“This was our second chance to show the world that Mobb Deep was something special.” – Prodigy, from My Infamous Life (2011)
Failure can be a great motivator. Add in a dash of humiliation and it becomes more like a cattle prod.
After releasing their debut album, 1993’s Juvenile Hell, Albert “Prodigy” Johnson and Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita of the rap duo Mobb Deep were on a cross country promotional tour just as Nas, who was also based in the Queensbridge projects in Queens, New York, dropped Illmatic. “That really overshadowed our feeble attempt at an album,” Prodigy reflected in his 2011 memoir, My Infamous Life, “Illmatic was, and still is one of the best rap albums ever.”
To add insult to injury, during Mobb Deep’s in-store appearance in Washington, DC, the song “Halftime” came on over the PA. “Nas was an incredible songwriter and the beats he chose were just as good,” Prodigy remembered, “It made us want to hurry home and start working on a new album.” First they needed a new label. After keeping Juvenile Hell from release for a year, 4th & Broadway dropped the group “quick-fast” after it only sold a little more than 20,000 copies. Still, they had developed a cult following off of “Hit It From The Back” and its lascivious video and had enough cred to get a meeting with Loud Records, then just four cubicles in the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center.
They had also “learned a serious lesson,” Prodigy noted in My Infamous Life, “We had to take songwriting and producing seriously or we wouldn’t get another chance. Our excuse was that we were only 17 when we recorded the album. We were just kids, we were still learning, but there are no excuses in this business. You either do or you die.”
While Prodigy and Havoc had been teaching themselves to make beats for a while before making Juvenile Hell, they only ended up with three of their own tracks on the album, which Prodigy dismissed as “amateur.” So they buckled down and tightened up their game, taking advantage of their musical legacies, with Havoc the son of a DJ and Prodigy the grandson of a low-key jazz legend named Budd Johnson, who recorded with everyone from Earl “Fatha” Hines, Quincy Jones, and Ruth Brown. After Budd Johnson’s death in 1984, it was Prodigy who inherited his massive collection of records, collected during world tours for decades. Those records became the foundation of what became the Mobb Deep sound, a grimy blend of atmospherics, sharp beats, and jazz hooks buried in the mix, sounding like they were coming from the next room or a passing car.
But it wasn’t Budd Johnson or Havoc’s father in that conference room at Loud Records, it was Prodigy and Havoc, just barely 20 years old, and they knew they would have to bring the heat to get a deal. And they had it in at least two of the demos they played for the A&R men. The track for the first, “Paddy Shop,” was nothing special, just an echoing beat and a sparse bass line, but vocal attack from the duo was impossible to ignore, an edgy, hungry approach that could only come from young men living the life they rhymed about – and looking for a way out. The second song was almost from another planet, however, its crisp drums accompanied by haunted house sounds made from scuzzed up jazz records. And the lyrics were hitting harder than ever, with Prodigy’s indelible hook hitting hardest of all:
“We live the life that of diamonds and guns
And numerous ways that we choose to earn funds
Some n***as get shot, locked down and turn nuns
Cowardly hearts and straight up shook ones (shook ones)
He ain’t a crook son
He just a shook one (shook one)”
The name of the song was “Shook Ones, Part I” and the label signed them on the spot. “Paddy Shop” remained a demo but “Shook Ones” was radically overhauled, becoming “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” an instant classic when it was released as a single in February 1995. Now you can hear both versions, along with a couple of other extra tracks, on a new 25th Anniversary Expanded Edition of The Infamous. The most immediately noticeable difference between the two versions is a haunting piano sample that took 15 years to uncover: the first few notes of “Jessica” by Herbie Hancock from his album Fat Albert Rotunda (1969). Havoc’s mastery is on full display, chopping out and distorting the notes, turning a delicate filigree into pure hypnotism.
VIDEO: Mobb Deep “Shook Ones, Pt. 2”
Prodigy had taught Havoc how to sample and make beats, but was soon outpaced by his pupil. “It seems like Havoc was guided by spirits when he was on that sampler,” Prodigy wrote in My Infamous Life, “He had this blank yet intense look in his eyes, like he was possessed. I let him do his thing.” While Hav did his thing, Prodigy honed his lyrics and nearly every line from “Shook Ones, Pt. 2” is perfect, whether the swaggering opening “I got you stuck off the realness, we be the infamous/You heard of us, official Queensbridge murderers,” or one of the nastiest threats in hip hop to date: “For all of those/who wanna profile and pose/Rock you in your face/stab your brain with your nose bone.” That second line has all the elements of Prodigy at his best, from its gristly anatomical specificity to the placing of the word “bone” after the “pose/nose” rhyme, a clever way to keep the listener off balance.
Prodigy often fucked with rhyme schemes throughout his career but never put the finger on where those skills came from. In his memoir he only notes, “It surprised me the things that I wrote sometimes. Not the things that I said but the way I said it, like a force in my head was saying, ‘No, n***ga, say it this way.'” The world of hip hop is forever enriched because Prodigy paid attention to his inner monologue.
Perhaps the most surprising thing at the time The Infamous was released is that not only had Mobb Deep come up with a brilliant single, they managed to keep the quality up over the course of the whole album, even displaying some unexpected versatility on songs like “Temperature’s Rising,” with a sexy R&B hook from Crystal Johnson. Doubters were also impressed that 12 of 16 tracks were produced or co-produced by Mobb Deep, inserting them into the top ranks as sonic as well as lyrical architects. Not that they did it all on their own, with Q Tip helping significantly with the engineering, pushing himself beyond A Tribe Called Quest to help Mobb Deep realize their dark visions. He also contributes a nice feature on “Drink Away The Pain (Situations),” and other songs get assists from Nas himself, as well as members of the Wu Tang Clan and Mobb Deep’s QB sidekick, Big Noyd.
Though The Infamous is leavened by jazz and funk samples and danceable beats, there is an unrelenting darkness throughout, a clear-eyed description of where they were coming from, with Prodigy tagging Queens as “similar to Vietnam” in “Survival Of The Fittest,” and Havoc describing a shootout in “Cradle To The Grave” with the blistering concision of Donald Goines: “My ears rung, I plunged a clip into the guns/Got grazed in the arm, one slug hit my son.”
Both the bleak lyrics and spare but stylish beats led to nearly universal praise for The Infamous at the time, approbation that has only grown over time, with it now being recognized as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. Mobb Deep had gotten a second chance and, spurred on by trying to compete with Illmatic, had emerged triumphant. Back in 1995, Prodigy and Havoc must have realized that once the excitement over The Infamous had died down and it came time to make a follow-up, they would be up against the toughest competition of all: themselves.
Note: Quotes throughout from My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy by Albert “Prodigy” Johnson with Laura Checkoway (Simon & Schuster, 2011)