Happy 25th Anniversary to Craig Mack’s debut album Project: Funk Da World, originally released September 20, 1994.
For better or for worse, Bad Boy Records was the face of popular hip-hop during the mid to late ’90s, and even a bit during the ’00s. The label is alternatively hailed by some for helping to bring about the acceptance of hip-hop as a genre and reviled by others for corrupting the music’s core values in the process.
In that context, it’s thoroughly bizarre that Craig Mack was once one half of the label’s public face and the initial catalyst for the label’s success. Project: Funk Da World, released 25 years ago, was the work of an artist who, in his early days, was vehemently against creating anything that compromised “true” hip-hop music. It’s a largely non-commercial and often inaccessible album that seems designed to go against the grain of what was “popular” at the time.
Long Island resident Mack had gotten his start back in the late ’80s, going by the name MC EZ. As a member of the duo MC EZ and Troup, he released the underground track and minor hit “Get Retarded” in 1988 on Sleeping Bag Records. Things stalled with Sleeping Bag, but Mack continued to have a strong relationship with label-mates and fellow Strong Island natives EPMD and their camp; for years Mack worked as a roadie for the group on their tours.
In the early ’90s, Mack determined he wanted to pursue a music career again and recorded a demo that his manager, Alvin Toney, began shopping to labels. Eventually Toney connected him to Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, who was in the early stages of setting up Bad Boy through Uptown Records. The two met outside of a club, where Mack kicked him a freestyle. Puff was so impressed that he offered him a deal on the spot, making him the first artist signed to Bad Boy. Mack made his initial appearance using his real name on the remix to Mary J. Blige’s “You Don’t Have to Worry,” introducing the world to his unique voice and rhyme style.
There will always be invariable comparisons between Mack and Biggie Smalls, due to the fact that the pair were Bad Boy’s flagship artists. In a masterstroke of hip-hop marketing, Puffy promoted the “Big M.A.C.K.” mixtape, an extended sampler that features six songs apiece from each artist, often housed in a custom version of the clam-shell packaging used by McDonalds for their signature burger. The two toured and hit radio stations. Eventually, their albums dropped a week apart from each other: First Biggie’s, then Mack’s.
However, Biggie and Mack were completely different as emcees. Biggie famously created vivid cinematic story rhymes steeped in psychological pain and pathos, while Mack was a talented battle rhymer who kicked robotic, futuristic, George Jetson crazy verses on whatever track he graced. But while Biggie’s Ready To Die album symbolizes the label’s firm grip on East Coast hip-hop, Mack’s early success, according to Toney, “lit the match for Bad Boy.”
The marriage of Mack and Puff Daddy/Bad Boy was imperfect from the start. Mack was a true school b-boy who bristled at Puff’s polished demeanor, never taking his suit-and-tie image seriously. Meanwhile, Puff was always trying to push Mack to record more accessible material as singles from the project. As anyone who’s watched Notorious can tell you, Puff was a firm believer in generating singles for the album that could garner the widest appeal, and that the “real hip-hop” material should be reserved for the album tracks. But throughout the creative process, Mack constantly pushed back upon any attempts to cross over.
It’s this “clash” that makes Funk Da World such an interesting and ultimately successful album. The truth is that both of their instincts were right. Though by all accounts it was like pulling teeth, Mack eventually compromised a bit and recorded the type of “hit” songs that Puffy was looking for. Sort of. Though none of the album’s three singles have the broad appeal of say, “Juicy” or “Big Poppa,” Mack’s foray onto the charts hold up as some of the best releases of the era and are some of the strongest tracks ever released via Bad Boy.
By the same token, Mack’s strict adherence to true school values was the driving force behind much of the album’s material. The portions of the album produced by Mack himself lend the album its distinctive character and make it a unique entry within the Bad Boy canon. The label never released another album quite like it.
Some of Puff’s ideas for Mack worked out better than anyone could imagine. According to many, it was Puff who brought in Easy Mo Bee to produce almost half of Funk Da World. The producer had submitted a beat CD to the label, which included tracks that turned into signature songs of Bad Boy’s early days. One of the last beats on the CD was the track that would become “Flava In Ya Ear,” which was quickly earmarked both by Puff and Mack’s crew as perfect for the emcee. And yet, Mack was initially hesitant to rap over the track, insisting that he wasn’t feeling it. Fortunately he relented, possibly due to being given an ultimatum by Puff.
“Flava in Ya Ear” is as iconic as it is unique. The beat is as weird as it is funky, composed of what sounds like slightly offbeat horn notes, backed by occasional squeals. But in actuality, the “horn” sample is a couple of superbly chopped and re-freaked guitar licks from O’Donnel Levy’s version of “It’s Only Just Begun.”
Audiences experienced Mack’s uniqueness as an emcee from the jump, as within the first four bars he’s referencing obscure robots from the Jetsons and threatening to transform wack emcees’ bodies into antimatter. Switching up his flow from molasses slow to rapid-fire and back again, he’s able to flip “bwoy” all the time and pull off lines like, “You’re crazy like that glue / to think that you could outdo my one-two that's sick like the flu.” Later, Puff drafted Biggie, Rampage, LL Cool J, and Busta Rhymes to record verses for the song’s remix, which became a ubiquitous smash and the rock solid foundation for Bad Boy’s takeover.
“Get Down” is a strong entry as the album’s second single. Musically, Easy Mo Bee cobbles together a reasonably busy track (though comparatively Spartan in relation to Mack’s own productions) anchored by a funky, yet muffled, guitar groove. Mack’s vocal performance relies more on the stylistic flourishes that he adds to his delivery, rather than his overall content. Regardless, he continues to hold it down creatively, rapping, “I back up the funk that I bring with unknown to man slang / With bigger bite than the Devil fang.”
“Making Moves With Puff” is the most conventional track on Funk Da World, but also one of its strongest. It’s also probably the best song that Puff Daddy’s name has ever been directly associated with (as in appeared on). Rashad Smith handles the production, crafting a light, airy track based around a guitar/harp sample and hard-hitting drums, while DJ Four Five (a.k.a. K La Boss, who deejayed for EPMD on their first album) provides deft scratches. Puffy’s ad-libs and hook were probably what Suge Knight was thinking about when he railed against CEOs “being all up in the videos” during the 1995 Source awards, but they never distract from Mack’s raps. Mack provides the verbal gymnastics, flexes his tongue with dexterity as he raps, “Rhyme flipper, flip-a-rhyme-a-ripper. Rip-a-rhyme-double-dipper while you talking on my zipper.”
Other tracks like “That Y’all,” “Funk Wit Da Style,” and the title song are actively non-commercial when compared to the three aforementioned singles. The beats sound thick and muddy, yet busy with a cacophony of samples, so they sound like EPMD by way of Fear of Black Planet-era Public Enemy. Mack can be borderline indecipherable at times, as he lays down his gooey flow over a continuous jumble of Slick Rick or EPMD vocals and grungy horns and keyboards.
Other tracks fall into the category of straight-up boom-bap hip-hop while still being more conventionally constructed. On the self-produced “Real Raw,” Mack takes the “Theme From Days of Our Lives” and transforms it into a gritty hip-hop anthem, as he slows down the sample and pairs it with the drum break from Skull Snaps’ “It’s a New Day.” Mack and Mo Bee also show their chemistry outside of the album’s singles on “Mainline,” a fast-paced jam powered by a neck-snapping drum track. Mack fires off abstract imagery through his syrupy flow to create a surreal b-boy centric track.
Throughout the album’s second half, Mack positions himself as a righteous warrior, put on this planet to ensure rappers respect the culture. He comes at this angle from a more confrontational approach on “Judgment Day,” rapping, “I don't means to boast but the most is me your host, on post, kicking flav ’til they ghost.” But on “When God Comes,” he takes a fire and brimstone angle, warning emcees that they need to straighten up their rhymes and get right spiritually, lest they receive holy retribution.
It should come as no surprise that Funk Da World was a one-time collaboration between Mack and Bad Boy. According to those close to Mack, Puffy got tired of dealing with Mack and his seeming refusal to tailor his music to garner wider appeal. The relationship between Mack and Biggie apparently also strained, due to what Big perceived as attitude issues and antics during interviews and live shows. According to DJ Four Five, the friction cost Mack an appearance on Ready To Die; the plan was for Mack to be the guy on “Warning” who pages Biggie at 5:46 a.m. to let him know about the intricate plot against him. Instead, Biggie invented “Pop From the Barber Shop” and rhymed those portions himself.
Mack split off from Bad Boy and aligned himself with Suge Knight friend/affiliate Eric B., and released Operation: Get Down (1997). It’s universally regarded, correctly, as an awful album. There are many, many reasons that it didn’t work, not the least of which is the absence of Easy Mo Bee. Furthermore, being that Mack seemed so resolute in not “selling out” just a few years before, hearing him rap over baby soft R&B tracks and pander to the popular trends in music at the time was painful.
A few years later, Mack released the white label single “Wooden Horse.” Produced by The 45 King, it was solid, but it sounded like an attempt to recreate the success of “Hard Knock Life,” which the latter had produced. In 2002, Mack briefly reconciled with Puffy, appearing in the video for “I Need a Girl” and dropping a verse on G-Dep’s “Special Delivery” remix. After a few other unsuccessful attempts at a comeback, he all but disappeared, relocating to South Carolina to become an active member of an ultra-religious enclave. Last year, he tragically died of heart failure at the age of 47.
During the ’90s, Mack had no interest in following Puff Daddy’s roadmap to success or playing any version of the game that’s typically required to sell lots of records. And yet, Funk Da World went Gold and is still fondly remembered as one of the great albums of 1994, a year crowded with great albums. So, despite Puff Daddy and Mack being unable to make things work on a long-term level, both used each other successfully to establish the legacy of a project that’s still one of the signature releases of its era.