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“When I look at what I do, I call myself an inventor: an inventor of culture, an inventor of music, an inventor of disruptive ideas.” These are the words uttered by Sean “Diddy” Combs, as he sat down opposite DJ Khaled for Rolling Stone’s Musicians on Musicians interview series.
In their issue, the two moguls fittingly reclassified the interview as “Icon on Icon.” The bulk of the conversation vacillated between their influences in hip hop with the pendulum weighing heavily on Diddy’s personal influence over Khaled. It’s an impact that many can attest to — one that has constantly upended what we thought we knew about hip hop and its culture.
There is an entrepreneurial hunger that unequivocally colors Diddy. It found its root when a 12-year-old Combs negotiated a deal to take over the routes of neighborhood paper boys who were going off to college, and permeates to this day as the mogul celebrates 50 years of life. Over the decades, Diddy has characterized the business of music and beyond with flair, consistently fueled by a stated desire to influence every part of the consumer’s lifestyle. What it has translated to are several paradigm shifts within music, fashion, and business that can all be traced back to one source.
As we celebrate the 50th birthday of Sean Combs today, we explore his decades worth of influence by taking a profound look into the disruptive moments, brands and campaigns that have shaped his inescapable omnipresence.
1. Sean John
Before there was an Off-White, Yeezy, or even a Fenty, there was Sean John. The creation of the brand marked the inception of streetwear’s entrance into high fashion. At a time when plenty of his counterparts dabbled in the realm of clothing, Diddy left the pack behind by lacing his brand with undertones of luxury and showmanship. He effectively did what he has done with every venture that followed, which was give his clientele something to aspire to, and then fulfilled such an aspiration through what he calls a “supreme product.”
What it lead to was a 2004 award for Menswear designer of the year from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, marking the first time since 1981 that any black designer was honored in the category. The effect of such a disruption in the industry continues to weave its way in today’s landscape. That crossbreeding of street and haute couture is peppered throughout fashion week shows with creators of color on full display. An unapologetic disregard for convention is now the new norm, and Sean John can be credited with blurring those lines. While Sean John has settled into a distribution deal with Macy’s that finds a more toned down iteration of the brand comfortably gracing the same racks as Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, its influence continues ring bells.
While Sean John was the entry point, Diddy went on to expand his influence in the fashion world by marrying it with hip hop’s sensibilities once and for all when he caught the attention of VOGUE editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. The year 1999 would mark when the legendary editor tasked photographer Annie Leibovitz with capturing Diddy in Paris haute couture. It would feature the businessman starring with model Kate Moss in a series of shots that slowly creeped open the possibilities of hip hop’s survival in a world other than its own.
“I think the whole fashion culture changed with that Puff Daddy moment,” Grace Coddington, VOGUE’s creative director at the time, told Washington Post.
It marked the beginning of the publication’s flirtation with hip hop’s biggest stars, even previewing what would come to be of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s noisemaking VOGUE appearance.
4. Vote Or Die
In 2004, Diddy erected his Citizen Change organization by anchoring it with his “Vote Or Die” campaign. The mission behind the idea was to affect young and minority citizens to vote that year and it played a role in the initiatives set forth by other organizations and hip hop figures, who have become increasingly vocal about politics and getting out the vote of the hip hop community.
In his true fashion, the effort was hallmarked by grandeur, as Diddy hopped on the Air Force Change private jet, and led a tour across major cities to elicit swarms of inspiration and encourage voters to cast their ballots in an election that would eventually be won by George Bush.
“I want y’all to bum rush those polls,” he would direct an auditorium of 1,800 students in Milwaukee that year.
Since then, we’ve watched hip hop continue to fasten its strength in numbers, refining its political I.Q. and broadening it partisanship.
5. Flava In Ya Ear
When Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear” surfaced, it instantly took. It soon claimed the top slot of Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart, but powered by the prowess of Diddy, it would do something unprecedented. Elsewhere in the Billboard-sphere, the track cracked the Top 10 of the pop charts, and so would begin hip hop’s unassailable rise to dominate mainstream America.
In 2019, hip hop is classified as the most popular genre in the country. Its influence seeps into almost every aspect of America pop culture and its top-tier agents are Pulitzer Prize winners and Harvard graduates — a stark contrast to the genre first created for a marginalized and unheard urban demographic.
Diddy’s effective ear in grasping and marketing Mack’s seminal record would prove to be a pivotal stepping stone in this direction. With the track, the boss would leverage a clever B.I.G. Mack promotional campaign that introduced Bad Boy’s flagship artists Mack and The Notorious B.I.G. to the press, issuing the era of Bad Boy Records.
6. The Bad Boy Blueprint
Bad Boy is Diddy’s most obvious claim to fame, but the way in which the mogul set up the legendary roster for greatness is worth its weight in diamonds.
It was here that Diddy laid the foundation for the model of well-rounded rosters that we see across major hip hop imprints today. Where Mack took on crossover-ready eccentric lyricism, Biggie held true to hip hop’s tenets of aggressive braggadocio. Brewing popularity of boy and girl groups were satisfied in Total and 112, and the role of the gritty soul siren was fulfilled by Faith Evans.
Diddy left no taste unsatisfied in the cultivation of Bad Boy Records, which set the precedent for what the likes of TDE and Dreamville have accomplished from the ground up.
Even today, while it is done in a much quieted manner, the Bad Boy roster hosts a strategic diversity that has birthed a winning formula in its own right. MGK, French Montana and Janelle Monae have been supplied with the backing of an industry powerhouse all while stripping away the necessity of playing the role of ambassador. These days, Bad Boy has quietly wiped away its logo from the package, choosing to focus on manufacturing the battery in the pack.
7. REVOLT TV
“For us, by us” is the rallying cry behind most of Sean Combs ventures and such was the motivation behind launching a minority-owned cable network. At a time when counterparts such as Dr. Dre and JAY-Z were making contritions in tech and the streaming industry, Diddy took advantage of the FCC’s push for more minority-owned channels and filled the void left behind by MTV, VH1 and BET’s pivot away from music programming.
So, Diddy opened up a new era in which ownership, especially of the institutions that curate and cultivate hip hop’s conversations, is a tangible reality and logical aspiration in the 21st century. Thus, REVOLT TV was born.