Mark Curry’s Bad Boy expose Dancing With The Devil: How Puff Burned The Bad Boys Of Hiphop tells a story as old as music itself, a cautionary tale that echoes through the history of hip-hop and the genres that birthed it. It’s the story of a hungry, ambitious young man of modest means who dreams of something better and seizes on music as his ticket out. Then one day, this plucky striver meets an enterprising young businessman who promises him the world if he’ll sign on the dotted line. With visions of wealth, fame, and groupie love dancing in his mind, he eagerly acquiesces, only to learn the truth of Q-Tip’s famous Industry Rule #4,080: Record-company people are shady. (And smoke crack. Don’t doubt it: Look at how they act.)
If there’s one immutable law in the music business, it’s that if you want to make a living playing music, you will get fucked. Long and hard. Over and over. And not in the way you’d like, either.
Curry’s experiences aren’t unique to black music. Record-label motherfuckery is an equal-opportunity offender. A while back, Steve Albini wrote a justly famed article for Maximumrocknroll titled "The Problem With Music." It drolly dissected the way record labels keep all but their most successful acts in a state of indentured servitude. We have made tremendous progress as a nation, though. Fifty years ago, an oily, fat-fingered white executive in an expensive suit would have been the one exploiting Curry. In the Obama era, however, it’s a shady young black man in a Sean John tracksuit bleeding his artist dry, then tossing aside his shriveled-up husk.
Ah, but sometimes shriveled-up husks enact tardy revenge by writing scandalous tell-alls. Hell hath no fury like a ghostwriter scorned. Dancing With The Devil’s deliciously tacky cover says it
The book doesn’t live up to the awesome cheesiness of its cover. How could it? Devil is neither good nor bad enough. It’s too competently written to be much of a guilty pleasure, but not well-written enough to be edifying. Curry’s story could be the tale of any long-suffering bluesman, soul singer, or rapper. It lacks the specificity and attention to detail that might have transformed it into something more than just another sob story from a rapper with a grudge and a long list of grievances.
The author certainly can’t be accused of lacking material. Curry’s father was a slick-talking, charismatic singer whose good looks, entrepreneurial spirit, and voice made him a neighborhood superstar. Curry eventually comes to realize that his father’s respectable businesses are fronts for sidelines in freelance pharmaceutical distribution and other assorted hustles.
Curry sees a lot of his father in Diddy, another strutting smoothie with a hustler’s soul. So when Diddy plucked him from obscurity and asked him to write a song for the Godzilla soundtrack, Curry was skeptical but optimistic. Curry didn’t just write “Come With Me,” the smash-hit Diddy/Jimmy Page collaboration from the Godzilla soundtrack. He also laid down a guide vocal, which Diddy followed so closely that he even borrowed Curry’s hand gestures and facial contortions. According to Devil, Curry didn’t just teach Diddy how to rap; he also taught him how to move.
Curry did his job too well. In the aftermath of Notorious B.I.G.’s death, Bad Boy desperately needed talent, and Diddy needed a ghostwriter. So he kept Curry tethered with golden handcuffs. Actually, that isn’t fair; considering how little Curry apparently made, it was more like a pair of toy handcuffs spray-painted gold. Diddy promised to turn Curry into Bad Boy’s next breakout act, but he didn’t want to do anything that might compromise Curry’s availability or usefulness.
So Curry wound up leading a bizarre double life. To the rest of the world, he was a hip-hop superstar in the making, living the good life, touring the world writing hits, and appearing in big-budget music videos. Yet the fame and media attention never translated into money. Curry wound up so broke, he ended up scalping his backstage passes for shows where he performed as Diddy’s hypeman.
As a label head, Diddy perfected the art of the grift. He insisted that his sports cars be featured in music videos for his artists, then charged them a steep rental fee, which he took out of their budgets. He similarly insisted on appearing on his acts’ tracks, then charged them a small fortune for his presence, and strong-armed his way into unearned songwriting and production credits. There seemed to be room for only one millionaire on Bad Boy.
Curry is such a powerless figure that he can’t even get into the ASCAP Awards ceremony after “Come With Me” wins for best song from a movie. In the hands of a sharper writer, the moment would be tragicomic. It should have been a virtuoso black-comedy setpiece. Instead, it comes off as just one of an endless series of gripes, however justified.
Curry does a whole lot of bitching in Devil. The book’s tone is more prosecutorial than confessional. Curry mounts a case against Diddy that hits just about every nadir in Diddy’s career, from the notorious charity basketball game he organized with Heavy D that led to multiple trampling deaths to Diddy’s mistreatment of Notorious B.I.G. to that whole unpleasantness involving J. Lo, Shyne, and the nightclub shooting that nearly destroyed Diddy’s career.
Devil convinced me that Diddy is an arrogant asshole who callously exploits naïve young performers. Then again, that’s essentially Diddy’s public persona: I suspect his business cards read, “Diddy—Arrogant Asshole Who Callously Exploits Naïve Young Performers.” While the portrait of Diddy that emerges here is damning and sinister, it’s also far from intimate. Rap fans might have seen Curry as a core member of the Bad Boy crew and Puffy’s right-hand-man, but to Diddy, he was clearly just an employee, and not a particularly valuable one at that.
As the years stretched on and their relationship continued to deteriorate, Diddy barely mustered up the energy to string Curry along with false promises. When Diddy headed to Florida to record 2001’s The Saga Continues, he didn’t even bother inviting Curry. The author showed up anyway, and instantly proved his value by writing the album’s standout tracks. But did Diddy reward Curry’s good work? Did he pat him on the head, tell him he was a special little man, and hand him a million-dollar check? Shit, would Curry have written this book if he had?
Late in his Bad Boy career, Curry seriously considered selling pot to provide for his family. To make matters worse, Diddy felt the need to flaunt his wealth around the people he was exploiting. Needless to say, Curry wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of gawking at the diamond-encrusted Bentley Diddy had outfitted with a Space Shuttle engine, while Curry was worried about whether he’d be able to pay next month’s rent.
Devil grows more compelling as the tiny flame of hope within Curry gets extinguished. Thwarted ambition gives way to despair. Curry concedes that he originally began writing Devil to gain leverage with Diddy. “Maybe he would try to deal with me fairly if he knew I was going to air his dirty laundry,” Curry writes in the second-to-last chapter. So it rings hypocritical when Curry waxes self-righteous in the final passages and rebukes Diddy as an agent of the devil, writing, “When people asked me why I chose to refer to Puff as ‘the devil,’ I surprised many of them by saying that I really believe he is a devil—of sorts.”
It’s much more damning when Curry writes simply but effectively, “Last year, I lost my home to foreclosure just like thousands of other American families who put too much faith in their fellow man, like the sweet-talking lady at the mortgage refinancing company. Today I am homeless and still driving a 1992 Honda Accord I bought at auction. I still cannot afford health insurance for my son, my wife or myself.” It’s always best to let the ugly facts speak for themselves.
I probably would have responded better to Curry’s book if it didn’t feel so damned familiar. Being a voracious reader of books about the tricky intersection of art and commerce, I knew going in how cruel and exploitative the music industry can be. But I’d recommend Devil to any hungry young rappers convinced their problems are over once they sign to a major label. Their problems have really only begun.
Curry has a compelling story populated by famous, larger-than-life figures, but he lacks the talent and experience to do it justice. He supposedly penned Diddy’s hottest verses, but he’s got a lot to learn about writing a book. The final irony is that Diddy’s ghostwriter would benefit from a ghostwriter of his own.