We're young, we're black, and we got some gangsta-ass music," asserts Prodigy, one half of the New York-based crew Mobb Deep, telling why America should still fear this Mobb. "And we got fans."
Prodigy and his cohort Havoc, poets from the Queensbridge Projects, earned those fans by chronicling the grimy underside of urban life on classic cuts like "Shook Ones Part II," from their 1995 breakthrough sophomore effort The Infamous, and four years later on "Quiet Storm," off 1999's Murda Muzik. But the duo then released a rather lackluster album, 2001's Infamy, which included a hip-pop duet with 112 that made many think group had gone soft. In the early part of this decade, it looked like certain death for the Mobb.
"To tell you the truth, I wasn't really feeling Infamy that much," Prodigy admits. "That's one of my least-favorite albums."
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Infamy also ended up being the last gasp for Loud, the group's record label -- not to mention the end of an era. As one of the first artists to come out on Loud, Mobb helped Steven Rifkind's groundbreaking imprint become an essential player in hardcore New York rap.
"Loud was gangsta," Prodigy says. "We built Loud -- us, Wu-Tang, Pun -- that was like a tight family over there. It was a good run. Steve Rifkind had a good run, and when he made this deal with the majors, they just ate him up. They swallowed his company up. The big fish ate the little fish. He wanted to make moves in the South, so we were like, 'Cool.' We made preparations to get up off of there and start anew."
When Rifkind went on to helm SLC Records, whose roster includes artists like David Banner and Terror Squad, Mobb Deep was without a home. The pair finally emerged from label limbo last year, however, with a double disc called Free Agents: The Murda Mixtape, which showcased new music by Mobb and affiliates such as Big Noyd and the Infamous Mobb. And the new deal that Mobb inked with Jive has resulted in its sixth full-length, Amerikaz Nightmare, which seems to have resuscitated its career. While the lurid survivalist tales of life in one of the country's most notorious projects have earned these two veteran street soldiers their stripes, it has been a while since their shots have been heard outside their 'hood. And it remains to be seen if the Mobb will move the number of units that 50 Cent has in a genre the pair popularized.
But Prodigy cites the deal with Jive as one of the group's "biggest career highlights" and says the alliance is a fifty-fifty joint venture that will allow the twosome to develop its label, Infamous Records. It certainly can't be a bad move: The label is home to some of urban music's hottest acts. "They crazy major now," Prodigy enthuses. "It is popping; they've got major money."
Beyond the cash, though, Jive has the marketing muscle that Loud lacked in its later days. Right now, Jive's street teams are hitting up billboards nationwide, generating a buzz for Amerikaz Nightmare, which is scheduled to hit the streets in mid-August. The first single, "Got It Twisted," has already received major spins from radio, and the video for the track is on heavy rotation on MTV and BET. The Alchemist-produced track loops Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science," which provides a futuristic backdrop for Havoc and Prodigy to do their thing.
Echoing the dystopian soundscapes of Mobb's third record, 1996's Hell on Earth, Nightmare's title track demonstrates why Havoc is one of the more underrated producers. His chilling strings perfectly complement Prodigy's musings on murderous mayhem. Prodigy is confident that this joint will put to rest any notion that Mobb Deep has fallen off. "This might just top the others," he says, with a swagger in his voice. And he's probably right: The next single slated for release, "Throw Your Hands," produced by rap's man of the moment, Kanye West, will likely become as popular in the clubs as "Quiet Storm (The Remix)" was in 1999.
Mobb Deep has weathered plenty of not-so-quiet storms and has found itself the target of some of rap's finest marksmen, who question the pair's street credibility. Jay-Z fired this salvo at Prodigy on 1991's "The Takeover": "When I was pushing weight, back in '88, you was a ballerina/I got your pictures I seen ya/Then you dropped 'Shook Ones,' switched your demeanor/ Well, we don't believe you." To add further insult, Jay-Z performed the song at New York's Hot 97 Summer Jam 2001 with a backdrop featuring a picture of Prodigy as a youngster in a dance outfit.
In an earlier interview, Prodigy had taken issue with Jay-Z's lyrics on "Money, Cash, Hoes" ("New York's been soft ever since Snoop came through and crushed them"). The line is a reference to the Dogg Pound's song "New York, New York," which itself was a response to a Capone-N-Noreaga cut that featured both Prodigy and Havoc called "LA, LA." Prodigy felt like Jay-Z stood on the sidelines while the rivalry between the East and West coasts became heated. Surprisingly though, the MC says he wasn't fazed by "The Takeover."
"I was like, 'Cool, he came back,'" Prodigy recalls. "Because we keep it gangsta, they don't have no choice but to come at us. If you wanna be known, you gotta get in where we at. You've got to get our respect. A good way to get our respect is to throw a shot at us."
But Jay-Z wasn't the only rapper the crew had a beef with. On "Hit 'Em Up," Tupac made fun of Prodigy's sickle-cell anemia. Mobb responded with "Drop a Gem on 'Em," which came out after Tupac's death. After all this drama, some listeners might find it a bit disrespectful that Prodigy and Havoc rap over classic Tupac beats on the recent street release Big Mike Presents Mobb Deep West Coast: The Mixtape Vol. 1, but Prodigy insists that the record was done out of respect.
"If they do think it is disrespectful, whatever," he insists. "I'm shouting out Tupac all over that joint. I'm shouting out Biggie, Tupac. I don't know why they would take it as disrespectful. If people hold grudges, that's their prerogative. I'm sure you do have people out there who are ignorant, who think like that; I can't help them."
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Prodigy and Havoc will find out soon enough if there's any ill will after all these years, as they head to the West Coast for the first time later this year.
"They've never been to the West Coast," says tour manager Jeremiah "Ice" Younossi, of Emmel Communications/Violator Management, the powerful firm that has booked successful tours for 50 Cent and G-Unit. "This is a historical Mobb Deep tour. They've been through so many classic albums. They really are the godfathers of this type of gangsta rap that originated simultaneously with NWA on the West Coast and groups like Mobb Deep and Kool G Rap on the East Coast."
Even so, will the West Coast embrace a Mobb mentality? Prodigy thinks so.
"I mean, wherever we go, I feel the love," he says. "It's the 'hood shit. They've got to feel it in the 'hood. If the 'hood love it, the world got to love it."