Exclusive: Mobb Deep Talk Career Beginnings & 'The Infamous' on Its 20th Anniversary
Prodigy & Havoc also say they're hoping to have a new album out this year.
Two teenagers are standing outside of Island Def Jam on Broadway soliciting their tapes. It's 1991 and the music from Mobb Deep's Prodigy and Havoc -- then known as Albert Johnson and Kejuan Muchita -- had little more than juvenile rhymes, wild energy and lo-fi production. But it definitely had promise.
"Yo dun! Listen to our joints!" Muchita and Johnson plead repeatedly while playing hooky from the High School of Art and Design, just a few blocks away. Early '90s Jam Master Jay disciples, the Afros, were among the myriad of somebodies coming and going from the hip-hop cornerstone building, weary of what a young P-Wee and K-Wee were selling. The duo, who had just met each other days earlier, had built a reputation as a couple of wild kids with a knack for rhyming.
After umpteen denials someone finally decided to give the youngsters -- who called themselves Poetical Prophets at the time -- a listen and invite them inside. Barely at legal driving age, the two emcees were being walked into a world they knew little about. Def Jam was the New York hip-hop machine and their tour guide was none other than Q-Tip.
A year later the duo -- now known as Prodigy and Havoc -- dropped their Poetical Prophets moniker for something darker. They would become Mobb Deep and drop their debut album, Juvenile Hell, in 1993. While it produced a couple of decent youth-inspired anthems, the Mobb's first effort on wax was remembered as being more green than portraying anything from the dark side. Its adolescent nature was only fitting for how the duo spent their tenure at their first label home, 4th & B'way Records, admitting they were young and immature in retrospect.
In early 1994, Prodigy and Havoc were dropped from their first record deal. It was then that their original mentor, Q-Tip, would fully reinstate himself within the Mobb camp. That same year the A Tribe Called Quest producer and Queensbridge duo began work on Mobb Deep's Magnum Opus, The Infamous. Q-Tip's prowess and example helped Prodigy and Havoc put together their most critically acclaimed album to date and perhaps one of the darkest LPs the genre has ever experienced.
Billboard recently spoke to the Infamous duo about their second album 20 years later. Released April 25, 1995, The Infamous became a cornerstone of gutter gripping rhymes over production just as eerie. Its dark elements were the perfect soundtrack for a mid-90s walkthrough of North America's largest housing projects, Queensbridge.
Take me back to the beginning of Mobb Deep and your first attempts at acquiring a record deal.
Havoc: We were figuring how to go about getting a record deal back when me and P first met and decided to become a group. And of course, we had to make a demo so we did. We were real young and didn't know too much about the business but we did know that we would have to go to record companies and have someone listen to our demo. We would look on the back of hip-hop albums that were out back then and get the addresses of the labels. One of them was Def Jam so we went up to Def Jam. Rush Management -- what we would call RAL (Rush Associated Labels) back then -- had many artists [on their roster] like Run-DMC, De La Soul, etc. Q-Tip was one of the people that we met and took a liking to us and got us in the building to meet different people.
Prodigy: When me and Hav just met I had access to Battery [Mastering] Studio for a little while, because they had wanted to sign me as a solo artist. But then I met Hav. We clicked right away and I was like, 'nah, we're going to do this group thing now.' They didn't really want to do the group thing so we lost access to that studio. We had to find another place to work. As soon as we met we got right to work and music was our life. Hip-hop music was our life. We were so into it the same way and with the same amount of passion.
What made you drop Poetical Prophets for Mobb Deep?
Havoc: It really didn't fit us and what we were really about. We were prophets but it really wasn't a strong name for us. We really wanted something to describe us.
Prodigy: I remember the day we came up with that [Mobb Deep] name. We were at Def Jam and we were writing [names down] on paper and was like, 'Mobb Deep, that's ill. Hell yeah!'"
Havoc: What really made us change it was [that] we were going to do a deal with Puffy at the time. He was going to sign us and everything but he said, "There's only one thing about y'all. Y'all need to change your name." We ended up not signing at all.
Prodigy: Yo, I forgot Puffy had said that. Word! Yeah, talk about that a little bit more. That's crazy!
Havoc: When we were shopping around our demos and trying to get signed, Puff was one of the people that we went to 'cause we were really tight with Puff back in the day -- Prodigy more so. Prodigy would go out to clubs and stuff like that. Puff used to send us limos and we were kind of cool with him. I guess that was him warming up to us and trying to sign us. He wanted to sign us bad. He would've signed us but one thing he said, I remember, was, 'I like y'all and everything but y'all got to change your name.' He didn't try to come up with a name for us. He left that up to us. So when me and P was chillin' around at Def Jam the light bulb must've struck. We [came up with] Mobb Deep. Puff kind of initiated the name change.
You both were really young when you dropped Juvenile Hell. What really happened at 4th & Broadway?
Havoc: We were young, and [that] was our first record deal. I think the people over there had great intentions. It was a good situation but we were brand new and [trying to] find ourselves. At the time, 4th & Broadway was distributed through major [label], Island Records. I guess they were looking for something more. They were looking for something big out of the gate, but we kind of proved that we needed to be cultivated. We weren't going to be crazy out the gate. I guess to them [we weren't] crazy enough [nor] was the album we released -- they just let us go. It wasn't like they didn't like us or anything like that, but I don't think they knew what to do with us. They weren't into cultivating talent at that time. We just parted ways. There wasn't any bad blood or anything like that but I'm glad they were smart enough to let us go [laughs] because here we are now.
It's well documented that Q-Tip really helped out with The Infamous. How did he help you get your sound?
Havoc: Pretty much he was just a mentor and I already was a fan of Tribe Called Quest's music, production-wise, and as far as artists too, but their production was tight and I used to try to emulate that. Then when we actually got a chance to work with Q-Tip that just brought it full circle 'cause I got to see how he worked and what he did. Instead of asking questions, I just watched and observed. He would do things and then later when he would leave I would kind of emulate it somewhat [as far as] the style and the technique and how he would move but use it in my own songs.
DJ Premier is someone else who helped you guys out early on. He produced "Cop Hell," which was one of your earliest songs. He also was the first to debut "Shook Ones Pt. II" on the radio. What was his involvement like early on in your careers?
Prodigy: Premier came into the picture when were starting to make our own beats and all that. And we wanted to get some beats from our favorite producers in the game when we were working on the album. We turned to some people and they were asking for ridiculous prices. Premier was one of the first producers that we reached out to and he was like, 'Hell yeah! Let's get to work.' He was showing us love and giving young, new artists a chance. He was a pretty major producer at that point in time. We were like, 'Yo, we want a Premier beat.' He actually came, did the beat and didn't charge us crazy and that's how we got our relationship with Premo.
Premo would always make sure we were there around [in] the industry, going to the parties, and certain industry functions. We were always around 'cause we had the inside information like, 'Where the parties at? Where's it popping at?' We used to see Lil' Dap from Group Home. They used to come hang out with us in the studio so it almost became a family. Back then you used to see all of us together, Mobb Deep [and] Group Home. That was our thing and for a minute it was like that.
Large Professor was also someone who was involved with your early development --- probably less to the extent that he was with Nas but still a key player.
Havoc: Large Professor was somebody who was doing his thing as far as production and rapping. He was connected with Nas, he had the group Main Source and so he was a main figure within the hip-hop circles. When we finally landed a deal with 4th & Broadway one of the names that popped up [as far as] someone to [work with] was Large Professor. He's not just a beat maker -- he's a producer. He kind of guided us like how to do the hooks. He had some ideas in his head. He doesn't just come to the studio and drop a beat like, 'Here you go.' It was a good experience to watch, be around him and gain a little bit of knowledge. He wasn't too much of a talker. He was just the type of person you had to watch and observe.
And Havoc, I know Tragedy Khadafi played a big role in your development beyond giving you your rap name. He was kind of that big brother that was always around at that time, kind of like Marley Marl was to him. Tell me about that as well.
Havoc: Yeah, Tragedy's role was that of a mentor. He used to force me to write lyrics everyday. He brought me around my first industry gathering, first radio station, first music studio and stuff like that. He was and still is influential. He has a lot of affect on me as an artist, friend, as a person and [he] helped me start doing what I did.
Matty C was an A&R of yours over at Loud Records but before you were even a part of the label he wrote your "Unsigned Hype" piece in The Source. How big was he for you in getting that second record deal?
Prodigy: Matty was super huge for us in getting Mobb Deep's music out to the world. "Unsigned Hype" was like a big thing back then. As far as magazines [The Source] was the Bible of hip-hop so for us to be in "Unsigned Hype" was huge. Matty loved our music and he knew what he was doing. When he got a job working for Steve [Rifkind] -- over at Loud -- one of the first things he did was like, 'Let's sign Mobb Deep.' We used to go up there and play whatever new songs we had for him. We went up there and played our demo and he was like, 'Aight, this is what it is then."'
And Schott Free also worked for you too…
Prodigy: Yeah Schott worked for us too. He was our A&R too, right Hav?
Havoc: Yeah that was basically Matty C's partner and they both brought us over to Loud and oversaw our process and full range of creativity. [They] basically let us do what we wanted. They were really an inspiration and influential in guiding us through the album. We had a lot of [different] versions of songs from The Infamous album because sometimes they would add in their little input or suggestions.
The skits and interludes are legendary on this album. How unrehearsed were they? Did you, Noyd and Infamous Mobb just get drunk and wild out in the studio and record it or was it a little more scripted than that?
Prodigy: Most of it was just on the fly. It was just us having fun [and] being ourselves. A couple of times we would think of an idea and we would be like, 'Yo, lets do this at the beginning of the song' -- something to make it feel more like a movie when you're listening to the album. For the most part it was us just having fun in the studio, freestyling and [adding] little skits here and there.
I've heard that a lot of the album was created while you were "intoxicated." Mad 40s, blunts and other substances were being passed around too.
Prodigy: Ah man, that was like a daily ritual for us. [We were in] the studio with some 40s, weed, [and] we had some bogeys. That was just our thing, man [laughs]. We were young, having fun and enjoying life so that was definitely a big part of the Mobb Deep studio sessions back then [laughs].
Illmatic came out in '94 and had a lot of impact on the hip-hop but especially Queensbridge. The Infamous is widely regarded as that next great Queensbridge album in retrospect, but at the time, was there any added pressure to make a really great album because of what preceded you in your own neighborhood?
Havoc: Well, to me, I'm glad he came out with his first because I got too see [and say], 'Alight, I know what the fuck I've got to do.' [There] really wasn't any pressure because we knew we were talented, but we knew what we were up against. We knew that our work was cut out for us.
New York was a lot more interconnected during the early '90s. I know Notorious B.I.G. had his thoughts about the album and you guys respected him a lot and vice versa even though the collaborative catalog is thin. Talk about his involvement with The Infamous and your early relationship with him.
Havoc: We have much love and respect for B.I.G. [He] was in Brooklyn doing [his] thing, we were in Queens. That's one of the people that we knew that when we came across it would almost be like we already knew each other. That's how much respect we had for each other. There never was any bad blood. We knew he was a dope artist and I'm sure he felt the same about us. Whenever we crossed paths it was always love. We actually did a couple shows with him and things of that nature.
What are each of your favorite songs on The Infamous?
Prodigy: Man, um… Probably "Survival of the Fittest" and "Party Over."
Havoc: I would have to say "Shook Ones Pt. II" hands down and "Temperature's Rising."
It's kind of been a poorly kept secret until now but supposedly you're working on a new Mobb Deep album completely produced by The Alchemist. Care to dish out any details?
Prodigy: We've just been working on the beginnings of it. We've got a few joints knocked out; it's coming along. It'll be out soon. [Alchemist producing the album] is the plan right now. I'm sure Hav will have something on there or they'll probably be collaborating on a few joints here and there but we had an idea like, 'Yo, let's do something different and have Al do the whole album.' We just wanted to do something different and get some new excitement. I'm sure the fans would appreciate it.
Alchemist has been long a part of the Mobb camp, really since Murda Muzik. Talk about that dynamic, then and now.
Havoc: We met him through [DJ] Muggs. Muggs was working on some project back in the late ‘90s or something like that and we connected [with Alchemist] ever since. He had that sound that fit Mobb Deep well and we were lucky to have a dude like that around. We've all been cool ever since. He started producing a lot of our singles as well as album cuts and we've kept him around. He's like an honorary Mobb Deep member without the contract.
Moving forward, jumping into 2015, Mobb Deep is still here. We making albums and in the midst of making these albums we just like to come up with ideas like, 'why don't we do a new album like this? Why don't we do a new album like that or why don't we do a new album with Alchemist?' We've been throwing around ideas, and making a few songs. Nothing really etched in stone but it's just an idea that we're throwing around. How much that album will become a reality [is] based around how we fit [it in] our schedules, as far as touring and things of that nature.
Possible release date that you're targeting?
Havoc: Nah, not yet. If I could say tentatively, I would say definitely coming out this year.