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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Puff Daddy, “I’ll Be Missing You”

How an unthinkable loss (and a, let’s say, generous Police sample) became one of the defining songs of late ’90s hip-hop

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for its final stretch run. (And a brand-new book!) Join The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 109 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re covering Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You.” Read an excerpt below. And if you’re in Los Angeles on November 16, check out the 60 Songs and Bandsplain crossover event celebrating Rob’s new book.

When did you first hear this person—this person first introduced to the wider world as Puffy? Did you first hear him as a polarizing aspiring superstar rapper? Did you first hear him earlier on, as a murmuring voice deep in the mix behind another, less polarizing legit superstar rapper? Or did you hear him earlier still, as just a drum loop—already a super-popular drum loop, if you want the truth—that he used as the opening salvo in his quest to redefine rap, R&B, and the collision of rap and R&B? Hold on to your pants; we’re playing some Jodeci.

Shout-out Isaac Lee. This song is called “Come and Talk to Me,” by the R&B quartet Jodeci, two pairs of brothers from North Carolina who joined forces to become the four horniest dudes you’ve ever heard of in your life. “Come and Talk to Me” appears on the first Jodeci album, Forever My Lady, released on Uptown Records in 1991, but ah: This is the Puff Daddy remix.

Recently, I had a minor health scare—I’m totally fine now, it’s fine—but in times of great personal stress, the various thoughts and concerns and, more importantly, the various songs playing in my head simultaneously at any given moment, everything consolidates into one 10-second loop that I fixate on for hours and hours. And that happened to be the loop, recently. My brain radically simplifies and kicks into Safe Mode, and then I get to spend 48 hours staring at various ceilings going, You look so sexy, you really turn me on. It was cool, actually. I dug the dissonance of it. This is Puff’s formal musical debut. His first remix. Canonically, I suppose, here is where Puff Daddy invents the remix. Talking to GQ magazine in 2014, Sean says, “I got an opportunity one night when Teddy Riley didn’t show up to the studio.” (Teddy Riley, the super-producer and artist who invented new jack swing, a radical late ’80s collision of hip-hop and R&B.) Sean goes on. He says, “Teddy had a session at Chung King, this famous studio downtown. So I said, ‘I’m just gonna utilize this time.’ I had this idea, which was influenced by the mixtapes of Brucie B. and Kid Capri: They would blend hip-hop beats with R&B a capellas. I took one of Jodeci’s a capellas and put an EPMD beat underneath it, and it was the first record I produced: ‘Come and Talk to Me,’ the remix.”

He is referring to a beat from super-rad rap duo EPMD’s 1988 jam “You’re a Customer.” And here is what Sean did with that beat. This is what it sounds like when Sean Combs utilizes his time.

Now, both of these Jodeci remix beats are quite familiar to even a casual hip-hop fan in 1991. That first beat, the You look so sexy beat, the one that goes [Rob beatboxes; don’t worry, it’s fine]. I had a lot of time to practice that. You know that beat. You know that beat even if you think you don’t. The accurate but deeply uncool way to describe that beat is to say that it’s a drum loop from the 1973 funk classic “Impeach the President,” by the Honey Drippers, a song that by 1991 had already been sampled by MC Shan, Boogie Down Productions, Audio Two, N.W.A., Eric B. & Rakim, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Cool C, Nice & Smooth, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and Big Daddy Kane. Accurate! But hopelessly uncool. Have I heard this beat before? Is this loop overly familiar? Is this remix “original”? These are the wrong questions. This is the wrong framework. The only framework, the only question is: “Does it sound good?” Talking to GQ in 2014—this was all for an oral history of Puff’s Bad Boy Records—the critic and author and TV producer Cheo Hodari Coker says, “Blending an R&B record with a hip-hop beat seems so elementary. It seems like peanut butter and jelly. But when you’re the first to figure out PB&J tastes good together, it’s going to propel your career, and that’s what Puffy did.”

He invented the sandwich. You ever think of it that way? If it sounds good, use it. If it sounded good before, use it again, and maybe it’ll sound better. Hey, here’s a cool phrase I just thought of: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Puff owes his whole career to his supernatural ability to not fix things that ain’t broke. What he invented, really, was the revolutionary concept that “inventing” something is a waste of time. Or, perhaps you first heard this person as a hectoring voice on a woman’s answering machine.

Ooh, rad. Here we have the way-too-long intro skit to What’s the 411?, the 1992 debut album released on Uptown Records by Mary J. Blige, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. And there, on Mary’s answering machine, we have Puff, already implicitly threatening to shut down the studio. Puff is the “executive producer” of What’s the 411?, and sometimes that title, “executive producer,” sounds like bullshit to me. I get “sandwich artist” vibes from “executive producer,” if you take my meaning. It sounds like inflated music-industry speak. It sounds like “executive producer” means “a man who happened to be doing something else entirely with other people in another part of the building where other people were making this record.” But let’s give Puff this one. Mary J. Blige is the best, as we have established in this venue multiple times, but throughout What’s the 411?, I do imagine that I can hear Puff Daddy making his hip-hop and R&B sandwiches. He’s legitimately both an executive producer and a sandwich artist. Peanut butter and jelly: what a concept.

That song’s called “Changes I’ve Been Going Through,” and Puff is both an executive producer and actual coproducer of that one, and Mary J. Blige, as previously established, is the best. The next year, 1993, Mary puts out a whole-ass remix album called What’s the 411? Remix, and this is going to sound like an insult, but I swear to you that it is not an insult when I say that this, right here, this is my favorite mode, my favorite iteration of the artist soon to be globally known as Puff Daddy.

I like Puff Daddy best as a mumbler. A murmur-er. I like him barely audible; I like him just barely understandable. Mrrmmmmr mrrrmmmr mmrrrmmr. Yeah. Mrrmrr. It’s the mrrmmmr mrrmrmrm. Bad Boy. I love it. I mean it, I do. Not an insult. He is a fantastic subliminal audio phenomenon. He is a white-noise machine that also spits out gold bars. He’s like Flavor Flav but also literally the opposite of Flavor Flav. He’s the hype man who deliberately puts you to sleep just so the star attraction can bombastically wake your ass back up. In volleyball, what do they call the person who specializes in setting the ball, just going boop, so somebody else can spike it? Do the players who specialize in setting have a cool-sounding name? Don’t answer any of those questions, and please don’t make me look it up. The Ringer: sports and pop culture!

July 1993, Puff gets fired from Uptown Records. He gets fired by his beloved mentor, Uptown Records founder and music-biz luminary Andre Harrell, who will later say, in a 2017 documentary called Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story, “I fired Puff only to make him rich.” He’s not even joking. I’ve seen that movie. It’s a documentary about a Bad Boy reunion show, and it’s like 40 percent Puff yelling at people. Just tremendous. He yells, “You have to fix your energy” at one of his employees. He yells, “Y’all playing this shit like we a wedding band or something” at his pissed-off backing band. He yells, “Those lights are cheap as fuck” the first time he sees the stage. Because, as he explains, and I quote: “I like God light.” Oh my God, that’s amazing. And mostly he’s not even yelling, right, he’s murmuring, which is worse. Mrrrrr mrrrr mrrrrr, you suck. Which is more impactful, the murmuring.

In GQ, an Uptown Records staff member named Sybil Pennix says, “I was Puffy’s assistant and Andre’s go-to person to keep track of Puffy and his craziness. Many days we would have a planned meeting, and Puffy could not be found. When he finally arrived, he’d just lie on the conference table and perform antics to get everyone’s blood to rise. He thrived on drama.” We all know that guy. We’ve all worked with that guy. So that guy finally lies down on too many conference tables and gets fired, but by then, that guy has already met this guy.

Here we have the Notorious B.I.G., from his 1994 debut album Ready to Die, justifiably hailed by practically everybody as one of the greatest, if not the single greatest hip-hop album of all time. We did a “Juicy” episode like, 30 years ago. That’s an exaggeration. The biggest songs, the gravest tragedies, the most beloved and revered artists intimidate me quite a bit on this show, in this format: the sheer scale of these people, the towering height and terrible density of their pedestals, their thrones. The ferocity of our deification. My impulse, with a song as colossal as “Juicy,” is to zoom in, to drill down, to get granular. So here, maybe that means zooming in on Puffy, murmuring in the background: It’s all good / It’s all good. Puffy gives Biggie plenty of space—you can’t say he’s attempting to hog or even approach the spotlight—but Puffy is there, always, an encouraging and maybe even soothing presence, while Biggie casually does amazing shit.

You remember when Michael Jordan scored 69 points in one game in 1990? Most points Jordan scored in a single game his whole career. Pop culture and sports. He did that in Ohio. The Chicago Bulls were playing the Cleveland Cavaliers. Forget that part. Jordan scores 69 points. Stacey King is also on the Bulls—he’s a rookie that year—and Stacey King gets into the game and scores one point. He hits one free throw. And after the game, talking to reporters, Stacey King’s joking around and he says, “I will always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined to score 70 points.” That’s a great quote. I remember thinking that was a great quote at the time. I want you to try to focus here, and listen carefully, as Puffy hits one free throw.

But you can’t do it, right? Puffy’s in there somewhere, but you can’t focus on Puffy at all because Biggie scores 69 points in 10 seconds. The barrage of s’s there, man. Landlord disssed ussss Chrisstmasss missssed usssss. Unbelievable. But of course Puffy’s true contribution here is not … vocal. Sean “Puffy” Combs is the executive producer of Ready to Die—that’s legit, this record sounds phenomenal and cohesive and yes even cinematic even when Biggie’s not doing incredible shit; I will accept “executive producer” in this instance as well—and also Ready to Die is the first release on Puffy’s new label, Bad Boy Records. Puffy is instrumental, Puffy is dominant behind the scenes, but that only makes it funnier to me, but also more poignant to me, how superfluous all his muttering is on the early records themselves. He absolutely doesn’t need to be there, but I’m still glad he’s there.

To hear the full episode, click here. Subscribe here and check back every Wednesday for new episodes. And to preorder Rob’s new book, Songs That Explain the ’90s, visit the Hachette Book Group website.