It would be a terrible shame if the entire legacy of Craig Mack, who passed away last week at a way-too-young age, boiled down to the “Flava In Ya Ear” remix. For one thing, “Flava In Ya Ear” was already a massive song before Puff Daddy corralled a bunch of Mack’s peers into jumping on that beat and turning it into an event. For another, Mack’s delivery — antic, garbled, gravelly, fully capable of projecting both fun and hardness without compromising either — had something to do with why New York was resurgent in the first place. He was a purely original stylist, creative and energetic and tough. When Diddy brought him back for G-Dep’s “Special Delivery” remix seven years later, it was an absolute rush of goodwill. We loved that guy, and he never should’ve been gone in the first place. And then he was gone again. That, sadly, is a part of Mack’s legacy, too. He’s the guy who helped launch Bad Boy and who was then jettisoned from the rocket as it was hitting the upper atmosphere. He was a casualty of a cruel music industry long before he died.
Mack’s story is a rich one, even if it was way too short. But in the week since his death, I, like a whole lot of other people, keep coming back to that “Flava In Ya Ear” remix. Because that was a moment. And it was a moment that inaugurated a fun trend: The posse cut remix, where a whole mob of rappers attempt to best each other over an already-existing song, each new hit feeling like a potential Marvel crossover event. Years afterward, Diddy released an album called We Invented The Remix. He didn’t. The posse-cut remix already existed. The Native Tongues Decision version of De La Soul’s “Buddy” might’ve perfected the idea way back in 1989, and “Flava In Ya Ear” remix star Busta Rhymes had already carved his name in history with what he did on a Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” remix. But “Flava In Ya Ear” still changed things.
A lot of it was the video. A young Hype Williams filmed all the rappers on the song in crisp black-and-white against a flat white background, putting all of them in slow-motion, making everyone involved immediately iconic. Visually, that video completely recontextualized East Coast rap, making it stand out from the sun and barbecues and low-riders of the West Coast competition. People are still ripping it off. But something else was new, too. On “Buddy” or “Scenario,” the rappers were all friends, and they seemed to be having fun bouncing off of each other. On “Flava In Ya Ear,” they certainly didn’t hate each other, but you can sense that they’re in competition.
Everyone had to deal with Biggie, whose opening verse was near-perfect in its grandiose menace and its economical put-downs: “You’re mad cuz my style you’re admiring / Don’t be mad, UPS is hiring.” Biggie was new on the scene, making his name mostly on fearsome recognition and on one soundtrack single (“Party & Bullshit,” still great). But with that verse, he was instantly a legend. Nobody could do what Biggie did like Biggie did it, so they all had to find different ways to approach the problem. Mack, who had the misfortune of following Biggie, went with a slurry stutter-step, and his own style was what saved him. Busta went with the animated silliness that he’d been dialing up ever since “Scenario.” LL Cool J, by contrast, went for deep calm, giving nothing but incredibly smooth gibberish. (“Blowticious” still means whatever you want it to mean. Also, the “Tongue-kiss a piraña/ Electrocute a barracuda” stuff foreshadowed LL’s role in Deep Blue Sea.) Rampage The Last Boy Scout seemed to realize he was lucky to be there.
After that, posse-cut remixes weren’t that common, but they always felt like events. The first that could really compete with “Flava In Ya Ear” came from the Bay Area, where the group Luniz, who’d scored a transcendent hit with “I Got 5 On It,” made things even better, recruiting local all-stars Spice 1, Dru Down, Richie Rich, Shock G, and an on-fire E-40 to elevate it even further into eternal regional-anthem status. They even used a slightly-similar white background in the video. They lived up to it.
But for whatever reason, the ’90s posse-cut remix felt more like a New York phenomenon. Maybe it was the tension inherent in the city’s music. It just seemed that much more urgent that everyone outrap everyone else. Or maybe it’s my own regional bias. Growing up in Baltimore, I was just going to hear the New York versions more than the ones from anywhere else. Whatever the case, I remain forever drawn to LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya” remix, also from 1995. That one was a launching pad, with young-and-hungry Keith Murray, Prodigy, Fat Joe, and a debuting Foxy Brown all bringing cinematic grime before LL came in with booming authority, someone stealing his own song. The video, with its dusty noir intensity, remains one of the best of its time.
The exact opposite was the Ladies Night remix of Lil Kim’s “Not Tonight,” from 1997. That one was a female-rapper summit meeting, with Angie Martinez, Da Brat, Missy Elliott, and Left Eye all hijacking one of those streamlined, bubbly Bad Boy beats. The video was a slick, colorful beach party. But even there, there was cutthroat competition at work. Someone had to win that song, and it was Da Brat.
DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” was a statement of crew solidarity even before DMX invited his whole crew onto it, so the remix isn’t the sort of competitive phenomenon that the other ones in this article are. Still, it’s bracing and exciting in the same ways, with Jadakiss and Styles P, in particular, responding to that beat by getting as nasty and guttural as they ever had. That was a putting-everyone-on-notice song, and the remix continued its mission.
By the late ’90s, the best posse cuts weren’t typically remixes. People had figured that you didn’t need to rework an original song to make something like Fat Joe’s “John Blaze” or Noreaga’s “Banned From TV.” You didn’t even need a chorus. You just needed to find five or six of the world’s hardest rappers, and you needed to put them over a ridiculously hard beat. Still, I think those songs had some of the same breathless cool of “Flava In Ya Ear” — a chemistry that would be lost in the next decade, when every posse cut, remix or otherwise, seemed to be a product of emailed files. (Maybe it’s just my age, but I can’t get anywhere near as excited about Lil Pump’s eight-minute, seven-rapper “Gucci Gang” remix, for instance.) “Flava In Ya Ear” was a great thing that led to a lot of other great things. It’s not Craig Mack’s only legacy, but it’s still a hell of a legacy in itself.
1. Denzel Curry – “Uh Huh” (Feat. IDK)
Denzel Curry could’ve probably had a whole career with the kind of fuck-you-up shouting that he does on this song — at least if he didn’t destroy his voice completely in the first six weeks. As someone who loves aggressive ’90s-style shout-rap — see above — I love the shit out of this.
2. Flatbush Zombies – “U&I” (Feat. Dia)
Flatbush Zombies are good at conjuring vibes. It’s mostly what they do. So I was pretty unprepared to hear Meechy Darko get extremely real on this one. He should do more of that. He’s even better at that than he is at conjuring vibes.
3. Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – “Zero”
And to think: An entire generation of indie dorks spent a decade or so attempting to channel the majestic simplicity of old-timey video-game music, only to have a couple of veteran rap dorks beat them at their own game on one single song.
4. Sheck Wes – “Do That”
A Harlem teenager who is also apparently a newly minted Kanye West protege gargles molten asphalt and only barely forms words over a beat that sounds like someone told the 2002 Kompakt Records roster to make something that would sound good in a Jeep. Of course Kanye would be into this. But I might be into this, too?
5. Don Q – “Do That”
A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s all-rapping/no-singing partner sees how well the “Bronx Drake” thing has been working out for A Boogie and attempts to conjure at least a little Bronx Drake atmosphere of his own. He also generously throws in some Bronx Offset. And it works because you can always hear the Bronx in it, even if it’s just in his accent.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Future x "Use Me" (HNDRXX, 2017) pic.twitter.com/fPMp0vcj9q
— Aokiji クザン (@DukeOfZamunda) March 19, 2018