“All those people that were on the roof, those guys were like the popular guys on campus. And so for them to say, we are taking over the administration building, that this is the right thing to do, it popularizes the movement.”
Combs already had his eyes on the music industry at this time — he was a party promoter at Howard, and left college after a few semesters for Uptown Records, then the most forward-looking label working at the intersection of hip-hop and R&B. He helped craft a streetwise presentation of soul music via Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, and then, after leaving and forming Bad Boy Records, worked in the opposite direction, bringing the sensuality, pulse and joy of soul music into hip-hop via heavy sampling that emphasized hip-hop’s place in the Black music lineage.
He intended to be a personality, not a performer, but that had to change after the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. “I’ll Be Missing You,” the song that put him in the spotlight, is a permanent entry in the pantheon of American melancholy, right alongside “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “All Too Well.” Combs was the owner who became the star, making inseparable the endeavors of art and capitalism.
Success in the fashion world and the spirits industry followed. He made the cover of Forbes. His halcyon years were halcyon, indeed. “I ain’t gonna lie to you. I had got a taste of wealth and I was going to do anything I could do to protect that,” Combs said. “I just remember those days of roaches crawling on me and it’s just like, I need to focus on this money right now, ’cause nobody else has the opportunity that I have.”
A few years ago, though, his carefully polished life began to unravel. In late 2018, Kim Porter, the mother of three of Combs’s children, died of pneumonia. She and Combs were no longer involved, but they’d remained close friends. In May 2020, Combs’s mentor Andre Harrell — who’d given him his Uptown internship and then cast him out, only to reunite and work for Combs for many years — died of heart failure. In between those losses, Combs turned 50. The series of events left him uncharacteristically wandering in a spiritual desert.
“I had dealt with depression before, you know? Through a lot of different things, trials and tragedies,” he said. “But this one was different. I actually locked myself in my room. For like a year and a half. In my bathroom. I wasn’t talking to my kids, I wasn’t talking to nobody.”