The infamous story of Mobb Deep

The jazz/Motown roots, classic records, coastal feud, beef with Jay Z and internal tension behind the NYC rap legends.

Mobb Deep
For two decades, veteran hip hop duo Mobb Deep have been notorious for their violent lyrics, foreboding beats and vicious beefs with rap titans like Tupac Shakur and Jay Z. But that self proclaimed “infamous” career had a much more innocent beginning.

The pair of would-be gangta rappers — Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita and Albert “Prodigy” Johnson — met in the late ’80s after enrolling at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. But Prodigy says he and his partner learned little at that prestigious institution. “The school was just a meeting place for us. Hav’ and I would arrive in the morning, then be outta there, to the studio.”

By then, Prodigy had made every effort to live up to his name. At only 15 years old, he was featured on the soundtrack for Boyz ‘n the Hood, John Singleton’s classic 1991 hood drama starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube. Two years later, Mobb Deep inked a record deal and released their debut album, Juvenile Hell. It flopped, but the production from noted beatsmiths like DJ Premier helped them build connections in New York’s insular rap network, leading to collaborations with lauded MCs like Q-Tip and Ghostface Killah on their acclaimed follow-up, 1995’s The Infamous, which is considered a benchmark of the genre to this day.

Those early successes weren’t the only things that made Prodigy’s moniker seem apt. His mother, Fatima Frances Collins, was a singer in the Crystals, a chart topping Motown girl group in the ’60s. Before that, his saxophonist uncle Budd Johnson, and great-uncle, trombonist Keg Johnson, were beloved in jazz’s bebop era. But Prodigy says their vintage melodies and rhythms didn’t necessarily inform his own music. “What influenced me more was growing up in a showbiz household. Going to their shows when I was young, it opened my eyes to that whole world behind the scenes.”

He adds that those relatives applauded his own early music forays, and weren’t distressed by his hip hop affiliates.

“There was no such thing as violence in hip hop back then,” he says. “You had lyrical battles between MC’s like KRS-One and MC Shan. But there was really no such thing as beefs then. So my family didn’t know to be scared about that, yet.”

That innocence, of course, didn’t last. Before long Mobb Deep became known as one of the genre’s most hardcore gangsta duos. Rolling Stone called The Infamous a “nihilistic masterpiece,” and fans were especially drawn to the track “Eye for an Eye,” which featured Havoc spitting lines like:

“Count up my blessings, add up my weapons / Cock back the gat and let my nine serve purpose / Sling do my thing organize fiend servants.”

mobbdeep3Detractors said Mobb Deep epitomized all of hip hop’s ills: the misogyny, the drugs, and especially the violence. And while their rhymes may have been ruthless, Prodigy says that the alternative would have been far worse.

“It helped me get the anger and pain out of my system, and focus on something positive,” he says. “Instead of doing something negative with those emotions, I made a song about them.”

A recent write-up in Variety praised Prodigy and Havoc’s furious rhymes, saying: “such records as Nas’s Illmatic, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous or 2Pac’s Me Against the World are complex works of pulp art as brutally beautiful as any Sam Peckinpah film or Cormac McCarthy novel.”

Havoc agrees with that assessment, adding that listeners shouldn’t see his violent rhymes as rallying cries. “If I’m spitting negative things, I’m not telling you to follow me. If anything, I’m giving you something you can steer away from,” he says. “But really, when I rap I’m not trying to be positive or negative. I’m just speaking my life story.”

Aside from the cinematic rhymes, Prodigy goes on to say that Mobb Deep’s biggest cultural contribution may very well be Havoc’s production, adding: “When people think of Mobb Deep, they think of the dark, sinister, hardcore sound… Hav’ will find the most obscure part of a song, that you won’t even catch, and he’ll make a beat out of it. And you won’t even know where he got it from. So it’s not like he’s taking loops or samples. He’ll take a piece, chop it up, flip it around, and now it’s a whole new sound.”

Critics agree, including a writer for Pitchfork who gave The Infamous a perfect score. In particular, the reviewer singled out the bristling introduction of the standout track “Shook Ones Pt. II,” as “… one of rap’s most perfect sounds… a three-second piece of a Herbie Hancock instrumental, sped up and slowed down. Playing the sample back to back with its source does absolutely nothing to resolve the mystery of ‘Shook Ones Pt II.’”

But while that review praised a 2014 reissue of the 1995 classic, it went on to lambast a disc of new material that was coupled with the older album. The fresh LP, confusingly tilted The Infamous Mobb Deep, is “hastily tossed off,” according to the Pitchfork reviewer, who added that Prodigy “barely shrugs his way through” these new tracks.

But Mobb Deep is no stranger to such critiques. Back in the mid-’90s, their critical and commercial peak was diminished by the all-encompassing East Coast/West Coast feud. At the time, Tupac Shakur took aim at every major New York lyricist with tracks like “Hit ‘Em Up.” His chief target was the Notorious B.I.G., but he showed Mobb Deep no mercy. Nearly every New York rapper, including Prodigy and Havoc, shot back with their own diss tracks and the feud escalated, prompting affiliated gangs to join the fray, eventually leading to the slaying of Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

And as Mobb Deep attempted to shake partial blame for that carnage, the duo was dragged into another vicious beef. Jay Z eviscerated several rivals on his 2001 track “Takeover,” and saved some of his most biting rhymes for Prodigy, whom he called a “ballerina” before unveiling a photo of the Mobb Deep MC in a tutu to awestruck fans at a concert. A few years later, Prodigy and Havoc attempted to regain their credibility (and attain higher sales) by joining platinum-selling rapper 50 Cent’s G-Unit posse, only to have longtime fans accuse them of selling out.

Ever since, Mobb Deep has attempted to regain its hardcore following. Some of those efforts include Prodigy denying Jay Z’s tutu narrative, and countering with a gritty autobiography called My Infamous Life. He was then featured in the documentary Rhyme and Punishment, which delved into his trial, arrest for weapons possession and three years of incarceration (the documentary also focused on the legal hurdles of other MCs like Beanie Sigel and Cassidy).

When asked about those more recent full disclosures, Prodigy says: “I don’t want anybody else tellin’ my story. I want to bring it out there the right way. We had a lot of dramas and hip hop beefs going back and forth. So I just want people to get the right story, how I grew up, my background. And I don’t want anyone else to be confused or led astray by what somebody else might have to say. So it feels great to be able to share it, from the horse’s mouth.”

But none of Mobb Deep’s recent projects have touched on the duo’s most toxic rivalry of all: the one between its two members. That beef began when Prodigy was behind bars, and Havoc Tweeted that his cohort was partaking in homosexual acts while in prison, before releasing a diss track entitled “Separated (Real From the Fake).”

But by 2013, the pair had mended ties behind the scenes, and eventually embarked on a major tour to promote the rerelease of The Infamous and the new material coupled with it. Prodigy says of the reconciliation: “It feels great, period. It always feels great to be strong and move on, and keep going.”

Havoc, meanwhile, refused to give details about why he sparked the feud with those inflammatory Tweets. But he did say, “We’re bigger than personal beefs. It was a small thing to us, although other people didn’t’ seem to think so. Brothers go through things, have arguments, some private, some public, whatever. But true family always overcomes adversity in relationships. Mobb Deep is bigger than any personal discrepancy. The thing we created is too strong for dumb, bullshit problems.” ■
Mobb Deep will perform, with opening acts Peter Jackson, Magnum 357 and Scrwg Scrilla, at le Petit Olympia (1282 Amherst) on Thursday, Nov. 13, 9 p.m., $40/$55 VIP/$75 including meet ‘n’ greet

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