Puffy swings into the VIP room of Life around 2 A.M., looking very Fantasy Island. He and Andre Harrell and their bodyguards are decked out in glowing white suits; the girl they've brought along to dance at their table wears white leather.
Puffy looks around for a table, but there aren't any available. The VIP room's crammed with kids, all moving to his music: "What you wanna do?" Puffy's asking them. "Wanna be brawlers, shot-callers, ballers -- ?"
Just then, out of the crowd comes a short, wiry young man with glasses. His name's Richie Akiva; he's just 21, but he's the host of this party, along with his partners, Justin Salguero and Shawn Regruto. They're the hosts every Friday at Life. This summer, people in nightlife started buzzing about "Justin-Shawn-and-Richie." Their parties are the ones winding up in the gossip columns ("they never say our names," they complain), always full of people like Puffy and Mariah and Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Lopez and Wesley and Leo.
Richie -- a.k.a. "Little Richie" (Justin-Shawn-and-Richie are all rather diminutive) -- places a hand up on Puffy's broad back, shouting, "It's all good, we can move those people -- " He's suggesting they toss three kids out of a nearby banquette.
But Puffy says he'd rather take that table over there -- that's Justin-Shawn-and-Richie's table, which just now has the look of a mini-New Year's Eve: At least 30 kids are thronged around, talking and gesticulating rapper-style and rapping along with Puffy; they're dancing, screaming. There are girls, models -- the platinum beauty James King -- and wannabe models, undulating on top of the banquette. It's like this every night of the week, out with Justin-Shawn-and-Richie.
"Yo, Puff -- " Richie says, twitching a little. "I'm not gonna move all those people . . . !"
The three unlucky kids get moved out; Puffy and his entourage move in.
"Skee-yoooo!" Minutes later, Richie's calling across the club for Justin and Shawn, with the secret call of their crew, SKE (pronounced like "ski" -- it stands for Some Kids Envy). "What was I gonna do? He was like, 'Move your table,' but I couldn't move all our people -- "
They all look over at Puffy, a little nervous, but Puffy looks fine. He's perched on top of the emptied banquette, smiling slightly behind mirrored sunglasses; the room's full of kids unable to stand still to his music. Andre's dancing with one of Justin-Shawn-and-Richie's "girls."
"Fuck Puffy," says Steve Ocevedo, a Dominican kid who's also part of the crew.
"Yo," Justin says, "we gotta show him respect." Their parties wouldn't be what they are without him; just six years their senior, he's also the epicenter of their dreams."It's all about the Benjamins, baby," Puffy's rapping now. Kids like Justin-Shawn-and-Richie are yearning to make his kind of "cream."
It's not only famous people who come to Justin-Shawn-and-Richie's parties; it's famous kids, or kids with famous parents, or kids who are hell-bent on becoming famous. Their D.J. tonight at Lot 61 (the new club on West 21st Street that's become hot since Justin-Shawn-and-Richie started doing Monday nights there) is Mark Ronson, the 22-year-old rising hip-hop star and Tommy Hilfiger model. (His mom and stepdad are Ann Jones, the writer and socialite, and Mick Jones, the guitarist for Foreigner.) "It's total cult-of-celebrity time," says the laid-back Mark, looking down over the crowd from high up in the D.J. booth. "You don't have to really be anything to be a celebrity anymore -- there are just so many famous people."
Downstairs, there's Lola Schnabel (Julian's daughter), Evin Cosby (Bill's daughter), and Max LeRoy (Warner's son); Fiona and Liv aren't here tonight, although everybody knows them -- but oh, Puffy's here again, and Andre and Russell and Leo, swarmed by gorgeous girls in outfits that could be described as revealing. The rapper Jay-Z, author of a song called "Can't Knock the Hustle," eyes the room.
"I told Puffy about my screenplay," a plump young man in a Yankees cap says excitedly. "He was thirst! He gave me his cell-phone number! But yo, this screenplay," he adds, "it's just the beginning. Eventually I'm gonna have my own production company."
All over the club, there are kids talking business. "That's all we talk about," says Vanessa Ferlito, 21, a lovely dark-haired former Wilhelmina model and aspiring singer. "Blowing up, making moves, getting paid." She laughs. "It's like a job, going out -- every night we're trying to get people to introduce us to people. It's all about who you know and what you do with it."
Slick boys in Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts, and fluorescent sneakers stride by, as if on their way to meetings. Vanessa rushes back: "Oh, did I tell you I got the part?" She met "Russell" in a club one night and landed a job as a correspondent on his fall TV show, Oneworld Music Beat. Everyone seems to be looking for that kind of connection, that conversation leading to a way to "blow up" -- or become powerful, rich, and famous.
"Money power and respect, money power and respect," screams the music.
In the midst of an economic boom, in a culture obsessed by youth, almost anything seems possible, and the town square of New York nightlife has become the place where kids hunt for opportunities. "These are not club kids," says the British-rock-starrish Mark Baker, New York's premier party promoter and P.R. maven. "It's not the wanton party madness I'm seeing. Kids are saying, 'I can have my fun and live to fight tomorrow.' They're realizing they can have a good career just by going out and meeting the right people. They're doing really well; they feed off each other."
"We're starting an empire," says Richie, dead serious, leaning back against a banquette. He, Shawn, and Justin are in the process of putting together a multimedia company, for which they have some serious backing. "We're gonna hit all the markets -- fashion, music, entertainment," says Richie.
"Party promotion's just a stepping-stone," Justin says. "Clubs are good for networking," says Shawn. "Stuff happens there."
But blowing up isn't just about becoming famous; even president of the United States won't do -- "Not enough cream in it," one boy says. It's about becoming famous for the right careers -- as D.J.'s, V.J.'s, rappers, music producers, filmmakers, actors, or the ultimate, as everything at once, with all the glamour and power for which Puff Daddy is such a touchstone. Sean "Puffy" Combs modeled himself after Russell Simmons -- the original hip-hop mogul -- who modeled himself after David Geffen and Quincy Jones. Starting out as a party promoter, he amassed a close-to-$100 million fortune by the time he was 25, and that looks pretty good. The dream is infused with hip-hop -- capitalism set to a rap beat.
"Even when it was graffiti on the street, we wanted to make a name for ourselves," says Semu Namakajo, 18, "and now that we're older, we're searching for the right formula to do it again." Semu's a D.J. (known as DJ Reach), and he's been holding down internships at record labels, "like Puffy did." He says he plans to start his own label one day. "I know I'm gonna blow up -- it's just a question of when."
If their self-confidence sometimes sounds like loopy bravado, it's based on a shrewd insight: As young, cutting-edge New Yorkers, they know they have something to sell -- their taste. "I know exactly what people want when it comes to style," says Justin. So "why should we buy somebody else's shit when we can make our own shit and sell it ourselves?" says Richie.
"We're the new shit, we're it," crows Ryan Jacklone, one of Justin-Shawn-and-Richie's crew -- and, by the way, one of the world's most famous in-line skaters. "The old shit is over. We have the talent, and we have the ideas. We'll be like, 'This dude is better than that dude,' and that's the truth, and you'll believe it -- we'll basically change everybody's opinion for the rest of life."
"Exactly," says Justin solemnly. "That's it."
"Little Justin" -- quirky, jaunty, with his gold corn braids shooting like funk antennae through his blue bandanna -- moves through the crowd, grinning. "Whassup?" "I'm chillin' " -- everybody seems to know him. ("He's got charisma," says Steven Lewis, the director of Life, who just a couple of years ago had to throw him out of the club for fighting and "being a pain in the ass." But then "I saw he was a good kid," Lewis says. Now he's one of the people trying to help Justin "blow up.")