Album Review: Mobb Deep "The Infamous"
by RapJointLagos Lagos
In 1995, Havoc and Prodigy were trying to rebound from their disappointing debut album. They went into the studio and came out with a project that not only redefined their careers, it breathed life into the borough they called home.
By Paul Thompson
By the time he was 29, Herbie Hancock was already one of the best piano players on earth. This was 1969; the Chicago native had just left Miles Davis’s second Great Quintet—or rather, he’d been fired while holed up in a Rio de Janeiro hotel room, honeymooning and food-poisoned—and satisfied his contract with Blue Note. He was seven albums into a solo career and had played in countless sessions with the most celebrated jazz musicians of the era. It would be a few years before he’d bend critics’ brains with HeadHunters; in the meantime Hancock scored cigarette commercials, Standard Oil spots, and a movie.
In November of that year, NBC aired Bill Cosby’s animated special Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert, complete with songs by Hancock. Those would be collected and expanded for his first release on Warner, an album called Fat Albert Rotunda. Most of Rotunda is bright and breezy, fitting for a cartoon. The lone exception is the first song on the B-side, a subdued cut called “Jessica.” In its middle, “Jessica” is supremely laid-back—a glut of horns and some light keys like the ones you might hear right before the bar closes, tranquil and happy enough. But the song starts with an eerie piano theme that doesn’t recur until it shatters the mood around the three-minute mark, a bad dream biting at your heels.
“Jessica” is far from the most famous song on Rotunda—it’s not the one Quincy Jones would later cover or the one Pac would flip when he was living in Oakland—and Rotunda is far from the most famous Herbie Hancock record. But it stuck around in record crates from Chicago to Rio to Queens.
Skip to 1994. Though still teenagers, Albert Johnson and Kejuan Muchita—who rapped under the names Prodigy and Havoc, respectively, in a group called Mobb Deep—had reached a dead end. They were a few months removed from an album, Juvenile Hell, that sounded rote and tonally confused. Their friends didn’t play it, and when they signed autographs at record stores, employees piped in music by a different rapper from Queens. There were certainly no Cosby specials. Their record company had dropped them, and they were looking for a new deal, but wasn’t everybody?
Havoc began producing out of necessity, and he was digging for records to sample. Prodigy’s grandfather Budd Johnson had been a world-famous jazz musician, and he gave his grandson an extensive LP collection to go with the recording equipment his grandmother, one of the original Cotton Club dancers, purchased for her home in Hempstead, on Long Island. But that’s not where they found Fat Albert Rotunda.
“That was actually from my father’s record collection,” Havoc says today. “He used to DJ in the house, spin records for him and his friends.” So Havoc, alone at his mother’s place in the Queensbridge housing projects, took Rotunda, then just “Jessica,” then just that haunted piano, and finally a few choice notes, pitching and morphing them into a Satanic metronome. Spotting samples is one of the great hip-hop pastimes, but it would be decades before a message board user cracked this particular code. Record nerds had tried and failed for years to find the source of that bass line, mostly because they were looking for a bass line.
Havoc did away with everything else: the muddy calm in the middle of “Jessica,” the Technicolor of Rotunda writ large. He was left with a spare part as sharp as the scythes from their last album cover. There was a moment, sitting there alone in his mother’s apartment, when he felt dissatisfied, and almost erased the beat in progress. But friends trickled in from outside to hear what he was working on and convinced him to keep it.
“Shook Ones, Pt. II” is one of the most unmistakable songs in the rap canon. From its dedication (“To all the killers and the hundred-dollar billers … to real niggas who ain’t got no feelings”), to that siren (sampled from a song by Quincy Jones, whom Prodigy’s grandfather taught to read music), to the fact that the hi-hats are actually sampled sounds of a housing-project stove flickering awake, it has the texture of an aluminum bat hitting skull. Welcome to The Infamous.
It also marked the breakthrough for one of the greatest writers the genre would ever see. Prodigy rapped coldly and unsparingly. His introduction on “Shook Ones”—“You heard of us / Official Queensbridge murderers”—gives way to this neat little rhetorical trick. After threatening to stab you in the brain with your fractured nose bone, he quips: “You all alone in these streets, cousin,” which sounds like a direct threat, only to be stretched out into a maxim (“Every man for theyself …”). He raps about rival crews for a few bars, then circles around, again, to the second person. “I can see it inside your face / You’re in the wrong place.” This push-and-pull continues throughout P’s verse, the “you” in his bars ping-ponging from the abstract to the chillingly specific. Its very end comes with a warning.
“Take these words home and think it through Or the next rhyme I write might be about you.”
When P was an infant, he was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia, a disorder in which red blood cells, misshapen like crescent moons, trigger excruciatingly painful attacks in patients. As a child, Prodigy tried to manage the disease by sitting in sunbeams on the school bus. “I’d be in the hospital all my life, near my deathbed,” he said in a 2015 interview. “Feeling like I ain’t gonna make it. When Havoc would make these dark-ass beats, that’s exactly how I felt inside.” And so, after a handful of false starts, Mobb Deep finally dug down into the core of who they were and where they’d grown up. After ingesting all the artifacts that were left for them, and all the advice doled out at their formative studio sessions, they discarded nearly all of it—preferring to pull something straight from hell.
In the immediate wake of the Great Depression, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia established the city’s Housing Authority in an effort to move people out of decaying tenements. But much of the public housing built at this time ended up catering to effectively middle-class applicants: white people who weathered the Depression without a chequered work history or reliance on social services. These buildings also made a habit of excluding applicants on a variety of “moral” bases, like alcoholism, single motherhood, and so on. “The problem of this housing,” the urban policy and planning scholar Nicholas D. Bloom told The New York Times in 2018, “was that it was too good in many people’s eyes. The response was projects like the Queensbridge Houses.”
The Queensbridge Houses, built on a plot of land under the Queensboro Bridge right next to the East River, were bigger, denser, sparer, more brutal. Twenty-six buildings, 3,142 units. It’s still the largest public housing development in North America, and possibly in the Western hemisphere. Decades of American austerity policy left them underserviced and overpoliced, filled with crime and hardship in a self-perpetuating loop.
It’s generally accepted that hip-hop bled out of house parties in the Bronx, but by the mid-1980s, New York rap was dominated by inter- and occasionally intra-borough rivalries. In 1986 Marley Marl, a Queensbridge native, was one of the most powerful producers in the city. He enlisted his cousin MC Shan to diss another Queens rapper, LL Cool J, over allegedly stolen beats. But the B-side to that single ignited an infinitely larger feud. “The Bridge,” the people who made it maintain, was merely about the way hip-hop in Queensbridge began. But across the river, it was taken very differently.
The Bronx-based Boogie Down Productions, led by a magnetic young MC named KRS-One, believed that Shan and Marley Marl were claiming hip-hop began in Queensbridge and fired back, leading to a beef that would eventually include well over a dozen songs and involve nearly as many rappers and DJs. It became known as the Bridge Wars, and culminated in 1987 with BDP’s “The Bridge Is Over,” where one block of project buildings became a stand-in for the whole borough:
“Manhattan keeps on making it Brooklyn keeps on taking it Bronx keeps creating it And Queens keeps on faking it”
While all this was going on, Havoc was simply trying to grow up. “A lot of shootings going on,” he says of the Queensbridge he grew up in. “Drug selling and stuff like that. The music was definitely an insulation.” Havoc grew up listening to everyone in Marley’s Juice Crew, but modelled his own rhymes after the Brooklyn native Big Daddy Kane’s: tightly rehearsed, poised, and authoritative.
Havoc and Prodigy met in Manhattan, at the High School of Art and Design. Prodigy didn’t live in Queensbridge; when the two first ran into one another, he was bouncing between his mother’s place in Jersey City and that house in Hempstead that his grandmother would soon outfit with recording gear. “I thought he was pretty different because he used to wear a lot of jewelry,” Havoc says of high school P. “He had this high-top fade that was dyed a gold-blond color. He was a really interesting figure. Used to do a lot of wild things.”
The pair had mutual friends and knew that one another rapped, and were soon making demos together; they would scan the back covers of records they liked to find label addresses, then stand outside those high-rises hawking cassettes. This led to a chance meeting with a Queens superstar, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, who listened to the duo’s demo on the street and gave the teenagers much-needed encouragement and handshake introductions to label execs who mostly brushed them off.
Juvenile Hell, the album they made as actual juveniles after landing at the label 4th & B’Way, was a bitter disappointment. “You think that if you come out with a record, everybody’s gonna like it, and the rest is gonna be history,” Havoc says. “But that didn’t happen for us.” The raps are not incompetent, but are mostly anonymous and lack a discernible point of view. For example: One of the album’s two singles was a song called “Peer Pressure,” about how a promising young student from their neighborhood falls victim to the pitfalls of smoking weed, and the other was a limp would-be club track called “Hit It From the Back.” The album sold just over 20,000 copies, a failure by any measure. As this was happening, another young rapper from the same projects was being earmarked as a superstar.
Nas and Havoc were in the same preschool class, but lost touch until they were teenagers. When they were reintroduced, though, Havoc was blown away. “I remember when he used to be kicking his rhymes, when it was just us and his friends,” he says. “As soon as I heard him [I thought] he was the best lyricist I’d ever heard.”
Illmatic came out in April 1994 and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. That’s the album that record-store employees played during a sparsely attended Juvenile Hell event instead of Mobb Deep songs, as would be customary. Havoc and Prodigy were embarrassed, but did not consider quitting—they returned to Queensbridge and started demoing new songs, fishing around for a new sound. They landed on one with “Paddy Shop,” which has a bit more bounce and verve than the songs that would end up on their sophomore album, but has murder raps nearly as cold-blooded.
The demos accumulated. Havoc would make beats alone, then bring friends inside to hear them or play them out on the block. When it was time to lock down a new record contract, they got a pass from Russell Simmons back at Def Jam (he felt they cursed too much) and nearly went with an A&R they knew named Sean Combs, who was about to launch his own label, Bad Boy. But then Matty C, who profiled the group in The Source’s famous star-making column “Unsigned Hype” in 1992 and was now an A&R at Loud Records, passed their songs to label founder Steve Rifkind, and the ink was soon dry.
Matty C would executive produce and Schott Free would A&R The Infamous, which turns 25 on Saturday and has been reissued alongside rarities. But by all accounts Mobb Deep was given a staggering amount of creative control for a group that was dragging around the albatross that was Juvenile Hell. Barely out of their teens, Havoc and Prodigy got to work translating their immediate environment into sound, the traumas of their early lives into spare, incisive verses.
To say that an album sounds like a physical place is usually to speak figuratively, but The Infamous is full of the sounds of friends’ voices, ambient noise, and drums that hit like they’re knocking against row after row of identical brick walls. These songs were tested outside, focus-grouped by people who had never set foot in a record label office, full of prideful hometown references. The album’s intro specifies that it’s being written from the 41st Avenue side of things, rather than 40th; when, later on the record, Prodigy goes to Bed-Stuy to meet a girl, it’s written as if he’s going to Vietnam. And while the duo was able to rope in a few higher-profile guest verses, the most memorable guest spot is by their friend Big Noyd. Early on The Infamous, Noyd—who claims he never wanted to be a rapper—was corralled into the studio to say, a capella, a rhyme he would recite over and over as he stood outside in the projects:
“Sometimes I wish I had three different faces I’m going to court for three cases in three places One in Queens, Manhattan, one in Brooklyn The way things is looking I’ma see central bookings Facing three three-to-nines is mad time After reconcurrence for assault and two 9s I gotta maintain, ’cause stress on the brain, Can lead to a motherfucking suicide thing And plus my probation—a ill violation How the fuck did I get in this tight situation? I’m going all out, you know moves, I never fake And fuck the Jake, they can catch me at my wake …”
While The Infamous was being recorded, Havoc’s brother, Killa Black, was on the run from the police. (Prodigy once described the predicament as “a little murder situation.”) “Temperature’s Rising” is built around two long verses to Black, who by that point was long gone and, P rapped, they believed they wouldn’t see for at least a couple of years. It’s telling of The Infamous that this is the poppiest song on the album.
The Notorious B.I.G., who heard what the Mobb was recording in real time, pushed them to make this the lead single, with its smooth R&B hook and warm tones. But the rest of the LP is typified by music that skews closer to what the lyrics might suggest: skeletal or like the climax of a sci-fi tragedy. While Havoc was the engine behind the beats, their mercenary excellence can be credited in part to a resurfaced ally.
After the duo got their deal—and, crucially, their budget—they reached out to Q-Tip, who had shown them love when their songs were far less biting and sophisticated. In recounting the process, the personnel who worked on The Infamous have said that the Abstract took far less credit than he was reasonably entitled to, mixing a number of songs, adding production to ones that Havoc and P imagined finished, and building others from scratch, while generally acting as a guiding force. Despite the fact that he was fresh off a platinum album that skewed much brighter, he meshed with the group immediately, helping add teeth to Havoc’s serrated sound. (It should be noted that Beats, Rhymes and Life, the Tribe record Q-Tip made after The Infamous, retains some of the latter’s hard edge.)
The Infamous is structured strangely; immediately after the intro comes a long interlude during which P cops to robberies, B&Es, and staying armed on stage, all while taunting rappers with their “half-assed rhymes, talking about how much you get high, how much weed you smoke, and that crazy space shit that don’t even make no sense.” This has the effect of suggesting a whole world is about to unfold before you, rather than the type of commercial rap release that was quickly becoming popular: two songs for “the ladies,” three for “the club,” four for “the streets,” and so on.
It helped that Prodigy wrote like a savant. No one has ever had such a gift for opening verses; that long interlude gives way to a song that P begins “There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from.” You can run, he concedes, but you can’t hide forever.
The Infamous almost never concerns itself with the music industry, with the notion of fame, or with much of anything beyond the 3,142 units in Queensbridge. When Nas makes an appearance on the sneering “Eye for a Eye (Your Beef Is Mines),” he doesn’t rap about how much pressure he feels to top Illmatic—he raps about ostrich skin and triple-beam scales and the way “the Bridge brings apocalypse / Shoot at the clouds, feels like the Holy Beast is watching us.”
Queensbridge is made to seem like one breathing, hacking organism, of which Havoc and P (and Noyd and Nas) are just component parts. This is best represented by “Up North Trip,” which doesn’t center on one fantastical incident—rather the constant threat that any slipup might land you behind bars, a lurking undercover perched like the devil on your shoulder. In this song, as in others, the rappers are not superheroes: Amid a hypothetical shootout, Havoc worries about his gun jamming.
The Mobb Deep project is about building a claustrophobic structure around the listener, then squeezing all the walls. In fact, the album makes this insularity exhilarating, to the point that when Raekwon and Ghostface Killah show up, it feels as if they’ve been beamed in from another planet. (To be fair, they might have had to take the ferry from Staten Island.)
Despite the good fortune that aided The Infamous—the generous second-chance deal, the assists from some of the generation’s most gifted rappers, Q-Tip’s constant presence—the album was far from a fluke. It went gold within two months, and Havoc and P followed it up a year later with the ferocious Hell on Earth, then again with Murder Muzik, making for one of the most bulletproof three-album runs in the history of the genre.
In June 2017, Prodigy died after choking during a hospitalisation for a sickle-cell episode. He was admitted after a concert where he shared the stage with Havoc; KRS-One was also on the bill.
Over the nearly two decades between Murder Muzik and his passing, P had found a second wind making independent records with the Beverly Hills–bred producer Alchemist—2007’s Return of the Mac in particular is considered a classic, though its 2013 follow-up Albert Einstein is nearly as good, as is Prodigy’s solo H.N.I.C. Pt. 2, from 2008—while Havoc dropped a string of solo albums and placed beats with massive stars and bright up-and-comers. The former partners fell out and reconciled, fell out and reconciled. Their legacies, separately and as Mobb Deep, are secure, and include countless, singular songs that span eras, styles, death, and rebirth. But their second album stands as a monument to the external forces that made them who they are, and the internal will to bend that environment to their liking.
On “Shook Ones,” as on most of The Infamous, Prodigy is invincible by design. His one weakness—that he was mortal like the rest of us—is even turned into a chilling strength. “If I die,” he raps of his adopted Queens bridge home, “I couldn’t choose a better location.”
Culled from Theringer.com