This month Mobb Deep will release the Life of the Infamous DVD, a companion piece to their eponymously titled audio best-of that was released on Halloween. Both deliver the QB jams you've come to know and love - particularly those tracks taken from their classic The Infamous LP - but skimp out when it comes to chronicling the rest of Hav and P's wild early years. So for FADER 41, we talked to Prodigy as well as behind-the-scenes Mobb players Matty C, Schott Free and Stretch Armstrong about the days of Hennessey and nosebones. You can read their full Q&As after the jump.
What was it like when you first signed to 4th and Broadway?
I mean it was crazy, we was like little kids back then, so we wasn’t too much into the business side, we was just hyped ass, little advance, go buy some jewelry and shit like that.
When you signed with them, what songs had you recorded already?
We had like fifty, sixty songs, like “Shook Ones” and “Survival of the Fittest”…oh we talking about 4th and Broadway, I’m buggin, I’m sorry. That’s when we had “Hit It From the Back” done, “Flavor for the Non Believes,” we had a whole bunch of records back then.
Who were the people you and Havoc were working with then?
Premier, that’s it really. Premier was the only one that really showed us love. Like, we were making our own beats. Right when we had got signed to 4th and Broadway, we couldn’t afford to get beats from other producers that we liked, so we were forced to make our own beats. Premier was the only person that really showed us love, him and Large Professor and Q Tip.
How did you first link up with LP?
Well, he’s from Queens, so we used to go to his crib with Nas and Akinyele back in the day, and we would just sit there and vibe, and watch how he made beats. We was watching him and watching Premier make beats, and Q-Tip used to bring us to his crib on Linden [Boulevard] back in the days. Really Q-Tip was the first one that brought us into the industry, you know what I’m saying? We used to stand outside with our Walkmen, and stand outside the record companies and just wait for artists to come out and just be like ‘Yo please listen to our demo,’ that type of thing, and Q-Tip, he heard us first, and he actually brought us in the door.
Was it ever awkward working on more gangsta-type music with Tip?
Nah, it wasn’t even weird because, Q-Tip and Tribe, they was doing their own thing, and Mobb Deep, we had our own style from where we from. Q-Tip understood us. A lot of people didn't even understand where we was coming from, they thought that we was just talking reckless, but Q-Tip heard our music and understood our story and exactly what we was saying. He knew that we wasn’t just talking reckless, that we had like, real meaning to it in our life. He was one of the best producers out back then, that’s all we really needed. The production element combined with our lyrical stuff, that shit just set if off for us.
”Hit It From the Back” is on the best-of CD, but not much else from that time. Were there other early songs you wanted to get on?
Nah, the greatest hits we just basically sat down and looked at all our albums. and we just picked our favorite songs on each album to make the biggest record.
How would you describe the time period when you recorded The Infamous?
That was like ‘95, it was like the start of a new era. That’s when rap music changed, really. It took a big change cause that’s when Nas first came out with his album, and we dropped The Infamous, Big dropped “Ready To Die”—we actually went on tour with Big back then, so it was just like the beginning of a new era in rap, New York gutter shit. Some reality shit too.
What was the response outside of New York like?
They was feeling it, the response was crazy. I remember going to Cali back then, when we had “Shook Ones” and “Hit It From The Back.” London, Paris, we was all over the world back then, and they was just going crazy, they was feeling that shit.
What was it like working with Matty C and Schott Free?
They were totally behind us and supporting us. We brought something new to the table, like our style of production. Like I said before, we couldn’t get beats from people cause we couldn’t afford it, so we was forced to make our own beats, and by doing that we came up with own sound. So when Matty our A&R heard it, he was behind it all the way, we started something new and he was happy to be behind that shit.
Was there a particular moment when the lightbulb went off and you realized that you were onto something brand new?
Yeah, when we made “Shook Ones” and “Survival of the Fittest” we knew we had some shit. We used to make it in the crib, in Queensbridge, and then after we made the song we would sit outside with out little block radio and sit on the bench and play it for niggas. Everybody from the block would listen to it, and they would be like, ‘Yo that shit is crazy.’ We knew we had some shit that was hot in our neighborhood, and if the hood love it then the world going to love it.
Where were you recording in Queensbridge?
We was recording at Havoc’s house, in his apartment.
What kind of feedback did you give to him on his beats?
Basically, Hav already knew what records to pick for the sound that he wanted. I taught Hav how to use the sampler and how to use the equpment and he just took it from there, he already knew what sound he wanted.
How does it feel looking back now on a time when you were both really just growing up?
Shit, we really didn’t pay attention to it, we just go. We just get up and go man. I look back, I just be proud of what we did cause we were doing that shit back when we was fourteen years old. When we put out “Peer Pressure” and all that shit, you know what I’m saying? Niggas had tattoos on they chest, fueled up, we knew we was doing this shit forever.
Before recording The Infamous, did you all sit down to talk about a vision for the album?
Every aspect, every millimeter of what went on, I was heavily involved and heavily concerned with seeing them think it all through, and know what they’re going to do and not see a bunch of battles over what it was going to be. I told them, title your records and your concepts and have your hooks together. Even though we tried to focus on the next level of song structure from where hip hop had been and where it was going, a lot of it was very raw too, and that was the good part. Bringing Q-Tip in was a collective decision, we all had our own history and relationships with him, and it was great for all of us to be working with him specifically. But I definitely had a vision not just for Mobb Deep but all of the groups I was working with at Loud coming from The Source and my experience as a fan in hip-hop. I wanted to see hip-hop groups come out, that had their own production and their own sound. Like the hip hop version of a band, where the DJ and the producer were a part of the group, not a project where we went and got 12 different producers for 12 different tracks, and made independent agreements with each of them. Those were not the kind of records that I was trying to make or see made, while I was running A&R at Loud.
What were some of the first tracks recorded for The Infamous?
“Shook Ones” obviously, “Patty Shop” which never came out, “Give Up the Goods” was done pretty early, “Survival of the Fittest” was done pretty early. There was a time period at Battery Studios where they recorded a nice bulk of the work that eventually morphed into the base of the album.
When “Shook Ones” was laid down did anyone have an idea of the life it would take?
No no, not at all, we really excited about a buzz and a great record in the making, the group building something. When the first version of “Shook Ones” came out we all loved it but we realized that it was kind of a slow vibe, we needed something that was a little more uptempo. I took Hav to a couple of record conventions, and we found that drum break that I don’t think really had been used before. That thing made a huge difference, bringing us up to that tempo really put us in the running to have something that could go off in the club and everywhere on the ground level. But it was a long time before that record really caught on, Flex didn’t play “Shook Ones Pt. 2” I think until like five months later. “Shook Ones Pt. 2” took off way more on a club level than on a radio level, and on a street level. It didn’t just immediately start getting played on Hot 97.
What was the process like at Loud trying to break a record at that time?
I was really fortunate to have the experience of being at The Source, and was able to study every label’s strategy, to get a view of their media blitz and their marketing plan, so I had a lot of very current information that was helpful in marketing strategies and what was working on the people I was working with at the Source, some things with sticker concepts and promotional material.
Mobb Deep always seemed to have a pretty signature aesthetic.
And again, if you study those fonts, you’ll see, those were fonts that I used with my graphic designers at The Source. Aachen Bold, those were the Big Pun letters, those were my main words with all my “Ear to the Street” items in The Source.
Going into Hell On Earth, where did you see the group moving?
Of course there’s the institutional imperative, selling more and making more every time and feeling like you’re on the upswing, but when I was young I didn’t fully understand that business side of things, and I thought that there was just this vision that we could just hit the same numbers consistently and that would be great, just consistently go gold, not have to go platinum and make a radio record to do it, and I don’t know if that is fully the way I feel now. I think with Hell on Earth there was this zone that we were all comfortable in, and I think the group was too, and I don’t know that they felt that pressure either, if they felt they had to make some pop radio record, to go that extra mile to go platinum. I think that creatively they were having that kind of thought in their minds, and then they were caught up in a lot of crazy beef and a lot of death that was going on right at that time, and it made the music and the topics super dark.
How would you describe the chemistry that Havoc and Prodigy have working together?
It’s magical. Prodigy’s family has a musical background, his father was a jazz musician, his uncle was a songwriter. He was very production savvy, and Havoc was the one that really grew up and lived in Queensbridge, and Tragedy is his cousin, so he was already linked in to rap. Havoc really turned P on to rhyming, P really turned Havoc on to producing, but as they grew, especially on the Infamous project, Havoc was more the producer and P was the one that had just rhyme after rhyme, ripped and ready to go and just shocking people with his lyrics. Back and forth like, its just an amazing combination to me, that they were able to work like that and kind of teach each other.
When you were working on The Infamous, what was your role in the project?
Not too far from what Matty’s was. It was our first time A&Ring something, so we both just kind of double-checked each other. I was there back when they put their first album out for 4th and Broadway, and once I got to Loud, Matty was still at the Source, and it was like ‘Yo, help me build this label up.’ So somehow we were able to lure Matty over to Loud in addition to bringing the Mobb along—at this time the Mobb was like 16, 17. They dropped that first album when they were like 14, so whatever, as the story goes, we all come together, Matty comes aboard, and we make The Infamous.
I remember Havoc, he would stay on Staten Island a lot so we could keep him out of trouble, make sure the dude was in the studio on time, things of that nature. At that time we dug for records a lot, especially Matty—he would get up at like six in the morning and dig for records. I would catch records in my basement or around the way, a lot of those records are like records that Havoc had just snatched. The “Shook Ones” sample was one that Matty was harboring one day in the studio; he had the records in a bag, and Havoc was like, “Yo, what is that yo, lemme listen to those.” Finally Matty comes clean and plays the drums for Hav, who just adds on and the rest is history. I had co-produced a joint with Hav called “Right Back At You,” same kind of thing. That whole project was just a learning process for all of us, it was basically about teaching Havoc or giving Havoc the confidence to be a producer, cause we always felt like he could do the production himself, but his confidence was here and there. I think once Q-Tip came in and helped mix the record, that was a big move too, cause he obviously showed us a lot of things. He showed us a lot of things that we had no clue about in terms of mixing, and even changed up some records until it was an entirely different beat. “Drink Away the Pain” was something that was brand new, and that he just came up with.
When you were all working on it, they were teens and you and Matt were in your twenties?
Yeah, we were like fresh out of college when I had originally got to Loud. I grew up in Staten Island, so the Clan was like…RZA was one of the cats we all looked at in terms of being somebody that was in the game for a minute. I was an MC first, so I came back from school and I was learning the game, caught an internship from Rowdy Records. I was sliding out “Protect Ya Neck” 12-inches while I was sending out records for Rowdy, and RZA called me up one day and told me to give Steve Rifkind a call. He was like “we need more cats like you up in the office looking out for us” so I said fuck it, I gave Rifkind a call and I got a meeting. As it turned out, I had gone to University of Maryland with this kid named John Rifkind, and [Steve] was like, “Yo, that’s my brother.” It was like an automatic family look right there and I was hired on the spot.
Did the age difference make it easier or harder to work with Mobb Deep?
Them being younger than us, you know, it worked both ways. It was a little bit harder casue they were still from the hood and the street. Havoc especially, he still lived in Queensbridge. There was that element pulling at them, but at the same time, the hood and the street also tried to keep them out of trouble and pushed them toward their music—hence the name Mobb Deep. They always kept a crew with them, and in a couple of instances me and Matty had ourselves chased out of bars and all kind of nonsense being affiliated with the whole Mobb Deep situation.
But we were older and they were looking for leadership and guidance. At that time all anyone know was, “Oh, Loud records, they fucking with the Wu,” the Wu was popping, and Mobb Deep was just happy to be able to get another shot. Cause the Juvenile Hell record didn’t really fly. I remember Steve [Rifkind] asking me and Matt, “ Yo, this is the first thing you want to sign? This is your big shot, you want to sign this first? The last record only sold 20,000 units.”
What convinced you to take the chance?
Basically we just spent a lot of time analyzing songs and records—that’s what we did all day. They had [an unreleased] record called "Patty Shop” with the drums from [Nas’s] “Halftime,” and horns that they got from whatever, and this noise on it. And then Prodigy says “You got a lot of heart boy, all that yappin, acting like it can’t happen, its niggas like you that fail to realize the realness, now I have to do it with this, back in the day, I used to get stuck, now the tables is turned and I’m makin niggas duck, I bet you won’t lay down…” or some shit like that. It was crazy, they were way beyond, you know what I mean? What they were on with Juvenile Hell, you could just tell that they had grown up, and they were older teenagers at that point. They were like young vets.
What is the earliest thing you can recall about Havoc and Prodigy?
I was interning at Big Beat, Craig Kallman’s indie label, back in like ’89, and somehow, I don’t know how I got it, but I got their demo, they were called the Poetical Prophets. I got a half a demo actually. It was “Flavor for the Non Believes,” and about eight [other] songs. “The Little Don,” “Pop This in Your Jeep,” “Pass the 40”…they were way too young to be passing 40s.
When you got the demo, did you know anything about them?
I don’t know how I got it actually. I know at the time they did a promo for WBLS, which I may have heard. I don’t think I really knew anything about them, I just heard the demo and was like, these guys are fucking good. And of course they sounded unbelievably young back then, I think this was pre-manhood.
Did you stay up on what they were doing after that?
Well they got signed to 4th and Broadway after that, so I kind of lost the connection there. Then of course they changed their name to Mobb Deep, and then they finally got on the radio. I met them when they went up [to the Stretch and Bobbito Show] to promote their record.
What do you recall from that first appearance?
I don’t rememeber, seriously. I mean they came up so many times over the years, it's sort of a blur. They were one of the groups that, year after year, they were coming through no matter what.
What Mobb Deep stuff were you playing during that first era?
There was a song called “Hold Down the Fort” that I liked, and “Flavor for the Non Believes.” “Me and My Crew” with the Skull Snaps drums, “Hit It From The Back”…. Actually I was just listening to a show from back then, just the other day, and that song came on, I know that [Mobb Deep] were doing a show somewhere maybe two years ago, and the DJ played “Hit It From the Back.” I think the DJ got smacked by somebody.
What was your role in the making of The Infamous?
I was more of a freewheeling DJ than an office A&R type. I brought them to Steve Rifkind, and around the same time Matt Life, who at that time was known as Matty C, and had been at the Source prior to that, he had also brought them to Steve, which kind of consolidated the push to put them on Loud. Once they were signed, I had a minimal involvement in it, I know I got some sort of credit on it, but I didn’t really know what my credit would be. Basically I just brought them there and tried to convince Steve Rifkind that these guys deserved another shot and that they could have a career as recording artists, but day to day activity, I couldn’t be bothered with dealing with that shit, I really had no interest in working day to day.
So you weren’t too involved with the actual making of the album?
No, that was primarily Matt and Schott Free, who I had gotten a job for at Loud. He was hired as an assistant to Steve Rifkind, and took it upon himself to get passionately involved in the project so it was really, Scott and Matt and I think Matt hooked Mobb Deep up with Q Tip and the rest, but also I knew that I was encouraging Havoc to produce more on his own. We were at the Loud office one day and he was asking me how to use a MPC, how to move drums forward and backward, and I was so surprised that he didn’t know how to do that because already by then he was making, like, “Shook Ones.” If you look back on Havoc’s production style, you can see that he didn’t really know how to use the machines but that was part of how he was able to create his unique beats.
After the Infamous era, did you stay in touch with the group?
No it was minimal, just when they would come up to the radio, that’s about it, that was the extent of it.There was this one episode where they came up and they were rhyming over the “World Is Yours” remix by Nas, and whatever I say about [the moment] can’t really convey it, but they just fucking killed it. To this day it was one of the most high-impact moments on that radio show, and both of them were kind of coming into their own as, not just as a good hip hop group, but as lyricists. Prodigy was sort of developing this really sinister, nihilistic vibe which he didn’t have when he was younger, so his personality was growing as this was taking shape. People aren’t really going to be able to hear it with me just talking about it.
Was there something specific about New York at that time which helped create this?
I think it is tied to that. Put it like this, I love hip hop, but I think that, we’re never going to see the ’80s or ’90s again. The overpatriotic hip hop crowd is always screaming, “We’re going to bring it back, we’re going to bring it back,” but look at the history of pop culture. You’re never going to bring anything back, things come and go. I would say, who is the last MC coming out of NYC to make a national impact, and I think that’s 50 Cent, and I personally became aware of 50 Cent of playing recordings of his in 1996, that’s ten years ago.
I think Mobb Deep’s success has a lot to do with New York being the center of the world [then], and this kind of second age, this almost like, second golden age of Hip Hop. Cause around ’89, ’90, ’91, hip hop was just completely eating it, and then in the early 90s it started getting exciting again. I think that Mobb Deep was one of those groups that was really pushing it forward, and not just on the rapper tip but on the production tip.
The ’90s were filled with really progressive music. As a DJ I was always more interested in music than in MCs, that’s one area where me and Bobbito differed greatly, cause he was always listening to lyrics and I was always listening to beats—the records I wound up playing were always really nihilistic and antisocial just cause the music that were attached to some of these songs were the kind of beats that really inspired me. For Mobb Deep, without the music backing them up I don’t think they would have been as successful. I think they had some of the greatest beats of the ’90s underneath them, and if you look at now, there certainly are great producers, but the history of making that really ill sounding, evil hip hop beat is gone. There are thousands of kids across the United States, even in Europe that kind of know how to make beats that sound like that, but back in the 90s you had to go to certain people that kind of had that magic formula, whether it was Premier or Q-Tip or Pete Rock, or Havoc himself.