So P. Diddy, née Puff Daddy (née Puffy, née Sean Combs) has been arrested. Not for toting gats where the true players are at. Not for selling more powder than Johnson & Johnson. Not even for running all up in the club and sipping Bacardi (or Cîroc) in an egregious manner, when it was not, in fact, his birthday.
No, Mr. Diddy was arrested after an altercation with a UCLA football coach. And while the details of the incident are disputed, the crux of the affair is not: Diddy was upset because he believes that the coach is mistreating his son, who plays for the UCLA football team. In other words, Diddy was arrested for being a hockey mom.
This turn of events is embarrassing—humiliating, even—but not exactly unexpected. Diddy was never the hard-core gangster he pretended to be. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, but was smart enough to get out. He majored in business at Howard University and first broke into the rap world as a concert promoter, and later as a producer and talent scout. He was always better at the business side of the recording industry than he was performing. Listen to early Notorious B.I.G. tracks and you hear Puffy simpering in the background, like the Peter Lorre of gangsta rap.
But it’s not just Diddy. The last twenty years have seen a stampede of rappers giving up their Compton hats. Ice Cube went from being the driving force of NWA to a reliable presence in movie comedies. If you weren’t into rap, you might confuse him with Ice T, who was once thought to be the most dangerous man in America because of his hostile attitude toward law enforcement. But funnily enough, Ice T has grown up, too. In fact, he’s spent the last 15 years playing a cop with a heart of gold on Law & Order: SVU, which is the most mittel-culture network show east of Everybody Loves Raymond.
I never particularly cared for Ice T; I was more into Flavor Flav during his Public Enemy days. He grew up to become a restaurateur and with a reality show on VH-1, which would have only been slightly more embarrassing had it aired on the Lifetime network. But the great rapper of my youth was Snoop Dogg. I remember the summer of nine-deuce when I first heard him featured—this was before the kids said “feat.”—on Dr. Dre’s landmark album Chronic. On a CD full of instant classics, Snoop stood out as a very particular type of bad-boy rebel. I can’t even tell you how awesome Snoop was in the early ’90s. A few weeks ago he endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.
Like a great many suburban white kids, I grew up loving rap because it seemed authentic. Or at least, more authentic than a world composed of shopping malls, arcades, and Cinnabons. We had our challenges in the ’burbs, of course—mo money, mo problems, as they say. But they were middle-class problems: Would you get a four on the AP Chemistry exam? What would Tara say if you asked her to go to movies? If she said yes, whose parents would drop you off at the multiplex?
Compared to that, the world of the Notorious B.I.G., and Puffy (as he was known then) seemed realer than real. Impossibly real. Like the ballad of Arizona Ron, to take just one sample:
Today’s agenda, got the suitcase up in the Sentra
Got to room 112, tell them Blanco sent you
Feel the strangest, if no money exchanges
I got these kids in Ranges . . .
For reasons of propriety, I can’t go on but we learn that the “kids” in question tote only stainless and in the course of this one song Biggie lays out an entire novella’s worth of intrigues, complete with plot reversals and character arcs. Once you heard Snoop, or Ice T, or Ice Cube, or Flavor Flav, or even P. Diddy, mush-headed alt rock seemed impossibly wan and lifeless. You could never listen to the Gin Blossoms again.
But the intervening years have shown that I had it backwards all along. The appeal of the middle-class is so powerful that even gangsta rap couldn’t resist it. And one by one, the rap icons of my youth have embraced bourgeois life so completely that I fear I might, some day, bump into one of them at the Cinnabon.