People often forget that the hip-hop legacy of Long Island, New York is as rich as any of the Big Apple’s five boroughs. In the ‘80s pioneering artists from Long Island including EPMD, Public Enemy, De La Soul and Rakim paved the way for a new generation of artists hailing from what was dubbed the Boondocks’. Even in his early days as MC EZ, you could see that Craig Mack was not only a student of hip-hop, he was directly influenced by the artists bred from his immediate surroundings.
In what is now looked back upon as the golden days, there was a process that helped educate and develop aspiring rappers long before they popped up on our screens or blasted through our radio speakers. Beginning as a teenager, the young Craig Mack—assuming the MC EZ moniker—joined forces with his fellow emcee Troup and set out for stardom, finding early success in securing a deal with Fresh Records. Without a major push but possessed of a fresh sound and energy, the young tandem was able to create at least two bangers that circulated fairly well amongst the underground hip-hop circuit of New York’s Tri-State area: “Get Retarded” and “Just Rhymin.’”
Perhaps more importantly, Craig Mack soon gained the attention of his then label-mates and Brentwood, Long Island natives EPMD, who invited Craig on tour during the early ‘90s as a road manager. Still unknown to the general public, Craig seized this opportunity as a humble grooming process, in which according to friends, he did everything from assisting DJ Scratch with equipment and jumping into battle ciphers alongside Das EFX.
Seizing his behind-the-scenes role on the Hit Squad Tour as an apprenticeship, Craig Mack would be introduced to hip-hop’s broader audience as an integral piece of Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs’ formulation of Bad Boy Records in 1993 and into 1994. Those of us who were paying closer attention at the time may recall Combs’ clever “B.I.G. Mack” promotional campaign, in which he paired Craig Mack with Bad Boy’s other shining star, the Notorious B.I.G.
Now receiving major label backing and access to stellar production, a budget, and exposure, Craig Mack collaborated with famed producer Easy Mo Bee to create a timeless song that in many ways defined 90’s hip-hop. “Flava In Ya Ear” won listeners from the onset with its bass thumping beat, big voice and animated bars like, “Just like Uniblab / robotic kicking flab / my flavor bidder badder, chitter-chatter / madder than the Mad Hatter / I bet you my shit, come out phatter / I got the data to turn your body into anti-matter.” By this time, Craig had developed a rhyming style that was wholly distinct, but also informed by the lineage of Long Island emcees. Indeed his rhymes were humorous in the vein of Biz Markie, boisterous a la Busta Rhymes, and capable of introspective moments like those that Public Enemy’s Chuck D was well known for.
While “Flava In Ya Ear” was ubiquitously popular in 1994, even earning Craig the coveted “Single of the Year” honor during The Source Magazine’s inaugural awards in 1995, it was the remixed version that undeniably reshaped the culture. Maybe it was Craig’s time around EPMD that helped him appreciate the importance of the “posse cut,” but “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix)” was colossal on all cylinders and redefined the term “remix” altogether. B.I.G.’s verse helped set him apart as a premier lyricist, the selection of LL Cool J kept Craig relevant to a new consumer base, and the song introduced Busta Rhymes as a formidable solo artist.
Far from a “one hit wonder,” Craig’s debut album Project: Funk the World (1994) has endured as a very listenable album, with heavy production from Easy Mo Bee. Standout tracks include “Get Down” which also spun a Q-Tip produced remix, and “When God Comes.” Never afraid to be himself and shed light on his many dimensions, “When God Comes” takes a less frequented religious route as Mack warns his contemporaries, “We all need to be down on our knees / beggin' please / Lord help us shake this disease / and emcees don't take these rhymes for no joke / Craig Mack’s pen is mightier than the sword you stroke / so take heed to the words that I send / cause on Judgement Day every man must attend.”
Although Craig Mack never recreated the magic of his world renowned single “Flava In Ya Ear” or its remix, he contributed a very impressive catalog of music. A noteworthy career highlight was “It’s Alright” featuring Sista, which featured an early appearance by Missy Elliott and was produced by Black Moon’s Evil Dee for the Dangerous Minds soundtrack. His sophomore album Operation: Get Down released in 1997 allowed him to work with big names like Eric B., who served as one of the LP’s executive producers along with Mark Morales a.k.a. Prince Markie Dee of the Fat Boys.
Craig Mack managed to create one of hip-hop’s most unique yet unsung stories of a talented kid from Long Island who unselfishly used his gifts to open doors for more recognizable names in the industry. He was akin to Bad Boy Records’ Pro Bowl offensive tackle, whose name is often forgotten, but whose broad shoulders helped establish one of hip-hop’s greatest dynasties.
Craig Mack’s rhymes are unforgettable and his distinctive voice can never be duplicated. Another life lost way too soon in this hip-hop culture, his musical legacy will be celebrated and his energy will be sorely missed by friends and fans alike.