MAY 22, 2020
IN THE FALL of 1994, American radio and club DJs began receiving a promotional single in the mail: “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” by the Queens rap duo Mobb Deep. Those early promos came with little fanfare — no cover art, no liner notes, just a plain center sticker with the group’s name, song title, and record label logo. The reaction to “Shook Ones, Pt. II” was as spectacular as its arrival was understated. Its dark, discordant track and violent braggadocio powered the single onto hip-hop mix shows, and the song sparked fights in rowdier nightclubs whenever it rumbled over the speakers. Eminem’s hit 2002 film 8 Mile paid “Shook Ones, Pt. II” the ultimate homage by using it in the film’s cold open, a shot of auditory adrenaline jabbed into the heart of B-Rabbit as he prepares for an MC battle.
A quarter century later, “Shook Ones, Pt. II” and its associated album The Infamous, Mobb Deep’s second LP, are now embraced as consensus classics from hip-hop’s “golden era” of the early/mid-1990s. The Infamous, just reissued as a special 25th-anniversary digital edition, was a legacy-making release for Mobb Deep. But prior to that album’s success, Mobb Deep’s Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita and Albert “Prodigy” Johnson were anything but locks for the hip-hop hall of fame. When the album first appeared, the pair — and rap music itself — were at a crossroads. Along with becoming one of hip-hop’s greatest sophomore albums, The Infamous also marked an unlikely second act for Mobb Deep and a key shift in hip-hop’s evolution.
I first encountered Havoc and Prodigy via The Source, rap music’s magazine of record in the early ’90s. They were profiled in Matteo “Matty C” Capoluongo’s “Unsigned Hype” column in 1991, back when they were a pair of 16-year-olds known as the Poetical Prophets. When the group signed to 4th & B’way Records soon thereafter, they changed their name to Mobb Deep and, playing up their youth, released a 1993 debut entitled Juvenile Hell.
Hip-hop of that era was no stranger to using youth as a marketing gimmick. Before Mobb Deep, Brooklyn’s Special Ed released his first album, Youngest in Charge, in 1989 when he was 16. In 1992, Kris Kross (two 13-year-olds from Atlanta) become a short-lived commercial sensation with their debut, Totally Krossed Out. That same year, Philadelphia’s Da Youngsta’s released their first LP, Somethin 4 Da Youngsta’s, when their three members were 14, 15, and 16. Staten Island’s Shyheim was just 14 when his debut, AKA the Rugged Child, came out in 1994.
The inherent risk of capitalizing on youth is that childhood charm doesn’t always age well. For every Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson able to navigate the path from adolescent fame to adult stardom, there are far more artists, like The Sylvers’ Foster Sylvers or The Five Stairsteps’ Cubie Burke, whose careers peter out with puberty. While some of the aforementioned teen rap acts eked out modest discographies, none enjoyed sustained success into their 20s. Under other circumstances, Mobb Deep might have joined that list.
Havoc and Prodigy were technically adults when Juvenile Hell came out, but they still looked and sounded like teenagers. This might have been unremarkable if their subject material leaned the same way as many of their young contemporaries’ work had, but Juvenile Hell wasn’t interested in radio-friendly party anthems like Kris Kross’s “Jump” or even catchy swagger tracks like Special Ed’s “I Got It Made.” Mobb Deep’s debut was proto-horrorcore, with ultra-violent lyrics and imagery; Havoc even appears on the album cover slinging a reaper’s sickle.
Across the album’s dozen-plus songs, Havoc and Prodigy seemingly try to out-boast each other’s rap sheets. On “Stomp Em Out,” Prodigy rhymes how “my knuckle game brought me fame in the project hallways, / I got mad props for killing cops,” while on “Flavor for the Non Believers,” Havoc raps that “the way that I survive is pumpin’ nickels and dimes, / pumpin’ rocks on the corner, pumpin’ rocks ’cause I wanna.”
Thematically, Mobb Deep wasn’t touching on anything that older groups like NWA or the Geto Boys hadn’t already pioneered, but it takes a certain gravitas to convincingly sell a street persona. With their barely post-pubescent voices, Havoc and Prodigy couldn’t muster that level of authority on Juvenile Hell. Especially on the album’s only charting single, the raunchy “Hit It From the Back,” the over-the-top tales of sex-capades feel unintentionally comical, like watching kids playing dress up in their fathers’ business suits.
That’s not to say Juvenile Hell doesn’t have its pleasures. Musically, it’s an illustrative snapshot of early ’90s hip-hop, filled with lumbering bass lines and squawking horn samples. The project includes production work from the likes of DJ Premier, Large Professor, Kerwin Young, and Paul Shabazz, but Havoc and Prodigy produced half the album themselves — an impressive feat for young, debut artists.
Regardless, the album underwhelmed, both critically and commercially. Havoc admitted, in Brian Coleman’s book Check the Technique, that “[t]o us that album don’t even count in the books. We was just thirsty little kids, tryin’ to get a deal.” That deal didn’t last long, as 4th & B’way unceremoniously dropped the group before the end of 1993. Most artists would have been one-and-done. However, Mobb Deep landed a second chance when Loud Records picked them up in 1994. Loud’s president Steve Rifkind and former-Source-writer-turned-rookie-A&R Capoluongo believed in the duo’s potential. It also helped that hip-hop, especially in New York, was undergoing a sea change.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that Dr. Dre’s The Chronic had on the music industry when it came out in late 1992. Earlier rap hits tended to be faster and more dance-friendly, with lyrics that played nice with radio censors. But Dre, flanked by his Long Beach protégé Snoop Dogg, proved that hip-hop could flow at a more languid pace, double-down on graphic tales of sex, drugs, and violence, and still sell millions. The ascendance of West Coast gangsta rap made older debates about “selling out” moot. Mainstream record labels were now rushing to cross over to hip-hop, rather than the other way around.
New York artists, eager to recenter the rap universe back to its birthplace, took notice and adjusted accordingly. In lieu of their Californian counterparts’ gang-banging stories, tri-state rappers revisited the crack trade that began in the 1980s, embellishing (and at times romanticizing) tales of small-time drug hustling as amoral parables of striving and surviving. By 1994, albums such as the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas’s Illmatic, and the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die advanced a template that paired dramatic pulp narratives with vivid deep description. In hindsight, Juvenile Hell may have been a blueprint. When Mobb Deep began working on The Infamous in the mid-’90s, the industry’s embrace of more lurid content gave the duo a rare opportunity to show their matured potential.
In the two years between releasing Juvenile Hell and The Infamous, Mobb Deep seemed to have aged a full decade. Not only had their voices simply deepened, but the rappers sounded more world-weary on their second album; if not quite sage, then scarred. Prodigy puts it succinctly in the memorable opening line of “Survival of the Fittest”: “There’s a war going on outside, no man is safe from.”
To gain some perspective on this change in persona, compare the monologues of Juvenile Hell’s “Intro” with The Infamous’s “The Infamous Prelude.” On “Intro,” Prodigy spouts platitudes — “we’re gonna start shit off like this in the nine-three, word up” — over a simple horn loop. For “The Infamous Prelude,” he eschews any backing track at all and instead, intones a series of oddly precise threats: “If you step to me on a personal level, I don’t back down easy. / There’s a good chance your ass is gonna get shot, stabbed, or knuckled down, one out of the three.”
Prodigy scoffs at other rappers, especially those “talking about how much you get high […] and that crazy space shit that don’t even make no sense” and threatens to resort to “punching n_____ in they face just for living.” The way he skirts the razor’s edge between mischief and mayhem made the “Prelude” simultaneously entertaining, unsettling, and mesmerizing. Appropriately, it set a tone for the album as a whole.
In writing about The Infamous for Classic Material (a 2003 album guide I edited), Serena Kim compared it to a “windless, drizzling rain,” one that scored “project stairwell beat-downs and troops to the weed spot in the dead of winter.” Much of this happens within a few square blocks centered around the group’s home base of Queensbridge (QB) Houses, the sprawling housing projects in Long Island City where Havoc grew up and Prodigy would frequently visit. It was here that Mobb Deep chronicled the area’s “trife life” of everyday schemes and conflicts. Kim described the group’s depiction of QB as an “abysmal purgatory,” where locals are mired between life and death, feast and famine, predator and prey; Mobb Deep leave no ambiguity as to which side they ally with.
On “Up North Trip,” Prodigy ridicules an unfortunate who gets arrested: “Used to be wild, but locked up, you can’t get bent. / Thought you could hack it, now you’re requesting PC [protective custody]. / You’re fragile, it ain’t hard to see, n_____s like that don’t associate with me.”
Meanwhile, on “The Start of Your Ending (41st Side)” Havoc warns foes: “Cock back the gat then hit a n_____ like a bid, 25? / Nah kid, gettin’ life, forever burnin’ in hell, n_____s is trife.”
The artist Nas, a fellow QB colleague, recounted similar stories but from a more journalistic distance. The Wu-Tang Clan remade Staten Island’s projects into a mystical Shaolin battleground. Brooklyn’s Biggie refashioned himself into a kingpin figure of cinematic proportions. Mobb Deep’s world, in contrast, was neither glamorous nor mysterious: it was more intimate but claustrophobic, the kind you only escape by getting sent upstate to prison.
The Infamous paints a QB landscape that is cold and dark, echoed in a sonic palette of concrete grays and midnight blues. Its 25th-anniversary release doesn’t include many extras, but there are a pair of bonus tracks from the album’s original 1994 demo — “The Money (Version 2)” and “Lifestyles of the Infamous” — that highlight how, even early on, Havoc in particular had already made leaps as a producer, conceiving the album’s minimalist, menacing aesthetic. Exemplified by “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” he had an ear for minor key melodies and dissonant whines. That same, paranoia-inducing sound can also be heard in some of the album’s best songs: “Survival of the Fittest,” “Eye for an Eye (Your Beef is Mines),” and “Right Back at You.”
Unexpectedly, one of Mobb Deep’s key musical assists came from A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip. Though both groups shared Queens roots, their artistic identities couldn’t have been more polar, with Tribe as avatars for hip-hop’s progressive positivity and Mobb Deep as heralds of a new nihilism. However, whether out of borough brotherhood or just a desire to mentor his younger peers, Q-Tip not only co-produced songs like “Temperature’s Rising” and “Give Up the Goods (Just Step),” he played an equally important role as a mixing engineer, punching up drum loops so that much of the album still pops over earbuds and trunk speakers alike. The result is one of the best-sounding rap albums of 1995, holding its own against the trio of RZA-produced Wu-Tang projects of the same year, including Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and GZA’s Liquid Swords.
Though The Infamous had less initial buzz and airplay than some of the year’s other major releases, word of mouth propelled the LP to gold status (500,000 units sold) in just two months. The album also helped Mobb Deep shed its earlier, kid-rap reputation and gained them entrée into hip-hop’s upper tier. In the process, The Infamous, for better or worse, also added momentum to hip-hop’s move away from more playful and political fare toward sensationalist, antihero tales of crime and grime. It was a shift that Mobb Deep benefited from but also helped propel.
In the years that followed, Mobb Deep found greater commercial success when their 1999 album, Murda Muzik, went platinum (1,000,000 units sold), but The Infamous remains their most impactful contribution to the greater culture. This isn’t lost on the group: they titled their 2001 album Infamy, and on their 2011 Rock the Bells tour, they performed The Infamous in its entirety. The group’s final release in 2014 was The Infamous Mobb Deep, a double album whose second disc was filled with alternate mixes and unreleased tracks from the original 1994 Infamous studio sessions. The recent 25th-anniversary reissue is just the latest nod to the album’s ageless legacy.
In July 2017, Prodigy died at age 42 in a Las Vegas hospital while being treated for sickle cell anemia, a condition he had battled since childhood. Though Mobb Deep’s output had slowed in the decade preceding his death, Prodigy himself had remained prolific as a solo artist, releasing mixtapes and studio albums at an annual pace and continuing to tour. In the New York Times obituary for Prodigy, the music writer Jon Caramanica succinctly described his (and Mobb Deep’s) ethos as “unfazed, unsentimental, uncompromising.” It was an ideal that found its first and most potent realization on The Infamous.