To celebrate the 25 year anniversary of Mobb Deep’s The Infamous… we spoke to Havoc. He talked about crafting his classic, the best Queensbridge albums, what Q-Tip did for the Mobb’s career, Nas’ early success, and more.
To fully understand Mobb Deep’s The Infamous… — one of the greatest albums ever recorded — you need to understand two albums that came prior.
The first is Mobb Deep’s debut Juvenile Hell. Even though they were only 18 at the time, the album’s release concluded what was already a long journey for the two MCs. Prodigy, who was from Hempstead, Long Island, and Havoc, who lived in Queensbridge Houses, met at the High School of Art and Design in Manhatten a couple of years prior. They bonded over hip-hop and eventually formed Poetical Prophets. The group remained unsigned but they were actively pitching themselves to labels. (Prodigy briefly was signed to Jive records after a chance encounter with Q-Tip; that led to nothing but an uncredited appearance on the Boyz N The Hood soundtrack in 1991.)
At the age of 16, they were featured on Matty C’s iconic Unsigned Hype column for The Source magazine. The photo featured two baby-faced teenagers — in a baggy sweater and jersey — doing rap squats (although that’s not what it was called at the time.) In his column, Matty C wrote: “Yes, they’re young and they look even younger, but understand that there is no ABC. Poetical Prophets rhyme from the hardcore perspective of two little street soldiers who like to bug out, puff blunts, and sip forties.”
They eventually signed to 4th & B’way Records — the label that released Erick B and Rakim’s Paid in Full — and released Juvenile Hell as Mobb Deep in the spring of 1993. (According to Havoc, they ditched the Poetical Prophets moniker after a meeting with Puff Daddy, in which he said they needed to change their name.) By almost all metrics the album was a failure. Young Havoc and P were animated and cursed like teenagers who were cursing for the first time. There were hints of the themes and motifs that would become prevalent in their later albums (like depression and the casualties of street violence) but the two weren’t sophisticated enough as MCs yet. Sonically, the album was confused and oddly dated — the album featured jazzy production and shout and response choruses that were all the rage in 1992 — even though there was production from Large Professor and DJ Premier. They would have a song that would chart on the hip-hop charts — the awkward “Hit it From the Back ” — but the album bricked, selling around 20,000 copies. 4th & B’way Records would drop the two shortly after.
Around this time another MC from Havoc’s neighborhood was emerging. Which gets to the second album that led to The Infamous… — Nas’s Illmatic. By late 1993, Nas, who was from Queensbridge but not very close with Havoc, was seen as the golden child, getting cosigns from legends like MC Search and Large Professor. By the fall of 1993, when Columbia sent out previews for Illmatic, whispers of a classic album could already be heard throughout New York City.
This was solidified when Illmatic got 5 mics in the Source in the April 1994 issues. Nas would release his magnum opus later that month, and, although not a commercial success, the impact of the album was felt immediately. Nas was a brilliant MC, observant, wise, and he rapped with a vast vocabulary and a poetic flair. Nas instantly became the hottest rapper from Queensbridge.
Two people who felt the envy right away — Havoc and Prodigy.
After signing with Loud Records — by that point, Matty C was working at Loud as an A&R — Prodigy and Havoc started crafting The Infamous… They would start rhyming and making beats at Havoc’s apartment in Queensbridge. Then they would hop on the train from Long Island City, Queens to Manhatten to Battery Studios or Platinum Island Studios or Firehouse Studio. There they would record and tighten the songs up. Unlike their debut, Havoc handled the majority of the production (with Q Tip, aka Tha Abstract, producing two tracks and sharpening up others).
Jazz was still the most important part of their production. But this time Havoc distorted it, creating a horror movie soundtrack that matched the subject matter. The rapping approved: P and Havoc calmed down, the rhymes were straight forward, but not primitive. And Prodigy broke out as the star. In the span of two years, he became a more detailed-orientated and concise MC. And he understood the impact of a lead bar. He even came with something that Nas hadn’t quite mastered yet, the “dun” lingo, providing fans with new grammar
The album was released on April 25th, 1995, during one of the most fruitful eras in hip-hop. Over the span of two years, The Notorious B.I.G. Nas, GZA, Raekwon, Smif-N-Wessun, Black Moon, Gang Starr, Jeru the damage, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and more released genre-defining New York City rap albums. And The Infamous… is rightfully seen as one of the best. “Shook Ones (Part II)” was the classic single from the album, peaking at 16 on the Hot R&B and Hip-Hop Charts. To this day it is still seen as Mobb Deep’s most highly regarded song. (The sample was a mystery, until 2011 when the case was cracked.)
But there are numerous iconic records on that album. “Eye For An Eye (Your Beef Is Mine);” is one of the greatest posse cuts ever (there’s a Chi Modu photo of Nas, Raekwon, and the Mobb in the studio that has become a Tumblr and Instagram classic); “Give Up The Goods (Just Step)” was one of the most popular songs for rappers to freestyle to in late ’90s and early 2000s;“ and countless of rappers have quoted “Survival of the Fittest.”But, most importantly, it gave Prodigy and Havoc a career. And it allowed them to go on one of the greatest runs in hip-hop history, which included their bone-chattering followup Hell on Earth, Murda Musik, and P’s debut H.N.I.C.
The Infamous… has become an album that gets celebrated yearly. This year is particularly special: it’s the 25th anniversary. With that comes a new special edition, featuring “Shook Ones 1,” “The Money” and “Lifestyles of the Infamous.” (Interestingly enough no “Paddy Shop.“) It also comes just months before the three year anniversary of Prodigy’s death.
To celebrate the anniversary of the album we spoke with Havoc, who, to this days, still says The Infamous… is his favorite Mobb Dee album. We talked about crafting the album, the defining Queensbridge classics, what Q-Tip did for the Mobb’s career, and more.
When did you first realize The Infamous… was a classic?
Probably around Murda Muzik time. [I remember] thinking to myself, “People still are rocking with Shook Ones.” People are freestyling over it left and right. So I’ll have to say some time around then. Because you can make an album and you can never know [how it will be received.] It’s hard to really say, “OK, this a classic.” That’d be kind of egotistical to think that because it hasn’t been tested yet.
During that time were you even thinking about classics? Or was it just you wanted to make some fire.
Oh, [we] 100 percent definitely was not thinking about trying to make a classic album. I think if we would have thought that, it would had a reverse effect. We was there just trying to make really dope music. The competition was heavy at the time, Raekwon, Nas, Biggie Smalls, the whole Wu-Tang. It was crazy. I don’t even know how we did it. Just us focusing on us and not really worrying about the competition, got the album done.
My mindset was, I was trying to make music for my immediate friends to really be like, “Oh this is the shit.” Because I knew that they had really good taste in music because we all love the same thing. I knew if my friends approved of this, we had something.
Because real friends are not going to just lie to you and yes you to death. If they’re not feeling it, they’re not going to play it.
In the past, you and P talked about the disappointment with the reception of Juvenile Hell. And then Illmatic drops and that sort of made you and P want to step your game up. Can you talk about that transition?
So obviously, Nas is from the same projects. The whole projects is playing his music. I mean he’s like a God at this point. Here we come, trying to come after that and get the approval of our projects, our friends and…. It just fizzled. It’s a dud. You know what I mean? So it’s like, “Damn, we want to make something that everybody in the projects is playing Yo, along what Nas is doing.” So when we got that second shot, it was like, “We can’t fuck this up. We got to really put our heart and soul into this.”
If you had to pinpoint the mistakes made on Juvenile Hell that you rectified in The infamous…, what would you say?
Fools rush in. We was new to the game. I don’t think I quite had a grasp on how important it was to make a solid piece of work that everyone liked. So I was making beats at that time, but most of [the production on Juvenile Hell] was done by other people. And it was their direction. So one of the mistakes was putting your fate in someone else’s hand. So next time around we wasn’t going to let that happen. If it was going to fail, it was going to be because of us.
Whether we failed at it or not, We wanted to be the ones to blame. So we took matters into our hands, we were given free rein by Loud Records to do whatever we wanted to do, which was a good thing, and we didn’t know whether we was going to make it or not. But we tried it.
It’s funny because you talk about that era being such a fruitful time for rap, and it was also fruitful time for production. Did you feel like your beats were at the level of Large Professor or Or Q-Tip?
I was a little bit nervous because those producers were seasoned already. I was kind of new to the game studying this, and trying to make something that just came a little close to it. Sometimes I would listen to my beats, wondering if it was good as a Pete Rock beat or a DJ Premier beat or a Large Professor beat. And sometimes I would have doubts. But I had to really block that out and get rid of the doubt and just throw my blinders on and just look ahead.
One of the things I really find interesting is the role Q-Tip played.
He was the only other producer on the album. And it didn’t hurt that he was with A Tribe Called Quest, one of the best groups in hip-hop at the time, so to have his assistant and he’s co-signed, it meant a lot. Even though his vibe of music was different.
It wasn’t like he was trying to get y’all to make Native Tongue songs.
No. Absolutely not. And that was the beauty of the relationship, you know what I mean? He appreciated what we were doing and he was helping me cultivate that sound.
At one point, he gave me a sample and he said, “chop this up.” And he had the confidence in me to chop up a sample he gave me. He added the drums to “Temperature’s Rising” and he gave me the sample, and it was that confidence that I needed for that particular moment.
He really wasn’t too critical of what I was doing. I think he felt that the broadness of what I was doing was enough. I think he didn’t want to take the broadening of my talent because it hadn’t been cultivated yet. And I think he didn’t want to interrupt that.
How did you decide who was going to be on the album? Was it organically or strategically?
It was organic and it was strategized. Strategized in a sense that we knew that we needed a couple of features. Because they was great artists in their own light, even at the time. And organic, in the sense that when we got to the studio, we didn’t even have to talk about what kind of song we were going to make. It just happened.
Those guys are careful about who they do songs with. They not going to just ride with somebody just because they are on the label. But even before we did songs, we all clicked. You got to remember, I grew up in Queensbridge, I knew Nas since preschool. I hung out with Nas before he even came out with Illmatic, while he was trying to become the artist that we know today. I knew his mom and everything like that. And then becoming a part of The Loud Family, we weren’t forced to be around [Wu-Tang], but we were around each other because we shared something in common, which was Loud Records, and when we all came together we all got along because we all could relate.
A lot of that album is shout outs to friends and family who aren’t here anymore, whether it’s prison or they departed. I wonder how much sadness comes when celebrating this album.
A lot of years have past. P passed away almost three years ago now. I had a lot of time to be sad, and I can’t say that I’ll always totally be over the sadness, but right now? I’m in celebration mode and appreciation mode of celebrating those people that was once here with me and shared this time with me. So I think it would be a mistake to hawk on the madness with the sadness within myself about it. I think the more productive thing to me, in my mind, is actually celebrating and thinking of the good times, because concentrating on the sadness and people not being here, it can’t really do nothing for you, in a good sense, so in a positive way, to just remember the people that took the journey with you, and to reflect back at something great that you did is the bigger way emotionally to approach this whole 25th anniversary.
Being sad is a human emotion and we all at some point in our life are going to encounter that, but then as you go through the sadness, there has to be a balance to it, and there has to be a celebration for something that once was.
When I say The Infamous…, what’s the first image that comes to your head?
The first thing that comes to my mind is those humble rides on the subway to the studio, just trying to create this album. That comes to mind before the notoriety, before the fame, before the money, the journey. The Infamous… album reminds me of a journey more than anything, people could come to me and they could say, “Yo, man, this is a dope album, it’s a classic this that and the third.” But what immediately pops in my mind is the journey. It feels better than any money I received or notoriety that I received from the album. The journey was the actual currency for me.
What are the three greatest Queensbridge albums?
I will have to say, Illmatic, The Infamous... album, and Marley Marl’s Out of Control.
Are you putting them in that order?
No. No. Don’t try to get me into something [laughs.]
You mentioned it’s been three years since P’s been gone, and I just wonder these sort of anniversaries, how do they feel without him around?
It feels incomplete. I couldn’t put it any more simpler than that. I feel like I’m not saying everything that needs to be said because it’s just my part of the story, so I try to say it as best as I can. But I think celebrating these anniversaries will always feel incomplete.
Other than “Shook Ones,” what’s the most well-regarded song on the album?
“Eye for an Eye…” I just think that the song is so raw, and it has those iconic people on it from the era. We rarely get songs like that these days.
What I remember most about that session, is making the beat on the spot, and great artists like Nas and Rakewon feeling the fucking track. And I even think Nas’ brother Jungle was there. Just making this simple track that ended up becoming something that a lot of people liked…It’s just a chopped up sample, strung along with the keys of the keyboard with some grimy vinyl drums.
What’s your favorite verse from that album?
My favorite verse from that album would have to be Prodigy’s verse on “Survival of the Fittest,” “There’s a war going on outside, no man is safe from, you can run but you can’t hide forever.” And that literally holds to today with all of this pandemic thing going on. There’s kind of a real war going on outside. And we all got to stay safe. So, it’s relatable on every end of the spectrum.
[Prodigy] is the first liner king. I mean, dozens of artists took this first line and put them in a song.
There’s just so many rappers from Queensbridge but Big Noyd was the one that got three placements on the album. Why him?
Because he was the closest one to us. He lived in the next building next to me. We called his crib “The Honeycomb,” and the brother happened to be able to rap his ass off. He just was there. Good or bad. He was right there. And he rose to the occasion.
I didn’t even know that he rapped. And then he started spitting his little lyrics and I said, “Oh, shit, this guy’s animated.” Clearly I thought he was better than me on the lyrics. And we gave him a platform and we’re here talking about it.
I think that to your credit you’re always been someone to play the background and let another person shine.
Yeah, that’s definitely accurate because it’s just my personality. You understand what I’m saying? I don’t brag, maybe to a fault. In my mind, it’s always a team effort. Right? And I don’t mind not being the one in the spotlight. And I’m fine with that, but history will be the best judge.
You said The Infamous… is your number one Mobb Deep album. What would you put as number two?
Number two would have to go to the album that preceded it, Hell on Earth. The reason why I say that is because after making The Infamous… album, good luck trying to make another one. You know what I mean? Or trying to come close to it. It’s just one of those things where most people fail. That they tried to accomplish lightning striking again. And it happened for us, you know what I mean? We went gold on The Infamous…, and we made Hell on Earth and lightning struck again. We went gold again.