R.I.P. Craig Mack (1970-2018): Recalling His 15 Minutes Atop Bad Boy’s Empire

Do you remember where you were when you first heard Craig Mack’s 1994 rap classic, “Flava In Ya Ear”?

I remember being in a record store in Houston that August while visiting my best friend who lived there at the time. Neither of us had heard of Craig Mack or Bad Boy Entertainment, but I recall we both reacted as if we had just heard the best rap jam in years!

Single cover art for Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear,” released July 1994.

The song’s elements were hypnotically simple: a mid-tempo funky groove carried by that monotonous two-note horn stab that producer Easy Mo Bee had to have sampled from somewhere but whose source is still a mystery to this day. It also had that occasional clipped siren throughout that sounded like someone’s hairdryer or a Dust Buster recorded with pitch changes.

Then there was that dope-ass beat, one rumored to be a loop of an old Clyde McPhatter song called “The Mixed Up Cup” from 1970.

And while all or none of that sonic analysis may be accurate, one thing was undeniable: Craig Mack’s swagger, characterized by his layered baritone voice and that unique on-and-off-beat flow, which made him the most promising new rapper in a year full of future hip-hop superstars (DaBrat, Scarface, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and another Bad Boy artist I’ll get to in a sec, to name a few).

Not only did Craig Mack have the dopest new jam of 1994 with “Flava,” he was the premier artist on an up-and-coming new hip-hop label that was run by one of the genre’s hungriest CEO’s: Sean “Puffy” Combs (as he was known then).

When “Flava In Ya Ear” dropped in July 1994, it was the first record from Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment, the upstart NYC-based label distributed by Arista Records and one that would go on to become one of the most successful hip-hop/R&B label imprints over the next ten years. “Flava” preceded the label’s second single, The Notorious B.I.G.’s classic 2-sided hit “Juicy”/“Unbelievable,” by two weeks.

With Arista’s backing and Combs’ aggressive and streetwise marketing, both “Flava” and “Juicy” got major pushes prior to their releases. They were sometimes jointly promoted to stores, clubs, radio stations, black college homecomings, the trade press and, perhaps most credibly, the streets themselves. Bad Boy even ran fast-food themed ads announcing the “B.I.G. Mack” – an obvious amalgamation of the two rappers’ names and a play on the famous sandwich (when Arista shipped some singles to radio, they were packaged in a cardboard sandwich container mimicking that of a Big Mac).

Bad Boy bought this full-page ad in Billboard in 1994, with (from left): Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Craig Mack.

The strategy worked, and shortly after “Flava” dropped, Craig Mack’s come-up was in full effect.

“Flava” made a deceptively low chart début at the bottom spot on Billboard’s 100-position Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart in early August. Just a month later Craig Mack was in the top ten.

Craig Mack literally started from the bottom, entering at No. 100 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart before ultimately reaching the top five.

He also flew up the Hot Rap Singles chart, debuting in the top ten of that 50-position list and speeding to No. 1 in five short weeks.

Not that the charts mean everything or that Billboard’s rap charts were ever considered the true authority on which rappers had the most cred in the hip-hop community, but in this case, the public had spoken. Not only was “Flava” the No. 1 rap single by that September, but it practically spent the rest of the year there, the entire time outranking Biggie’s “Juicy,”… itself relegated to a No. 3 peak.

Even on the more mainstream Hot R&B Singles and Hot 100 (pop) charts, “Flava” was the bona-fide hit. Everywhere you went, there was that brand new Flava in ya ear!

“Flava” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Rap Songs chart in just under a month.

But even big hits don’t keep their momentum forever, and by late October with the song apparently having peaked and now losing steam, Bad Boy unleashed its life-extending trump card: a hot remix featuring Biggie, Rampage, L.L. Cool J and Busta Rhymes.

People ate up the remix even faster than the original, kicking ”Flava” to even higher heights on the charts than it peaked before (No. 4 vs. No. 7 R&B; No. 9 vs. No. 17 pop), while extending its already lengthy run at No. 1 on the Rap Singles chart (total 14 weeks at No. 1).

The remix was also important in several other ways.

First, it elevated Biggie’s status (he was given the first verse – a move that might have signaled an impending hierarchy change at the label).  It also injected some momentum into L.L. Cool J’s by-then flagging career (although I still to this day don’t understand what the hell all that jibberish was in his opening line:  “hee-shee, uh, blowticious, skeevee, delicious”).

The remix also exposed audiences to newcomers Rampage and the outlandish Busta Rhymes, the latter of whose career immediately took off afterwards.

But more importantly, it portrayed Craig Mack as curator, after all it was his tune that had galvanized all this talent, and he was still the star of this show (if you exclude the annoyingly omnipresent producer/hype man Puff Daddy).

When all was said and done, “Flava In Ya Ear” (platinum) easily outsold “Juicy” (gold) and it was thought for a minute that Craig Mack, not Biggie Smalls, was Bad Boy’s top priority artist.

And for the first few months, perhaps he actually was.

But, as the turntable turns, you never know who will end up on top in the music world, or even within the same company.

Bad Boy released both rappers’ follow-up singles in early 1995, and this time it was Biggie who would emerge victorious. His “Big Poppa” eclipsed Mack’s “Get Down” on the charts and from there it was all Biggie all the time.

Under Biggie’s immense shadow, Craig Mack eventually left Bad Boy and, after one more album on Scotti Brothers Records in 1997, left hip-hop altogether. He later gave himself to Christ and denounced the life he previously led as one of hip-hop’s most promising newcomers. He wouldn’t record another album for 20 years (last September’s The Mack World Sessions).

Craig Mack would miss out on all the riches and the spoils of Bad Boy’s high-profile existence and multi-platinum successes between 1995 and the early 2000s. His lone Bad Boy album, Project: Funk Da World (which contained “Flava In Ya Ear” and “Get Down”) would be his only gold-certified LP.

However, what he lacked in worldly goods he must have felt adequately compensated with his spiritually.  He was even shown in this videoclip giving testimony at a small church in South Carolina several years ago.

Three days ago on March 12, we lost Craig Jamieson Mack to heart failure. He died near his most recent hometown of Walterboro, SC. He was 47.

I don’t know about you, but in his memory, I’ve been kicking that once-new “Flava In Ya Ear” for the last few days as I remember Craig Mack’s brief moment on Bad Boy’s throne.  The reign may not have lasted long, but Mack’s “Flava” – both the original and the remix – always got me amped!

Still does.

In fact my head is bobbing to it now!

R.I.P. Craig Mack!