If all you went by was chart clout, Puff Daddy & the Family's "No Way Out" World Tour would be the road show of the decade.
With Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs as headliner, and a bill that includes Li'l Kim, Ma$e, 112, Busta Rhymes, Foxy Brown, Usher and Jay-Z, the acts assembled for this outing have dominated radio and MTV for the last 18 months. In fact, Puff Daddy himself virtually rules the pop and R&B markets, having produced or performed on singles that spent 22 consecutive weeks at No. 1, a streak that included his own Police-powered hit, "I'll Be Missing You."
Yet as big as these acts are, the names mean almost nothing to anyone over the age of 25. Worse, the few non-fans who recognize the name Puff Daddy do so because of his association with slain rap star the Notorious B.I.G. They see him not as a hit-maker, but as trouble, the East Coast equivalent of incarcerated Death Row chief Marion "Suge" Knight.
Being tied into that East Coast/West Coast rap feud clearly pains Combs. "Imagine going for two years dealing with this East/West [rivalry] -- and that's what you're getting known for," he complained to Vibe recently. "That's depressing."
It's also unfair. Unlike the gangsta rap recordings pumped out by Death Row, the music Puff Daddy makes is fairly benign, more concerned with good times than gang-banging. Although there is some tough talk and sexy posturing, the overall vibe to his "No Way Out" tour can be summed up in a single phrase: Ain't nothin' but a party.
"All of the artists out here are not giving you anything less than feel-good energy," says Busta Rhymes, whose rap "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See" was a big hit on MTV. "The music ain't a whole bunch of depression, with drama to it that's getting you unhappy. You're getting a feel-good energy before you leave and while you're in there partying."
Because the show is built around short, hit-packed sets, the entertainment never lets up. "You're so caught up in the high energy in each artist that gets onstage that you're exhausted after every performance," says Rhymes.
"It's definitely been a fulfilling tour, man, and I'm very happy to be out here."
All that positive energy flies in the face of industry preconceptions about rap and its audience. For years, it was difficult if not impossible to mount a major rap tour, because insurers wouldn't write policies to protect venues against possible violence. And even though hip-hop concerts were less likely to result in violence than major sporting events, the fear of angry young rap fans running amok was enough to dissuade most promoters from even trying to book shows.
With luck, the "No Way Out" tour will re-open those doors. "There were no big tours concerning rap because there was so much negativity," says Ma$e, whose solo album, "Harlem World," recently entered the charts at No. 1. "We're trying to change that, to have a successful tour with nobody being locked up or nobody being harmed. We'll open doors for other rap groups to go out and have a good time, without everybody being so scared."
That's not to say Combs and his crew are entirely above criticism. There has been a lot of griping from within the rap community that Combs' tendency to build his singles around old rap or R&B hits is an insult to the artistic integrity of hip-hop. "They make remakes of old songs that had radio airplay and were Top-10 on the charts," rapper Method Man said recently. "They make remakes and compromise their originality and their creativity in the process."
Ma$e doesn't see it that way. "I feel as if, if it's good music, it's good music," he says, "whether it be an old-school sample or something original.
"Everybody have their own style. Puff Daddy can't do what work for somebody else, he gotta do what work for him. Like, you got guys who make original music, and that's what they do. That's their style. Puff Daddy takes samples of classics."
Moreover, argues Ma$e, Puff Daddy's use of samples puts money in the pocket of older, oft-forgotten artists. "A lot of those people [he sampled] are broke right now," says Ma$e. "When we sample their music, we might be starting their life all over again. People don't think about that."
Maybe so, but it's worth noting that the acts sampled in Puff Daddy's most successful productions -- Diana Ross in "Mo Money Mo Problems," the Police in "Missing You," George Clinton in "Hypnotize" -- are hardly poverty cases. Even Ma$e's current hit, "Feel So Good," takes its hook from the far-from-forgotten Kool & the Gang hit, "Hollywood Swinging."
Still, Ma$e would rather not even acknowledge his critics. "I don't really want to stir up no type of negativity in the rap world," he says. "I'm just here to have fun, and bring the fun back into music."