Rhyme Pays

In rap's latest makeover, it's the Hamptons over the homeboys

| November/December 1999

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There is a young man in his late 20s who is very, very wealthy. He has a lush, antique-filled beach house in the snootiest section of the Hamptons, and he's always throwing lavish parties that drive his preppy neighbors crazy. He sponsors polo matches. He's a golf ace, always beating the execs he plays with. For one birthday bash, he rented a restaurant on Wall Street; Martha Stewart, Diane Von Furstenberg, and the Duchess of York attended. The man is a bon vivant. So who is this well-heeled friend of the WASP elite, this modern-day Gatsby?

My uncle, an investment banker, wasn't sure. He e-mailed me last year saying that a friend of his in the Hamptons--some rich client--was inquiring about the young man who had recently bought the beach mansion next to his. 'His name is Daddy,' he wrote. 'I think he's a famous black singer.'

'His name is Puff Daddy, and he's a rapper,' I wrote back.

'Martha Stewart would know someone like a rapper?' my incredulous uncle replied.

Someone like a rapper. Someone from the ghetto. Someone who has seen drive-by shootings and poverty and only knows 'polo' as the stuff the cracked-out bootlegger at the corner sells, I know my uncle was thinking. No, Martha Stewart probably wouldn't know someone like that.

But she would know someone like Sean 'Puffy' Combs, the multimillionaire Forbes magazine cover boy whose PR rep made sure that, along with the inevitable rap A-list of Missys and Bustas and Fat Joes, members of the genteel WASP establishment would also attend Puff's $600,000 birthday party at Cipriani's Wall Street restaurant. The question is, why was Martha Stewart there? And double-why Fergie?

Well, after the murders of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, it was obvious that rap needed a quick cleanup. The gratuitous deaths and gun-o-ramas that were the lyrical bread and butter of gangsta rap had somehow become a grisly self-fulfilling prophecy. 'Keeping it real' became way too real. According to the music-industry magazine Soundscan, R&B, of which hip-hop is a major component, was the best-selling musical genre in the United States in 1997. So rap is an industry with loadsamoney riding on it. The obvious questions were these: Who would do the reputational mopping up? And how?

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