At Craig Mack’s lowest point, he turned on the radio.
What he heard wasn’t a rap song, a reminder of his multi-platinum past, but rather the preaching of controversial “cult” leader Ralph Gordon Stair.
“I knew it was God talking to me,” Mack said.
His life, after that, was forever changed.
The radio sermon led Mack to join Stair’s Overcomer Ministry in Walterboro, S.C., where he spent his final years under the spell of a man who now faces sexual misconduct charges involving four alleged victims. and has been accused of behavior ranging from inappropriate touching to rape.
Mack’s turbulent life, the so-called cult and Stair’s alleged predatory behavior are interwoven in a documentary by photojournalist Andrew Theodorakis.
“When God Comes,” which began filming before Mack’s death in March 2018, explores a question that has plagued people closest to him: how could one man so dramatically change a rapper star’s life?
Mack, who grew up in Brentwood, L.I., rose to fame in the mid-1990s as the first star of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment label. His 1994 hit “Flava In Ya Ear” went platinum and sold 1,000,000 copies in the U.S. His songs “Funk Da World” and “Get Down" were certified gold by the Record Industry Association of America.
A remix of “Flava In Ya Ear” featured other up-and-coming stars on the label including Brooklyn-born rapper Notorious B.I.G., whose given name was Christopher Wallace.
In an interview with Combs — then known under the pseudonym Puffy — around the time of the label’s launch, he calls both Mack and Biggie his “foundation” and “life."
“We all need each other to live and breathe. That’s the way we treat each other,” he said with a hand on each of their shoulders.
As Biggie’s star rose, Mack struggled. In 1995 Mack split from the label. His second album ″Operation: Get Down" in 1997 would be his last. It failed to produce a hit, and Mack largely withdrew from public view.
In 2011, Mack was flipping through radio stations with a gun on his lap, contemplating killing someone after a music deal soured. It was then that he heard Stair.
A video that surfaced the following year showed Mack standing beside Stair, who had his arm around the rapper’s shoulders. “The evil tried to steal your soul, but we took care of that,” Stair said in the video. “Thank you, Lord. Praise the Lord,” Mack replied.
Mack’s longtime pal, Alvin Toney, believes the rapper’s vulnerability allowed Stair to influence him.
“If you’re going through a lot of things, and things aren’t going your way, it’s easy for somebody to maneuver your mind,” Toney told the Daily News. “You hear somebody say a certain thing and you think that’s the way to go.”
Stair, 85, has described himself as the “Last Day Prophet of God.” He told The News in a telephone interview that he was “a man who God raised up to be a leader to his people.” He called his relationship with Mack “beautiful.”
“Craig loved me, man. And I loved him,” Stair told The News.
Mack appeared to idolize Stair, even after the preacher was accused of sexual assault.
“Jesus was hated, too. They killed him and then they hung him on a cross,” Mack told Theodorakis.
In December 2017, Stair was charged with criminal sexual conduct, criminal sexual conduct with a minor, kidnapping, burglary and assault. He was released on $75,000 cash bond. No trial date has been set. Stair is barred from contacting his alleged victims and no children are allowed in the compound.
Stair was accused in 2002 of raping two young women. He was arrested on two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and pleaded guilty to two lesser counts of misdemeanor assault and battery. He was sentenced and served time.
Stair told The News, “I’m denying that I ever sexually assaulted these girls. And if hugging them is assault in the minds of people, there’s nothing I can do about that.”
“The Bible tells me to touch my people, put my hands on them. It says to hug ‘em, touch ‘em, love ‘em. That’s all I was doing.” He said he often had sex with some members, but said it was consensual.
Theodorakis said that during filming it became apparent that Stair held sway over his members.
Jasmine Mitchell, who was a member from the time she was 6 until she was 17, was interviewed for the film. She told The News, “[The members] think he was the most amazing thing in the world. He’s like one step below God, pretty much.” said Mitchell, who left the group about five years ago.
Cult expert Rick Allen Ross told Theodorakis in the film that if a person in an authoritative position is brainwashing followers, consent is not possible. “When Stair speaks to people, its God speaking to them,” Ross said. “Now if God wants to have sex with you, you’re going to cooperate.”
Toney recalled that Mack would often defend Stair. “I said, ‘Craig, you know, he’s getting these allegations of he’s touching little kids,’” Toney said. “Craig said until proven guilty, he’s not against him. That’s what Craig’s always said to me: until you prove him guilty, there’s nothing I can say," Toney said.
While Mack didn’t live on the ministry’s secluded compound, his home was close enough that he attended services.
Mack died of heart failure on March 12, 2018. Toney saw him about a month before. He recalled Mack looking like a shell of the man he had befriended.
“It was not the Craig Mack that I used to know, the wiry Craig Mack. I could feel he was going through a mental challenge, and I believe he was going through a physical challenge,” Toney said. He worried that Mack wasn’t getting medicine to ease his pain and speculated that perhaps the ministry didn’t believe in pain medication.
Stair denies discouraging Mack from taking medication. “We took Craig to the doctor,” he told The News. “We went all over town finding out what’s wrong with him. We don’t stop people from going. How crazy would I be?”
And Toney remembered his friend’s unwavering reverence for Stair.
“He talked great about him,” Toney said. “He talked almost like he was the Messiah.”
Mitchell said beliefs like that were common among the members. While she slowly grew to think of Stair as a hypocrite, it was only until after she left the ministry she was able to see the group for what she says it was: a dictatorship.
“Everything’s so perfect from the outside world, but it’s really a messed up place,” she said.
Both Toney and Theodorakis remembered that when they visited the compound not a single person said a negative thing about Stair.
During Stair’s phone interview with the Daily News, he was surrounded by a chorus of members from the ministry.
At one point, he said he’d let them speak for themselves:
“Which one of you people are forced to come here?” he asked them.
“No one,” they emphatically responded.
“Which one of you are forced to stay here?” he pressed.
“None of us,” they answered in unison.
“Which one of you, if you want to leave, we send you out today?”
“All of us.”