Huff and Puff and oul guff

He's a millionaire rap mogul with a trail of dead friends, with a movie star girlfriend (Jennifer Lopez), with a sworn enemy …

He's a millionaire rap mogul with a trail of dead friends, with a movie star girlfriend (Jennifer Lopez), with a sworn enemy in the shape of Ireland's own White Nigga (Boyzone's Shane Lynch) and with a diamond-studded approach to business. His name is Sean Combs, otherwise known as Puff Daddy, and he's playing Dublin's Point Theatre on Tuesday. Puff, however, is more in the news these days for his run-ins with the law than for his diluted, sample-heavy hip hop music.

Two weeks ago, he was indicted for allegedly attempting to bribe a witness following a shooting incident at a New York club in January. Combs, along with a friend, Anthony Jones, has already been charged with two counts of criminally possessing a weapon following the incident, in which three people were wounded. Prosecutors claim that Combs and his friend offered Combs's driver Wardel Fenderson $50,000 if Fenderson admitted ownership of a gun that was found in their luxury car. This incident is but a footnote, however, to others that Combs has been associated with over the past few years: in 1994, rap artist Tupac Shakur was wounded by a gun-shot in New York. The rapper blamed the attack on Combs and Biggie Smalls (aka Christopher Wallace, aka rap artist Notorious B.I.G.). In 1996, Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas. Six months later, Biggie Smalls was murdered in a drive-by shooting. No one seriously believes Combs has any connection with these acts of violence. The murders remain unsolved.

Background is all to the Sean Combs phenomenon. Born in Harlem in 1970 to parents Janice (a model) and Melvin (shot dead in Central Park when Puff Toddler was two), Combs attended a private school in northern suburb Mt. Vernon, where he showed nascent business acumen by organising paper routes in the area. He then applied to Washington D.C.'s Howard University. He soon dropped out to take up a position as intern at Uptown Records, a job made possible through his friendship with Uptown's Heavy D, a friend since childhood. Within a few months, he was an A&R executive. Within a year, he was vice-president of promotion.

Ambitious, driven and egotistical, Combs produced multi-platinum albums for Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, inventing, so he claims, hip hop soul. After persuading Uptown to allow him to launch his own record label, Combs's first signing to Bad Boy Entertainment was Christopher Wallace, a known drug-dealer from Brooklyn. As Notorious B.I.G., Wallace put east coast rap music back on the map. The feud between east and west coast rap was about to begin, but as Bad Boy Entertainment grew in stature, so did Combs's conceit. Uptown fired him, leaving him to work out of his apartment, and eventually to a $15 million deal with Arista that guaranteed him complete control. Following huge successes with Craig Mack, Notorious B.I.G., B.I.G.'s wife Faith Evans and production credits for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, TLC and SWV, it seemed as if Combs had well and truly hit the big time.

If things were going according to plan, however, he didn't take into account the seriousness of the growing intra-rap east coast/west coast feud between Bad Boy Entertainment (in essence, himself and Notorious B.I.G.) and Death Row Records (label boss Marion Knight and his star turn, Tupac Shakur). Shakur had accused Combs of involvement in his 1994 shooting, had mocked Notorious B.I.G. by claiming on record that he had slept with his wife ("B.I.G stole my lyrics, I stole his bitch," he boasted), threatened Combs and Notorious B.I.G. in the lyrics to his song Hit 'Em Up and had humiliated the pair in a video that featured two characters called P.I.G and Buffy.

Death Row boss Knight, meanwhile, continually sniped at Combs's unusually arrogant habit of appearing as a dancer in his artists' videos. Amidst all the bickering and bravado, Combs was planning his own solo career (under the moniker of Puff Daddy), which got off to a fine start with Can't No- body Hold Me Down, a song that held the top spot on Billboard's Hot R&B Singles charts for almost two months. Another Number One hit single I'll Be Missing You (a tender Police-sampled tribute to Notorious B.I.G.) was followed by the multi-platinum album No Way Out and a couple of Grammy awards in 1998.

What goes up, however, has to come down.

Sales for Bad Boy Entertainment fell from $200 million in 1997 to $35 million in 1998. The man who turned rap into a multimillion-dollar business was losing both face and credibility with what he perceived to be his audience. While he paraded what he referred to as his ghetto-fabulous "Playa" lifestyle (the silver Bentleys, the jewels, the Versace suits, the Hamptons summer residence, the private jet, the bodyguards, the famous girlfriend, the magazine Notorious, the restaurant chain - Justin's, named after his son), he was fast becoming hated by the hardline hip-hop community for diluting a purist, urban art form. Multi-million-dollar success, they claimed, was due only to his sampling the populist work of mostly white artists (David Bowie's Let's Dance, Led Zeppelin's Kashmir, Christopher Cross's Sailing).

Despite his best efforts to retain a degree of street cred (which is hardly credible anyway, seeing as he's as much a bona fide rapper as Bryan Ferry) Combs's quest for fame has usurped his status. Like the vast majority of pop artists who have long since left their roots behind them, Combs wants the underground to like his music as much as do those who accept it without question. The reality is that unless he does something truly imaginative and cutting-edge (as opposed to piggybacking his musical career onto other people's ideas) it's unlikely Sean Combs will ever reach the creative heights of his comparative heroes, Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Next week, Combs brings his spectacular show for the first time to Ireland (last November's overblown MTV Awards appearance was just a taster). Like pretty much everything these days that has crossed over to mass acceptance, it is overblown style over content, shallowness over integrity, desperate lowest common denominator material. All this, and the long arm of the US law shadowing him like a ghost.

These days, who'd want to be a millionaire rap mogul with a trail of dead friends, a movie-star girlfriend, a diamond-studded approach to business, and a possible 15 years in prison if he's convicted of gun possession? What with rap and R&B's strong affiliation to God and the Bible (parts of the industry faithfully believe a new sense of morality is sweeping the community following its adherence to violence, drugs, homophobia and misogyny), Sean Combs's conversion to religion is but a puff away.

Puff Daddy is at the Point, Dublin, on Tuesday

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture