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The Unstoppable Force

Photos/Jim Wright

Sean Combs has built a multimillion-dollar empire on hard work and has a burning desire to live life to the fullest

In his day, singer James Brown was known as the hardest-working man in show business. He never had to compete for the title with Sean Combs.
Even his name keeps him busy: In the course of a career that started in 1990, Combs has been known as Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy and just plain Diddy. Listening to Combs talk about his various businesses, it seems plausible that those names reference a small army of clones he uses to keep the numerous branches of the Combs empire operating smoothly.
He has a record company and a TV network, works in the recording studio producing for other artists as well as making records of his own, heads up the Sean John clothing and fragrance lines, is involved with two premium liquor brands and more.
Sitting in his dressing room at a photo studio space near Los Angeles' MacArthur Park, Combs is pondering a question about time management when he is interrupted by a text. "Sorry, it's my girlfriend," he says, tapping out a quick message. First things first.
He is 46, but with his shades off, his smile is surprisingly boyish. He has the build of a former athlete, not massive like a linebacker, but solid and fleet looking like a defensive back, a position he played with aplomb at Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx. More recently, he showed his athletic prowess by running the New York City Marathon in a respectable four hours and 15 minutes.
He sits atop an empire that seems to expand annually, with a family that includes six children from three women. For all he has done, Combs has many things he still wants to do and not enough time in which to do them.
"I definitely wish there were more hours in the day," he says.
Even at a photo shoot, Combs is the hub of a surprisingly vast collection of enterprises that constantly pull at him. While he changes clothes between setups, he's also talking to his manager about upcoming and ongoing projects. The phone in his pocket may be on silent mode but you can practically feel the energy emanating from it, as it's bombarded by texts and e-mails.
Forbes magazine estimated Combs' net worth at $735 million last year, putting him at the top of its list of the world's richest hip-hop artists. When stacked up against all musicians in 2015, he was the eighth-highest-paid, at $60 million, and he was the only one who did it without the benefit of a tour.
But there is far more to his ventures than music alone. Combs Enterprises comprises a number of divisions, including a talent and marketing agency, his affiliations with Cîroc Vodka and DeLeón Tequila, REVOLT TV, Bad Boy Records, and Sean John fashions and fragrance. Most recently, he, Ron Burkle and Mark Wahlberg jointly acquired Aqua Hydrate, an alkaline-rich performance water (and pledged a donation of a million bottles for the water-needy citizens of Flint, Michigan.) How does he decide what fits the Sean Combs template?
"If it's not authentic or in my wheelhouse, I shy away from it," Combs explains. "Everything is part of creating this dream, creating this world: that, when you get up in the club to dance, you're dancing to a record from my label, you have on a Sean John suit, you're wearing Sean John cologne—and you're drinking Cîroc. Or it's after work and you kick back and watch REVOLT, and you're drinking DeLeón.
"It's the dream of creating a world, creating a lifestyle for this generation's culture, which a lot of people underestimate."
"He's built his brand as a discerning arbiter of style," says Dia Simms, president of Combs Wine & Spirits, a division of Combs Enterprises. "He's not espousing any product he doesn't believe in. There's an incredible responsibility when people listen to you like that. There's a quote [by the late Gen. Omar Bradley] that reminds me of him: ‘We need to learn to set our course by the stars, and not by the light of every passing ship.' There's not a business school that can teach you to do what he does."
What he does is get behind products and projects with a passion and an understanding that achieve results. One of those products is the high-end vodka, Cîroc. When Combs partnered with the brand's parent company, Diageo, to raise awareness and lend his face to the advertising, sales skyrocketed.
"When he got involved with Cîroc, they were working on getting the brand to sell 400,000 cases a year," says Simms. "Sean met with the distributors and said, ‘I'm going to sell a million cases.' And then they sold two million."
Today, Combs's success has put him in the enviable position of not having to worry about having more coming in.
"I can make money," Combs says. "But I can't make time. It's Friday today—but it feels like it was just Friday night yesterday. When I think about time, it's important for me to be as present as possible. That's a journey I started going on when I realized that time was ticking. You get to halftime in your life and realize that it's important to live in the present because life is short."
Born in Harlem, Combs was reared in Mount Vernon, New York, by a single mother who moved there when Sean was 12. His father died when he was only two years old. Though his mother told young Sean that his father had died in a car accident, Combs later uncovered a newspaper clipping about his father's funeral, which revealed that the elder Combs was actually a drug dealer who'd been murdered in a gangland hit.
Growing up without a father, Combs says, helped shape his approach to being a parent.
"I have such a deep appreciation at being able to be a father," he says. "My father didn't get the chance to be there for me. That makes me appreciate the opportunity that much more deeply. I stress the importance of that to my kids—that you can't take having a family for granted."
Religion played a big role in his upbringing. "I was an altar boy," he says. "I was baptized as both a Catholic and a Baptist. When I was growing up, we had a whole day of church on Sunday. So yeah, I was brought up in the faith." Those lessons remain, and prayer is part of his daily ritual. "But I'm not a religious person," he says. "I consider myself a spiritual person. I see a division between being religious and being spiritual."
The women who raised him also instilled him with a powerful work ethic. His mother worked three jobs and his grandmother worked two. Combs earned as well, running several paper routes while attending parochial school.
From an early age, Combs was caught up in popular music, particularly by the emerging rap and hip-hop culture: "I remember the first time I heard hip-hop: Frankie Crocker, this disc jockey on WBLS in New York, played ‘Rapper's Delight' by the Sugar Hill Gang for three hours straight—and it shook the world."
Sean Combs
Initially an urban musical form, hip-hop became a phenomenon, muscling its way into popular culture 30 years ago, eventually becoming part of the mainstream. If you don't believe it, look at who's starring in major studio movies: former rappers like Ice Cube, Will Smith, Queen Latifah and Combs himself, who has acted in several films and who starred on Broadway in a well-received revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.
Turn on the TV and it's the same story: LL Cool J on "NCIS: Los Angeles," Ice-T on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Jay-Z hobnobs with President Obama, who has quoted the rapper's lyrics. So does Combs, who interviewed Barack Obama, then a candidate for the U.S. Senate, at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 for MTV and told him on the air, "You should run for president."
But it took society more than a decade to recognize hip-hop as the art form and, eventually, the influence it has become.
"For a long time, people understood hip-hop as being something gangsta, something black, something street," Combs says. "But it's the only form of music that can mesh with every other form of music. I think people underestimate the kids who listen to it. It is a generational thing and what kids like is the fact that it's so honest. The greatest songs are the most honest, the most genuine. And because it was so honest, so raw, so naked, it took over the masses. You had to be that honest on the records. Plus, hip-hop gives you the opportunity to put more words and feeling into a song than any other genre.
"Nobody could have predicted how big hip-hop would be. I don't think people understand how big it can get. It's not just a lifestyle but a culture—and it's generational."
Combs' entry into the music business dates back to his days as a college student, when he applied to be an intern at Uptown Records.
"Heavy D introduced him to me at Uptown," recalls Andre Harrell, formerly of Uptown and now vice chairman of Combs' REVOLT network. "Heavy never recommended anyone, so for him to recommend Sean meant a lot. Sean was dressed in a white shirt and tie, with this Kid 'n Play high-top fade haircut. And he was very polite. He said, ‘I've researched your company and I think I'm best-suited to work here for you.' So I gave him an opportunity as a summer intern. In the fall, he had to go back to school at Howard University, but he still came up to work in the office twice a week, working for the A&R person. When the A&R person left for Columbia Records, Puffy took me to lunch to talk—and asked for the job. As it turned out, the guy who was leaving had already recommended that I hire him. He was pretty happy to hear that; he was 19 or 20."
After three years with Uptown Records, he left to start his own label, Bad Boy Records, taking his good friend, rapper Notorious B.I.G., with him. He had almost instant success with the late rapper, as well as Craig Mack, singer Faith Evans and rappers like Mase and The Lox. Combs created a production team that worked with a variety of artists: Mary J. Blige, Usher, TLC, Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin, among others.
"He loved the culture," Harrell says. "The ghetto-fabulous lifestyle, the dressing up and going to parties. I hire people who are of the culture we're trying to reach. He was someone who could take a nothing day and make it into a party—and get a lot of people to show up for it. And he was a good dancer, so he had a great sense of music."
Combs went on to make several albums of his own as a recording artist. He owns two Grammy Awards, including one for his biggest hit: "I'll Be Missing You," about the late B.I.G.
Acting and movie producing followed. By 1998, he'd launched his fashion line and, in 2001, entered the realm of television production with the reality series "Making the Band" for MTV. He's never looked back, and has never been busier.
His antennae are acute and he is always on the lookout for areas in which to expand his business. Harrell explains how Combs works. "Everything he sees, he processes: Can I? Should I? Do I want to...? He has a little more insight than other people about the way music says something about the people who like it—and that all those things can be turned around and sold to them."
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