On the surface, Craig Mack’s story seems simple enough. The New York rapper, who died Monday at 46, found fame in 1994 with “Flava In Ya Ear,” the first hit from Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’s Bad Boy Records. Bad Boy would go on to write rap history by signing the Notorious B.I.G, whose album “Ready to Die” achieved multiplatinum success. By contrast, Mack’s album “Project: Funk Da World” went gold. “Flava In Ya Ear” had real success and Mack’s talent was rare, but he struggled to replicate his early success on the charts, and he eventually retired to a quiet life away from the spotlight that had briefly embraced him in the mid-1990s.
But those who knew him best say he had abandoned a pursuit of earthly gain for a South Carolina religious community.
In 2012, a YouTube video surfaced showing Mack worshiping at the Overcomer Ministry commune, a hyper-conservative religious outfit in Walterboro, S.C. In the video, the group’s pastor, Ralph Gordon Stair (known as Brother R.G. Stair), can be seen leading a worship service, addressing rumors that Mack had joined their community.
“Craig Mack is dead!” Gordon Stair says to the congregation, to murmurs of approval. “We have somebody that used to be Craig Mack, and he didn’t join anything! God joined him!”
Stair then can be seen inviting a man identifying himself as Mack, who is seated in one of the pews, to speak for himself. “What did you do when you was in the world?” he asks.
“Wickedness,” Mack responds.
“And what are you doing now?”
Mack then starts waving his hands and is joined by his fellow worshipers as Stair returns to his pulpit.
It was an unexpected place for Mack, a Suffolk County, N.Y., native who idolized the likes of LL Cool J and Run DMC in his youth. He was writing lyrics by the time he was 12 and caught a lucky break when he ran into Combs outside a nightclub. According to the New York Daily News, Combs told Mack he’d sign him if he could freestyle to Mary J. Blige. Mack delivered, and a partnership was born that slowly faded until Mack officially departed Bad Boy in 1995. He released another album in 1997 that failed to find an audience but joined Combs for the 2002 hit “I Need a Girl Part 1.” Then Mack disappeared from the public eye altogether until the ministry video was posted to YouTube.
Overcomer Ministry and Stair have a history marked by legal trouble and abuse. According to the Post and Courier, Stair was arrested in 2002 on two counts of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree after being accused by two women of improperly touching them. As part of a plea agreement, Stair pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of assault and battery and was sentenced to two 30-day jail sentences with credit for time already served. Stair was arrested again in December of last year on an array of charges: three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and single counts of assault with the intent to commit criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, second-degree assault, first-degree burglary, and third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor. The future of Overcomer Ministry has been shaky since, although it has maintained a limited radio presence.
Mack’s presence during the ministry’s legal troubles are difficult to pin down. The New York Daily News spoke with a former congregant who said that Mack “identified with the church and was associated with it” but did not live in the commune. In 2017, Combs spoke with Billboard about Mack, who had turned down an offer to join a Bad Boy reunion tour. “I don’t think anybody was disappointed,” Combs said of Mack’s decision.
“In this game, man, people don’t realize the music industry only has a 1 percent rate ratio, so sometimes it’s very stressful and it brings you only to places that you can go to and should go to, which is God,” Combs told Billboard. “We can respect that because if any of us is still here, we’d have to go to him, too. Sometimes, people can’t walk back and forth in both worlds.”
Mack hadn’t disappeared from the recording studio entirely. According to Rolling Stone, he had been asked by Erick Sermon along with Method Man and Mr. Cheeks for an upcoming single from Sermon’s new album called “Come Through.” Sermon tweeted that he was “devastated” to hear of Mack’s death.
LL Cool J also tweeted his condolences, saying, “It was a pleasure to know you & rock with you. You $tepped away from the game & did it your way.. I always respected that.”
Alvin Toney, who produced Mack’s debut, told the Daily News that he’d seen Mack just last week, visiting him at the building where Overcomer Ministry met. “He was prepared for whatever comes, to go home to the Lord,” Toney said. “He was prepared to do that. He wasn’t scared. He was ready.”
“Nobody got to understand his story,” Toney said. “I wanted the world to know the talent he had. It was something I wanted people to enjoy, but it was cut short because he was very religious and wanted to go to church.”