Mobb Deep’s Infamous 20 Years Later is Still 1 of Hip-Hop’s Grittiest Classics (Food For Thought)
In the late 1980s, artists like Just-Ice, ScHoolly D, the Geto Boys, N.W.A., Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, and Public Enemy started testing the power of their words, profane and dense alike. The human condition was explored, and Hip-Hop planted a flag in the ground that stated—to quote Ice Cube—”if you don’t like how I’m livin’, well fuck you!”
By the mid-1990s, this Rap music foundation had been greatly developed real estate. Artists like 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., the aforementioned Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Outkast had found a way to present this lifestyle, maintain that hardcore aesthetic, and still churn out hits—embraced, purchased, and immortalized by some of the very people they could have been arguably inspired to offend. Ice-T’s 1993 Home Invasion artwork (by Dave Halili) kind of says it all.
Interestingly, the stage was brilliantly set for Ice’s proclaimed favorite musical group, Mobb Deep. The Queens, New York duo of Prodigy and Havoc were introduced to many Heads by April, 1995. Two years to the month prior, the pair released Juvenile Hell on 4th & B’way (X-Clan, Freestyle Fellowship, Eric B. & Rakim). With DJ Premier and Large Professor helping out, the liner notes-led culture paid attention to the two shorties previously known as Poetical Prophets, when first featured in The Source. The album was a scattered presentation of themes ranging from enjoying rough, fast sex, to fight music, to anthems of their Queensbridge street sets. Despite some masters in their corner, the album remains Mobb’s least-selling, and like so many other Hip-Hop giants (Common, Naughty By Nature, M.O.P.), a forgotten first effort.
In 1995, P and Hav’ were now signed to Loud Records. Steve Rifkind’s label is famous for its street team, and perhaps it’s those concrete, in-the-cut tactics that complemented the music so well. Whether Wu-Tang Clan or Tha Alkholiks, Loud felt like the kind of label that A&R’d projects to be better, not commercial. At a time when “skills sold,” this made mainstream-embraced singles by grittier artists and records—the perfect pastiche for two MCs who clearly wanted to present explicit subject matter and get their name up at the same time.
As with the first LP, Mobb Deep sought out a master—in this case, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. Credited as “The Abstract,” Tip worked on three records of the album’s 16. However, according to interviews from all the parties involved, the pride of Linden Boulevard was much more instrumental in the LP’s sound, than the credits suggest. Tip reportedly pushed Havoc and Prodigy to make revisions to the body of work starting in its 1994 recording. The proven master of cohesive, light-handedly thematic bodies of work showed the twenty-somethings how to do it, through true mentorship. Notably, history does not remember Q-Tip as Mobb Deep’s big brother. The parties did not maintain much collaboration afterwards. But for two glorious years, the learning curve-ball was honed.
The Infamous, released on April 25, 1995, is brilliantly executed. Mobb Deep presented themselves as antiheroes. While the potent Gangsta Rap of L.A. had its MTV-video charms in low-riders, scantily dressed women, and colorful clothes, The Infamous is post-apocalyptic. “Q.U. – Hectic” presents the borough of Queens as a Full Metal Jacket war zone. Innocence is out the window, the guns are forever off safety, and nothing is off limits. Like his would-be foe Tupac Shakur, Prodigy gasps for breath to deliver lyrics with a sense of urgency throughout the album. Rather than just celebrate the glory without consequence, The Infamous looks at the underbelly. Throughout the LP, Mobb honors their slain friends, showing that in the shadows of the Manhattan skyline, people cannot cram to understand the realness of the numbered streets of Queens. “Up North Trip” examines time served, “Cradle To The Grave” unabashedly offers a short life-span, and “Eye For An Eye” may as well be the code of the streets, unfinished business and all.
There is no hidden agenda though. Mobb Deep seemingly evaded radio and commercial appeal in their album-making. Juvenile Hell missed the charts, and The Infamous seemed to spit at the feet of mainstream Rap. “Party Over” closes the album with just that, bum-rushing the care-free posturing of the time. With realer issues at hand, Mobb did strike hits with “Shook Ones Pt. II” and “Survival Of The Fittest.” Both of the songs, which show how cohesive the album truly was, are menacing, ruthless, and cautionary to stay the hell away. As Rap music benefited from showing the rest of the world what happened in the streets, Mobb Deep chose a totally different aesthetic than their peers. This even showed in the videos, which refused to step into the light, but rather documented the world Heads either knew, or were simply urged to keep away from.
Whereas so many artists and groups focus so closely on the the lyrics, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous marries message to music. The group, who did produce makeshift works on the debut, almost struck gold by accident. Early in his career, Havoc—who is often under-sung as an MC, found skills on the boards and with the sampler. Perhaps thanks to Q-Tip’s tutelage, Hav’ created a sound that interpreted the themes of the album—gunfire, paranoia, pride, and death, and applied it to the rhythms of city life. In turn, Havoc would find a way to present crisp drums—almost as if a drummer played along with the rest of the album–and blend them with murky, ambient samples from an array of sources. Much-like the group’s attitudes on the mic, Havoc’s production was haphazardly authentic, and in turn, brilliant. For much of the 2000s, the producer/MC was unaware of many of the samples he used to make hits—a testament to his approach at the time. Mobb Deep made theme music, and the minor chords, the somber notes, and the eerie accents only complete the world of high-stakes in the forest of low-income project houses.
Now a gold album, Mobb Deep’s commitment to their art paid off. A #15 charting LP, the duo and Loud Records found a stride that worked. Mobb’s piss-and-E&J attitudes would make them stars. Like so many great works of the mid-1990s, Mobb Deep also aspired for other sides of life. Presumably, the 1995 fame of The Infamous pulled the pair out of the world that made them.
In the years since, Mobb Deep keeps taking the F Train back to the QB, and The Infamous. 2001’s The Infamy followed the group’s greatest commercial outing with a proposed return to form. Following an internal feud and temporary split, 2014 saw The Infamous Mobb Deep, complete with a deluxe edition packaging of unheard ’90s studio relics. Not unlike foes-turned-friends Snoop Dogg and Nas (the latter, a guest on The Infamous), Mobb Deep is forever held up against their benchmark classic. And why not? It is New York City presented as no country for old men, a place where the weak are preyed upon, and the strong seemingly lose too. For its tone, and its angst, and its representation of a world that people understand or rather never knew existed, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous is classic Hip-Hop, where style, substance, and synchronized rhymes and beats are a time capsule.
Jake Paine is Ambrosia For Heads’ Editorial Director. In addition to previous posts as HipHopDX’s Editor-in-Chief and AllHipHop’s Features Editor, he has written for Forbes, The Source, and XXL.