Imagine New York in 1993, the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn cautioned with the phrase “Bed-Stuy Do or Die” and record labels were much more relevant. This was the cultural zeitgeist in which Sean “Diddy” Combs created Bad Boy Records, after getting fired from his A&R job at Uptown Records by founder André Harrell, turning him into the music mogul he is today and carving out a new era in hip-hop culture.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: The Bad Boy Story directed by Daniel Kaufman and Live Nation Productions chronicles what happens when Diddy task his Creative Director powerhouse, Laurieann Gibson with pulling together the Bad Boy family for a 20th anniversary (“20th anniversary” was actually celebrating 23 years since the labels inception) reunion show with just three weeks to rehearse vocals and chorography that hadn’t been performed in years. Taking a riff from reality TV drama, we witness the stress that Gibson has to go through in order to produce a Diddy production. Obviously, she delivered. The sold-out concert opened a planned 25-date tour and happened one day before what would have been Notorious B.I.G’s 44th birthday last year.
At the first the film feels like a simple concert promotional video, but there’s a rich narrative woven in, giving this era of music further cultural context. “My intention from the beginning was never to make a concert movie. I thought the story was much more compelling,” Kaufman said during a post screening Q&A session. “At the beginning of the process Puff said, if you are going to do the concert, I want you to do it in a way that no one has ever done before and I want to look like batman,” he continued. Kaufman did just that.
The film takes us through Bad Boy’s skyrocket to success after putting out “Flava In Ya Ear” by Craig Mack, followed by Mack’s debut album, Project: Funk Da World in 1994. In the same year, “Juicy” and Ready to Die, the lead single and debut album from the Notorious B.I.G were released. While Mack’s album went gold, Ready to Die received multi-platinum recognition. Taking over the charts in 1995, Biggie became East Coast rap’s representative and Bad Boy’s superhero of sorts. Unfortunately, Bad Boy’s rise didn’t come without trials and tribulations, from relationship mayhem to the label’s ongoing violent upheaval with the West Coast’s Death Row Records. Bad Boy made constant music headlines throughout the mid-90s, helping to define a new era in East Coast hip-hop culture. They represented a cast of hip-hop and R&B artists who were free. “We could express who they were in a suit, just as much as we could wearing our pants sagged,” Combs says in the film. They proved to a rising generation of hip-hop and R&B artists that you didn’t have to cash in on your true self in order to make it.
The past and present are given further context as Kaufman skillfully uses archival bits of footage to show Combs and the label’s historical precedence. There are throwback snaps of the Bad Boy family in the mid-90s and then we flash back to the present. There are moments were the camera speeds up with the angst of pre-performance and then everything seems to slow down, the way it must feel to finally take the stage. Somewhere amidst the speed of the film Diddy says, “It was too much success too quick.” Then things stop. We get to the Notorious B.I.G’s murder. The documentary begins to slowly walk us through the events leading up to Biggie’s death on March 9, 1997, an unsolved mystery that still haunts East Coast rap to this day.
Rare archival footage of the Bad Boy family’s interactions with Biggie slow the film’s pacing – Faith [Evan]’s intimate relationship with Biggie and Combs working friendship with him in the studio are all there in black and white, as well as color. Faith, Lil’ Kim and Mary J. Blige break off into emotional cameo interviews where they share the ways that Biggie personally impacted their lives. Then we get a flashback to the memorial parade to honor his life that took place in his Bed-Stuy neighborhood.
One of Combs first tribute to Biggie was the 1997 hit single, “I’ll Be Missing You,” with Faith Evans. Since he’s made it a point over the years to honor Biggie’s life through various concerts. After all, Combs essentially owes his career success to Biggie. The film returns back to its normal tempo with throwback hits we’ve been singing to the whole time. Somehow the concert that we’re counting down to has more depth and Diddy becomes a bit more humanized.
Throughout the rehearsal process Diddy plays the late Nina Simone’s statement, “I tell you what freedom is to me—No Fear!” He plays her quote multiple times during the rehearsal process and on the night of the concert, giving us more insight into his creative process.
“I wanted it to feel like we were very much in Combs’ head. You get that vibe that you’re standing right next to him in the room the whole time,” Kaufman said. The film does just that, giving us an internal look at the way he thinks and why he approaches things the way he does. Throughout the rehearsal he scolds the lighting crew and the band during rehearsal. The excuse: he wanted to put on a show that would honor Biggie and what he represented.
Finally, the concert is here, we see the stress backstage as Diddy’s mic fails, meanwhile in the background there are voiceovers on how hard he is on himself. We unexpectedly hear an orchestra of trumpets playing in slow motion, instead of actual takes from the concert. We hear Combs talking about his admiration for Nina Simone, and then her “Feeling Good” plays as we watch a montage of performances from everyone we know and love— Lil’ Kim, Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige, Ma$e, 112, Total, Carl Thomas and The Lox, it’s something special. We even get cameo appearances from Jay-Z and Nas.
Bad Boy has helped to give a new generation of MCs lyrics to study and a certain level of artistic integrity to live up to. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: The Bad Boy Story will be available on Apple Music June 25th.
Priscilla Ward is a celebrated writer whose work has been featured on Essence, Salon and is also the creator of #BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting about bell hooks, sandwiches and art shows @MacaroniFRO.