Under The Gun

It would hardly be a happy holiday tale. On the night after Christmas, trouble was stirring around rap mogul Sean (Puffy) Combs and his actress girlfriend Jennifer Lopez. The CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment was supposedly flashing wads of cash inside Manhattan's crowded Club New York--arrogantly tossing it about like confetti. Unimpressed, some patrons confronted him. In a scene straight out of a rap video, one annoyed man reportedly threw a stack of bills at Combs.

That's when--to paraphrase a song by rapper Jay-Z, who's facing legal woes of his own--blood began to drip in the club. Combs brandished a gun, and one of his artists, a rapper known as Shyne, drew a 9mm Ruger and opened fire, according to the Manhattan prosecutor. Three bystanders were hit, though none fatally. Moments later, Combs and Lopez fled the club in an SUV, along with a driver and one of the rapper's bodyguards, an ex-convict once imprisoned for shooting at a cop. With police in pursuit, Puffy and company allegedly ran at least 10 red lights. When the cops finally pulled the SUV over, they say they spotted a stolen 9mm in the vehicle. Combs was charged with three gun-related felony counts. Shyne, whose real name is Jamal Barrow, faces three counts of attempted murder. Authorities cleared Lopez; Combs and his associates were released on bail.

The saga continued throughout the week. On Thursday, Lopez reportedly told a grand jury that to her knowledge Combs never had a gun, though she apparently admitted she wasn't looking at him when the shooting began. Now the entertainment industry is speculating that the rapper's latest brush with the law will not only further damage his foundering career, but also strain his relationship with Lopez. "Jennifer was under a lot of pressure before this to separate herself from Puffy because her people were worried that something like this would happen," says a close friend. "The people around her have repeatedly told her that you can't be Hollywood's sweetheart if you're running from the cops."

Combs's troubled end to 1999 is not a stunning development. Still, the year certainly wasn't scripted to unfold this way. He was supposed to play a major role in Oliver Stone's current film, "Any Given Sunday," but he pulled out of the project because of scheduling conflicts. In April, Combs and two associates were charged with assaulting a fellow record executive. The rapper got off with a day of anger-management training and a payment to the victim. But then Combs's business world began to founder. Some of his top artists, including Mase and The Lox, have quit the label. And Puffy's second album remains a solid dud compared with his megahit debut CD in 1997. Now, one of victims from the shooting, Julius Jones, has filed a lawsuit seeking hundreds of millions of dollars from Puffy and his label, among others.

Puffy and his camp say he will overcome the current legal woes. "I want to make sure this is 100 percent clear. I had nothing to do with the shooting," said Combs at a packed news conference last week. "I think it is terrible that people were hurt that night." In an interview with NEWSWEEK, his attorney, Harvey Slovis, said of the night in question, "Money was thrown, but not at him. There are no allegations that Shyne's action is related to Puffy at all." Still, Slovis added that a lot of people don't seem to like Puffy: "People look to start things with him." As for the gun found in the Bad Boy-owned SUV, Slovis said Puffy had no idea it was there. The rapper and Lopez had traveled to the club in a limo, but were ushered into the SUV by the bodyguard when the trouble began.

Combs's associates disagree about why he seems to run into so much trouble. Some say it comes with celebrity. Puffy was a hit not only with hip-hop's edgy elite but with the posh crowd in the Hamptons: everybody from Busta Rhymes to Ron Perelman pulled strings to get into his parties. But even some of the rapper's associates acknowledge that Puffy invites some of his problems. Some intimates are puzzled by his loyalty to associates with troubled pasts, like the ex-con bodyguard and Shyne, whose attorney declined to comment. Although Combs signed Shyne more than two years ago, the 21-year-old rapper has yet to release an album. Shyne crashed his new Mercedes soon after joining the label; a friend died in the accident. A few months ago, after Shyne was involved in a fight, somebody shot at him in Puffy's recording studio. "Puffy has to address issues of personal growth and change," says Combs's publicist, Dan Klores. "Then you can begin to address the matter of [people's] perception of him."

For now, those perceptions are hurting him. Combs's current efforts to raise money for an Internet venture could be derailed. "It doesn't help," says Slovis, "that he was at a place where someone was shot." Lopez's advisers certainly agree. They are seeking to put distance between her and the rapper. She has an endorsement deal with L'Oreal, and a source close to the star says that her managers are now trying to assure the nervous cosmetics giant that she won't have further fiascoes involving Combs.

Klores told NEWSWEEK the couple checked into room 801 at the swanky Peninsula Hotel under the alias "Rios" after they were freed from jail. He says they were affectionate, and that Lopez helped plan Combs's press conference. Reports that the couple hadn't been together, he insisted, were "100 percent erroneous." Lopez's confidant paints a more ambivalent picture: "It's tough for her because she does really love Puffy. He has what she likes--determination and aggressiveness. But she also knows it might be a choice between a doomed relationship and a doomed career." As for Puffy, he may well end up with both.