Last November, Mobb Deep spent a week at Red Bull Studios New York working on 'The Infamous Mobb Deep.' It's the legendary Queensbridge rap duo of Havoc and Prodigy's first full-length since 2006's G-Unit-released 'Blood Money.' Out April 1 through Prodigy's own Infamous label, it will be accompanied by a collection of unreleased songs from Mobb's 1995 masterpiece, 'The Infamous.' The new album features production by Havoc (of course), long-time collaborator The Alchemist, Boi-1da, Illmind and Kaytranada, as well as guest verses by Snoop Dogg, The LOX, Juicy J, Bun B, French Montana, Busta Rhymes, and Nas.
The vibe in the studio that week was all work, no play. Havoc and Prodigy, who both turn 40 this year, were calm, quiet, focused. Prodigy wrote his verses sitting behind the console listening back to beats; Havoc often retreated with pen and pad to one of the adjacent rooms. The two rarely spoke. They've known each other since high school, and have been making music together for nearly 25 years. By now, their creative relationship is instinctual. They both said their recent public, Twitter-based beef was over, and that 'The Infamous Mobb Deep' will show them putting the past behind and moving on.
Throughout the week, musicians, producers, rappers and friends were in and out of the studio. Babyface, Dr. Dre and Puff Daddy collaborator Rob Lewis was perched behind a keyboard. The Stepkids' Jeff Gitelman came in to lay down guitar parts. Canadian producer Kaytranada was there for a couple hours. Chicago rapper Vic Mensa showed up. There were rumors that Scarface, of Geto Boys, might come through. Various contributors were constantly cycling through the studio's three rooms while executive producer Om'Mas Keith called the shots. “We can't stop,” he said. “This is how you get an album done.”
Keith, who recently took home a Grammy Award for his production work on Frank Ocean's 'channel ORANGE,' has been a fan of Mobb Deep since he was 16. “I heard about Mobb Deep when I was an intern at RCA in high school,” he recalled. “Loud records and RCA were on the same floor, and Mobb came in one day. That was the day they signed to Loud. I saw the backs of Prodigy and Havoc's heads!”
“It's so crazy to be here now,” Keith continued. “It's full circle. I was in the office when they closed the deal, watching it manifest, and I've been watching them ever since. I've always loved how Mobb Deep was true to their vision, and I've always appreciated the clarity of their voices. They both have very unique tonalities, dialects and vernaculars. They have their own lingo and phrases, and those are now a part of modern popular culture. Grit and rawness have always been part of their sound – I love those great Havoc kicks and snares! Their music is always on point.”
During some downtime in the studio, I pulled Prodigy aside to talk about his past and future, and the legacy of Mobb Deep. Along the way, we spoke about his encounters with Jay Z and the lessons he learned from 50 Cent, and how he wants Mobb Deep to be like The Rolling Stones.
In your autobiography, 'My Infamous Life,' you mention how your mother, who was in The Crystals, didn't receive much money from her work as a musician. Did this provide you, at an early age, with a cynical view of the industry?
Definitely. My mother was always leery about where I did my deal at in the beginning. She was always schooling me about that part of the business. She'd say, “Make sure you're getting your money, and getting paid for your tours.” And she'd say, “When you go on tour, don't go out and have all these elaborate dinners and elaborate expenses because, by the time you get home, all your money's gonna be gone.” She'd tell me that even when I was a little kid. She'd always talk about her career, so that stuck in my head. When I made my first deal, I was like 15 or 16.
That was the solo deal with Jive?
Yeah, with Jive Records. My mom was my manager at that time, so she was always on top of everything. She was always telling me to be careful. She also taught me how to copyright my songs in the beginning, when I didn't have any money. I did poor man's copyright; when I wrote my lyrics, I'd mail them to myself, certified mail. I did that back in the day so nobody'd steal my lyrics. I learned that from her.
Some of your other family members were musicians too, and it sounds like they were very supportive of all your creative endeavors as a kid. You used to go see your grandfather play in jazz clubs when you were a kid, right?
Yeah. My grandfather would do shows with Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones. A lot of big names. So many names I can't even remember. He was friends with all those guys. He was a well-respected musician and composer. He was also a music professor at Queens Community College later on in his career, after he retired from touring.
You were diagnosed with sickle cell at a young age. How did that shape your perspective?
When I was a little kid, as far back as I can remember, I was in the hospital and in mad pain. I had my family there visiting me, but when visiting hours were over, I'd be by myself. Sometimes my mother would try to stay at the hospital with me, but she couldn't all the time because she had to go to work. At night I'd just lay there and deal with it all by myself. The pain was overwhelming for a little kid. IVs, needles, X-rays, blood transfusions, mad shit I used to go through.
It was traumatizing, and it turned me into a thinker. I'd just lay there with nothing else to do; laying there with nothing but my thoughts. I'd think about religion and God. I was real angry with God because I didn't' understand why I was going through what I was going through. It made me fearless of God. Some people have a fear of God, but I didn't have that. It made me not care too much about life in the beginning. It made me a quiet person and real calm, because I couldn't participate in activities other kids were into, like football, karate, boxing. I couldn't get involved in none of that, so I'd sit there and watch my friends play basketball, and that made me a quiet, observant person.
When you started rapping, how did this perspective shape your lyrics?
As I got older, and got into hip-hop music, it was the aggressiveness that attracted me – I had a lot of anger and aggression in me because of the sickle-cell. As I got into hip-hop, I started using that time in the hospital to write. I got the pain medicines for the sickle-cell – there's really no cure, so all they'd do was put an IV in my arm, and give me strong-ass fucking pain medicine. You know how some writers, like Donald Goines, who we were talking about earlier, and jazz musicians, got hooked on heroin? I guess, creatively, the pain medicine put me in another zone like that. Some people, like Jimi Hendrix, took acid and then he'd create all this crazy shit. I experienced that at a young age. I knew what that was like.
After a while, when I'd be feeling the medicine in the hospital, it would put my mind some place else, and I just started writing crazy shit. I understood those stories of artists hooked on drugs. That's what I went through as a kid. After a while, as I turned to a teenager – in the beginning the medicine was for the pain – but as a teenager, the medicine started feeling good. I'd tell the nurse, “Yo, I'm hurtin' right now, give me some more!” I enjoyed the feeling. I got hooked on it. I loved the way it felt. And I used that feeling to write my music. I used the pain and the anger inside me to express myself through lyrics. It definitely shaped me as a person to go through sickle-cell. That's a lot of the reason why my lyrics are the way they are.
Let's talk Queensbridge. Your mom worked there one summer, and then you met Havoc, who lived there, in high school. How did Queensbridge impact you?
My mother worked for housing, so all my life, growing up, she worked at different projects. We were from Long Island, in Hempstead, where my grandmother bought a house from the money she got from her business. I was born and raised there up until I was like 11. Up to that age, I would go with my mom to work on the weekends, or if I didn't have school. I'd go outside and play in the 'hood. Then she got that job at Queensbridge, and Queensbridge was different than any other place I'd experienced.
How was it different?
I don't know what it was. Maybe because it was right next to Manhattan. It's far away from the other places in Queens, where my family's originally from, South Jamaica, Queens. I grew up on Jamaica Ave. 'cause my grandmother's business was there. That was my playground as a kid. Me and my cousins would run around and do dumb shit over there.
When mom got that job at Queensbridge, I went to day camp there. I started making friends, and seeing everything, and it was just different. There was fashion, and everybody was rapping. People was cool. Later on, when I met Hav, and he told me he was from Queensbridge, I recognized some of his friends when I used to go out there. It's hard to explain – every neighborhood has its own thing going on. It's a project that was so big – there were so many people concentrated in this one area – and there were so many different types of people, so it was just really unique.
There was a lot of creativity happening at the time too, right?
Yeah, a lot. You had the Juice Crew. Marley Marl. He was rap royalty, he created the sound, all the shit we grew up on. Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, he created that sound. By the time I met Hav, and we rolled up there, there was a new era of rap and sound coming up. I met Nas and Cormega, and they'd spit they raps and I would be amazed. They had such an ill style. And there was the fashion, the slang, it was unique. I definitely was inspired by all that.
Also, the camaraderie of everybody out there. There were crews. Each block had a crew. Hav's block had a crew. It was mad fun. We'd stay out all night drinking, fucking with girls. Most of our friends were selling drugs to make money, and around that time, me and my mom didn't have much money. We were struggling. My grandmother was kinda rich, from her business. It's hard to understand, but my grandmother, I guess she looked at my mother and was like, “Okay, you're in love with my son, so I'm gonna show you love.” But financially, once they broke up, there wasn't any help financially. She'd do things for me on my birthdays, and when I went to her house on weekends she'd make sure I was straight. But financially, my moms was struggling, on welfare, and living in the 'hood. We didn’t' live in the projects, we lived in LeFrak, which wasn't a project, but a co-op. It was like a step up from the projects. The neighborhood was a little better, but not much. My moms struggled, so I experienced that, and I know what that's like.
This Queensbridge loyalty came to define Mobb Deep's music. Fast-forwarding a bit, one of the big moments for Mobb Deep, and for rap music in general, was the East/West beef that ignited at the Source Awards in the mid-'90s. How was Mobb Deep impacted?
It created a lot of negativity. It made it dangerous for us. Tupac had loyal fans, Biggie had loyal fans, we had loyal fans. Once all that stuff happened with everyone, it just made it dangerous. Hip-hop was already dangerous, because the world was different back then, but it just heightened the danger. Especially in New York, there weren't so many police or cameras everywhere – it was rougher. You couldn't be a soft dude and make the kind of music we were making; you had to be for real about it. You can't be lying and shit. When the Tupac and East Coast/West Coast shit popped up, we had to be more careful. You know, we might bump into this dude, and do something to this dude. We always had to be on point in case something happened. It was just so much negativity and anger at the time. It wasn't good. Also, the deaths of Biggie and Tupac made it even more dangerous. Now people wanted to take revenge on us, thinking we had something to do with Tupac's murder. People were like “Fuck Mobb Deep, we gonna kill them niggas.” There was always that danger there.
What we got out of that situation, though, was that we learned that it's not good to beef. Get your money, do what you do, and try to get along with the other people in your industry and in the business. You gotta see these people at award shows and events, so you don't want it to get bad. We learned that from the whole situation. It's better to just get along, and try not to create drama or beef because it can end up bad.
A lot of those rivalries run throughout Mobb Deep's story, though. You recount numerous incidents in your book. Looking back, do you think this overshadowed Mobb Deep's music?
That's the bad thing, yeah. It makes people not want to do business with you. People'd say, “Oh, Mobb Deep's always gonna start some trouble,” or “We don't want Mobb Deep in our venue.” People were scared to do business with us, or make a record deal with us. People had preconceived notions about us that weren't true. We're cool, we're humble, but that beef was just bad for business.
Older rappers, like Jay Z, he knew that already. He was older and he came to the game with a different mind state. He knew all that was bad for business. At the time, I might have looked at Jay Z like he was soft. We out here beefing and holding shit down and representing New York, and he ain't saying shit. But at the end of the day, he was the intelligent one. He kept quiet and kept doing his hustle, and kept pushing. That mentality made him a successful person.
There's a powerful scene in your book where you run into Jay Z at a club and he says something that changed your whole perspective on the game.
Yeah, that woke me up. As soon as he said it, cause I was angry, I wanted to jump him or something, it changed me. I thought he was trying to make the fans think something that wasn't true about me. I was like, “When I see this nigga, he gonna find out what time it is, and everyone else gonna find out what time it is.” So we was just hanging out one night at this club and I saw him, and one of my mans had a gun in his pocket, and I said, “Don't go to jail over this shit, let's just beat him up.” When I finally seen Jay from across the room, he was with some bodyguards and I was with like 10 of my boys. We surrounded the front doors so he couldn't leave. He saw me and paused for a second. And then from across the room, he put his hand out to say, “There's no problem.”
When he did that, it took me for a surprise. I shook his hand when he came over, and he said, “There's no beef, no drama, it's just music, it's just hip-hop.” I thought about it and I was like, “Yeah, you're right, fuck it, it don't make sense.” As soon as he said that, it just killed all my anger. I was like, “What the fuck am I even mad for?” That woke me up and made me look at myself differently, and made me think about the whole situation differently.
Speaking of other rappers, it seems like when you went on tour with 50 Cent he also changed your perspective on life and the business.
50 was on some militant minded shit. It reminded me of myself and how I was trying to get my crew together. I had just stopped smoking cigarettes, weed, I stopped drinking. I was eating healthy. I had healed myself around that time, and it changed me, yo. I stopped getting sick. It changed me mentally. I learned that once you clean out your body, it's like a domino effect. I was healthy, and I felt good, and my mind blossomed, you know. It was a natural high I had never experienced. It changed everything – my spirituality, my productivity. I was able to work on multiple things at one time because my mind was clear.
Me and the crew all lived together then, and I was trying to get my team on the same page as me. It was difficult for them, because they didn't have the pain and illness I was going through. My pain, my sickle-cell, forced me to change my diet and lifestyle. They didn't have any reason to change. Sometimes it takes a life-and-death situation to make you change your life, and that's what I was going through. I've been going through that my whole life. I was changing to show my crew, but they didn't' understand. It was frustrating for me, because I wanted our team to get our shit together and be more professional.
So it was 50's professionalism that impressed you?
Yeah, so by the time I got around 50, and saw how he was acting, I was like, “Damn, that's crazy, that's exactly what I'm trying to do with my team.” He was doing it. Not only that, but a lot of the people in his team, it was the same thing as mine. They didn't get what he was doing, so I related to him. We talked a lot and just related a lot. We had a lot of the same friends from Queens. I seen a lot of myself, and what I was trying to do with them, through 50. I respected what he was doing. He wasn't fucking around. I wasn't fucking around either. I have mad respect for him and I learned a lot from him. He'd say, “You don't see me going to the after-parties with everybody. I fall back and stay at the hotel. You should do the same, and follow my lead.”
But at that point in my life, I'd already fallen back into my downward spiral – drinking, smoking. I understood exactly what he was saying. But I was so far gone. Not only that, but all the money and the power we had access to really pushed me over the edge. We was on private planes all over the world. Before it was 10 groupies, now it was a hundred. It was 4,000 people in the crowd, now it's 50,000. Mentally, I was there with 50, but I wasn't there all the way. I was caught up in all the bullshit. And all that money and power fucked me up. I understand why people lose all they money and power – they're just not there mentally and spiritually. You gotta be prepared, and have discipline, or you'll lose it. 50 had that, and that's why he was so successful.
'My Infamous Life' ends around the time you went to jail. Soon after getting out, you published the autobiography, and also your first work of fiction, 'H.N.I.C.' Last year, you released the 'Albert Einstein' album with The Alchemist. And now: a new Mobb Deep album. It seems like you're starting over.
When I went to jail, I felt like an asshole. I got one of the illest mentors I could have, with 50. We were very close and he was schooling me. By the time we did the deal with 50, I was already back on my bullshit. I had stopped drinking and smoking for five years before that; I had my shit together. Then it went downhill. By the time we got to G-Unit, my head was fucked. I was buying mad jewelry and buying bulletproof cars. There was nothing wrong with that, actually, because we wanted to be safe. It was dangerous, so we needed that bulletproof car. But a lot of the other shit I was doing – fucking with groupies, buying jewelry, smoking mad weed – I wasn't thinking properly and that hit me when I got locked up for having a gun in my car. I was like, “Damn, I fucked up.” I was making so much money too, and then I had to go to jail for three years.
I went into prison with the mindset that I had to rectify the situation and fix things. I went into jail planning to eat right, exercise my mind, workout, and come out in shape. I wanted to read so many books and master my craft with my lyrics. I wrote these two books and some movie scripts. I wanted to be ready to jump right back in the game when I got out, so that's exactly what I did. A lot of people, when they go to jail, they don't go in with that mentality. I went in knowing I was gonna make myself a better person, and I did that to the best of my ability. Some people come out of jail worse. They come home thinking they're tougher, but they have the wrong mentality. I know people that went to prison for a year and end up staying in jail for nine years because they join gangs and get into fights and kill somebody, whatever.
I understand how jail can make you lazy, too. When you locked up, you don't have to take care of business no more. They bring your meals, you ain't paying taxes, you just lay there. That's why some people want to be locked up, whether they know it or not. In jail, you don't have to deal with the reality of the world. I saw all that in there. I was blessed to be able to come home and get right back in the game, because some people when they go to jail, it fucks they whole life up.
It sounds like when you got out, you got out with a plan – as a writer, as a solo artist, and to push forward with Mobb Deep.
I came home with the intentions of approaching my entire career differently. I wanted to be more independent. Being locked up, I'd think about all the money we made, and all the records we sold. One day my lawyer told us how much money we made for Loud Records, and it was like 60 million dollars – 6o million dollars! We made a lot of money too – we ran through maybe 5 million dollars spread out over a few years – $50,000 there, $100,000 there, $20,000 there – we made a lot of money, and we fucking spent it all. I thought about all the money we spent in our careers, and how much we made, but really I thought about how we made way more money for Loud. I look at other rappers in the business, and how a lot my favorite rappers were popular for a few years, and then they didn't sound the same anymore. I always thought about that, not just in jail, about how you could be so successful and make such a big impact, and then nobody cares about you. I'm a fan of hip-hop first. I buy albums. I don't wanna name names, but a lot of rappers who are my favorite rappers, I don't even buy their albums no more. But I thought a lot about that: Why don't people buy their albums no more? What did they do to fuck up so I can learn not to what they did?
Did you figure it out?
Kinda. A lot of it has to do with passion and how bad you want it. It's mental. Do you really want it? Or are you just fucking around? I thought about all that. I also listened to a lot old albums in jail from the '80s and '90s. I was studying the classics. I also listened to Drake and Nicki Minaj. And classic rock. The Beatles. Jazz. I was thinking about all these songs and trying to figure out what made them hot and what makes them still hot to this day. And what made this other shit not hot? I thought about how me and Havoc are still able to make dope records – records I'd actually go buy. It's all about the passion and how bad you want it.
A lot of people might think that if I come home from jail and we start an independent label, that we shouldn't be doing that right now at this point in our career. That's just how it played out for us. For us, musically, I can hear that it's never too late. We can start a company right now, make dope albums, and it will be valuable. And we'll make way more money like that. I was looking at the careers of bands like The Rolling Stones, and about how long they've been able to do it. Why do people look at rappers like we can only do it for a short period of time? Fuck that. We gonna be on tour for as long as the Rolling Stones. We gonna have the same value 100 years from now. The real value of our shit is gonna come years later, when motherfuckers realize that we never stopped doing it. It's like the graffiti on the walls in this gallery from the '70s – when they did that work, they didn't know it would be appreciated and hanging up in a gallery 40 year slater. I was thinking ahead like that. It's not too late, so we started our own company, and we're gonna leave a very fucking valuable legacy behind for our kids.
A lot has changed since Mobb Deep released 'Juvenile Hell' in '93, and even since 'Blood Money.' Artists used to be quick to jump on big labels, but now being independent is more common.
Technology's changed, everything's changed. Some people might become uninspired because the music ain't' selling that much no more, so you start losing your passion for it. They not thinking far enough. They thinking about right now – but fuck right now. I don't care how many copies we sell right now, I'm thinking about 100 years from now. I came out of jail with that mind set. We got the company, the books, the music. It keeps me focused, and I keep my passion.
All the music I put out since I come home is on my label, Infamous. I always wanted to be independent after the Loud deal. I struggled with Havoc over it, but he didn't understand what I was saying. I learned a lot about that from my mother, and from my grandmother, who built her own business out of nothing, and owned and operated it. My grandfather taught me about the business, too. I knew from back then, as soon as I knew how much money we made Loud, we had to go independent.
We watched Puff build Bad Boy from nothing; we'd been 'round him for years. We hung with Jay before Roc-A-Fella. We hung around the Wu-Tang to see how they handled business. So when we got off Loud, I wanted to go independent too, but Hav didn't really wanna do that. He had the mind state that he just wanted to focus on being creative and not fuck with all the business. He thought we'd lose our creativity if we focused on the business side. Mobb Deep has been on a big label since the beginning, with a big budget and a big push, so now if we turn independent, people might look at us like we fell off. People might look at us different, and we struggled with that.
Is this one of the reasons you and Havoc have argued in recent years?
We definitely struggled with this. Hav and I would beef over it. So we compromised and decided we'd do Mobb shit on a label, and I'd do solo shit on my independent label. I couldn't argue with that, so we kept doing deals. But when I came home from jail, I was like, “We not doing that anymore, Hav. We need to own our shit. It's too valuable to give to someone else.” Even if the struggle is hard in the beginning, so what.
But we at a point now where he understands, and sees the bigger picture. We were two different people back then. We on the same page and see the same things now. Our beef is resolved. Most of it was about that independent/major label shit. We'd have serious arguments about all that. It was bad, but that's over.
And the new album, Mobb's first since 2005, is coming soon. How, after all these years and all the changes in the industry and rap music we've discussed, does Mobb Deep adapt?
From the beginning of our career, we always was able to, if not set the trend of what's on the radio, then compete with the marketplace. We always had a single on the radio and in the club. In 2005, we was on the radio heavy with the Dre single and some other singles poppin' with 50. Now, 10 years later, we gonna drop a new album and I got that same mentality. If we're not setting the trend, we're competing. That's what we always do. Same as always.
We fans of new music, but not everything is hot, you know. Same as when I was a kid, I didn't like everything. We don't' like everything now. But there's shit that's dope that we do like, and we gonna highlight some new producers. We brining them into the studio to help us put tracks together.
Lyrically, we can never lose ourselves. The sinister part of Mobb Deep – the dark shit, the sinister shit – will never go away. We can't fall off in that department. That's impossible. We been through too much; Hav been through too much; I been through too much. Mobb Deep will always come out in the lyrics. The shit people love about Mobb Deep will always be there. We lived that shit. There's a stain on our brains and our souls and our hearts that will never go away.