Saturday, August 03, 2013

Infamy On 48th St. (Week of Legends, Pt. 2)

Top Left: 6th Borough | Top Right: Joe Budden | Bottom Left: Mobb Deep | Bottom Right: Prodigy
My affinity for the gritty urban noir of Mobb Deep has been previously explored so it should come as no surprise that when their 20th Anniversary tour rolled into NYC I made plans to be there. To pay proper homage to one of hip hop's longest running acts, I went all in with the VIP package, which included a meet and greet with members Prodigy and Havoc as well as copy of Prodigy's new novel, HNIC, and his first solo album. The venue was a new spot in midtown west, Stage 48, and an email from them instructed me to arrive at 6:00pm sharp. I had been at Wire's amazing show the night before but had no lack of energy when the time came around to leave work and head downtown.

Live hip hop has a bit of a bad reputation - shows start late, crowds get rowdy, there are too many acts. Also, there's the fact that the music is usually recorded and there is little room for surprises or improvisation. Unlike seeing a band like Wire or Fleet Foxes where part of the thrill is teasing out just how they make their music, seeing a rap concert is almost entirely about the collective experience and the electricity of sharing space with your heroes. The Mobb Deep show entirely lived up to all those aspects, the good and the bad, starting with that "6:00pm sharp."

Dinner was a bag of trail mix, which I enjoyed while observing the others who had followed instructions, lining up in the blistering heat outside the club. The main demographic was smokers - tobacco users of all races and both genders, all younger than me. Everybody was relaxed and I was soon chatting with two guys from Queens and a man who had moved here from Medellin, Colombia, six months ago and had grown up listening to the Mobb ("They are quite underground in my country," he told us). He was living the dream, but had never been to a concert like this and didn't speak much English so I decided to keep an eye out for him.

Eventually, we were admitted to the place, patted down, and instructed to go upstairs. The decor was as expected, with neon-lined steps, low seating, etc. No sign of the stars, but I was just just happy to be in the frigid air with a drink in my hand. I chatted with my friends from outside - they called me "token old guy" and were continually surprised by the fact that I knew what the hell I was talking about, which became a theme of the night. It caused me to wonder if many of those of us present at the birth of hip hop have given it up, at least in public.

A line gradually formed opposite a table with two chairs so I stuck with the Colombian who showed me his shaking hands. The was a bit of a flurry as Prodigy and Havoc entered and took their seats. They seemed in a good mood, bantering with each other and showing no sign of the beef that made headlines last year. We had been instructed to ask for only one signature and only pose for one picture and the line moved smoothly. The Colombian was ahead of me and he came away walking on air after his photo op. Then I stepped up to the table, shook their hands and they each signed something for me before we stood for the picture, which was taken by one of their posse. Prodigy had been making a pointing gesture in the photos I observed, so it was a while before I noticed he was making quite a different gesture in my picture. I patted each guy on the back, told them they were great, they thanked me, I thanked them and then stepped away.

AnEarful meets The Mobb
The Colombian was still in heaven when I caught up to him. It turned out that he had neglected to take a copy of the H.N.I.C. CD so I gave him mine - I've had that classic for a while now. And then...we waited. The DJ was great and the sound system excellent so it was fairly painless until the lights went down around 8:00pm and H2-O took the stage. He's a positive-minded rapper of some skill but nothing spectacular. I was hoping Joe Budden, the advertised opener, was up next but no such luck. Ninety minutes later, I was putting out an open call on Twitter for Sandman Sims to come down from the Apollo with his hook. This was strictly amateur hour - there was even a (not bad) breakdancing crew - and the crowd's restive booing and chanting for Mobb Deep grew louder than the performers at times.

One bright spot among the parade of rappers was the duo 6th Borough, who had real songs, real skill and real stage presence. They were followed by Status, who started strong but lost the crowd after a couple of songs. It was hard to figure out why, but he was done. I would have gladly had Status come back over the mangy crew that next took the stage. Whoever they were, the crowd drubbed them off the stage in fairly short order, making way for Joe Budden at around 11:00pm. He's a strange case. Ten years ago, his big single, the Kool & The Gang-fueled Pump It Up, and subsequent debut album put New York at his feet. But it would be a few years before more music, and much of it was forgettable or guest-heavy, like the albums he made as a member of Slaughterhouse, the "supergroup" he put together in 2009. Yet another dude who wanted to know what this "token old guy" was doing at a Mobb Deep show told me Budden is widely considered the least skilled of that crew.

In any case, he was greeted warmly and was an affable presence, if a little indifferent to his surroundings. Budden can't seem to decide if he is a comic rapper or a tough one, turning in a perfunctory set that just seemed to peter out after Pump It Up, which still got the hands in the air. In any case, by that point I would have booed the second coming off the stage, and the crowd would have joined me. Fortunately, no more booing was necessary: the tense opening notes of Survival Of The Fittest were heard, the crowd exploded, and suddenly Mobb Deep was on stage, both Prodigy and Havoc spitting their verses with energy and authority.

This is why we came, I thought, this is why we stayed and slogged through three and a half hours of opening acts. Their beats, whether produced by Havoc, Alchemist or others, are some of the best ever and they sounded extraordinary on Stage 48's system. And while their first album is often considered their best, they rolled out song after song from across their catalog with each one garnering huge reactions from the audience. It was a well-earned greatest hits set featuring bangers like Quiet Storm, Put Em In Their Place, Have A Party, and Shook Ones Pt. II. Prodigy and Havoc performed a song each from their recent solo albums, with the former's Give Em Hell fitting in perfectly.

Both rappers have distinctive performing styles. Havoc is all business, head down, unleashing his rhymes with precision and passion. Prodigy is more animated, acting out nearly every line with nuanced and creative movements. Throughout the concert, he seemed to be hanging on every word, mouthing Havoc's bars even when he was performing his solo track. Prodigy is a riveting presence and I hope to see him in the fall when he tours with Alchemist.

As the show progressed, the sense of barely controlled chaos continued to grow, and the stage continued to fill up with more and more hangers on. They seemed to appear out of nowhere, adding to the celebratory feel. At one point Prodigy invited an audience member to climb up and film a song. She stayed for the rest of the concert, a stand-in for all of us fans. Though there is a promise of new music from them later this year, everything they've done so far has cemented them in the firmament of hip hop and New York history and the concert was both a consolidation of that achievement and a reminder of their deathless vitality.

Prodigy at Powerhouse Arena

And what of Prodigy's book, HNIC: An Infamous Novel (written with Steven Savile)? I have long thought that the universe of Mobb Deep could be expanded to include longer forms of storytelling, so I was ready for it. The short novel, the first in a series, grew out of an unproduced screenplay Prodigy wrote to accompany the H.N.I.C. album. He reached out to Savile, a well-known author of fiction of all stripes, to help him shape it into a book. At an interview with Sacha Jenkins at Powerhouse Arena about a week after the concert, Prodigy freely dispensed credit to Savile for some of the choicest lines in the book but took pride is telling a story that used characters and experiences from his past.

HNIC is a quick read and has some familiar crime literature tropes - a gangster's last job before going straight - but some new twists and turns. While I haven't kept up with the literature being sold by the average incense vendor, I did matriculate at the school Black Experience fiction, with a major in Donald Goines and a minor in Iceberg Slim. Like their work, once HNIC begins the narrative engine pulls you along like the A train between 59th and 125 - and you might find yourself missing a stop or to to find out what happens next.

The main difference is in the perspective. With Goines and Slim, there is a sense of being down in the street with their characters throughout, while Prodigy has an increased distance, a view from above. His main characters, Pappy, Black and Tonya, are playing out an old story of love, loyalty and betrayal and Prodigy's POV links them to the archetypes behind those themes. In the course of the story, he and Savile drop enough breadcrumbs to past and future plots that they should have no trouble creating sequels. The only thing they should watch out for are the Britishisms that slipped in to the text (Savile is English). I doubt anyone from Queens as gotten dinner from the "takeaway" and brought it to their "bedsit" while worrying about ill-gotten gains stored in a "holdall" - but that's a minor detail. If there is an HNIC book-of-the-month club, sign me up!

The bonus beat to the whole week was having the opportunity to be introduced to Prodigy by Sacha Jenkins before their interview. I found him to be a very relatable guy, well-aware of his stature as a million-selling artist, but open and humble to new experiences and people. Here's to another 20 years of his dark urban tales and killer beats.

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