Mobb Deep’s “The Infamous”: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective

Mobb Deep’s sophomore LP serves as the breakthrough album for one of Rap’s all time great duos in the midst of a Golden Era

The now legendary duo Mobb Deep were originally known as the Poetical Prophets. They were both 16 year old Rap wunderkinds discovered by Matty C of The Source and featured in the Unsigned Hype column of the famed Hip Hop publication back in the July 1991 issue. In 1992, they secured a record deal with 4th & B’way/Island Records thanks to assistance from fellow The Source contributor Bonz Malone, the 4th & B’way A&R who signed them. When Havoc and Prodigy finally released their debut album “Juvenile Hell” they were both 18 on the verge of turning 19 in April 1993.

There was little promotion from Island Records for Mobb Deep’s DJ Premier produced lead single “Peer Pressure” which had a video that was played sparingly on BET’s Rap City. Their follow up single “Hit It From The Back” was produced by Bomb Squad producer Kerwin “Sleek” Young but got little airplay outside of college radio along the Eastern Seaboard. It was placed on a few underground Rap mixtapes and the video made the rounds on cable access Rap programs and The Box but never made it to BET’s Rap City or Yo! MTV Raps so 4th & B’way/Island ended up releasing Mobb Deep due to anemic sales, their singles garnering minimal radio play and lackluster chart performance.

The Source senior contributor Matty C. also known as Matt Life and his partner Schott Free, who were also A&R’s, put together another demo then shopped around for a new home for the Mobb. They ultimately secured them a new record deal on Steve Rifkind’s Loud/RCA in 1994 with help from fellow Loud A&R Stretch Armstrong who played one of their demos (“Patty Shop”) on The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show on WKCR 88 tec 9 then brought it to the attention of Steve Rifkind. Loud/RCA was a label on the rise and home to an impressive roster that included The Alkaholiks, Wu Tang Clan, Cella Dwellas & Raekwon at the time.

The young industry veterans Havoc & Prodigy felt as though this was a make it or break project for them. They now had a clean slate and another opportunity to finally make their mark on the Rap world but they had their work cut out for them as they were smack in the middle of a Golden Era. If they were going to finally reach their full potentials as artists it was time to show & prove.

Prodigy was from a musical family, his great uncle Keg Johnson was a Jazz trombonist, his grandfather was the legendary Jazz saxophonist Budd Johnson and his grandmother Bernice Johnson was a famous dancer on the New York club circuit who founded the Bernice Johnson Dancers troupe and owned a dance studio in Long Island when Prodigy was a kid. His father Budd Johnson Jr. was a doo wop vocalist with The Chanters and his mother Fatima Francis Johnson was part of the legendary 60’s girl vocal group The Crystals who were produced by Phil Spector.

Havoc inherited a ton of amazing records from his father who was a DJ and Prodigy had an impressive collection of records inherited from his grandparents. As young producers they’d throw themselves into digging through their collective records searching for sample sources. In a sense, creating music that illicited an emotional response from listeners that stuck with them for decades after the fact was encoded in both of their DNA’s from jump.

Nas’ “Illmatic” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready To Die” both defined New York Rap for the year 1994 and these albums were the Gold and Platinum standard and the benchmark for classic material at the time of the making of “The Infamous”. Havoc and Prodigy had their work cut out for them. Even as Prodigy and Havoc were making heat on their own, they needed assistance and guidance from someone well versed in crafting classic Rap albums. Enter Q-Tip The Abstract of A Tribe Called Quest to the fold who volunteered his expertise. After Matt Life had a meeting with Chris Lighty & Q-Tip to discuss terms an agreement was reached. Shortly afterwards, the team began planning out a course of action.

Photo credit: Chi Modu

At the time, Havoc and Prodigy began allocating the meager budget to begin crafting their sophomore album in Hempstead, Long Island. They were plugging along shortly before they both agreed a change of scenery was in dire need in order to achieve the necessary aesthetic to be competitive in that era so they relocated the entire operation to the 41st Side of the massive 96 building public housing development contained in 6 blocks, Queensbridge Houses.

The energy of Queensbridge, their extended family (later known as the Infamous Mobb) and close asssociates were often present in studio sessions and added to the authenticity of the project. Queensbridge Houses, one of Hip Hop & Rap’s hotbeds was the origin story of generation upon generation of luminaries at the time including DJ Marley Marl, DJ Hot Day, Roxanne Shante, Tragedy/Intelligent Hoodlum (Khadafi), MC Shan, Craig G, (Blaq) Poet (later of Screwball), Kamikaze (later becoming Screwball), Cormega, Nas, DJ Prince A.D. (later Killa Sha of Killa Kidz), Capone (later of Capone -N-Noreaga), Lakey The Kid & Nature. Mobb Deep, Big Noyd and Infamous Mobb were in the process of adding several more chapters to the Hip Hop History Of Queensbridge Houses.

Most pre-production for “The Infamous” was done there on an Akai MPC60. Eventually Havoc copped an MPC 3000 shortly after it debuted in 1994 and that was the tool of war going forward. Its acquisition weighed heavily in the sound of their 1996 LP “Hell On Earth”

It wasn’t just Havoc and Prodigy who were entering unexplored territory and learning as they went, this was also the case for Matt Life for whom co-ordinating and overseeing the creation of “The Infamous” was his first project at Loud/RCA. With each success, every completed track, every song that was approved by the team and brass at Loud they served as benchmarks the album was coming along well. As Havoc, Prodigy and Matt Life’s confidence grew the results were evident in the music they created. In many ways, Havoc and Prodigy considered “The Infamous” their true first album since they had so little input in their debut on 4th & B’way/Island.

Mobb Deep also weren’t being pressured into making music that sounded like anyone else’s on the market nor were they being asked to purposely make a single. Loud had already seen massive success with the Wu Tang Clan in 1993 & 1994 putting out what most major labels would think were album tracks as singles so Loud Records just needed Mobb Deep to deliver them an undeniable album and things would work out from there. This meant Havoc & Prodigy had the freedom and leeway necessary to craft the final product Loud/RCA would later frame and deliver to the masses.

The process of creating the album began with a demo called “Patty Shop” and the original versions of the songs “Shook Ones Pt. I”, “Give Up The Goods”, “Survival Of The Fittest” & “Temperature’s Rising”. Crazy to think that the beat/song created as a response to the pre-release single ended up not only the song most people erroneously think was the lead single for the album but also the centerpiece of “The Infamous”.

Q-Tip was instrumental (pun intended) in being an advisor, sounding board, guide and he re-did/finished a few songs (“Temperature’s Rising” & “Give Up The Goods (Just Step)” in addition to working on one track with Mobb Deep from scratch (“Drink Away The Pain (Situations)” while contributing finishing touches to “Up North Trip”, “Trife Life” & “Survival Of the Fittest” in addition to mixing all the songs he produced and made improvements to. Q-Tip didn’t try to make Havoc & Prodigy sound like Tribe, he was only interested in trying to help their own sound reach its zenith.

As the album was being fleshed out, guest appearances occurred organically. Raekwon constantly encountered Mobb Deep in the Loud Records offices, Nas was an affiliate from their shared time in Queensbridge, Big Noyd was extended family who also appeared on “Stomp Em Out” off “Juvenile Hell”, Ghostface Killah was brought into the mix by Raekwon and of course, Q-Tip was already working on the album as part of the team so he brought in Crystal Robinson to do the vocals on “Temperature’s Rising”.

Story goes that it was Mobb Deep and crew who set up Raekwon and Ghostface Killah with Nas after hanging with them in Staten Island one night and Raekwon told Havoc and Prodigy he and Ghost wanted to work with Nas. This discussion led to the recordings of both “Eye For An Eye (Your Beef Is Mines)” and “Verbal Intercourse” off “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…”

Schott “Free” Jacobs closely scrutinized the quality of the rhymes and overall song construction while Matt “Life” Capoluongo focused on the production side. Between the two of them, Q-Tip focused on what songs to finish in their album recording sessions at Platinum Island Studios in Manhattan. The rest of the album was recorded in Manhattan’s Battery Studios, Firehouse Studios & Unique Recording Studios.

While the initial album credits read as having every song produced by Mobb Deep, Havoc was responsible for producing the overwhelming majority of the album with Prodigy contributing a couple of tracks. The most ironic part of Mobb Deep’s partnership is how Havoc used to push Prodigy to write rhymes after Tragedy Khadafi challenged him to improve his bars and Prodigy initially taught Havoc how to sample from records when Prodigy was considered the stronger emcee of the duo while Havoc became the main producer.

Matt Life received a co-producer credit for “Party Over” after contributing drum samples for the track borne from several record digging outings with Havoc and Schott Free was granted a co-producer credit for his contributions to the posse track “Right Back At You” because he provided the Les McCann sample source for it. Schott Free was part of the Staten Island outfit Red Eye Crew who were also former Unsigned Hype winners and they used to rhyme over it years ago.

After the album had been recorded it was up to Matt Life, Schott Free, Q-Tip & Prodigy to sequence it and add the skits/preludes (“The Infamous Prelude” , “Just Step Prelude” & “The Grave Prelude”) that turned “The Infamous” into a concise body of work. Prodigy took the point on that and often came up with the concepts and ideas to properly frame everything. Mobb Deep were credited as co-executive producers alongside A&R’s Matt Life & Schott Free. Now, they had to wait and see how “Shook Ones Pt. II” would be received by the general public and go from there.

Loud Records released “Shook Ones Pt. II” in early February and as the song was making noise it became quickly apparent it was going to be a smash. No surprise, it was listed as one of the Sure Shot Singles in the February 1995 issue of The Source. Everywhere it was played, it evoked an instant reaction. People lost their minds when they heard the opening notes. When you think of the other songs that were out in early 1995, you’ll realize exactly how impressive that is.

By early March Loud/RCA had turned getting the album out into a priority because “Shook Ones Pt. II” had hit #7 on the March 4th, 1995 Hot Rap Singles chart in only its 2nd week charting earning the distinction of Greatest Gainer. To put things into full perspective Billboard’s Greatest Gainer from the previous week on the Hot Rap Singles chart was Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo”. Shit was getting real, dun. It was the start of the ending of Mobb Deep’s days as an unheralded Rap duo.

Havelock Nelson led off his Billboard feature The Rap Column in the April 8th, 1995 issue with Mobb Deep, the article was titled “Loud’s Mobb Deep Depicts ‘Infamous’ Hood: 2nd Set Capture N.Y. Ghetto Life In Cinematic Detail”. Right next to it “Shook Ones Pt. II” was at #9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart behind Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac (who were at #1 & #2), Dr. Dre, Craig Mack, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Bone Thugs N’ Harmony, Keith Murray (think about it) & Channel Live.

Once “The Infamous” touched down on April 25th, 1995 “Shook Ones Pt. II” was #15 Hot Rap Singles, #23 on Maxi-Singles Sales on the Hot Dance Music charts, #39 on the Hot R&B Singles Sales chart, #80 Hot R&B Singles and #98 on the Hot 100 in the April 29th, 1995 edition of Billboard. Havoc and Prodigy were now both 20 years old, Havoc being a month shy of 21. When he wrote “FUCK ISLAND RECORDS (4TH & BROADWAY) AND WHAT!” in his album thank yous he really meant it. It was important to them both that “The Infamous” did well commercially and critically.

“The Infamous” entered the Top R&B Albums Billboard chart at #3 as the Hot Shot Debut on May 13th, 1995 only behind the “Friday OST” and 2Pac’s “Me Against The World” and #15 on the Billboard 200. Mind you, while “Shook Ones Pt. II” was a hot single sales wise and on video network’s rotations it wasn’t burning up the radio airwaves in terms of airplay. It didn’t matter because by that Spring cats were rocking custom made “HENNESY” jerseys all over the Northeast. In the end, it was the Walkmans, car stereo systems, 5 CD disc changers in people’s apartments, college radio and underground mixtapes that dictated what was hot.

The streets were responding to “The Infamous”, Mobb Deep were featured in Microphone Check and lead off The Source Fat Tape for May ’95 with “Trife Life” but didn’t get their 4.5 mic rating in The Source until the June 1995 issue (in which “Cradle To The Grave” made the Fat Tape). By then they were already moving a significant amount of units.

“The Infamous” spread through word of mouth without an elaborate marketing campaign behind it, Loud/RCA wanted the music to speak for itself and reach the audience it was always intended to just like it happened with Wu Tang Clan. The album sold consistently well for two months before becoming RIAA certified Gold on June 26th, 1995.

“The Infamous” got glowing reviews from Rap Pages, Vibe, Rolling Stone & Spin. A hardcore Rap album getting both critical acclaim from mainstream publications & overwhelming fan response from heads and street cats was a rare occurrence although it needs to be pointed out that Vibe review ran in it June/July 1995 double issue (with Michael Jackson on the cover), the Spin review ran in its August 1995 issue and the Rolling Stone review was printed in the November 16th, 1995 edition long after the album had already gone Gold.

Subsequent singles “Survival Of The Fittest”, “Temperature’s Rising” & “Give Up The Goods (Just Step)” all added to the life of the album as it remained on the charts for months afterwards but stayed in Walkman rotations through the Spring & Summer but re-entered it in the late Fall/Winter when the weather got cold because… you guessed it, “The Infamous” also works as a Winter album. It became one of those unique Rap albums that were all purpose and for all seasons.

Big Noyd, the reluctant rapper who was already a hood superstar for other reasons, was signed to a lucrative record deal with Tommy Boy off the strength of his verses on “The Infamous”. Matt Life & Schott Free were now executive producers of a Gold album and a potential classic but they were simultaneously doing A&R work on another Loud/RCA album slated for an August release…

Raekwon was recording his solo debut “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” at the same time Mobb Deep was making “The Infamous”, his lead single “Criminology”/“Glaciers Of Ice” dropped the day after “The Infamous was certified Gold and his album was released slightly over 3 months later. Both albums are on the shortlist of the ones that define 1995 and are along the continuum of classic albums made during the 2nd Golden Era (1992–96). As for “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…”? That is a story for another day.

Party’s over, tell the rest of the crew.

Host of Dart Against Humanity/Boston Legends. CCO @ Producers I Know/journalist @ Okayplayer/DJBooth/Complex/NPR/Mass Appeal/IV Boston/HipHopWired/KillerBoomBox