist with stints at The Source, Scratch Magazine and WatchLOUD. Follow his work on Twitter @JLBarrow. Check out some of his work for soulhead.