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Puff Daddy: Behind the Politics

Puff Daddy | Record Biz

Puff Daddy: The Real Story Behind 'Vote or Die'

Sean Combs's new "voter awareness" organization, Citizen Change, has poached its executive director from Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

Alexis McGill recently decamped from the HSAN, where she was political director, to run Citizen Change (slogan: "Vote or Die").

But what and who is behind Citizen Change anyway? I'm told that grocery billionaire, Democratic donor and Clinton enthusiast Ron Burkle is the guru guiding Sean "Puffy" Combs' recent conversion to political activism. And just who is Ron Burkle anyway?

You may not have noticed 50-year-old Burkle at the Democratic convention last week. He didn't speak, but his presence spoke volumes. He spent four days at the convention in a luxury suite, entertaining Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Cusack and Combs.

Indeed, Burkle presided over the one and only meeting between Affleck and Combs, now members of the Jennifer Lopez Former-Fiancé-and-Husband Hall of Fame.

(But, according to a source, many tried crashing the Burkle suite, including Christie Hefner, daughter of Hugh. "She just showed up and brought a lot of people," says my insider. None of them were bunnies.)

But Burkle, who's given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democrats over the last several years, seems to be, if not behind, then influential in Citizen Change.

Burkle is, famously, the largest supplier of ingredients to McDonald's through his Golden State Foods. He is also the largest grocer in the U.S., thanks to his ownership of Kroger.

He may be better known to you for his long friendship with Michael Jackson, whom he hosted last spring at his San Diego estate. For a couple of years, he was even in business — surely now to his regret — with Hollywood's Michael Ovitz in the short-lived Artists Management Group.

But a chance meeting in Miami last year put Burkle in the fashion business when he crossed paths with Combs, aka "P. Diddy."

The pair hit it off, and Burkle wound up heavily investing in Combs' Sean John clothing line. Thanks to him, we're about to have Sean John boutiques everywhere, not to mention a Sean John women's line in addition to Sean John men's clothes, casual wear, and perfume.

Last fall, Burkle's charitable foundation made a six-figure contribution to Combs' "Diddy Runs the City" marathon run, which benefited New York City schools. The foundation also makes hefty donations to a host of liberal causes and educational programs, from the Anti-Defamation League to People for the American Way, the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Walden Woods Project.

But it's no coincidence that Combs abruptly started his Citizen Change charity last month, followed by his appearance in the Burkle box in Boston.

In the late spring, Combs was asked to be part of various concerts taking place to raise money for John Kerry. Let's put aside the fact that Combs doesn't actually sing or rap; he's too smart to put himself out there as a performer. The real Sean Combs is an impresario, sort of the hip-hop David Merrick. And of course Burkle had a $100 million investment in him.

"We were thinking we should do something on the political side," says a Burkle insider, "with Puffy."

Not long after that, Combs and his manager Phil Robinson apparently made a visit to Donald P. Cogsville, an investment banker who is one of the four managing partners in RCM Saratoga, a boutique firm specializing in minority businesses. (Citizen Change's Web site, citizenchange.com, is registered to RCM Saratoga.)

Cogsville introduced them to Joseph Merlino, a communications consultant who came up with the idea for Citizen Change.

Combs wouldn't have to actually register voters, as Rock the Vote does. He would just have to use his unique promotional skills to get voters to the polls. (Combs himself came up with "Vote or Die.")

"I developed the idea and the positioning," Merlino told me yesterday. "Sean and his manager approached the head of RCM Saratoga with a bunch of different concepts. The idea is not to go after registration, but to increase the turnout."

So, here's the real question then: What draws someone like Ron Burkle to Sean Combs, one-time defendant, prep-school graduate, owner of multiple monikers and dangling platinum crosses?

My Burkle insider says, "He's a quick study. He likes to play it cool, but he knows what he's doing. Ron's relatively young, and he sees Sean's ambition."

Combs, by the way, got high marks in the Burkle suite last week. When his "rented monsters"— gigantic security guards with thick necks who never spoke — were asked to leave because of overcrowding, they did so very politely.

Record Biz: Still Exist Out There?

Sometime in the post-music era (circa 1983) right after Grandmaster Flash, Elvis Costello and Talking Heads set up the templates for the future, there have been occasional glitches.

Every once in a while, there's been a great single, even though corporate radio has done its best to make sure we don't hear it.

Did I miss a group called The Libertines? Yes.

Now Randy Poster, the man who compiles the most interesting soundtracks for movies, ("Little Black Book" is his new one) has sent me a CD he cooked up that includes "For Lovers." This sterling three minutes comes from someone named Wolfman and his pal Pete Doherty, who were evidently part of the Libertines.

Can you get this record? Probably, but you'd have to know about it. Ditto The Detroit Cobras' version of "The Twist," The Delays' "Long Time Coming," and "This Is the Way" by Devendra Banhart.

Who knew that in the bizarro world, music still exists? Maybe one day these records will turn up on a commercial made by some hip dude the way "I Dig You" by Cult Hero recently did.

Me, I'm listening to Jessica Domain from Detroit. Maybe today's youth can get a class-action suit going at some point when they realize they were denied a whole generation of music by cowardly record companies and insipid programmers.

Randy Poster should have someone make a movie around the CD he sent me, or release it on his own label. It would be a lot better than this week's No. 1 CD, "Now That's What I Call Music 16," a compilation of recent top-40 junk that is said to cause motor paralysis and heat rashes.

I listened to Randy's CD, by the way, on Dick Sequerra's amazing Met 7.7 speakers, which can be found on at www.sequerra.com. I also listened to Smetana's "My Country" on them, as well as "Penny Lane" and the new Mavis Staples album, "Have a Little Faith."

Since Stereophile magazine is struggling, Mark Levinson dropped out of the spotlight after divorcing Kim Cattrall, and the hellacious Best Buy is on every corner, I am promoting high fidelity this summer all on my own.

If everyone had Met 7.7s, I think wars would end. No one would want to leave their living rooms.