Rapping With Beat-the-Rap Puffy

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Sean "Puffy" Combs gestures to the media after his not-guilty verdict

My mission: To pursue and interview hip-hop mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs after his not-guilty verdict on gun-possession and bribery charges. My lead: I'm told that he might be checking out neo-soul diva Jill Scott at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night.

And so I head out into the rainy Manhattan night and ride to Radio City, I reflect on Combs' turbulent career.

The first time I got to spend some time with Combs was about four years ago, before he really was a multimedia hip-hop mogul, when I went into the studio to interview him as he was completing his first solo rap record, "No Way Out." A lot has happened to him since then. "No Way Out" went on to become one of the biggest-selling hip-hop records ever, spawning the hit singles "I'll Be Missing You" and "It's All About the Benjamins"; Puffy went on to build a business empire, complete with a clothing line; he started dating superstar actress/singer Jennifer Lopez.

Most recently, and most significantly, Puffy was charged with bribery and gun possession in connection with a 1999 shooting at a New York City nightclub and, after a high-profile trial, this Friday was found not guilty on all counts. If he had been found guilty, he could have faced 15 years in prison. Now that he's a free man, the Hamptons beckon.

Like a moth to a flame

Puffy hasn't given any one-on-one interviews to the press after the big verdict, but after I'm told he might pop in at Scott's concert, I show up and I keep an eye out for him. I figure this is his kind of event. His publicist told me that, post-verdict, Puffy planned to spend some time with his family, reflecting. But Puffy is drawn to cool things — kind the way the rest of us are tempted to touch hot things to see if they're actually hot — and tonight this is the coolest spot in town. I also spot Eriq La Salle of "ER," Michael Beach of "Third Watch" and a few other celebs.

When I see Puffy in the lobby he greets me, steps away from his bodyguard, and spends a few minutes chatting with me about what's gone down in his life in the last 24 hours or so. Puffy seems quite composed, given what he's been through lately. His voice is calm, his face placid, his eyes shaded below the brim of a blue baseball cap. He has a two-way pager in his hand and he's firing off messages about who knows what to who knows whom. But when we start to talk he gives me his complete attention.

There's a lot I want to know. I want to know, now that he's been found not guilty, if he feels that the prosecution was a malicious one. I want to know if he feels that hip-hop is receiving unfair legal scrutiny (Eminem and DMX are also facing jail time in unrelated cases). I want to know if he thinks that the whole nasty club shooting incident and subsequent trial busted up his relationship with one of the hottest women in the world. But he dodges questions about specifics, promising to get into details at another time. "I'll holler at you later," he says, more than once.

Talking but not saying much

But Puff does want people to know that he has learned from the whole experience of his recent trial, and that he's a different person now than he was going in. "I've changed, I've matured," he tells me. "This whole thing has made me deeper. It's not what it was about before."

I try to get him to clarify what he means by that. There's no question that Puffy knows how to find a good hook and a captivating beat, that he has an eye for talent and a gift for promotion, that he's adept at coining catchphrases and setting trends. I know that he has a gospel album in the works. I wonder if, post-trial, he's going to try and do work that's more significant and complex than the pop gangsta stuff he's churned out in the past.

Puffy says he's still trying to figure out what the whole legal experience has meant to him, and exactly what he should draw from it. "I want to sit down and think about it and try and understand it on an intellectual level," he says. He criticizes the press a bit for what he sees at their tendency to "sensationalize" events.

And what about his co-defendant and one-time protégé Shyne? Unlike Puffy, Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, was found guilty on charges of assault, weapons possession and reckless endangerment and is facing the possibility of up to 25 years in prison. When a well-wisher interrupts our conversation to congratulate Puffy and express his concern for Shyne, Puffy says only this: "I'm praying for him."

Now, Puffy wants to go back into the show. "You like Jill Scott?" he asks, smiling. He's enjoying his night and is ready to get back to it. The pager is back out again. "I'll holler at you," he says. And then he's gone.