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In 1994, rap duo Mobb Deep were in uncharted water and the temperature was definitely rising. The prelude to that year was an infamous one, indeed, as members Prodigy and Havoc released their debut album, Juvenile Hell, on 4th & B’way Records, in 1993. Featuring production from the likes of DJ Premier and Large Professor, and powered by the singles “Peer Pressure” and “Hit It from the Back,” the album was a respectable effort, but failed to move the needle, leading the teenage duo to go back to the drawing board.
Finding a new label to call home in Loud Records, Mobb Deep began the recording process for their sophomore album, The Infamous, with Havoc taking on the majority of the production duties. Still reeling from their lack of success with Juvenile Hell, the two took refuge in Queensbridge, while crafting a follow-up that would redeem them and put them on the national rap radar.
The new album was released on April 25, 1995, roughly two years after Juvenile Hell hit shelves. However, unlike its predecessor, The Infamous was received with open arms, largely off the strength of the lead-single, “Shook Ones Pt. II,” a record that encapsulated the sound and aesthetic of hardcore rap out of the five boroughs at the time.
Aside from fellow Queensbridge rep Big Noyd, who makes various appearances throughout, guests included Nas, Q-Tip, Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, and vocalist Crystal Johnson, who contributed memorable performances that bolster its replay value. Prodigy and Havoc coexist with these costars without relinquishing control of their domain, while meshing seamlessly with one another and giving a bird’s-eye view of life on the rougher side of Vernon Boulevard.
Upon its release, The Infamous was critically acclaimed with fans and pundits hailing it as an instant classic, as well as a commercial success by peaking at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. Earning gold certification just months later, the LP established Mobb Deep as one of the most respected duos in the game. It remains their magnum opus and is on the short-list of greatest rap albums of all time.
In celebration of its 25th anniversary, REVOLT spoke with Mobb Deep member Havoc about The Infamous, the backstory behind some of its most popular tracks, and how the masterpiece was born. Read the interview below!
How did you and Prodigy’s approach making The Infamous, as compared to Juvenile Hell?
The way I can say that our approach was different from the Juvenile Hell album making The Infamous was that [when] we came off of Juvenile Hell album, it was kind of a letdown in a commercial sense. It didn’t get promoted and things of that nature. A lot of times in the music business, you really don’t get second chances and we did. So, our approach was like, “Look, if this is gonna fuck up, we gonna be the ones that fuck it up. Not anybody else.” ‘Cause the prior album, Juvenile Hell, we let the majority of the production go to other people and things of that nature. And we just took the reigns on The Infamous album and just decided to go a different route.
Were there any artists who you and Prodigy attempted to get on the album, but couldn’t?
We wasn’t really too concerned with features when we were making The Infamous. But, when we did tap artists that we wanted to be on the album, we were able to get them. It was never any other artist on the album that we tried to get on the album that we couldn’t get. We were comfortable with what we already had.
Q-Tip has three production credits on the LP: “Give Up the Goods (Just Step),” “Temperature’s Rising” and “Drink Away the Pain.” What is the origin of you and Prodigy’s relationship with him?
Early on when we were trying to get a record deal, before we event went to Loud, we used to always be up at Rush Associated Labels, RAL, hanging around the offices. And I think Q-Tip was managed by some of people over there. And just moving towards The Infamous album. Matty C and Schott Free, I think they were pretty cool with Q-Tip at the time, and they tapped him to come through and try to assist me in working on this new album. I was a fresh producer at that point, I hadn’t had that much experience with producers and he came through like a bigger brother — an older brother — and just helped out.
Visiting different areas in New York were dangerous during the ‘90s, a topic you touch on, on “Trife Life.” Could you speak on that song and the times that inspired it?
On my end, as far as my verse is concerned, it wasn’t actually a true story. But, it was a common theme of things that were happening during that time. When dudes would come through trying to come see a shorty that was from around the way, and they’re thinking that it’s sweet and they’re just coming. Like nah, this is Queensbridge, you just can’t come through like that. I’ve seen a few dudes have confrontations over that, just simply trying to see their girl or somebody that they mess with. And on the other hand, sometimes I would go see shorties and there would be a thousand niggas in front of the building. Fortunately, nothing ever happened to me. But, those are situations where it could go either way.
“Eye for a Eye” ranks as one of the greatest posse cuts of its era, if not all time, and features Nas and Raekwon. How did that song come about?
The origins of that song came through working on the album. And while we’re working on the album, we’re thinking of collaborations that we can do. So, we’re like, “Nas, he’s from Queensbridge, we got a relationship with him already. He’s cool, let’s tap him to jump on a song.” We didn’t know what song it was gonna be, but we wanted him to jump on a song. And then you got Raekwon and Ghost, which were label-mates, a part of Wu-Tang, and we already had a relationship with them. We were all going on the road together, we were all cool. So, when it was time to do a collaboration cut, those three artists popped into our minds and [we] just said, “Let’s just make one dope song we all got together.”
What are your three favorite deep cuts on The Infamous?
I would have to say number one, “Eye for an Eye” to me. It’s kind of hard to get those amount of artists together in one studio at one time, while everybody’s doing their own thing. And to be able to get those artists in one session and to me, a song of that magnitude is something that can’t be forgotten. The next song I would say would be “Up North Trip.” It’s just one of those songs, man, where we really captured the essence of things that brothers go through in the hood, risking themselves and sometimes getting caught up in things, and you have to make that Up North trip. And the last cut, I would have to say “Drink Away The Pain” is one of my rare favorites because the song was just so different. You got us talking about drinking Henny, St. Ides and all that, and then Q-Tip coming through just totally re-writing the mood of the song by talking about clothes, which made it a different song. He just brought another element that you wouldn’t expect me and P to bring to it. So, it just kind of balanced the song out in a weird way.
There are numerous references to your brother Killer Black on The Infamous, who unfortunately passed away around that time. How did his death impact the making of the album?
My brother, he passed away after The Infamous album, a little bit during the Hell on Earth times. My brother was one of those Wild Wild West kids. Young, fearless, wasn’t having it and motherfuckers was scared of him. He would bust his gun with no hesitation. So, he just was one of those kids from the hood that, everybody, they respected him. He wasn’t playing no games, but he was a good dude, you know? And his death really pretty much impacted me in every bad way you can imagine — from drinking way too much to creating music that’s super dark, and then Hell on Earth is born. So, his impact, it comes with mixed emotions when I talk about his death.
Talk about recording “The Infamous Prelude” and what inspired P to go off on that particular rant.
P was one of those outspoken dudes. I never tried to change who he was, he didn’t try to change who I was. And at the time that he did that skit, I wasn’t even in the studio. But, even if I had been in the studio, I would’ve just let him say what the fuck he wanted to say. But, when I finally heard the skit, I didn’t even really think that he was talking about anybody until I thought about it. I just thought that he was doing one of the skits speaking his mind… but, when I closely paid attention to it, I was like, “Oh, okay. He’s talking about these niggas.” Me personally, I didn’t have nothing against anybody and I don’t even know if P had anything against them. I just think that was P being in battle mode. But, when you’re on the other end of the stick, you’re just not thinking about it like that. So, I’m sure Keith Murray, Def Squad, I’m sure they took it personal and it ended up taking personal later on, but it’s a part of hip hop. Hip hop. It’s a competition sport, it’s a blood sport. Wasn’t nobody pulling no punches back then. Definitely P wasn’t and I think The Infamous album wouldn’t be The Infamous album without that skit.
The most popular song on the project is “Shook Ones Pt. II.” Why did you and Prodigy decide to do a second part?
What made us do a remix or a part two to the first “Shook Ones” was just our nervousness about failing because we had came off of the Juvenile Hell album, which wasn’t too successful. So, we were kind of paranoid. So, we made the first “Shook Ones” and was like, “Okay, that’s all right. But, let’s try to fuck with this shit again” just to be sure, and we ended up making “Shook Ones Pt. II.”
Can you speak on creating the hi-hat on the track from heating up a burner on a project stove. Were there any other unique tricks or tools you used?
The truth of the matter is that the hi-hat that I used on the actual track of “Shook Ones” sounds similar to a project stove. So, people made a correlation thinking I used the stove for the actual track because in the video, it’s the first thing that comes on along with the record. And they hear the hear the stove. So, people said, “Oh shit, he used that for it!” Nah, it’s two different sounds, but they sound the same. It’s just a coincidence, but I let people sometimes think what they wanna think and let the track take on its own mystique (laughs).
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of The Infamous, you’re also releasing The 1994 Infamous Sessions, which consists of 13 unreleased bonus tracks recorded during the making of the album. Tell us about that.
Those extra bonus cuts actually happen to be either songs that didn’t make it onto the album, but also songs that later on had gotten changed to make it onto the album. These are original versions of stuff that was on The Infamous album for the most part, and that just shows you how meticulous we were in creating a piece of work that we were satisfied with. Like I said, we came off a letdown with the Juvenile Hell album and some songs, we were doing like four different versions to, and that’s just a product of that mindset and the work ethic. Like, “Nah, we’re not just gonna do this song one time and call it a wrap. We’re gonna do this motherfucker three or four times.”
Was holding off on unveiling these tracks until the 25th anniversary always the plan? If not, what stopped you from unleashing them earlier?
It definitely wasn’t planned to wait ‘til the 25th and to be honest with you, those songs were forgotten about because everything was just moving so fast that we didn’t even have time to be thinking about it. At that time, our mindset wasn’t like, “Oh, shit. We got songs in the vault or unheard songs. We just were constantly making new stuff and forgetting about all that old stuff. But, when you fast forward to now, we’re like, “Whoa, those are like hidden gems.” An inside look to what we were doing back then that didn’t make it to the album to show you the process. It’s a blessing we even have them there to showcase now.
Of all the unreleased songs, which ones are you excited for fans to hear?
I would say the “Eye For an Eye” track that’s got that unheard Ghostface verse on it. Pretty much stuff like that, but I think they’ll be excited to hear it all.
What do you think Prodigy’s thoughts would be on seeing people celebrate the album?
It’s really tough for me to say what his thoughts would be, but I know him well enough to try to give my opinion on what his thoughts would be. I think that he would be in celebration mode. I think he would be in appreciation mode and just being happy that our music stood the test of time, and he would note that we worked hard to get to where we are.
How does it feel to have a body of work be celebrated as a cultural landmark 25 years later?
To be honest with you, I’m humbled by it. I feel honored about it. I’m truly, truly thankful that people appreciated it as much as we did. Validation from your peers is priceless and like I said, again, I’m thankful for it because there’s a lot of albums out there that I think deserve the same recognition. But, for whatever reason, [they don’t get it]. So, I would have to just say thank you to anybody that even put it on that pedestal.