Happy 20th Anniversary to Mobb Deeps sophomore LP The Infamous, originally released April 25, 1995.
Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seemsbut as you approach the present, it inevitably seems incredible.
Lifted from Salman Rushdies 1981 Booker prize winning novel Midnights Children, the above quote immediately came to mind, as I revisited Mobb Deeps landmark LP The Infamous this past week, twenty years after hearing it for the first time. Back in the spring of 1995, Havoc and Prodigys provocatively raw portrait of Queensbridge street life rocked my nerves and confounded my 17 year-old brain. As an uninformed spectator to the duos unabashedly brazen brand of storytelling, it was tough for meand I suspect for many othersto discern fact from fiction, experience from embellishment.
Mobb Deeps audacious tales and ruminations did in fact sound almost too incredible to believe. However, as Ive delved deeper into the groups background, listening to and reading their comments about the all-too-authentic inspiration for the album, Ive had ample opportunity to digest, evaluate and continually reevaluate The Infamous. And subsequently, Mobb Deeps stark narrative has become more fathomable, and the line of perception that once resided somewhere between fantasy and reality now cuts right through the latter.
While the recorded output of Mobb Deep dates back to 1992 when they released their debut single Peer Pressure, the groups roots extend further back when you consider the history of their native stomping grounds: Queensbridge, New York. The largest public housing complex ever erected on North American soil, Queensbridge Houses is home to just shy of 7,000 predominantly African-American and Latino lower-income residents. And while violent crime has steadily declined in the neighborhood in recent yearsconsistent with reductions across the rest of New York City since Rudy Giulianis eight-year mayoral term concluded in 2001Queensbridges notoriety for drug trafficking persists to this day. As evidenced by recent drug sweeps conducted across the projects, the narcotics game may have been compromised in the aftermath of Giulianis strong-arm approach to crime reduction, but it certainly hasnt disappeared.
Arguably Queensbridges most visible legacy, however, is its role as a creative wellspring for some of hip-hops most revered artists of all time. Founded by producer extraordinaire and Queensbridge native Marley Marl in the mid 1980s, The Juice Crew collective is deservedly credited for first establishing Queensbridge as a powerful hip-hop hotbed. Comprised of Queensbridge-bred emcees Craig G, Intelligent Hoodlum (a.k.a. Tragedy Khadafi), MC Shan, and Roxanne Shanté, along with other New York City microphone luminaries such as Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Grand Daddy I.U., Kool G Rap and Masta Ace, among others, The Juice Crew was hip-hops first-ever supergroup, establishing the standard for the likes of Native Tongues, the Wu-Tang Clan, Boot Camp Clik, Hieroglyphics and a host of other squads. While the classic 1988 posse cut The Symphony is The Juice Crews most instantly recognizable tune, a song released by one of The Juice Crews members two years earlier firmly immortalized Queensbridges rightful place within the hip-hop landscape.
Years before the so-called East Coast vs. West Coast feuds plagued hip-hop and indirectly (or directly, according to some) precipitated the untimely deaths of two legendary emcee heavyweights, MC Shans 1986 single The Bridge inadvertently fueled the cross-borough, battle rap rivalry known as The Bridge Wars. Although MC Shan never explicitly declares that Queensbridge is the birthplace of hip-hop on the Marley Marl produced track, KRS-One and his Bronx-based group, Boogie Down Productions (BDP), interpreted it as such and took immediate offense. BDP released their rebuttal, South Bronx, shortly thereafter. The song directly addresses MC Shan and aims to reinforce the Bronx as hip-hops original breeding grounds with biting lyrics such as So you think that hip-hop had its start out in Queensbridge / If you pop that junk up in the Bronx you might not live. Tempers flared and the rhyme sparring continued into the following year, with MC Shan releasing Kill That Noise in response to South Bronx, and BDP following suit once again with the self-explanatory The Bridge is Over.
Over the next few years, both crews would volley assaults and insinuations back and forth on record, culminating with KRS-Ones Juice Crew-bashing reference (I’m not down with a juice-crew) on Blackman in Effect from BDP’s 1990s Edutainment LP. Admirably, and perhaps remarkably considering more recent inter-crew conflicts, the antagonism between The Juice Crew and BDP remained exclusively lyrical in nature, and never veered into the physical. The battles epilogue is a happy and harmonious one, as Marley Marl and KRS-One formally squashed the beef when they collaborated on 2007s Hip-Hop Lives album, a partnership that would have been decried as sacrilegious twenty years prior.
The Bridge Wars engendered some of the most memorable hip-hop songs ever and indulged fans with one of the most entertaining microphone clashes in history. But more importantly, the Bridge Wars transformed Queensbridge from an obscure locale overlooked by many to a prominent force to be reckoned with in hip-hop. In last years Time Is Illmatic documentary, Queensbridge native Nas reflects on the importance of MC Shans The Bridge, explaining that You meet people and tell em where you from, most people never heard of this place. That song changed everything. Queensbridges newfound visibility and bolstered reputation made it possible for the next generation of emcees like Nas to develop their rhyming careers with the benefits of credibility and by extension, confidence.
Speaking of Nas, what The Juice Crew achieved for Queensbridge in the 80s, he reinvented and revitalized in the mid-90s. Universally considered one of the greatestif not the greatestdebut hip-hop albums ever, 1994s Illmatic heralded the official arrival of a prodigiously gifted rhyme superstar-to-be in Nas. Beyond introducing his lyrical dexterity and penetrating flow to a much broader audience than his previous guest spots on others records had garnered, Illmatics ten song suite redefined the Queensbridge sound altogether. Combining narratives of gritty hyper-realism with exquisitely crafted sonic backdrops, Illmatic is street poetry in its most eloquent and evocative form. A perfect hybrid of the visceral and intellectual, the album set the creative bar sky-high for other aspiring emcees, both inside and outside of Queensbridge. One of those acts influenced and motivated by Nas and Illmatic was Mobb Deep.
Originally known by their more alliterative moniker, the Poetical Prophets, and featured in The Source magazines Unsigned Hype column in 1991, Mobb Deep was reeling from the critical and commercial disappointment of their 1993 debut album Juvenile Hell, by the time that Illmatic hit stores in the spring of 1994. In a 2013 interview, Prodigy confesses that You could just hear the difference between [Nas] lyrics and beats and ours. That’s when we started putting our heart and soul into the music and really trying to make something that could last.” Juvenile Hell proved an apropos title, on account of its unpolished songs that bordered on the amateurish. The dynamic duo would more than make up for this misstep with their follow-up effort though. Would they ever.
While the music industry has traditionally runneth over with acts who milk their one-trick pony shtick for all its worth (Ill refrain from naming any names, to keep this affair a positive one), there are quite a few artists who place a heavy premium on continual, gimmick-free creative reinvention. This theme of artistic rebirthlearning from past experiences and embarking upon new musical pathswas explored at length in a recent Long Play Love tribute to Commons 2000 LP Like Water for Chocolate. With respect to Mobb Deeps night-and-day transition from Juvenile Hell to The Infamous, never before has a hip-hop act harnessed its ambition so effectively and stepped up its game so dramatically from album to album. The Infamous was a giant leap forward for the tandem, reflecting a newfound lyrical maturity, magnetic presence, and sonic depth that was remarkable to behold and endlessly gratifying to listen to. To even the most casual listener, it was obvious that Havoc and Prodigy had returned to square one, put in a substantial amount of work, and in the end, delivered a career-redeeming magnum opus.
If you hadnt already surmised, your author is an insatiable music obsessive with a vast collection of vinyl, CD, and digital recordings. Always on the prowl for new music, Ive always been the guy who arrives at the local record store the moment they unlock their doors on the mornings of New Release Tuesdays. In all of the years Ive spent cultivating my music library, seldom have I looked forward to an album as anxiously as I awaited The Infamous. The first two singles, unveiled during the months leading up to the albums release, were most definitely to blame for stoking my excitement.
Toward the end of 1994, Shook Ones, Pt. II was released and from the opening verse, I was unquestionably stuck off the realness as Prodigy declared. Not for the faint of heart, the single finds Havoc and Prodigy staking claim to their streets through a vividly stark depiction of Queensbridge life. The single is haunting to say the least, and made more so by the ominous piano sample (Herbie Hancocks Jessica) that loops throughout, perfectly evoking the impending sense of doom. Released five months later, second single Survival of the Fittest is even darker and more foreboding than its precursor. Atop a similar, but ingeniously slowed-down piano loop (The Barry Harris Trio with Al Cohns Skylark), the duo explores how Darwinian instincts of self-protection are imperative for surviving the myriad dangers and temptations of their neighborhood. Not mere album teasers, Shook Ones, Pt. II and Survival of the Fittest were instant, undeniable classics.
My only concern about the forthcoming LP, at the time, was that it seemed highly unlikely that the rest of the album could even remotely measure up to these superb lead singles. Thankfully, my fears proved unwarranted. When I first heard The Infamous in its entirety, I was admittedly dumbfounded by how thoroughly brilliant it was, from beginning through the middle to the end. Mind you, the groups nihilistic, autobiographical narrative was jarring upon initial and repeated listens, but I approached the albums bleak content as objectively as I possibly could. And in doing so, I was able to appreciate the fact that Mobb Deep neither sugarcoats nor romanticizes their lifestyle. Instead, they simply and unapologetically document the life of poverty, crime and violence that they and their Queensbridge brethren endure day in and day out, in chilling detail. In a 2011 Dazed magazine interview, Havoc explained I believe that [listeners] were attracted to the [albums] honesty, more than anything. You felt the honesty from the music, so naturally people are going to be attracted to something that is honest. Indeed, the groups uncompromising candor is the driving force behind the albums greatness.
If you listen closely enough, amidst the darkness and drama, you can detect the underlying theme of regret-filled resignation throughout the course of the albums sixteen tracks. Only 20 years old when they completed the album, Havoc and Prodigys voices are marked by a world-weariness that belies their age, but reflects the burdensome weight of their environment. On Up North Trip, Prodigy concedes:
Then I pause…and ask God why
Did he put me on this Earth, just so I could die
I sit back and build on, all the things I did wrong
Why I’m still breathin, and all my friends gone
I try not to dwell on the subject for a while
Cause I might get stuck in this corrupt lifestyle
But my, heart pumps foul blood through my arteries
And I can’t turn it back it’s a part of me
Too late for cryin, I’m a grown man strugglin
To reach the next level of life, without fumblin
Down to foldin I got no shoulder to lean on but my own
All alone in this danger zone
Time waits for no man, the streets grow worse
In the same vein of self-contemplation, on Shook Ones, Pt. II, Prodigy admits Sometimes I wonder do I deserve to live / Or am I going to burn in hell for all the things I did. Heavy stuff, for sure. Its as if Mobb Deep regrettably acknowledge that the fairytale-free life they lead is a lethal one with a predestined conclusion, but the powerful stranglehold that their neighborhood wields over them makes it damn near impossible to escape to greener, safer pastures.
The one track that represents a bit of an anomaly with respect to the albums core thematic threads is the metaphorical Drink Away the Pain, which explores the dangers of addiction in its various incarnations. Havoc and Prodigys verses revolve around the personification of alcohol dependency in the form of a destructive woman theyre infatuated with. Guest emcee and the duos early career mentor Q-Tip, who also produced the song, takes the clever motif an intriguing step further by describing a fictional heist facilitated by anthropomorphized fashion brands (sample verse: Diesel drove the Beemer, the hatchback of course / Nautica’ll navigate to keep us on course). In a recent WatchLOUD interview, Prodigy explains that “[Q-Tip’s verse] was ill, he made it different, you know what I’m saying? That was some super-abstract, creative shit. It made me, as a writer, look at it in different ways. How you can approach a verse in different, creative ways. Definitely opened up our creativity.” A welcome, more playful diversion from the gravity and menace that pervade the rest of the album, Drink Away the Pain is a standout tune on an album with standouts in abundance.
Largely self-produced by Mobb Deep, The Infamous is an expertly and meticulously crafted sonic tour de force. More to the point, few albums Ive ever heard sound this good. The fusing of eerie strings and pianos with crisp, thumping beats provides an enveloping, cinematic-like atmosphere of dread and despair, the perfect backdrop for Havoc and Prodigys harrowing tales of stress and strife. A steady stream of jazz and soul samplesmany culled from digging among lesser known, more obscure recordsare incorporated throughout, to glorious effect. Speaking with Complex in 2011, Havoc explained how family musical influences informed the selection of samples for the album:
[As far as records that were sampled] they just came from different places. My father was a DJ back in the 70s and early 80s, so he had a lot of records. My grandmother had a lot of records in her house too. And Prodigy had a lot of records because his grandfather was a jazz musician, so he had all sorts of jazz records. Ps grandfather was named Bud Johnson and he was cool with Quincy Jones, so there was a lot of Quincy Jones albums amongst Ps grandfathers collection. So thats where you get the Quincy Jones sample [of Kitty With the Bent Frame] on that song. (Q.U. Hectic)
Other sample-driven highlights include Give Up the Goods (Just Step) (which samples Esther Phillips Thats All Right with Me, also recently heard on J. Coles St. Tropez), Up North Trip (The Spinners Im Tired of Giving), Temperatures Rising (Patrice Rushens Where There is Love), and Trife Life (Norman Connors You Are My Starship).
The Infamous is predominantly a Mobb Deep orchestrated effort, though a few all-star guest appearances definitely enhance the affair. Raekwon appears twice, on Eye for An Eye (Your Beef is Mines) with Nas and Right Back at You with his Wu-Tang compatriot Ghostface Killah. Fellow Queensbridge emcee Big Noyd also features on the latter track, as well as Give Up the Goods (Just Step) and album closer Party Over. His aforementioned verse on Drink Away the Pain aside, Q-Tips presence is most profoundly observed across the albums stirring sonic tapestry. Listed in the production credits as The Abstract, Q-Tip masterfully commanded the decks for three of the albums more impressive compositions: Give Up the Goods (Just Step), Temperatures Rising and Drink Away the Pain. His influence transcended these specific tracks, however, as Prodigy explained to Complex:
[Q-Tip] helped bring us in and his production is crazy, so we brought him in to consult for us. He executive produced the album, basically. He helped us out with drum patterns, he helped us tighten our sound up. Most of the songs on there but not all of them had his input. Like, Yo, I think yall should do this to this, add a little snare here, or a delay there. Little things like that. It just came natural.
Without question, the end result showcases what truly proved a dream collaboration in the studio.
Most hip-hop heads define the genres Golden Age as roughly spanning from 1987 to 1992, give or take a year on the front or back ends. But the mid 1990s should rightly be considered hip-hops second Golden Age or perhaps, more accurately, its Silver Age. Granted, how we classify the post Golden Age era is arbitrary and ultimately unimportant. What is important is that the middle years of the decade from 1994 to 1996 generated a handful of LP masterpieces, including, but certainly not limited to, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, 93 til Infinity, Midnight Marauders, Doggystyle, Illmatic, Ready to Die, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Resurrection, Do You Want More?!!!??!, and Stakes is High. And of course, The Infamous.
Some music pundits have suggested that Mobb Deeps sophomore LP helped to usher in a mid-90s renaissance for East Coast hip-hop. Though from my perspective, East Coast hip-hop was always consistently strong and never in dire need of a revival, even with the critical and commercial ascendance of artists representing the opposite coast. No matter. What The Infamous did achieve was to introduce a new, grittier, more hardcore style that countless acts aspired to emulate throughout the latter part of the 90s into the new century. Moreover, The Infamous solidified and expanded Queensbridges pivotal place in the rich annals of hip-hop. Recently, some journalists have suggested that the Bridgeas in the Queensbridge rap movementhas gradually faded toward obscurity and is now indeed over, for a handful of plausible reasons. Whether or not the Bridge is in fact over, which frankly seems like an overly pessimistic assertion, Queensbridge hip-hops greatness will live on for eternity through its most prized artifacts like MC Shans The Bridge, Nas Illmatic, and Mobb Deeps The Infamous.
Mobb Deep will celebrate the 20th Anniversary of “The Infamous” with a special performance at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, 237 West 42 St, New York, NY on Sunday, April 26th Learn more
My Favorite Song: Give Up the Goods (Just Step) (1995)
Shook Ones, Pt. II (1995)
Survival of the Fittest (1995)
QBs Finest Da Bridge 2001 (2001)
BUY Mobb Deep – The InfamousStream Here: