Ghettofab Is Burning: The Cinematic Fire of Diddy’s Gasoline Dreams (Essay From May 2011)
by Barry Michael Cooper
“The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand…”
William Butler Yeats,
“The Second Coming (Slouching towards Bethlehem)”
Seven-ten pm. Good Friday, Two Thousand and Eleven, in the Year of our LORD. Two days before the Christian faithful celebrate the rise of their Redeemer and twenty-nine days before — according to some Biblical scholars — Judgement Day, a chilling evening breeze blanketed the western stretch of 34th Street like an icy ancient quilt.
The Bad Boy/Ciroc foot soldiers swept the periphery outside the line of ticket holders and buyers with military precision; hoisting cutouts advertising both “Last Train To Paris” and Ciroc vodka at chest level like promotional artillery. I take another look at the time on my phone — 7:22 — and my ticket:
CIROC AND BET PRESENT
DIDDY DIRTY MONEY
COMING HOME TOUR
311 WEST 34TH STREET, NYC
FRI APR 22 2O11 7PM
I don’t know why I am thinking about Yeats and the grotesquery of his apocalyptic bullet points; maybe it’s the 12-month rash of monstrously devastating earthquakes — from Haiti in January 2010 to New Zealand and Japan in 2011 — that makes me feels as if Time’s Gun is locked and loaded with this generation in its cross-hairs.
I’m sitting waaaaaaaaaaaay back in the center balcony of the Hammerstein. The place is packed; sold out. My fifty-two year old eyes can’t see a thing.
Sometimes I wonder if the Aragon flash of present-day Hip Hop has temporarily blinded me; blinking for clarity, I think it may have reached it’s own fin de siecle.
Gone are the days when I got zooted during a D.E.G. Productions “Freak-a-Thon” at the Hotel Diplomat on 47th Street in 1977, and listening to DJ Hollywood and Junebug ask the crowd, “Say how do you take the bone out?” before we feverishly screamed back, “You don’t; you leave it in!”
Or me nervously watching the premier editor-eminence grise-grand poobah Robert Christgau rock back and forth in his chair at the Village Voice in early 1981, as he blue-penciled the final draft of my Hip Hop essay, “Buckaroos of the Bugaloo.”
Or me and engineer Steve Breck in his Synthe Sound Studios on West 27th Street in Chelsea, programming a Linn Drum computer with that DUU-DOOM-BLAT-DUU-BLAT-DOOM-BLAT “Sucker MC’s” intro, for a Spoonie G track in 1982.
Or me buffing floors at two in the morning to the rhythm of Whodini’s “Freaks Come Out At Night” spilling out of a co-worker’s radio back in 1984 in the Western Electric plant in southeast Baltimore, a few days before the birth of my oldest Sun.
Or my two pre-school Suns trying to suppress their laughter as their Dad made a fool out of himself while trying to shaka-zulu to Teddy Riley and Guy’s “Groove Me” in 1987.
Or me sitting behind Spike and Denzel in the Magno screening room in midtown Manhattan, and feeling the hairs stand on the back of my neck watching Rosie Perez box it out to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” in a 1989 screening of “Do The Right Thing.”
Or me and Al Payne sitting in his brand new Explorer outside of the Mondrian on the Sunset Strip — one autumnal Hollywood morning in 1992 — nodding our heads to the sonic brilliance of C.L. Smooth and Pete Rock’s “Ghettos of the Mind.”
Or me taking a wrong turn into a line of fiends in an alley near Aisquith and East North Avenue in Baltimore, who were copping caps of Quiet Storm back in 1994, as a squad of strapped young pitchers recited Biggie’s “Warning” as if it were ghetto liturgy.
Or me and my brother damn near getting choked up in the BLS towncar floating down Lenox Avenue like a gunmetal ghost — heading to JFK for a flight to LA — listening to Tupac breathe life into the lyrics of “So Many Tears” in 1995.
Or my puzzled amusement at a group of young, rich, white kids gunning drop-top Benzes and Beemers up and down Joppa Road in affluent Towson, Md., as P. Diddy’s “All About The Benjamins” blew the woofers out of their Blaupunkts and painted the air that 1997 July afternoon with teal shades of opulent anarchy.
Or me sitting with Dr. Dre in an Italian restaurant on Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia — right after Thanksgiving in 1998 and the day before I directed him playing a homicide detective in Kurupt’s “Ask Yourself a Question” — and listening in awe as he described the visuals that would frame “My Name Is,” a video for his new artist, Marshall “Eminem” Mathers.
Or my rapt attention to the dark, gothic, and Rilke-like power of Jay-Z’s unparalleled poetic genius, as I listened to “There’s Been a Murder” on repeat — in my junior suite at the Paramount — and scrolling through digital footage I shot in Times Square with the legendary Michael Wright and the late, great, O.L. Duke in 2000.
Or me floating on a cloud of elation and pride in 2008, as I watched “Paused In Time,” the ground-breaking documentary on Baltimore Hip Hop, produced and directed by my two adult Suns.
These are a few of the moments when Hip Hop bequeathed my psyche with exhilaration, promise, and inspiration; with just two turntables and one mic, the ‘hood could dream like Martin, step forward like Kennedy, and speak globally like Malcolm. Hip Hop was transforming its listeners around the world into a group of soulful archeologists, looking to mine the deepest riches of unity and understanding from this Planet Rock.
However, I’m beginning to feel bereft of that nirvana. It’s almost as if I’m the victim of a slowly progressive form of Hip Hop Alzheimers; I don’t even recognize it anymore. I can’t distinguish whether it’s a melody or a gasping series of flat-lining blips emanating from the music I embraced 34 years ago.
Having morphed into a 16-bar threnody of those dying to be famous, the dirge formally known as Hip Hop, has been co-opted into both a corporation and an abberation of the culture. Say hello to the bad guy, Rap Mu$ick, LLC; a sexy and digital folklore used to merchandise music, language, film, television, goods, services, and sociology.
Which brings me right back to Hammerstein and (the irony of?) the excitement I’m beginning to feel for Hip Hop again, as I experience Diddy’s “Coming Home” tour. Hands down, this is the best Hip Hop concert I’ve ever seen.
It wasn’t just the guest appearances by Ja Rule, the phenomenal Faith Evans, Ashanti, the incredible Q-Tip, Black Rob and others. It wasn’t just the breathtaking million-dollar lighting and stage design, which was Bellagio-meets-Kraftwork-meets-Baz Luhrmann. Nor was it the sinewy, lush, and effervescent gorgeousness of Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper’s vocals. The Coming Home Tour is really the opera titled “Last Train to Paris”; the stage adaptation of Sean Puff Daddy Diddy John Combs epic film titled Ghettofabulous. The movie that turned an intern at Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records into the Michael Jackson of Hip Hop.
Similar to the way Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (along with the short films that accompanied “Beat It” and “Thriller”) transformed Black Music into post-modern pop, Diddy’s Ghettofabulous ethos (Mary J. Blige, Heavy D, Jodeci, Notorious B.I.G., Ma$e, Jennier Lopez, Danity Kane, Sean John couture, Diddy Dirty Money, and others) extended Hip Hop’s reach into The Great Society by creating and defining it’s mythology with the impact of the short film/music video (it should also be noted that the Ghettofabulous Movement gained prominence, maximum visibility and acceptance during the great epoch of Black written, directed, and produced films of the early-to-mid 1990s).
This thought occurred to me as I watched the three minute documentary broadcast onstage, during a Diddy Dirty Money costume change. It was older, VHS home movie footage of Diddy, Biggie, Mary, and others, from the early days of Uptown and Bad Boy. The initial reaction of the audience was silent surprise — we were caught off-guard — and then a near deafening roar of excitement and appreciation. It was as if Diddy wanted to remind all of us, that if it wasn’t for him there would be no Ghettofabulous; his Harlem-ized appropriation of Malle-Godard-Truffaut-Rohmer’s “New Wave”. With the help of fellow auteurs Hype Williams and Paul Hunter, Diddy Bertolucci’d himself as the movement’s Last Emperor.
If there was no Ghettofabulous there would be no Kanye and Pharrell hobnobbing at Cannes and the Hotel Du Cap. If there was no Ghettofabulous, there would be no Mary J. Blige for a young Britney Spears to emulate into mega-stardom.
If there was no Ghettofabulous, there would be no Tale of The Two Justins; Timberlake would still be fronting a boy band, instead of singing Timbaland’s unreleased, super-duper Ginuwine tracks. Bieber would be an ambitious and unknown pre-teen pop-locking in some Toronto metro station. Instead, The Two Justins are — because of Ghettofabulous — moving a gazillion iTune downloads and bum-rushing the stage as a pair of talented “King(s) of Pop” wannabes.
Yes, Jay-Z and Nas are the greatest rappers alive (with Eminem, Kanye, Lil Wayne, Jadakiss, Andre 3000, Big Boi, Lupe Fiasco, T.I., Jeezy, Rick Ro$$, Nikki Minaj, and Kendrick Lamar on their heels), and Biggie and Tupac are the greatest that ever lived; but even Brando, Pacino, and De Niro needed Francis Ford Coppola to guide them to greatness.
As Sean Combs sits in his director’s chair and waits for the last train to Paris to take him — and Hip Hop — in a new direction, he covers his ears; the block is crowded with too many new kids whining in auto tune. Puffy is getting bored because he has outgrown childish things.
Whether this Saturday is the end of the world or not, Sean Combs longs to exchange dirty money for a clean heart, because even Bad Boys have to grow up. Au revoir, les enfants.