I didn't listen to much hip hop in the mid-to-late 90's (too busy listening to Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack - all indebted to hip hop) so the Infamous Mobb passed me by on the first go round. In the end, it was a mistake that led me to them. After seeing the compulsively watchable 8 Mile starring Eminem, I decided to order the soundtrack from the BMG Club (a relic of the CD Era). Must've filled in the wrong number, though, because I ended up with More Music From 8 Mile, a supplementary disc featuring some of the older songs used in the movie. Rather than send it back, I gave it a listen. Most of it was very good but I was magnetically attracted by two cuts that had grimy, distorted beats and rappers who sounded like real New Yorkers: Prodigy and Havoc, the duo that is Mobb Deep.
When I caught the line "Rock you in your face/Stab your brain with your nosebone," I knew I needed more. I delved in and found a whole cosmology. Welcome to the 41st Side of QB - 41st St. in Queensbridge - where the wolves shoot out the streetlights, deal crack and put an ice pick in your neck: a film noir setting where the streets are always wet - rain and blood - and thugs are always scheming. I grew up in 70's NYC but P and Hav were BORN into that mess, the Ford To City: Drop Dead era, and the soundtrack they provide is perfect for walking the sidewalks of the Rotten Apple.
Hip Hop fans are some of the toughest critics and there's a constant debate about when or if Mobb Deep fell off and if or when they ever got back on top. In a 20 year career, ups and downs are to be expected but I find good stuff on most of their albums. If you add in Prodigy's best solo albums (H.N.I.C. And Return Of The Mac), their catalog adds up to one of the major discographies in rap music. After a tentative debut, Juvenile Hell, they made The Infamous in 1995 and it is one of the true classics of the genre. The line quoted above comes from Shook Ones Pt. II, a mission-statement of a track with sharp beats underscoring a crackly haze of synth strings, piano and rich bass. The rhymes are artful but put you right in it: "When the slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation/getting closer to God in a tight situation." Donald Goines would have lined up at The Tunnel to catch a piece of this.
If anything, the next album, Hell On Earth, brought the Mobb's game up. More Trife Life is pure storytelling, a Raymond Chandler tale of getting caught up in the worst way ("She said don't sweat it he don't got the top lock"), told over a frightful combination of dubbed out bass'n'snare, synth and something creaking. Overall, the beats are even tighter and the rhymes are spiced with more self-reflection. Havoc is their secret weapon behind the boards, a deeply musical in-house producer whose beats are often the best on their albums. This was proved beyond a shadow of a doubt by Murda Muzik, which contained Quiet Storm, one of Hav's most inspired creations. Haunting strings, glassy piano, dead simple drums and a pulse provided by a complete re-contextualization of the iconic White Lines bassline forge not so much a song but a whole environment. The chorus is a statement of purpose: "Cause it's the real shit, shit to make'em feel shit" and at their best Mobb Deep always delivers on it. Prodigy's H.N.I.C., with classic single Keep It Thoro, followed quickly and they seemed unstoppable.
Infamy from 2002 changed things up with it's second single, Hey Love (Anything), which featured the smooth R'n'B stylings of 112. Some fans complained but the song was a hit and helped set the template for the rap songs with sung hooks that dominated the radio over the next few years. Prodigy's sickle cell disease was flaring up at the time and he sometimes sounds subdued on Infamy and its follow-up, Amerikaz Nightmare, their weakest album. The biggest let down was the production, which often sounds plastic and doesn't blend well with their voices. Even the song titles (one is called Real Niggaz, another Real Gangstaz) hint that they were feeling played out. Throw Your Hands (In The Air), with assists from Talib Kweli and Kanye West is a solid cut, however.
In 2005 they signed with Queens compatriot 50 Cent's G-Unit label and put out Blood Money, which found little love but to my ears was nearly a return to form. Put'Em In Their Place has a swagger straight out of the Studebaker era and Prodigy sounds healthy and hungry: "Yo, I was schooled by the hood, raised by the wolves/Trained by the pain, adopted by guerillas." Unfortunately, one of the best beats was wasted on the fairly reprehensible Backstage Pass - I can't make any excuses for a lyric about recognizing a groupie from behind. Not really what we signed up for back in 96. But Creep sported an inventive groove and, like the organ-driven Pearly Gates, featured the best verses from Fiddy since Get Rich Or Die Trying. Strangely enough, Prodigy's lyric on Pearly Gates "Tell the Boss Man we got beef/And tell his only son I'm a see him when I see him," and "We don't give a fuck about that religious bullshit" proved more controversial than his own frankly misogynistic bullshit. Go figure.
Prodigy's Return Of The Mac came in 2007. This full-album collaboration with producer Alchemist featured almost no guests and narrowed the lyrical focus to straight up New York noir. It's one of the best hip hop albums of the 2000's and the future looked rosy at the time. Chaos, never far from the Mobb Deep circle, soon intruded, however, and Prodigy went to jail for three years on a weapons charge. While momentum has been somewhat hard to regain since his release, a number of strong singles and EP's (The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP, Waterboarding/Street Lights, and Black Cocaine) helped get Prodigy and Mobb Deep back into the game. The Bumpy Johnson EP, expanded into an album, was especially good. Stronger, featuring a devastating Nina Simone sample, was a love song to NYC and celebrated Prodigy's triumph over many forms of adversity. Definitely worth the download.
Prodigy drops Albert Einstein, another collaboration with Alchemist, on June 11 and, after a distracting Twitter beef between Prodigy and Havoc in 2012, they reconciled and began work on their first album since 2006. They're also going out on a 20th Anniversary Tour, which touches down in New York on June 20th and July 17th. Even with all the vicissitudes of Mobb Deep's career, they are a New York City legend and I'm not passing up the chance to see them in July. Hell, I even signed up for the meet and greet! So here's your assignment: what would you ask Prodigy and Havoc if you had a moment with them? Leave your ideas in the comments and I'll be sure to report back after the show.