Minutes before he was belting his 1998 hit "Victory" from a riser extending high up into the smoky air of New York's Madison Square Garden, rapper-mogul Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs seemed in search of the right vibes: three bouquets of roses adding a fragrant touch to his cabana-style backstage lounge, a request for some gospel, then some James Brown followed by some Soul Train videos on his big-screen TV. During a quick meeting with production manager Bobby Schneider, he attempted to similarly set a mood for the packed crowd.
"I'm tellin' you, for this intro? If you can unplug some plugs," says Puff from his couch. "It's my last night in New York and I want it dark."
"I wish I could," Schneider replies.
"You can do whatever you wanna do. Think about that."
Few understand doing the impossible like Combs, who turned a label built on adventurous, highly lyrical New York hip-hop singles into the most formidable hit-making machine of the late Nineties. The 20-date Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour, gathers most of the names that built the empire: Ma$e, Lil Kim, Faith Evans, Mario Winans, Total, Carl Thomas, 112 and the L.O.X. Combined they have 35 Top 20 hits between them, and that's not even taking into account their work with the late icon Notorious B.I.G.
"No label has ever made 22 years of hits and been alive and been fly enough and been young enough to go and perform them," says Combs, who also invited along current Bad Boy anthem-crafter French Montana. "So this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. There's like 20 records that are smashes that we can't even get to."
"We're putting a legacy on tour," says creative director and choreographer Laurieann Gibson, who's worked with Combs since his days as an A&R for Uptown Records. "There was like that place where we had to get it just right enough where [the artists] didn't seem old, but it seemed like it was happening all over again for the very first time." In turn the show is loaded with pyro, a phalanx of dancers, vintage footage, a hard-rocking band and sparkly wardrobe changes.
"I spent a lot of time working with Puff and he was always like, 'Oh that's too dramatic, too dramatic,'" says Gibson. "And now he's like, 'I want theater!'"
The tour was a natural extension of the 10-minute medley at the 2015 BET Awards where acts like Lil Kim and Ma$e, artists who haven't released an album in more than a decade, were greeted with a hero's welcome.
"He brought swag to the game," says the 31-year-old French Montana of Ma$e. "A lot of these rappers took his style."
"I forgot how much they love me as a performer," says Ma$e, who says he lost 25 pounds to get in fighting shape for the tour. "Like one lady in Detroit went like this," he says, imitating a slumped faint. "I got the Michael Jackson model. Like eyes closed, boom. That's different than a scream, right?"
Before the tour, Ma$e connected with some dancers to rehearse moves and sharpen his steps for a tour heavy on the celebratory dancing that led four Bad Boy singles to hit Number One in 1997.
"I didn't let Puff know until like the week of the show," he says. "When he saw me, he's like, 'Man, you done got in shape. You been dancing, what you been doing?'
"I forgot how rigorous it is on the body to give a good show," he says. "You know, sometimes your records can be so strong that you can coast through a show. Now I have a new respect for Beyoncé. I can only imagine how she did this for 15, 16 years."
"They all needed work," jokes Gibson about the Bad Boy Family. "Like the tin man … I needed to pour some more oil."
No one was more out of practice however, than Total, the R&B trio best known for a string of hits like "Can't You See" and "Kissin' You," not to mention providing the hooks to indelible hip-hop classics like Biggie's "Juicy" and "One More Chance." Before the show, the three of them share a dressing room in various stages of preparedness – Kima Dyson sits in the far corner getting makeup applied, Keisha Spivey Epps lounging in a black robe, Pamela Long in a tall chair getting her hair "a little baked."
"Total stopped here," explains Long about the group, essentially dormant for 14 years after their 2000 dissolution, and only recently reforming as a trio instead of the duo doing package tours. "We was as at the height of our career when everything paused, so it was more or less this open place that God really left open for us. Nobody else could have done that except for him. It was just like we stepped right back in the place. You got 12-year-olds, 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, 20-year-olds singing our records still today. That right there? It doesn't happen for many people like that."
After the group split, the members had lived decidedly different lives. Spivey Epps married House and Juice actor Omar Epps and is studying acting in Los Angeles. Dyson went back to school and now runs a medical coding consulting company. "There would be people that would know and then ask the dumb question: 'Why you work?'" she explains. "Same reason you do!"
"Mine is not so glamourous," says Long of her story, "but at the end of the day I can say that it's a great journey. I went back to work … but I went to White Castle. I went to fast food. Did I have to do it? No, I went by choice because I had a lot of pride in my life on the inside that I didn't know about. I was like, 'All right, God, if I go in here and they hire me on the spot, I'mma start working at White Castle.' … It was difficult for people to see me working and say, 'Yeah, that's her,' turn around and leave. … I got a lot of laughs, gotta lot of this that and the third, but here I am today, a different woman. Stronger because of the things that I allowed God to take me through."
For the reunion, Total had some phone calls and jumped right into rehearsals.
"We walked in like, 'Hey,'" says Long, leaping from her chair to mimic a scenario where the girls say a quick hello and immediately start dancing. "As soon as we came together it was just like: You bringing your A-game. You step right into excellence, 'cause Puff is not gonna have it any less than that."
According to Gibson, Puff has been hands-on every step of the way of the tour: "Too hands-on," she jokes. "Who micromanages when the girl brings him the water? And what she's wearing?"
"This is not about the money. This is about the music."
But the show – practically wall-to-wall hits delivered with enthusiasm and energy – is a walloping success, a mix of Motown revue, Broadway production and contemporary history. "The thing that has been the most surprising to me is that people stand up and dance non-stop for two and a half hours straight. I don't see nobody go to the bathroom. I saw a couple of people that had pee stains," says Combs as James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing" explodes from his formidable backstage speaker set-up. "I did. That's my story and I'm sticking to it."
"To be honest, for the amount of dates we doin', I'm losing a lot of money," says Combs. "This is not about the money. This is about the music. This is about the people putting on a great show and making sure that they see the legacy in the right way. Every night, what I do get is the priceless payment of people giving a standing ovation and dancing for two and a half hours. That's the only payment I need.
"I can't take no money with me. There ain't no U-Haul truck," he continues. "What if I broke out right now? What the fuck was I doing all that work for? Coming and touching the people. If you touch 'em the right way, there's nothing you can put on it."
Combs, recently listed by Forbes as the wealthiest man in rap music, probably has enough hustles to keep him more than occupied – he has stakes in cable network Revolt, Cîroc vodka and DeLeon tequila, the Sean John and Enyce clothing brands, Aquahydrate water, a top 40 hit from Montana, and a recently opened charter school in Harlem. He wagers that this is probably his last tour.
"The touring life is a different type of life. And also just as a person, I wanna evolve, I gotta go make some changes, take some risks, I can't do the same thing I did," he says. "I did 25 years of hits. Now it's time for me to do something else, be closer to my children. Just really, as a renaissance man, just reinvent for this next era, of everything I learned. A kinder, gentler me."
So is the Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour like closing a chapter?
"This," says Combs, "is a victory lap."