Years later, Sermon would join forces with Parrish Smith to form the famed rap duo, EPMD, where his old friend, Mack, would join the tandem on tour in the early '90s, before ultimately signing with Puff Daddy's Bad Boy. Billboard spoke with Sermon about his friendship with Mack, producing his new album, and why the '90s star refused to reveal his health issues out to the public.
How did you and Craig first link up? Was it before the EPMD Tour in the early '90s?
Well, me and Craig knew each other way before the music game. Me and Craig used to hang out when we were in junior high school and in high school. Basically, we were at the end of 10th grade and Craig Mack's mom used to drop him off to my grandmother's crib. Me and Craig used to listen to Red Alert and Mr. Magic and to the new hip-hop jams that was coming out that weekend 'cause back then, some hip-hop stuff only came on at night on the weekends. So, we used to hear Public Enemy's "Public Enemy Number 1," Biz Markie's "Nobody Beats the Biz" and Rakim's "Eric B. for President" in the living room. We'd be going crazy like, "Oh my God." After school was done, that was maybe around a couple of years later, maybe two or three years later, me and Parrish made our demo. Then, EPMD became EPMD. When it happened, we took Craig Mack on tour. So me and Craig were friends way before EPMD got famous.
Do you remember the first time you heard Craig rap?
This is the illest part -- this is so ill that nobody is going to understand this -- my first battle rap was with Craig Mack. That's how we got cool, I battled Craig. I battled Craig at a some kid's downstairs basement party. That was my first battle rap ever. It was me and Craig Mack.
What was your first impression of him when he was rapping against you?
Oh, I thought he was ill even though he lost, though [laughs]. I thought he was ill. I meet my DJ, Diamond J, that night, too. Diamond happened to be dj'ing that night and Craig Mack used a beat-boxer. I think that's where he messed up at because, of course, the music was way louder and Diamond J had gave me a great beat to rhyme over, because it was funky. So, I had the momentum that night.
I would have never thought that.
Nobody knows. There's a flyer out there I've been trying to find. There's a flyer that says, "Erick Sermon and Craig Mack Rap Battle 1985," or whatever. There's a flyer and I want to find it so bad.
What's something the fans might not know about Craig in terms of his grind in the booth, because you know, the young kids might just know him for only "Flava in Ya Ear"?
You know, I won't sit here and make something up, but I never really got a chance to work with Craig Mack because EPMD broke up. You see, Craig Mack's plan was to go home, sign with our label that we were under in Sleeping Bag Records, and he had this first song called "Get Retarded." What people don't know is Craig Mack was doing this to be down with The Hits Squad. When we did all that, the group broke up. So, everybody that knows Craig and tells the stories, they'll tell you that Craig wanted to be with The Hits Squad, but it didn't happen and he signed to Bad Boy. When he got to Bad Boy, he wasn't that happy, but it was no other choice.
I thought you guys worked together recently on your new record "Come Thru" with him, Method Man and Mr. Cheeks.
I'm working on a new Craig album and what happened was that I was already doing this for my friend. Like, I know it took a long time but my boys finally came through. I hooked up with a kid named Lenny Ace, who recorded "Flava in Ya Ear." He was the engineer of Bad Boy back then. He happened to come through and was like, "Eric, I got some Craig Mack vocals. I got about 10 records worth." So, my friend went down to see Craig Mack -- Alvin Toney, who signed him to Bad Boy. So, Alvin has the last interview that happened with Craig Mack last month. Two hours worth. He has it. So he went down there, they went to go eat and there was a barbershop. Craig got a cut and he wanted to tell his story. He finally called five months ago and was like, "Eric, I'm not feeling well." I said, "What you mean?" He was like, "Yo. I'm dying. I only have 25 percent of my heart. So, he called me, Alvin, Funkmaster Flex talked to him, Biz Markie talked to him, Eric B talked to him. About eight of us talked to him. So, we all knew his situation. We all tried to get down there, but he was embarrassed of the situation and wouldn't let us come down there. Eventually, my boy Alvin got down there. He went down there, they pulled out guns on him and the whole nine. Luckily, Craig Mack came out on time and they ended up getting the two hour interview.
Last summer, I spoke to Puff I asked him about Craig Mack deciding not take part in the Bad Boy Reunion Tour. Are you saying it was his health more than his religious beliefs?
It was Craig Mack's health. He couldn't let nobody know nothing until he called his friends that he went to school with and that he grew up with and that was us. Nobody knew nothing, except us. When it was time for him to call and tell us, he did.
I know you said you were working on a Craig Mack album on Twitter. Do you have enough material for it to be finished?
Oh yeah, I'm finished. It's crazy because it's like, the Method Man [single] was a warm-up to get to [the fans]. The record wasn't even finished, I was just seeing how I was going to pull it together. I was just putting that together to see what it was, but again, that was just random vocals that I had that we're coming with. It just happened that he didn't get a chance to hear it or see it happen.
Lastly, how would you describe Craig Mack's legacy in rap?
I think that rapping was secondary because people didn't really know how dope Craig Mack was and all they heard was the "Ah! Boy!" and the way that his delivery was, but lyrically, he was about to be something. I can put him up with the whole hit squad. When you hear the stuff that he did, you're going to be like, "Oh, why didn't we get to hear that." Craig wasn't in a good place. He was going through stuff and that's how he got to [South] Carolina in the first place. He happened to be riding in his car and back then, we'd play radio and he flipped the AM station by mistake and that man was talking. That's how he got to Carolina. That's a story you're going to hear from me first and not nobody else. It came from Alvin. That's how the whole thing went down. He was going through something really, really bad. If you noticed everybody that spoke about Craig on social media, they've said one thing: He was a beautiful person. That's the one thing I would want everybody to know about him. That boy was walking love. The real Craig Mack was really a nice person. He has his ways here and there, but the overall person, was a beautiful person.