It’s 1997. We open, as most Nineties hip hop videos do, on…the eighteenth hole of a golf course? Color commentator Mase Gumbel quickly fills us in on the action: Puffy Woods is trying to sink the winning putt versus the villainous Fuzzy Bad Feet (a clear shot at pro Fuzzy Zoeller and his racist comments about Tiger Woods). Puffy nails the putt, of course. The crowd erupts and we cut to heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe as he intones with awe, “He’s unstoppable!” Cue the Diana Ross hook.
From “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” to “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” and “I’ll Be Missing You”, Puff and The Notorious B.I.G. were unstoppable. Their team up on B.I.G.’s massive 1994 debut album, Ready to Die, played like a musical Scarface, balancing glitzy money-power-women aspirations with the dirty deeds done to get them. With a skilled ear for pop hooks, Combs shuffled retro funk and soul samples beneath Wallace’s husky boasts, resulting in gems like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa”. That album’s success fueled B.I.G.’s gangsta rap ascendance, and the momentum rolled into the blockbusting follow-up Life After Death, which turned him hip hop legend.
If “Mo Money Mo Problems” didn’t invent video bling, it very nearly perfected it. Puffy and Mase rock a Starburst-flavored array of silky jumpsuits, throw their Rolies reverently in the sky, and generally impersonate rockstars better than any white dudes with guitars in 1997. It’s all done up in producer Hype Williams’ gonzo, high-gloss visual style, backdropped with fiery Michael Bay explosions, wind tunnels, and warp-speed lighting straight out of Star Wars.
Puffy’s world-beating track production on “Mo Money” channeled the triumphal disco of “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. He wisely opted to sample both Ross’ distinctive soprano and Nile Rodgers’ accompanying guitar magic, which has powered hits from Chic to Daft Punk.
Thematically, “Mo Money” is a cheeky misappropriation of the original track—spinning the gay anthem into Bad Boy’s own “we’ve arrived” moment, and trading coming out for coming up.
It’s easy to wax nostalgic on the infectiously triumphant vibes of “Mo Money”, especially from a 20-year long view. But for all the sunshine in this video, there’s plenty of dark to be found, beginning and ending with Christopher Wallace himself. Wallace was murdered on March 9, 1997, and his posthumous Life After Death released a mere 16 days later. He was long gone before “Mo Money” became a hit.
As its singles climbed the charts, listening to Life After Death became an elegiac exercise, with nearly every track—from opener “Somebody’s Gotta Die” to closer “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)”—hammering home B.I.G.’s untimely end. And in the “Mo Money” video, all of Mase’s and Puff’s shimmying only served to highlight the glaring absence of Notorious’ charismatic presence. Amid the eye-popping conspicuous consumption of this Hype Williams fantasia, B.I.G. is glimpsed only in pixelated archival footage played on background screens. The bitter irony is that this was his song; Puff and Mase’s verses were mere guest spots.
As for Puff’s “Ten years from now, we’ll still be on top” boast? It didn’t quite hold up. By the time 2007 rolled around, Combs had sold half of his Bad Boy Entertainment label to Warner Music and was hosting Making the Band. But back in the summer of 1997, thanks to “Mo Money” and B.I.G., the Bad Boy crew were bigger than the city lights down in Times Square.