Earlier this month, Sean Combs threw himself a 50th-birthday bash at his Beverly Hills mansion, attended by such high-wattage stars as Kim Kardashian, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kanye West, Kevin Hart, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
It was a world away from Jay-Z’s and Combs’ gritty days coming up in New York City — and from where the two were in the month of December 20 years ago. Back then, both found themselves in perilous positions that could have stalled their careers and legacies, and landed them in prison.
Combs’ arrest, on weapons and bribery charges in an incident that left three injured, was huge news at the time — made all the more scandalous because his glamorous then-girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, was also arrested.
Meanwhile, the memory that Jay-Z stabbed a man has faded with time and his reinvention as a social-justice activist and one-half of the most influential couple in music, alongside wife Beyoncé.
“For Jay and Puff, [the arrests brought on] the decision of, ‘Am I going to shed the pretenses of the streets?’ ” said Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback.”
The two incidents also had a lasting societal impact: leading to an evolution in the NYPD and establishing the idea that rap was too big a money game to play in the streets anymore.
“In the ’90s, success in hip-hop was about artistic bragging rights and being the realest,” said industry expert Starr Rhett Rocque. “Now, success in hip-hop is, how mainstream can I go?”
The end of the century was a turning point for hip-hop, which was overtaking pop culture — from radio to fashion. In 1998, for the first time, the Bronx-born art form outpaced America’s then top-selling format, country. But as the industry grew more lucrative, artists seemingly still had something to prove.
“There was more money in hip-hop,” said Charnas. “Things started to change.”
The battle to stay on top and stay connected to the streets, where rap was born, led to confrontations with the law. For many artists, it wasn’t enough to write about the complexities of ’hood life. You had to live it.
In 1998, Busta Rhymes was arrested for possessing a loaded, unregistered pistol. The next year, DMX was booked after officers found a gun and drug paraphernalia at his Teaneck, NJ, home. Slick Rick and the Wu-Tang Clan’s ODB both did time at Rikers in the ’90s, while Suge Knight pleaded no contest to assault.
To some degree, violence wasn’t just accepted — it was expected.
On Dec. 2, 1999, Midtown’s Kit Kat Klub was packed with revelers celebrating rapper Q-Tip. Prince, Lil’ Kim and Eve were all on hand, as was the top player in the rap game, Jay-Z. The former drug dealer from Brooklyn’s projects-turned-Roc-A-Fella Records mogul was riding high on the chart-topping success of his album “Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life.” His first headlining tour had just become the highest-grossing hip-hop tour ever, pulling in $18 million.
As Jay-Z and his entourage made their way through the crowd, tensions rose when they spotted Lance “Un” Rivera. The producer, who had worked with the rapper, had allegedly been distributing bootlegs of Jay-Z’s not-yet-released album, “Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter.”
“Lance, you broke my heart,” Jay-Z reportedly said before pulling an eight-inch knife.
A witness told The Post back in 1999 that Jay-Z stabbed the Undeas Recordings label head as members of the rapper’s crew stomped and beat Rivera with liquor bottles, leaving him with shoulder and abdominal injuries.
Rivera was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital in stable condition. Later that night, Jay-Z turned himself in and was arrested on two charges of first-degree assault. He pleaded not guilty; if convicted, he would face up to 15 years in prison.
“Jay . . . was defending his honor,” said Rocque of the stabbing.
But not only did the rapper not have to mete out punishment anymore — he had everything to lose if he did.
“If Un bootlegged your album there are lawyers to deal with that. You don’t deal with that,” Charnas said. “That was the headspace [he had] to get out of.”
A few weeks later, on Dec. 27, Combs (then known as Puff Daddy) and his girlfriend Lopez were partying at Club New York with his protégé Jamal “Shyne” Barrow.
It can’t be stressed enough what a power player Combs was at the time. His Bad Boy Records empire boasted annual sales of $130 million. The year before, he had launched his successful Sean John fashion line and hosted the first of his annual, star-studded White Parties in the Hamptons. Two years earlier, his “I’ll Be Missing You” had become the first rap track to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100.
He had plenty to celebrate, including Shyne’s upcoming debut album.
While leaving the Times Square club, Combs bumped into a man named Matthew “Scar” Allen, knocking a drink from his hand. Allen pushed back, leading to a fight and shots fired, with three clubgoers injured.
Combs and Lopez fled in his Lincoln, only to be pulled over by police after running a light. A gun was found in the car and the couple was arrested, along with bodyguard Anthony “Wolf” Jones and Barrow.
Now-retired NYPD Detective Derrick Parker was at the Midtown South precinct when they were brought in.
“There were all these high-profile lawyers barricaded in the station house waiting to talk to the desk officer,” he recalled. “They had J.Lo handcuffed to a pole.”
Lopez was absolved within hours, while Combs was indicted on two counts of criminal possession of an unregistered gun and attempted bribery for allegedly trying to get Jones to claim the weapon was his.
Like Jay-Z, Combs faced up to 15 years in prison. Three months earlier, he had pleaded guilty to a harassment violation — down from the original charge of felony assault — in the beating of a music executive.
The NYPD, meanwhile, was taking notice of the uptick in violence.
“[Officers] would ask me, ‘Why has the hip-hop world become so violent?’ ” said Parker, author of “Notorious C.O.P.” about the NYPD’s Enterprise Operations Unit.
Parker helped establish the so-called “Hip-Hop Cop” team following the unsolved ’96 and ’97 murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. As The Post reported earlier this year, the unit drafts “reports about scheduled hip-hop shows at city clubs, and designate[s] each as posing a low, medium or high risk for violence.”
“The truth is, the rappers were never the big problem,” Parker explained. “Most of the time it was the crew that they kept around them. It was an atmosphere where members of the crew felt like they had something to prove to the artist.”
Unlike Jay-Z, however, Combs had a relatively middle-class upbringing. “Puff took on the pretenses of that life,” Charnas said. “For Jay, it was more of a reflex that he needed to reckon with because he literally came from that lifestyle.”
The six-week Club New York trial, which kicked off in January 2001, became a national media obsession. Combs was represented by Benjamin Brafman and Johnnie Cochran, the biggest-name lawyers money could buy.
It paid off when he was acquitted. Barrow, 21, however, was convicted of two counts of assault as well as reckless endangerment and gun possession. Some conspiracy theorists speculate Barrow was a fall guy. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, serving nine before being deported to Belize, where his father is the prime minister.
Although he released a mixtape in 2001, his career never recovered.
It’s been said that Combs dropped the nickname Puff Daddy for P. Diddy in 2001 to reinvent himself after the arrest. He’s now an entrepreneur boasting, per Forbes, a net worth of $740 million — with a portfolio that includes the cable network Revolt, Sean John and Ciroc liquor.
Jay-Z pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in 2001, receiving three years’ probation. In his 2010 book “Decoded,” he wrote that he took the plea out of fear prosecutors would hit him harder after Puffy’s non-conviction. He now holds the title of hip-hop’s first billionaire, with an empire that includes the Roc Nation entertainment and sports company.
The influential rapper remorsefully reflected on the stabbing in the 2017 song “Kill Jay-Z”: “You got a knot in your chest, imagine how a knife hurts/You stabbed Un over some records/Your excuse was ‘He was talkin’ too reckless.’ ”
“His last couple of albums show Jay thinks pretty deeply,” said Charnas. “But I don’t think he’s fully squared his impulse to be a truth teller with his impulse to have power, money and control, and those don’t always go together.”
Both incidents would have a lasting effect on the hip-hop cops, with the unit beefing up its presence at clubs shortly after the two events. Recently, the unit has come under fire for what critics believe is the brazen profiling of rappers such as 50 Cent and Remy Ma.
The events of 1999 also left an impression on younger rappers, who are more aware of maintaining a corporate-friendly image once they reach a certain level of success — anathema to rap’s keep-it-real ethos of the ’90s.
“There was a period when it was cool to be a goon in hip-hop, but that’s no longer the case,” recalled “Bloggers Can’t Be Trusted” author Rocque. “[Now] artists say, ‘Nah, we can’t settle things like we did before.’ ”
By Keith Murphy