The Number Ones

March 22, 1997

The Number Ones: Puff Daddy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” (Feat. Mase)

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Pop epochs almost never have definitive beginnings or endings, but if you’re looking for the kickoff date of rap’s proverbial Shiny Suit Era, it might’ve happened the day that Puff Daddy and Mase abandoned their Rolls Royce. The sensational, nonsensical video for “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” the first-ever single from Bad Boy Records founder Sean “Puffy Daddy” Combs, is a visual feast of luxurious living and defiant splendor. Through the first half, we see Puff and his young protege Mase driving a Rolls deep into a desert. Midway through the video, the two of them stop the car, get out, and start walking. The Rolls just sits there, shimmering in the heat, no longer necessary. Puff and Mase used that car to prove their point, and then they proved that point even further by leaving that Rolls Royce behind, ignored and forgotten.

The point, more or less, was this: “Puff make his own laws, n***a — fuck your rules/ Goodfellas, you know you can’t touch us dudes.” That abandoned Rolls, which my friend Shea Serrano highlighted in his extremely fun history tome The Rap Year Book, stands as a symbol of beautiful, pointless fuck-you excess. Puff Daddy had ascended to the very top of the music business, and he’d done it by proclaiming his own splendor and superiority at every available opportunity. A good handful of rap songs reached #1 before “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” but Puff’s first chart-topper represents a whole different era.

“Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” is a flex of a song, an ostentatious display. Puff and Mase were really just talking about themselves, but you could extend their flossy shit-talk to their record label, to East Coast rap, or even just to rap itself. When “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” reached #1, it kicked off one of the most dominant pop-chart runs that we’ve ever seen, and it marked the beginning of the time when rap occupied the center of popular music. Twenty-four years later, rap still occupies the center of popular music, and it’s hard to imagine a future where that won’t be the case.

I’ve mentioned this in past columns, but my first book is coming out later this year, and it tells the story of 20 #1 hits that shifted the course of pop music. I don’t have a publication date yet, but that book just went into production a couple of weeks ago, and one of those 20 songs is “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” The single didn’t change pop because it’s a great song — it’s really not — but because it came along at the right time and announced that the playbook was different. Puff had made his own laws. Fuck your rules.

Sean “Puffy” Combs never considered himself a musician until he became one. Puff was born in Harlem and mostly raised in Mount Vernon. (When Puff was born, the #1 song in America was Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”) Puff’s father was a numbers runner and drug dealer who was shot to death in his car when Puff was two years old. Puff was raised by his mother, a teacher’s assistant. Puff was a flashy kid who loved rap music and who lived in the clubs. In his teenage years, Puff found work as a dancer, showing his moves in videos for pop stars like Diana Ross, Babyface, and the Fine Young Cannibals.

When Puff finished high school, he went to Howard University, where he studied business and threw parties. Almost instantly, the parties became a business. Puffy began promoting parties in his freshman year, and those parties drew huge numbers of people. At his first event, Puffy booked Teddy Riley’s R&B group Riley and the rap star Heavy D, a fellow Mount Vernon native. Through Heavy, Puff got to know Andre Harrell, the founder of the hugely successful rap and R&B label Uptown. Puffy started interning at Uptown while he was still at Howard. Twice a week, he’d take the Amtrak train back up to New York, and his hustle impressed Harrell. After his sophomore year, Puffy dropped out of Howard and started working at Uptown full-time.

Puffy quickly became director of A&R at Uptown, and he guided the hugely successful early careers of stars like Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. These were R&B singers, but Puff had them dressing, walking, and acting like rappers. He’d remix their tracks, putting their voices over ultra-recognizable rap beats. (As a remixer and then a producer, Puffy rarely did the nuts-and-bolts stuff. He was an ideas guy, and he’d tell his team how he wanted records to sound — the Damien Hirst model of putting your brand name on your underlings’ work.) While working at Uptown, Puffy also continued promoting parties, and one of those parties ended in tragedy. Outside of a celebrity basketball game at City College of New York in 1991, a crowd crush killed nine people. Puffy became a pariah in the New York tabloids, but Andre Harrell stood by him and even hired lawyers for him. Soon, though, Harrell was sick of Puffy.

After a few years of huge success at Uptown, Puffy started making plans to launch his own subsidiary label. Puffy had ambitious plans for his first discovery, the young Brooklyn rapper known as Biggie Smalls. Uptown produced a cameo-heavy comedy called Who’s The Man?, a cinematic vehicle for Yo! MTV Raps hosts Doctor Dré and Ed Lover. The movie was a flop, but its soundtrack launched Biggie, whose on-record debut “Party And Bullshit” was an instant underground smash. Puffy also used Biggie’s voice on his remixes of tracks from Mary J. Blige and the dancehall star Super Cat. On the Bad Boy Remix of Super Cat’s “Dolly My Baby,” Puffy even tried rapping a verse himself. It was terrible.

Bad Boy Records was supposed to be Puffy’s own little corner at Uptown, but those plans changed. In 1993, Andre Harrell fired Puffy from Uptown. The firing was a shock, but Puffy turned it into his advantage. LA Reid introduced Puffy to Clive Davis, and Puffy launched Bad Boy in partnership with Arista. The first album to come out on Bad Boy was Biggie’s Ready To Die, arguably the greatest rap album ever made. The LP sold millions. When Puffy remixed Biggie’s album track “One More Chance,” adding a slick DeBarge sample and the voices of a few R&B stars, the single ascended to #2 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 9.)

In its first few years, Bad Boy built up a roster that included Craig Mack, Faith Evans, Total, 112, and Lil Kim. All of them were hugely successful, but Puffy always made it clear that he was Bad Boy. He helped produce many of the label’s acts, building a sound around slick, recognizable samples of familiar hits, and he also made himself a presence on records and in videos. Puffy didn’t rap much at first, but he’d intone ad-libs on records all the time. He also famously remixed the Mariah Carey smash “Fantasy,” helping Carey find the rap credibility that she’d always sought.

As Bad Boy grew more and more dominant, Puffy came to play a central role in the storied East Coast/West Coast feud that dominated headlines in the mid-’90s. Death Row Records boss Suge Knight depicted himself as the anti-Puffy. At the Source Awards in 1995, Knight stoked the ire of the New York crowd by throwing shots at Puffy: “Any artist out there want to be a artist, and wanna stay a star, and don’t want to have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the records, dancing, come to Death Row.”

Puff was an omnipresent figure, so maybe it was inevitable that he’d eventually became an artist himself. In 1996, Puff chanted the hook on Lil Kim’s hit “No Time,” which peaked at #18. (Lil Kim will eventually appear in this column.) That same year, Puff went on a trip with all the producers from the team that he called the Hitmen. That trip was essentially a work retreat, with no artists or significant others allowed. In Trinidad, Puffy and the Hitmen put together beats for the songs that would make up the bulk of Biggie’s 1997 double album Life After Death and the solo debut that Puff planned to call Hell Up In Harlem.

1996 was also the year that Puffy signed a teenager named Mase. Mason Betha had been born in Florida but had mostly grown up in Harlem, and he and Puffy shared a similar sense of flash. Mase had gotten his start alongside Cam’ron and the late Big L in a group called Children Of The Corn, but the group didn’t last long. In 1996, Mase took a plane to a rap convention in Atlanta, hoping to audition for Jermaine Dupri. Instead, Puff heard Mase rapping at the Hard Rock Café, and he offered Mase a contract. Soon after, Mase made his debut on the remix of “Only You,” a single from the Atlanta R&B group 112. (“Only You” peaked at #13. Mase’s highest-charting lead-artist single, 1997’s “Feel So Good,” peaked at #5. It’s an 8. As lead artists, 112’s highest-charting single is 2001’s “Peaches & Cream,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 9. As guests, they’ll soon appear in this column.)

Puff Daddy’s debut single “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” was always supposed to be an event. On the song, Puff and Mase rapped over the beat of a song that was a key part of the rap canon. “The Message,” from 1982, was credited to Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five, the pioneering South Bronx group, but Flash himself didn’t have anything to do with the song, and he didn’t want his name on it. Flash was a DJ who specialized in party music, and the Furious Five made their name by chanting ecstatic routines over the breakbeats that Flash cut up. But “The Message” was different.

Melle Mel, the best-known rapper from the Furious Five, co-wrote “The Message” with Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher, an in-house producer at Sugar Hill Records. The song is a feverish, harrowing portrait of urban squalor, and it’s probably the first rap song where the social commentary was right at the center of the track, not on the margins. Melle Mel had used some of his lines from “The Message” on the Furious Five’s 1979 single “Superappin,” but that was a 12-minute party odyssey, and so the lines didn’t have the same effect. On “The Message,” with his voice set against a skeletal synth and rattling percussion, Melle Mel could really describe the hopelessness that he saw all around him: “Broken glass everywhere/ People pissing on the stairs, you know, they just don’t care/ I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise/ Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.”

On “The Message,” Melle Mel shared the microphone with Duke Bootee; the other members of the Furious Five didn’t rap. Grandmaster Flash didn’t want to release the song, reasoning that nobody would be able to party to it. But Sugar Hill boss Sylvia Robinson, who’d given herself a co-writer credit on “The Message,” overruled Flash. The song became the biggest hit ever credited to the Furious Five. It went top-five on Billboard‘s R&B chart, and it became the only Furious Five track ever to chart on the Hot 100, where it peaked at #62.

There’s something almost subversive about the way Puff Daddy and Mase took “The Message” and turned it right back into triumphant party music. On “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” Puff and Mase aren’t the least bit interested in describing urban squalor. Instead, they use that beat to crow about their own escape from that squalor. It’s all triumphant flexing. Puff: “You name it, I could claim it/ Young, Black, and famous, with money hangin’ out the anus.” Mase: “Broken glass everywhere/ If it ain’t about the money, Puff, I just don’t care.” And on the chorus, the two of them half-sing the hook from a cheesy early’-80s pop hit.

Matthew Wilder, a New York native and music-business journeyman, recorded “Break My Stride” in 1983, and the song was partly intended as a message to Clive Davis, who’d signed Wilder to Arista and who’s pressured him to write something that might become a hit. “Break My Stride” is a cheesy, bouncy, lyrically baffling piece of reggae-addled white pop. Davis didn’t hear money in the song, and he dropped Wilder from Arista. Wilder took the track to Epic, and it became his biggest hit, peaking at #5. (It’s a 4.) When Bad Boy took “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” to Wilder to clear the “Break My Stride” interpolation, Wilder didn’t understand what they were doing the the song, but he gave the OK, and this turned out to be a lucrative decision for him.

“Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” actually has 11 credited songwriters — Puffy, Mase, the songwriters responsible for “The Message” and “Break My Stride,” and Puff’s co-producers Carlos Broady, Stevie J, and Nashiem Myrick. “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” doesn’t sound like a song that would require 11 writers. It’s brash and simplistic, but it doesn’t have a ton of energy. Mase and Puffy made a canny pairing. When Puffy tried rah-rah rapping on Super Cat’s “Dolly My Baby” remix, he sounded ridiculous. But Mase rapped in a soft-spoken monotone, and Puff could do that. On “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” the two of them toss lines back and forth at each other, and they sound profoundly bored, as if they can’t even be bothered by all the tedious chumps who are mad that they can’t be like Puff and Mase. There’s a lot of gun-talk on “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” and there might also be one lyrical shot at Death Row: “Fuck around, they weak staff get a heat rash.” But Puff and Mase sound like they’re floating above violence, like nothing can touch them.

When “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” was new, that nonchalance bugged the shit out of me. My favorite rappers were loud and demonstrative, and Puff sounded like he couldn’t be bothered to give the song any energy. Mase sounded soft. Over the years, though, I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for Mase’s slippery delivery, for the way he lazily toys with the beat’s pocket. Puff still sounds clumsy, but now I get that the nonchalance was always part of the appeal. Bad Boy might’ve been embroiled in a dangerous, ugly rap feud, but Puff was determined to show that nothing could bother him.

Paul Hunter, who’d gotten his start making Keith Sweat videos and who would go on to direct Bulletproof Monk, made the “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” video into a disconnected riot of blockbuster imagery. It’s not just the Rolls Royce in the desert. It’s Puff in the club, being pawed at by women’s hands. It’s Puff and Mase dancing in an all-white room. The most aspirational spectacle in the video might be Biggie Smalls and Eddie Griffin talking to Puff Daddy on a cell phone and treating the cops who have just stopped them as insignificant irritants. At the end of the video, when the cops have finally left him alone, Biggie looks so cool.

Puff released the “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” single in January of 1997, when Biggie was ramping up to the release of his Life After Death mini-album. Biggie, Puffy, and Mase weren’t competing with each other for attention. Instead, Puffy understood that Bad Boy could present a united front that could dominate the pop charts. But while “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” was rising the charts, tragedy struck Bad Boy. A few days before Puffy learned that his debut single was headed to #1, Biggie Smalls was shot to death in an SUV while leaving the Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles. Like the death of Biggie’s friend-turned-enemy Tupac Shakur, the murder remains unsolved.

Biggie’s loss was tremendous, shattering. But his death didn’t stop “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” from reaching #1. If anything, it gave a strange sense of pathos to the song. Mase had said that you couldn’t touch them dudes, but all that success hadn’t kept Bad Boy’s biggest star safe. Instead, Puffy and his Bad Boy team spent 1997 publicly mourning Biggie. They also dominated the Hot 100 for almost the entire year. Biggie will appear in this column very soon, and Puffy and Mase will return.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Lil Kim quotes “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” in her verse on Christina Aguilera’s 2002 single “Can’t Hold Us Down.” Here’s the video:

(“Can’t Hold Us Down” peaked at #12. Christina Aguilera and Lil Kim will both eventually appear in this column. In fact, they’ll be in the column together.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Keyshia Cole used a sample of the “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” — or maybe a sample of “The Message” that was made to sound as much like “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” as possible — on her 2007 Missy Elliott/Lil Kim collab “Let It Go.” Here’s the video for that one:

(“Let It Go” peaked at #7, and it’s Keyshia Cole’s highest-charting single. It’s an 8. Missy Elliott’s highest-charting single is 2002’s “Work It,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Drake repeatedly quoting “Can’t Nobody Hold Us Down” on his 2019 track “4PM In Calabasas”:

(“4PM In Calabasas” peaked at #80. Drake will appear in this column a bunch of times.)

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