Dean Van Nguyen steps on stage and girls scream like he’s Keith
Puffy wasn’t fucking around. Tossed aside by former employer Uptown Records – where he helped launch the careers of hip-hop soul monarch Mary J Blige and silky R&B quartet Jodeci – as CEO of newly founded Bad Boy Records, the 24-year-old was thinking big. Big sounds, big hits and big voices.
Central to the revolution was behemoth Brooklyn rapper The Notorious BIG, who made the move from Uptown after Puff secured all completed work on what eventually would become Bad Boy’s first album release – the five star crime epic Ready to Die. But his first legitimate find as a label head was another deep-voiced New York rapper, whose blunted flow gifted Bad Boy its first hit and helped establish an archetypal sound that would firmly establish Puff as a pop culture force in the dying embers of the 20th century.
Founded in 1994, Bad Boy’s early promotional imagery was set in, of all places, a fast food restaurant. Perched behind the counter alongside Puffy was a scowling faced Big. To the bosses left was Craig Mack (“Big Mack”, get it?). That both artists received equal billing highlighted Mack’s importance to the fledgling label and, that July, his single ‘Flava In Ya Ear’ hit number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, eventually going platinum.
A stone cold classic, ‘Flava In Ya Ear’ (as well as its star-studded remix) was like a hip-hop Molotov cocktail. Built on offbeat horn stabs and crashing drums, it was a perfect showcase for Mack’s gruff baritone that, despite being positively earth shattering, sounded musical to the ear. His album Project: Funk da World – which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary – soon followed. But the record couldn’t survive Biggie’s success, and Mack became the first in a long-line of Bad Boy rappers who failed to step outside the legend’s sizeable shadow.
A Long Island native, Craig was well known and highly regarded in his local neighbourhood prior to the release of ‘Flava In Ya Ear’ and enjoyed connections with classic rap group EPMD. Having put out some music under the name MC EZ in the late eighties, his career finally began gaining some traction when he hooked up with Lenny ‘Ace’ Marrow, a producer and engineer working at Manhattan’s Legend Studios at the time. Having convinced his boss to let Mack enter the studio, Marrow oversaw the recording of the first tracks that would partially make up Project: Funk Da World.
“Me and him went in and just started recording,” remembers Marrow. “And when we recorded about five or six songs, we gave them to one of EPMD’s associates and he shopped the situation to a bunch of different labels. And everybody was banging on our door to try and sign [Craig]. So he decided to take the deal with Bad Boy. That’s how I hooked up with Bad Boy on that project. I was in on it before he came to Bad Boy, but once he signed, I just finalised what we were already working on.”
Busting out on his own, Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs was determined to make real street music, and the raw, bass-heavy sound of Mack and Marrow’s ‘That Ya’ll’, ‘Funk Wit Da Style’ and ‘Real Raw’ fit the bill. But given Combs’ background, the engineer was unconvinced he was the right fit for the young MC. “To be quite honest with you, I really didn’t even want to go to Bad Boy because if you looked at Puffy’s repertoire back then, it was a lot of dancing. It was Father MC, it was the Jodeci and all that – he was more of an R&B pop guy. And that’s not what we were, that’s not the kind of music we were doing.”
As it turned out, Marrow’s fears proved partially justified. With a number of tracks in the can from their sessions, Mack already was already deep into what would make up the completed Project: Funk Da World. But Combs wanted something that could get his burgeoning label radio play. As was the case with Biggie’s hits ‘Juicy’ and ‘Big Poppa’, which were orchestrated by Puffy, Mack was ordered to cut tracks with crossover potential. Presented with beats by producer Easy Mo Bee, the rapper gritted his teeth and selected his favourites, but wasn’t too keen on cleaning up his sound.
“We didn’t like any of those records,” says Marrow. “We were kind of on the same page as The Notorious BIG. Notorious didn’t want to do ‘Juicy’, he didn’t want to do those records. He wanted to do the stuff he was doing with [DJ] Premier and all that; he liked those hard beats. But Puff, he wanted something he could sell to radio. And he didn’t feel like we had that and he didn’t feel like Biggie had that either.” Marrow continues, “He had Easy Mo Bee come into the studio with Craig and lay down a few joints that was just a little bit more right down the middle from where we were. Craig, he bit his tongue and he went in there and recorded them. He did the best that he could and look what came out it.”
Mack’s lack of enthusiasm for Puff’s tracks was laid bare by Poke of Trackmasters in a 2012 interview with Complex . Though Easy Mo Bee was the song’s producer, Poke was in the studio during the recording session for ‘Flava In Ya Ear’ and revealed that Mack even protested when presented with the track that would later bag him a Grammy nomination.
“I’m in the Hit Factory in the small room and I’m working on something,” Poke told Insanul Ahmed. “Easy Mo Bee, Puff Daddy, and Craig Mack all walk in. Puff don’t say nothing. Easy Mo Bee says, ‘We gonna play you a record and we want you to tell us what you think.’ They play the beat to ‘Flava In Your Ear’ and I’m like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ Mo Bee was like, ‘Told you!’ to Craig Mack. “Craig Mack is like, ‘This Mickey Mouse beat man…I don’t know what the fuck I’ma do on this.’ I was like, ‘You are bugging!’ And so we had this 30 to 50 minute argument. Puff was jumping up and down kicking the walls like, ‘Nigga, if you don’t rhyme on this fucking record!’ He was going in. “Craig was like, ‘This beat is wack, I don’t know what to do on this.’ Puff is like, ‘You rap! Nigga, that’s what you do.’ And Craig is like, ‘Where’s the instruments, where’s the bass?’ We were like, ‘Nigga, you don’t feel that?’ Puff basically had to drag him in the booth kicking and screaming to get on the beat. Craig didn’t see it. But [in the end] he did it and it did what it did.”
Puffy was right. ‘Flava In Ya Ear’’s offbeat rhythm perfectly bottled Mack’s madcap, unpredictable rhyme style, while the track’s famed remix featuring Biggie, LL Cool J plus a young Busta Rhymes and future Flipmode Squad ally Rampage (which isn’t included on the album itself) turned it into a classic posse joint. With Marrow overseeing the whole project to ensure it maintained a consistent sound, Easy Mo Bee’s instrumentals on tracks like ‘Get Down’ and ‘Judgement Day’ matched Mack’s smouldering pre-Bad Boy tracks. There was no guest spots, no glitzy R&B hooks. Just some grubby boom-bap beats and Mack’s roaring voice.
Lyrical wise, the 23-year-old was a throwback, dropping pocket lyrics in batches, free of lengthy narratives and mostly shunning the violence of the era’s gangster rap. Mack was mostly rapping about what a good rapper he was, backing it up with a scattered flow that would veer from slow to fast in an instant. Sometimes he’d drop whacky lyrics just to show off. “Just like Uniblab, robotic kicking flab/My flavor be the badder chitter-chatter, madder than the Mad Hatter,” he launched into to kick off ‘Flava In Ya Ear’.
Project: Funk Da World went gold – a fine result for Mack and Marrow. But the record was critically and commercially overshadowed by Biggie’s Ready to Die, which was released just seven days earlier. “I think his album was a little more pinpoint than ours,” admits Marrow. “We were a little bit more scattered as far as selection and his was little more pinpoint. He was working with more well know producers. He had Lord Finesse, he had DJ Premier, some of the samples that Premier used were just a little bit more friendly to your ear as opposed to some of the dark stuff that we were doing, so his album held more weight that Project: Funk the World.”
Mack departed Bad Boy shortly after the album’s cycle. It was a split that, from the outside, didn’t appear to be acrimonious. “I don’t regret [leaving the label],” Mack told MTV’s Shaheem Reid in 2002. “I’m just glad that I’m with my family. What happened in ’94 and ’95 happened in ’94 and ’95, and it must’ve happened for a reason. So to see everything come back together now, it’s just a good thing and a blessing. Me and Puff both agree, we don’t care what happened in the nineties.” A flawed follow up record Operation: Get Down dropped in 1997 but Mack’s most high profile appearance since came on the remix on Bad Boy rapper G-Dep’s “Special Delivery” in 2002. Co-starring alongside Ghostface Killah and Keith Murray, the track acted as a spiritual sequel to the ‘Flava In Ya Ear’ remix.
He has since removed himself from spotlight. Videos emerged a couple years back of the rapper denouncing his former career at a religious service. According to reports by The Christian Post, the clips were shot at the Overcomer Ministry commune in Walterboro, South Carolina, with the service conducted by the controversial Pastor Ralph Gordon Stair. “Craig Mack, you know, when he first came around, he didn’t want anybody to know where he was,” Stair tells his congregation in one of the videos. “Craig Mack is dead. We have somebody that used to be Craig Mack, and he didn’t join anything. God joined him.”
Marrow confirms Mack’s departure from the music business to pursue a different lifestyle, and reveals he’s been sitting on an unreleased album recorded prior to the artist’s desertion. “I have an untitled project from him and we were actually looking to release, but during the midst of that he was like, “Yo Len, I’m about to move”. He was taking his kids down to the Carolinas and he just decided that he didn’t want to be involved and do music anymore. And I was like, ‘Yo Craig man, but I just recorded this whole freakin’ album with you, what are you talking about?’ But he told me I could do whatever I want with the work. Now that we have this 20th anniversary coming up, I was thinking of doing a free download of the work he’d done with me a few years ago, and we’re talking the early 2000s.” With Mack’s body of work thin, all unheard music would be welcome. On its own merit, the album is a minor classic, worth excavating from the crack in time it became lost in.