The Night I Crashed Sean “Puffy” Combs Super VIP Party In Late 1990s New York City

Isoul H. Harris

Photo: Andrea Raffin/ Shutterstock

September 29, 1997. Bill Clinton was President of the United States. Microsoft released Internet Explorer 4. And it was the night that I lied my way into the super-exclusive, grand opening party of Sean “Puffy” Combs’s first restaurant, Justin’s. I was not in the “industry.” I was a graduate student at NYU. But, a friend in Los Angeles knew my ambitions. My friend called the restaurant, pretended to be an editor at Essence and convinced the manager to go outside and pluck me from the other side of the velvet rope. I quickly made my way to the front by confidently pushing aside the aggressive paparazzi, fellow crashers, and requisite chickens.

Moments later, I was inside.

In a suit slightly swallowing his thin frame, Puffy proudly greeted his guests. Mike Tyson was sauntering about with two plates piled high with collard greens and candied yams. Johnny Cochran devoured fried chicken with cunning skill. A pre-cosmetic surgery Lil Kim, draped in Chanel, ate cornbread and black-eyed peas. Missy Elliot, Maxwell, Jay-Z, and Jermaine Dupri moved about the room. With four bodyguards in tow, Mariah Carey entered like Moses, parting the room like The Red Sea, with her glass of Cristal champagne held in hand like a staff. 

Carey had the #2 song in the country with “Honey” (co-produced by Puffy); The late Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” was #6; and Puff Daddy and Faith Evans’s “I’ll Be Missing You” was #9. Bad Boy ruled Billboard, and that night, with the opening of his first restaurant, Sean Combs began his transformation into an aspirational lifestyle brand.

Fast forward 20 years, and Sean “Diddy” Combs produced Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, a film, directed by Daniel Kaufman, chronicling the meteoric rise, culture-shaping achievements, and life-altering struggles of Combs and his label.

“Once we dropped ‘Juicy,’ we became the fastest growing boutique label in history,” he boasts in the film, originally conceived as a documentary of the Bad Boy 20th Anniversary Reunion Tour. “I was a big fan of Madonna’s Truth or Dare,” Diddy told Beats 1 Radio’s Zane Lowe.

Whereas Madonna used Truth or Dare to challenge social constructs surrounding sexuality and champion individuality, however, Diddy’s agenda, even when he was “dancing all up in the videos” or hosting the Ghetto Fabulous Glitterati that night in 1997 at Justin’s, was always to elevate his people, his culture.

“[He taught me] to not be apologetic for who I was,” says Mary J. Blige. And Jay Z, who recalls the eye-opening deal that Diddy negotiated with then Arista Records President Clive Davis to launch Bad Boy. “With [that] $40 million check…Puff taught us our worth. His movement opened up the door for us.”

This film, Episode One of a series, is a love letter to the Gen Xers who have supported Combs’s light speed journey from Uptown Records intern to topping the 2017 Forbes Celebrity 100 List ($130M). And it’s a bombastic, gorgeously shot masterclass for Millennials, depicting — with surprising honesty — the work and multi-leveled sacrifice it takes to top. “It’s Black Excellence…Black Glamour…Black Rich,” says Combs. “I can make anything happen.”

At this point, we would be a fool not to believe him.

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I explore culture through curiosity and compassion.

Atlanta, GA

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