Even in an era of hip-hop that saw future classics released on an almost monthly basis, Mobb Deep’s “The Infamous,” released 25 years ago this week, has always had a special aura. Notorious B.I.G. might have had bigger hits; Nas might have had more dazzling technique; the Wu-Tang Clan might have had a more distinctive aesthetic. But no single album from that golden age of 1990s New York rap sums up its time and place quite like “The Infamous.” To mark its quarter century anniversary, RCA Records is releasing an expanded version of the album on Friday (April 24), complete with outtakes and bonus tracks previously unavailable digitally.
It’s hard to listen to the album today and imagine that its two creators were still in their teens when they started working on it — and even harder to believe is that it was essentially a last-ditch comeback effort. Albert “Prodigy” Johnson and Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita met while students at Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design – as legend has it, the two first spent time together shortly after Prodigy witnessed a bare-handed Havoc punch out a knife-wielding classmate in an after-school fight – and released their first album, “Juvenile Hell,” in 1993. “Juvenile Hell” had its moments, but it failed to gain serious traction. While the duo was still struggling to get their music heard, a kid named Nasir Jones (who had grown up with Havoc in New York’s Queensbridge housing projects) dropped a neutron bomb of an album titled “Illmatic,” and Mobb Deep knew their debut had just been consigned to the footnotes of hip-hop history. Shortly after that, they were dropped from their label.
Rather than dwell on the southward turn their nascent careers had taken, Havoc and Prodigy regrouped, and resolved to take matters into their own hands. Havoc, who had produced a few songs on Mobb Deep’s debut without much distinction, took on the role of lead producer, digging through mountains of obscure LPs and constructing an entirely new sound. After the two cut a demo of fresh material, Steve Rifkind’s ascendant Loud Records – guided by young A&Rs Schott “Free” Jacobs and Matteo “Matty C” Capoluongo – offered them another shot, and the duo spent the next several months split between Prodigy’s mother’s home in Long Island and Havoc’s place in Queensbridge, recording tirelessly.
The result was a genuine masterpiece of pulp art that evokes the novels of Mickey Spillane and the films of Sam Pekinpah. On “The Infamous,” the two rappers reinvented themselves entirely, with Prodigy in particular forging a style of almost monastic menace, eschewing showy wordplay and gimmicks for a laconic vernacular laced with tragedy, threats and regret. Meanwhile, Havoc’s production took the dusty samples and shotgun snares of the RZA’s early work with Wu-Tang and imbued them with a sense of ghostly cinematic grandeur. From the wintry wind chimes of “The Start of Your Ending (41st Side)” to the noirish horns on “Cradle to the Grave” and the Quincy Jones sample manhandled into a buzzsaw alarm squeal at the start of “Shook Ones (Pt. II),” this was music that lowered room temperatures when it came through the speakers — an album whose brutally unsentimental worldview both reflected the bleakness of post-Reagan-era urban life and recast it as a sort of primal myth. There hasn’t been anything quite like it since.
Mobb Deep’s decades-long partnership came to a tragic end three years ago, when Prodigy died after a lifelong battle with sickle cell anemia. But Havoc continues to produce, having lent his talents to tracks for Kanye West, Eminem and 50 Cent over the last decade, and he hopes to try his hand at film scoring in the near future. Reached on the phone from his home in Westchester County, the 45-year-old Havoc discussed the album’s genesis, and what the coming years have in store.
How does it feel to think about “The Infamous” being a quarter century old?
To be honest with you, it feels surreal. When you think of 25 years, just objectively, you think of that as a long time. But [“The Infamous”] is one of those things where I can remember it like it was yesterday, so it kinda bugs me out a little bit. It really puts a lot of things about my life into perspective.
Can you identify a time when “The Infamous” really started to take shape?
Well, we’d come out with “Juvenile Hell” and obviously it didn’t do that well, but we didn’t let that get our spirits down. We just knew we had to make a lot of changes. So the first thing we did was make a new demo in hopes of getting a new record deal, and [through that] we got hooked up with Steve Rifkind. We had a meeting with him at his little cubicle at RCA Records where he worked at the time, and when he started moving to sign us, we took that as, okay, this is our second chance right here. So once we signed those contracts and got a little budget to do the album and get into the studio, it really made us go, “We can’t f— this up. This might be our last chance.” That was probably the moment. We didn’t have no fear, though, we just started making the music that was in our hearts.
Obviously, one of the biggest changes there was the fact that you two were doing everything yourselves. How long did it take you to feel confident as a producer?
To be honest, it was “Shook Ones.” When I was creating it, I wasn’t all high on myself. I was still trying to find myself as a producer. But then when I made it, all my friends and the cats around the neighborhood were like, “Yo, this sh– is crazy.” I didn’t necessarily trust their judgment all that much [laughs], but if they like it, that’s the first battle. And then we played it for the record company, or at least for Steve and the A&Rs and Matty C, and they liked it. Then we put it out and the world started liking it. And that was the moment where I thought, maybe I can actually do this. And that gave me the confidence I needed to go make the rest of those beats.
Prodigy once said you weren’t always crazy about a lot of those beats you’d made at first. I think he said that about “Survival of the Fittest”…
See, it’s hard to gauge if something is dope when you’re a new producer. You need that feedback. You can make something and think “I like this,” but you’re always thinking, “What if it’s just me that likes it?” And honestly, it wasn’t that I didn’t like that beat. [Laughs.] Sometimes stories kind of take on a life of their own, and it’s like a chain letter until it gets to “Havoc didn’t like the ‘Survival of the Fittest’ beat.” Nah, that’s not really it. But for whatever reason I just let that story rock. I mean, it’s not too far off, even if it’s not 100% the truth.
Speaking of that beat in particular, how long did it take you to dig out a sample like that? What’s the feeling like when you finally hear that one bar out of hundreds of records that you know you can use?
I’ll put it like this: It’s like when you go to a store or a bodega and they have those scratch-off lottery tickets that say you can win $10,000 a week for life, and you’re scratching it off and all the sudden you get a winning number. And it’s probably not the $10,000 a week at first, right, but maybe you get a $500 prize or something and you go, “This is kinda dope, let me keep getting these scratch-offs.” Because when you find the kind of sample that you know you can use – and it could take anywhere from five seconds to 30 days – it’s the same kind of adrenaline rush. You’re looking through these piles of records and then you finally find something, your heart starts beating fast and you just know, “Oh sh–, I think I got something.”
I’m curious what a day in the life of making “The Infamous” looked like. Was it mostly you two together experimenting? Did you have a crowd around you all the time?
Thinking back to that time I think about me and Prodigy together in Long Island, kind of in solitary confinement, making stuff but not knowing if it’s dope enough. Then finally I got the notion to say you know what, I think we need a bit of that Queensbridge ‘hood vibe. ‘Cause we was in Hempstead starting it off, and I just wasn’t feeling it, you know? The houses were a little too nice, it was a pretty decent neighborhood, there wasn’t nobody hanging on the corners or anything – there wasn’t that vibe. So I said, “We gotta pack up the equipment and everything and take this to my place in Queensbridge.” And now we’ve got the atmosphere going.
But even there, my crib wasn’t crowded with people listening to me make beats. Because they didn’t know yet. They’re not completely on board until I start to paint the pictures, right? So I’m sitting there making these beats, and after I played “Shook Ones” that’s when people started wanting to come to the crib to hear more and more and more. Which is what builds that vibe to help you create even better. Because you can create by yourself, and some people like to do it like that. But sometimes you need to have that other energy around you. That’s why when you’ll see a lot of producers early on, with a bunch of their friends all in the studio, they’re kind of helping the producer produce a little bit. They might not be touching any buttons or anything like that, but they’ll give you that little head nod, like, “Yeah man, that sh– right there.” Or “Nah, cut out that part.” And as the producer you’re like, okay cool, I got it. It can be a recipe for success sometimes.
Did you and Prodigy have any big disagreements making that record?
Never. I can’t remember a single instance. It was almost like I could’ve made anything and Prodigy could’ve figured out how to rap to it. Sometimes when I would try to produce for people outside of Mobb Deep, people might not like a beat I gave them; but then as soon as I would give it to Prodigy to rap on, they’d be like, “Yo, I want a beat like that.” It was just one of those weird things about the two of us.
How about the label? When you turned in that album, did you get anyone listening to it and going “Where’s the single?” or “Damn, this is dark”?
No, there was never any pressure to make any singles at that point. It was just, “Make whatever you want to make, and we’re gonna make people like it.” Not that they had to make people like it [laughs], but we weren’t going in there thinking we need a radio hit. We just went in, spilled our guts out, gave ourselves to the record, and that was that. Matty C and Schott Free really gave us free range to do what we wanted to do. They were actually really encouraging, and they even supplied us a sample or two every now and then.
What was the philosophy behind the sequencing? It has a really effective and subtle narrative arc.
See here’s the thing: after cooking in the kitchen for hours, I don’t wanna be the one setting the table. You understand what I’m saying? After producing these records over however many months, I didn’t want any part of picking what song went where. I left that to Prodigy and Matty C and Schott Free, and they did a magnificent job of giving that album a story. All credit to them.
“The Infamous” had a pretty immediate impact on hip-hop, especially the New York side of things. [Raekwon’s] “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” comes out later that year, [Jay-Z’s] “Reasonable Doubt” the next year — the influence on both was already pretty obvious. When did you start noticing it?
Maybe a couple months afterward. But I just attributed it to the era, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t try to immediately take credit for anything – “Look at what we did, then look what other people did…” It was just the era. Those were the kind of albums we were into making, and those were the albums we wanted to hear, whether it be Rae or [Ghostface] or Nas or whomever. I tried not to think about whether we had an effect on other people, I tried to be a little more humble than that. A lot of other people did kinda tell me like “Yo, y’all ushered in kind of a new era, you’re pioneers” or whatever. But to me, I never felt like we were doing anything groundbreaking at the time.
But even years later, things you produced keep showing up in samples, in freestyles. Eminem rapping over “Shook Ones” in “8 Mile,” Black Thought doing that insane freestyle over “Burn” on Funk Flex…
You know, it’s easy to be really big-headed about things. “Yeah, they’re using my beat. Look what I did.” I don’t feel like that, but I do feel validated that I really did make some ill beats that surpassed a lot of other really dope beats. There’s a million hip-hop beats to pick from to freestyle over. Literally. But for some reason, my tracks keep coming up in freestyles. That makes me proud, and I don’t take it for granted. It helps me moving forward too, like look what I created, that’s all in me. And it’s inspiring to me especially now because as a producer, you don’t have to be any certain age. When you’re the artist, people always want to make it out to be a young person’s sport, but as a producer you don’t have to be seen — you don’t have to be onstage. And that’s still all in me.
So where do you go forward from here? What are you aiming for over the next 5 or 10 years?
I always ask myself that question. Can I still create something great like I did in the past? And I say to myself, yes I can. Currently now, I’m studying film scoring and film composition to try to do something even more ill with that. So when people look back at my story someone can say, “Hey that’s that guy, maybe he made a couple of gold and platinum albums that I’ve never really heard of, but he’s a great composer.” I want that to be part of my story. Because it’s all music, right?
Did you guys ever feel like the legacy of “The Infamous” was a burden? I know Nas has talked about how, for all of the records he’s done throughout his career, people always want to come back and talk about “Illmatic.” Do you ever have those moments?
Yeah, I do. Sometimes when I’m producing people still ask me, “Hey, can you make me a ‘Shook Ones’?” So it’s like I’m still living in that shadow. And the thing is you can never make another “Shook Ones,” just like they could never make another you. Sometimes you do have the burden of living in that shadow, but trust me when I say there could be a lot worse burdens. So I don’t complain about that.
How much do you think about your role as a guardian of Prodigy’s legacy?
I think about that all the time, and it gives me a really great sense of responsibility. I think a lot about how I have to control our narrative going forward because he’s not here to assist me. So I have to be really careful, very mindful, and try to steer my story along with his as best I can do, to make it something he would approve of if he was still here.