Sean “Puff Daddy/Diddy” Combs’ decision to give artists and songwriters the publishing rights that he owns on songs from his 1990s powerhouse label Bad Boy, confirmed last week, was surprising, to put it mildly, and possibly unprecedented in its scale. At a time when music catalogs are routinely selling for nine figures and awareness of publishing’s value is at an all-time high, the decision to reassign his rights on those songs — many of which were hits — to the artists and songwriters is highly unusual, even for a man whose net worth was estimated by Forbes last year to be nearly a billion dollars.
“It’s just doing the right thing,” Combs told Variety last week. “I think that we as an industry, and as a people, have to look in the mirror and make a shift forward. It’s about evolving, leading by example and reforming an industry that needs it, in a world that needs reform.”
Bad Boy Records, founded by Combs in 1993, is one of the most successful hip-hop and R&B labels of its era, with multiple platinum and gold releases by the Notorious B.I.G., Ma$e, Craig Mack, Faith Evans, 112, the Lox and Combs himself; later signings include Shyne, Danity Kane, French Montana and Janelle Monae. The label continues to be active, although not at the same pace as the ‘90s and ‘00s, with recent releases including Machine Gun Kelly’s 2022 outing “Mainstream Sellout,” Monae’s “The Age of Pleasure” and, coming on Friday, Combs’ first solo album since 2006, “The Love Album: Off the Grid.”
“I’ll tell you one thing that I do want people to know,” he continued. “This was done, like, two years ago. Everything just got taken care of now. It’s not a publicity stunt or anything like that.”
Inevitably, some naysayers suggest it’s just that, coming on the eve of Diddy’s first solo album in 17 years and his Global Icon award and big look at Tuesday’s VMAs, not to mention the label’s 30th anniversary. Former Bad Boy rapper Mark Curry even scoffed at the move in an Instagram post, questioning the value of those songs nearly 30 years after their original release and arguably well past their prime. “It’s like him giving your girlfriend back after he had four kids with her,” Curry said in one of his more delicate comments. However, it should be noted that although Curry was featured on several top-selling Bad Boy albums by other artists, he did not release any music on the label under his own name; he also leveled a series of bitter accusations against Combs in his 2009 memoir of those days, “Dancing With the Devil.”
Combs said he turned down multiple lucrative offers for the catalog, although just how lucrative is unclear: His longtime attorney Kenny Meiselas declined to comment on the range of the offers, and finance sources with experience in catalog sales told Variety they were unable to place even a ballpark value on the assets in question, owing to their complexity and the absence of a publicly available valuation.
“I had assumed, even in the early days, that we were building a catalog that he was going to sell one day,” Meiselas tells Variety. “And at the height of the big catalog deals, I fielded a lot of offers for the catalog and I brought him some great offers, but he was resistant — he said, ‘I have other plans.’
“Eventually he told me what he wanted” — to reassign his rights to the songwriters, which sources say number at around 50 — “and the first written reach-out was in May of 2021.”
That time was actually the peak of the gold rush, as news of mid-low nine-figure deals for song catalogs by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, members of Fleetwood Mac and others became public.
“He had the opportunity to sell it for millions of dollars,” Meiselas continues. “He chose not to. He wanted to give it back as a thank-you for the writers who helped him get where he is. It’s very simple: He did something nice because he wanted to do something nice.” Meiselas conceded, without giving specifics, that Combs’ legal fees for the two-year process of reassigning those rights were not inconsiderable.
The move took place against a backdrop of significant recent philanthropic activity by Combs, including two separate $1 million HBCU-related donations last month. In a conversation with Variety last month about his mentor, the late Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell, Combs — a famously tough businessman — said, “I always used to lead with tough love, but from missing Andre and taking everything I learned from him, now I’m leading more with love.”
Sources close to Combs said that he had not planned to announce the reassignment at all, but it became necessary when Cam’ron, a longtime friend and collaborator of former Bad Boy star Ma$e, leaked the news in an Instagram post several days before it was confirmed by reps.
Asked by Variety whether he would have announced the move if the news hadn’t been leaked, Combs seemed genuinely surprised by the question.
“Um… I don’t know — I didn’t get to that point!,” he laughed. “I was just going for the actions, so I wasn’t even thinking about how everybody was going to take it. It was more [about] leading with action. That’s where I’m at in my life: Don’t worry about what nobody’s saying. Don’t talk the talk; walk the walk. Be accountable. That’s it.”
Nearly all of the artists and songwriters involved in the reassignments have been contacted, agreed to terms and signed agreements, with some exceptions. (Meiselas declined to say whether non-disclosure agreements were involved, although it seems likely that at least some were.) “There are some people we haven’t been able to find, but since the articles ran, one of them appeared and we were able to take care of that person,” Meiselas says. He also noted estate complications with deceased artists Black Rob and Craig Mack that remain unresolved, “but not for lack of trying.”
A wild card in this move is Ma$e, one of Bad Boy’s most popular artists, who appeared frequently with Combs’ songs and videos. He excoriated Combs in social media posts in 2020, saying he’d offered his former mentor $2 million for the rights to his publishing and was rebuffed. In the since-deleted, loosely (and at times confusingly) worded post, he alleged, “u still got my publishing from 24 years ago in which u gave me $20k.” However, “Everything’s cool and good now,” Combs told Billboard recently. “You know, we’re brothers and brothers fight. I love him and that’s it”; Mase was not available for comment.
Meiselas emphatically declined to comment on that situation, nodding to the long up-and-down relationship between the two over the past 25 years. But when discussing a separate topic earlier in the conversation, he said that was the sort of thing Combs didn’t do. Other sources say that Combs was more generous, or at least honest, with credit than many other songwriter-producers in the era, who either give less-powerful songwriters or producers a fee instead of royalties, and/or no credit at all. Sources also emphasize that Bad Boy artists and songwriters were not required to sign with Combs’ publishing companies; many did not.
While the music industry is rife with tales — most of them true — about wily businesspeople taking lasting advantage of artists and songwriters who were naïve, uneducated, receiving unfavorable legal advice (if they had attorneys at all), or so hungry for a deal that they did not exercise proper caution, sources say that Combs’ deals during the 1990s were relatively “basic” and “customary.”
The reassigned catalog has been simplified to a shorthand of “Bad Boy publishing,” but the relevant assets are primarily from two publishing companies Combs created in the 1990s: Janice Combs Publishing and Justin Combs Publishing, named for his mother and one of his sons, respectively. (It is common to create two separate publishing entities for each major American performing rights organization, ASCAP and BMI.) Publishing for Bad Boy artists as well as Combs long has been administered by EMI, which is owned by Sony Music Publishing. Reps for Sony and the National Music Publishers Association declined Variety’s requests for comment on Combs’ reassignment.
“A lot of people don’t really understand the impact of it, but that’s cool,” Combs concluded. “It’s not really about that. It’s just about moving forward and being love,” he said, referencing the title and theme of his new album.