Rap mogul's alleged assault on rival jolts the industry

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

He's the hottest executive in the music industry's fastest-growing segment. He pals around the Hamptons with the likes of Martha Stewart, Donald Trump and billionaire Ronald Perelman. Forbes magazine put him on its cover last month, proclaiming him one of the richest entertainers in the world.

Sean " Puff Daddy" Combs--celebrity rap tycoon, icon to millions of young music fans and the industry's fastest-rising mogul--is also facing up to seven years in prison.

The 29-year-old chairman of Bad Boy Entertainment was arrested two weeks ago on charges that he and two of his bodyguards assaulted Interscope Records executive Steve Stoute during business hours at the New York offices of Seagram's Universal Music Group.

In a business in which bare-knuckle negotiating tactics are common, Combs' alleged literal use of them on an executive at a rival corporation is an extraordinary event with no precedent. The idea that the chairman of a thriving company would settle scores by attacking a competitor has rocked the recording industry.

Combs, who often compares himself to entertainment impresario David Geffen, is the latest in a long line of rap stars to be arrested on charges of violence. In the last decade, a number of prominent hip-hop figures, including the late Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Death Row Records owner Marion "Suge" Knight, have run afoul of the law.

Given Combs' stature in the industry, the incident is analogous to the chairman of Citibank storming into the headquarters of Bank of America with bodyguards and pummeling his counterpart. In most businesses, any corporate leader who resorted to violence to settle a business dispute would almost certainly be fired or suspended until the matter was resolved in court.

Released on $15,000 bail, however, Combs continues to run his own recording studio, restaurant chain, clothing company and a joint-venture record label that by itself generated nearly $130 million last year for Munich, Germany-based BMG, one of the world's biggest music conglomerates.

It is unclear how the incident will affect Combs' future or what BMG--which recently advanced him nearly $50 million against future earnings--plans to do now that the head of one of its most profitable joint ventures has been accused of assault. Combs faces not only felony assault and criminal mischief charges but also the specter of civil suits being considered by Stoute and Seagram.

The incident, which was sparked by a dispute over a music video in which Combs appears, is under investigation by police, with at least one of Combs' alleged accomplices still at large and a hearing on the matter scheduled for June 24.

Combs and officials from Bad Boy declined to discuss the altercation. Stoute and officials of Seagram's Universal Music Group, home to the Interscope label, also would not comment for this story.

Nor would BMG chief Strauss Zelnick, although sources close to the executive said he recently called Seagram chief Edgar Bronfman Jr. to apologize for the incident.

Addressing Combs' arrest, a BMG spokesman said, "We don't condone violence in any form, and we're looking into the matter."

Combs Turned to Pastor for Advice

Ironically, the actions leading up to Combs' arrest were prompted by a series of discussions with his pastor.

Sources said Combs consulted Pastor Hezekiah Walker, who runs Love Fellowship Tabernacle in New York, for advice on the spiritual ramifications of his cameo appearance in rapper Nas' music video "Hate Me Now," which was scheduled to air April 15 on MTV.

Three days before the video was set to air, Combs apparently had second thoughts about a scene in which he posed crucified on a cross and wearing a crown of thorns. In an interview with The Times, Walker said he told Combs that it was "'blasphemous" for him to wear the crown of thorns and that he also objected to the rapper's use of profanity as well as an image of a black crow landing on the cross.

Combs had already approved an edit of the video on April 11, and Columbia Records, the Sony-owned label that releases Nas' recordings and videos, delivered the video to MTV on April 12. MTV's screening committee reviewed the video that day and asked Columbia to delete several images involving drinking and obscenity that the network deemed offensive. The crucifixion scene was not among the cuts requested by MTV.

Sources close to Combs said he called Stoute, who is Nas' manager, several times that week to ask that the cuts his pastor recommended be made before MTV aired the video. Stoute put in several return calls to Walker that went unanswered before Columbia returned the video (with the crucifixion scene intact) to MTV about 1 p.m. April 15, sources said.

It is unclear why Combs chose to contact Stoute instead of executives at Columbia to express his concerns, considering that the record label financed the video and was in charge of editing it and delivering it to MTV.

Walker said he spoke by phone to Stoute about 2 p.m., related his concerns and was promised that "those concerns would be resolved" before the video aired. Walker then visited Combs in his Manhattan recording studio with two ministers to tell him that they had settled the issue.

Walker said he was sitting next to Combs in the studio lounge at 4:20 in the afternoon when the video aired on MTV. Walker said Combs was shocked when the unedited crucifixion scene aired and told the pastor he would be back in a few minutes, but he never returned.

About 10 minutes later, Combs was videotaped by a security camera entering the sixth floor of Universal Music Group's headquarters, with several bodyguards employed by Bad Boy, sources said. Combs allegedly walked up to Stoute, punched him in the face and beat him to the ground with a telephone in front of two of Stoute's business associates, sources close to the investigation said.

Two of the bodyguards then allegedly joined in and repeatedly kicked Stoute and pummeled him with a chair, a champagne bottle and their fists, sources close to the investigation contend. With a third bodyguard blocking the exit, Combs and his accomplices then allegedly overturned Stoute's desk and trashed his office before driving across town to host a gala party at which Combs was seen hobnobbing with such New York power brokers as Perelman.

He Surrendered Day After Incident

Combs turned himself in the next day and was arrested and freed on $15,000 bail. After his arraignment, Combs reportedly shook hands with court officials and signed autographs for two police officers. Bad Boy bodyguard Paul Offard turned himself in last week.

Sources said Stoute and the two business associates who witnessed his beating are willing to testify if the case goes to trial.

Sources at Seagram said they are weighing the possibility of suing Combs and BMG, primarily to send a message to others that they will not tolerate anyone entering their premises and committing an act of violence against any of the company's employees.

If Combs is convicted of a felony, sources said BMG could cut ties with his company, claiming a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in his contract.

The problem for BMG is that such an action would not only cut the company off from any future revenue produced by Combs, but it would also preclude it from recovering any money advanced to him.

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