Mobb Deep met at a knife fight. It's a detail almost too on-the-nose to believe – like Led Zeppelin forming at an Aleister Crowley ritual in Middle Earth or The Smiths linking through a gladioli salesman at a séance for Oscar Wilde.
But Prodigy actually first encountered Havoc in the spring of 1991 outside of the Manhattan School of Art and Design in Midtown. As the 3:00 PM bell rang, students flooded onto the corner of 57th St. and 2nd Ave just as a hulking goon sliced through Havoc's Avirex with a switchblade. It missed his abdomen by millimetres.
"Then Havoc spazzed out and fucked this nigga up. That was my introduction to him."
Prodigy once told me this story for a piece that I was reporting about the 20th Anniversary of their sticking-up-the-stick-up-kids masterpiece, The Infamous. It never ran for a variety of dull reasons, but I suspect the main one was the near-impossibility of writing about that album without lapsing into grimy cliché. There are only so many adjectives that exist before you resort to "haunted," "eerie," or "bleak." Edgar Allan Poe couldn't top Albert Johnson threatening to stab your brain with your nose bone.
"The kid bumped me on the lunch line," Havoc responded when I asked what the fight was over. "You know he was like a Special Ed kid in a basement class. But he was big and had that ultra… special… uh… strength… you know what you I mean? I don't want to use that term but…"
"So you're saying he had retard strength," I filled in the blank.
On the other end of the line, Prodigy and Havoc erupted into hysterical convulsive laughter.
It was weird to hear Mobb Deep laugh. Even though they said, "I might crack a smile, but ain't a damn thing funny," for most of my adolescence, I still didn't believe that they possessed the capacity to inasmuch grin. They were Mona Lisas of the mean mug, wielding scythes in their press photo, baby-faced reapers disguised as rap gods. If you shot them, Hennessey would trickle out.
I'm older now, and I know better. By the time I interviewed them, so did Mobb Deep. When we spoke, they had weathered penitentiary bids, maddening label purgatory, and a brief but horrifyingly public Twitter break-up. They were fathers and brothers, 40 years old, scarred from the horrors they'd endured but mature artists with a legacy to preserve and still expand upon.
"I have this heart where I'm not scared to fight anyone at any point," Havoc said. Prodigy murmured assent in the background. "I'm older now and would walk away. But as a young teenager, we were like whatever, let's go."
It's even weirder to consider the completion of Prodigy's cycle from cradle to grave. He was the hardest ever, with enough quotables for ten lifetimes. Despite a perennial battle with sickle cell anemia, the Crime Rhyme Houdini P seemed immortal as a death deity.
There are no right answers to the question of the "greatest rap album ever made," but if you told me that it was The Infamous, you wouldn't be wrong.
Mobb Deep flawlessly defined an era, place, aesthetic, and attitude. If Nas was the aloof observational poet sketching devils lasso metaphors of Queensbridge, Mobb Deep brought the energy of Timberlands stomping down pissy stairwells; they were the sweat on your spine, the grim colour of the chalk outline, the heart racing like a cardiac patient, shattered glass echoing, the mutant fragrance of marijuana and bullet smoke. They were anti-heroes, slang originators never shook, shadowy arbiters of life and death on the 41st side of things.
There are no right answers to the question of the "greatest rap album ever made," but if you told me that it was The Infamous, you wouldn't be wrong. This was music by those ostensibly trapped and condemned by circumstance but blessed with the intelligence, musical gifts, and observational insight to escape the part of town that was similar to Vietnam.
Prodigy was one of the best writers to ever bludgeon 16 bars. His opening lines hit like an aluminium bat to the temple. If you string them together, it functions like eternally quotable autobiography or doomed reveries from Gehenna: "There's a war going on outside, no man is safe from. You can run but you can't hide forever; Ayo, Queens get the money long time no cash, I'm caught up in the hustle when the guns go blast; It all began on the street, to the back of a blue police vehicle, next come the bookings, the way things is looking; I open my eyes to the streets where I was raised as a man. And learned to use my hands for protection." So it goes.
You couldn't question his influence, debate his brilliance at talking shit, or confuse him with anyone seen on TV. After the first song, they included a "prelude" to threaten all enemies, current or future. He lampooned rappers with half-ass rhymes on some space shit. He told us he was speaking for his fucking self, but that was superfluous. Thousands tried, but no one could successfully imitate the P. He issued fatwas in a disturbed monotone, calmly smoking a Newport and wearing a bulletproof vest.
Mortality was never so directly or brazenly addressed. With Biggie's debut, he alternately laughed, taunted, and bowed down to the looming millstone of his demise. On The Infamous, Prodigy and Havoc sounded supremely confident; they were going to mug the grim reaper, decapitate the corpse, tie a brick to it and throw it in the East River.
Every song contains a different epitaph: until my death, my only goal is to stay alive; ain't no love, it seems the devil stole my soul; lock me up forever but they can't deflate me; I got you stuck off the realness. And despite the trials and drama, we never came unglued.
This is the full text of the interview that I had with Prodigy and Havoc about The Infamous – music will last until the apocalypse, maybe longer. Hopefully, there's unlimited bread, ribs, and hundred dollar bills in the afterlife.
Noisey: What stands out about the period leading up to the record of The Infamous for you?
Prodigy: I just remember the feeling of being dropped from Island and having our hearts broken. Because we were given a chance to put out an album to the world. We got the chance for people to know who we were. We wanted to make our dreams come true and do hip-hop for a living, but we didn't do it right.
And then we got dropped. We were like "damn, yo, what the fuck's up?" We was young kids making an album. We didn't take it as seriously as we should have, so we re-collected ourselves… we got back in the lab, and we got inspired by other hip-hop that was out at the time.
What hip-hop were you inspired by?
Nas had just dropped Illmatic. "Protect Ya Neck," the single, had just come out. The "Method Man" single had just came out. That was what we was playing and listening to. We was regrouping and trying to figure out the right way.
What were you predominantly inspired by before that?
Our original influences. So when we were making Juvenile Hell, we were listening to the Jungle Brothers, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Biz Markie, A Tribe Called Quest. That was the shit that made us want to start rapping. We were like, "damn, we fucked up man, we gotta do the shit the right way."
What was going through your head at the time?
It was kind of embarrassing for us. We thought we knew what we were doing. We'd made an album. Bought our gold chains and gold teeth. We got on TV. We was like, "we doing it." But then we got a reality check and got dropped. So we went back and just listened to the music that was coming out. Nas, Main Source, Biggie. Niggas that was making dope hip-hop.
We was embarrassed that our first effort at hip-hop didn't stand up to what was out there. It was like, are we going to be this wack-ass group who no one remembers? Who made an album that didn't go nowhere? Meanwhile, all these other dudes are being successful and making incredible hip-hop. We needed to get our shit together.
"We was embarrassed that our first effort at hip-hop didn't stand up to what was out there. It was like, are we going to be this wack-ass group who no one remembers?"
How did you go about doing that?
We had to look deep inside our soul and create some shit that stood the test of time. We had to shake the world up – that made us try harder than ever before.
It made us really be strategic. It turned us from young kids wilding out to strategic young kids. These beats gotta sound ill. Every word on the beat has to be incredible. The videos have to be incredible. That's the mentality that happened when we went in.
Not only that, we didn't have the money to afford the producers that we wanted. The dope producers. Nas had dope production. RZA was killing 'em. Puff and Biggie were coming up with ill productions. It was like, yo, since we couldn't afford these ill producers, we have to come up with their own beats. We had to be like, what can we make different about our lyrics and songs that was different than before.
What do you think you did differently?
We talked about our real life. The shit that was really happening: the dramas, the ups and downs, the positives and negatives. Let's try to put a real message in our music. What's happening in our neighbourhood. Let's give our perspective on things
We started making our own beats and getting really serious in our lyrics. We discovered that we had a sound that wasn't out there. Our lifestyle, what we grew up on, no one was touching on it. Nas did a good job, but that was it.
We started writing songs like "Shook Ones" and "Survival of the Fittest" explaining our neighborhood, but more our personal lives. Me dealing with the pain of sickle cell or us dealing with shit in the streets.
Once we did that, we'd take the songs out on the block to QBC or Hempstead and just play it on a little radio. We wouldn't be like, "check this new song," we'd just come out and play it, and when we saw the reaction, that's how we knew that we had something. People would be like, "what's that, this is ill. Who made this beat? Did you hear what Havoc and P just said?" That made us feel good. We were on the right path now and kept at it.
How did you end up getting the deal with Loud?
We did our first few songs with Matty C, and it just so happened that he'd gotten a deal at a new company called Loud to be an A&R. We didn't even know that when we gave him the new music. He was like, "I'll let you know what's up." He took it to Steve Rifkind and told him, "Hey, these dudes are from Queens. They didn't do too well before, but now they've refined their style and deserve a second chance."
Steve wanted to take a meeting immediately. We went up there with Steve, heard his offer and what he wanted to do. He'd just signed Wu-Tang, but he had nothing like us – these wild street kids that had this music. Steve right away understood it. He was like, "I want to do this deal with y'all, what does it take to sign y'all?" We was like, "we did it my nigga, we got a second chance now."
Around that same time, we'd been in talks with Puffy when he heard our new music, but we took the deal with Loud and got a little budget together.
So where did it go from there?
Now we got a new deal, an ill new perspective on how we're making our music and what Mobb Deep is about. Then we hit the studio and refused to make the same mistake as last time. We refused to be the laughingstock of the hood. They were like, "look what Nas did, y'all suck."
That wasn't happening anymore. That passion to not lose and that passion to be successful was in us like a motherfucker. That was our whole mentality. When you hear that album, that's what you're hearing. We had a story to tell. It's not Nas's story. It's different.
"We refused to be the laughingstock of the hood. They were like, 'look what Nas did, y'all suck.' That wasn't happening anymore."
What was different to you?
We were the younger, wilder kids from the neighbourhood. His style was more refined and intelligent. Even though we was around the same age, Nas seemed way older than us. We wasn't copying his style; we had a whole new sound with the beats. We made the music really dark and made the lyrics fit with the sinister music.
What was Hempstead like when you were growing up?
Hempstead is a suburban neighbourhood. There are houses with backyards and trees. It looks like pretty nice, but in the middle of this suburbia, you have projects and low-income housing. It's a borderline type neighbourhood. Hempstead is on the border of poverty and all the million dollar homes. It's the closest neighbourhood to Queens as far as Long Island goes.
When my family first moved to Hempstead in the 1960s, they were one of the first black families. It used to be an all white neighbourhood, but there was white flight when the black people with money started moving in. When I was like 13 or 14, Hempstead had just become all black, and the poverty became worse and worse. When we was working on The Infamous album, Hempstead was like an abandoned neighbourhood. The downtown was empty. You could tell it used to be thriving, but then something happened.
What do you remember most about growing up in Queensbridge?
Havoc: How drug infested it was. A lot of my homeboys' moms or family members were on crack. A lot of kids my age were getting arrested for small drug crimes. There were shootouts and shit like that.
In what ways do you think that environment shaped you?
It impacted us to the fact that one of our peoples, my brother, was on the run from a murder charge. He eventually beat the case, but him being on the lam, and not being able to experience what we was going through as far as the making of the record, it really impacted us. If you listen to "Temperature Rising," that record was directly about the situation. We was rapping about real life.
Prodigy: When I said "I'm only 19 but my mind is old" – at that time when I said that line, I was 18. In my lyrics, I used to always state two years ahead. I did that to make it seem like we were ahead of our time – a time capsule almost. It had never been done before.
That's one of my favorite lines in rap music. What were the things you were thinking about when you wrote that lyric?
What I meant was, all the stuff that I'd been through in my life – dealing with sickle cell and just dealing with life period. It forces you to grow up quickly. I was forced to deal with the pain and hanging in the streets, and wilding out. It makes you think like an adult and make adult decisions and be way more mature than your actual age. We'd been through so much. At 19, I felt like I was 40.
How are you different today from your teenaged selves?
Havoc: For me, a lot of the things that I saw 20 years ago or the things that I was doing, I'm surprised at. Because half of it, I wouldn't do today. I'm surprised that I had the heart to do that. If I would've fallen victim to those things, I wouldn't be talking to you today. I recognise the person, but it's a different person for me.
Prodigy: I look back on a lot of the shit that I did when I was young and I'm just like wow, we were just some wild kids having fun and enjoying life.
What did the beef with 2Pac start over?
On "Survival of the Fittest" we was like "Thug Life we still living it." 2Pac had his Thug Life thing that he was promoting. When he said that and put that into the universe maybe he didn't realise that we started that slang. We would say thug life because that was the shit to say.
We wasn't trying to diss 2Pac. We didn't have any problem with 2Pac. We liked his music. But I think he took offence to it. That said, it's not really where the problem actually started, but that was a seed planted in Pac's mind.
The real problems started with Pac when Snoop made the "New York New York" song where he kicked over the buildings. We took offence to that. You stomping through New York and kicking over Queensbridge buildings?
We made "LA LA" to stand up for our state and Queens. When we did that, 2Pac had just got signed to Death Row and was just working on his album, and when he heard that, he was like, "I'm going to be the one to ride." And just so incidentally, he and Biggie were beefing at the same time.
How did you originally link up with Q-Tip (who mixed and produced several songs on the album)?
When Havoc and I first met and made our first demo, we used to cut out of school and stand outside of record labels whose address we got from the back of albums. We were already going to school in Manhattan, so we'd just stand outside of Def Jam. Sure enough we'd see the rappers come out the building, and we'd be like, "please check us out, listen to our demo."
Some would be like, "nah, I ain't got the time." But Q-Tip saw us standing there one day and we were like, "can you listen and check us out?" He stopped, put the headphones on, and listened to a few songs. He was like, "I fuck with y'all." We told him we were from Queens, and he was like, "let me introduce you to some people."
"The feeling was a dark feeling. We wasn't gonna hear a pretty sound for us to rhyme this fucked up story."
That was our introduction to the industry. We met Chris Lighty that day. Chris was working with Rush Management at the time, and we met a couple people and started going to industry functions. Such and such is having a party tonight. Someone's doing a talent show. We started getting inside information about the industry.
After the deal with Loud, we were like let's holler at Q-Tip and get some beats for the album. He was like, "hell yeah." And he made a few tracks for us. We went to his crib, he'd play us some music, and then he made a few joints for us and also helped fine tune things. He'd come to the mix sessions and just give us advice, do this with this snare, give us some pointers there.
What were the things you did to the beats to give them that sinister feel and tone that matched the mood of the projects?
I know one thing: When Havoc would make the beats, we'd use a lot of dirty samples where you could hear the static on the record. You'd hear that little popping and scratch. A lot of that was incorporated into the beats to give it that grimy dirty sound.
Havoc: As far as how we got the beats to sound just like the projects, that's the mood that we was in. The sound was the product of our surroundings. The feeling was a dark feeling. We wasn't gonna hear a pretty sound for us to rhyme this fucked up story. It was a compelling story… really fucked up stories. If you weren't from the area, you could look at it and be like damn, these motherfuckers is going through this so young?
For the production, I'd just watch Large Professor and Primo and learned how to arrange certain drums and to get it how you wanted it to sound. I didn't ask them too many questions.
Prodigy: It was the perfect marriage – the environment that we was from, the sounds that came out of our brain, and the lyrics that matched. It was our lifestyle; it was just a lot of pain. There was a lot of negativity going on, a lot of hopelessness, and heartbreak. We were wanting to survive and make money.
I'd be in the hospital all my life, near my deathbed… feeling like I ain't gonna make it. When Havoc would make these dark-ass beats, that's exactly how I felt inside. It matched my moods and attitude. That's the attitude I had about life. I didn't give a fuck. I'm going to die anyway.
What were the substances you were on during the making of the album?
The first thing that comes to my mind is St. Ides. Olde English, a lot of different 40s at that time. Crazy Horse. Red Bull. Hennessey. E&J. Seagrams Gin. A lot of beer and hard liquor
Drugs will give you an altered mind state, good or bad. I'm sure it had some kind of influence. But as far as "Drink Away the Pain," I was in the park one night in Long Island and we were drinking 40s on the monkey bars and talking shit, and I just started freestyling. I never freestyle. I'm the worst at it, but I started getting loose and said this line, "I used to be in love with this bitch named E&J," and it ended up being a verse on the song.
That was definitely influenced by alcohol. There were a whole lot of blunts too. But for the most part, we dealt with reality. We wasn't really on some trippy, psychedelic shit.
"There was nothing like Nas, Mobb Deep, or Wu-Tang. We created that genre of music. That whole era is immortalized because of what we created."
Our music is based on that reality of the neighbourhood. We couldn't be no idiots and survive in the times that we was living in. We were very mature and made sure that our lyrics made sense. We weren't just saying something to sound cool. It was something where we wanted people to actually learn.
You can definitely apply "Survival of the Fittest" to anything in life. Even if it's medical school, you can't get through medical school if you're not strong enough to survive.
Why do you think the music has proven to be so timeless?
It's because we base our music on reality. We call it reality rap. When they were trying to label us gangsta rap, we created our own label. This is reality rap. This shit is really happening. This shit is what we really go through.
I guess that's a major factor just because it's just so real. It touches home for people and they can relate to it. At that time, there was nothing out there like what we were doing. There was nothing like Nas, Mobb Deep, or Wu-Tang. We created that genre of music. That whole era is immortalised because of what we created.
When people look back on their youth, those are their memories. They'll be like, "I remember when we did this, 'Shook Ones' was popping. 'Temperatures Rising?' Oh I can relate to that, my cousin is going through the same shit."
But then you got kids who are 16 or 17 who can relate to it too. It's just that it was so real. It's like soul music. It just connects.
Jeff Weiss is the founder of the rap blog Passion of the Weiss, which recently named The Infamous the hardest rap album of all time. Follow him on Twitter .