5x5: Mobb Deep Interview

As part of last year’s Red Bull Music Academy World Tour, five hip hop legends – each representing one of the five boroughs of New York, the birthplace of hip hop – took the couch over five days, and each lecture was followed by a show in their own neighbourhood. Coinciding with this week’s Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, we present the highlights of each lecture for every day this week. Today: Mobb Deep. Interview by Ego Trip’s co-founder Sacha Jenkins.

Olugbenro Ogunsemore

RBMA: So, Havoc and Prodigy. Here we are, years later. We see where hip hop has come and gone, but I wanna start out with before hip hop. Havoc, for instance, I first met Havoc as a graffiti writer. We were in Queens, and the middle track where they park the train is called the layup. When trains are out of service, that’s where they would park them. And the first time I met Havoc was with a guy from Queensbridge who wrote DMC, who was a friend of mine, who was in my crew. And he was like, “Yo, my little man is a real ill artist. You know, he has the fever, he wants to hit these trains.” And so, the thing about hitting the trains was you didn’t want to go from the platform. So you’d have these beams on the side, where the trains are elevated. I just saw this little dude climb up the beam like it was nothing. So, I knew from a very young age that he was artistically inclined. Then I also know that the gentlemen to his right, they both went to art and design high school. So, a lot of recording artists are also fine artists. Because their minds are wired differently, fine art is a way to express themselves. So, I wanted to ask you guys about, you know, your interest in art or drawing, and how you guys wound up at a specialised high school for art.

HAVOC: Well, I started art, like, from a young age. Since I was like maybe three or four. You know, I drew a picture of my mother when she was pregnant, when I was like three. And it just started from there. My father was an artist, and I always liked to draw, you know what I’m saying. So naturally, choosing a high school, you know, Art and Design was one of the best places for me to hone in on my artistic skills and the rest was history after that, you know what I mean. 1988, that’s when I went to Art and Design, and met P.

Loud Records / RCA Records

RBMA: How about you, P, in terms of drawing, or how that’s just another manifestation of your creativity?

PRODIGY: Yeah, I mean, I went to Art and Design cuz a lot of my friends in the neighbourhood were going there. Cuz I just wanted to be with my friends. I really wasn’t into art that much. I got into it by going to that school and being around everybody like Hav and certain people that I met that was really into art. They got me more into it than I was. But Hav is like incredible with it.

HAVOC: I’m alright.

PRODIGY: Nah, when we was in the crib one day, he drew my face perfectly with a pen, just making dots. Like, no mistakes, with a pen. He’s ill with it. But I just really went to be there with my friends was there. And I ended up, my and Hav, and it just ended up being something else.

RBMA: So the art went from, maybe in the studio he’s drawing perfect pictures of you, but together, in the studio as artists you were painting different kinds of pictures. And that’s when the first record, soon after, came. Tell us about those early days.

PRODIGY: Yeah, the early days was like, when we first met, started hanging out, we both had a love for the music. It was a lot of travelling on the train. We would like take the train every day to Coney Island, to the only studio that we could really use for a good price that we could afford, was in the projects out in Brooklyn, in Coney Island. We used to go out there and uh, every day we used to cut out of school and take the train, it was like an hour, two hour ride, you know, work on songs, work on our demo, put together a nice demo so we could start shopping around. A lot of those early memories, it’s just like, being on the train with some 40s, smoking weed between train cars, and on the train, stuff that you can’t even do today, you know what I mean, in New York, really.

“Queensbridge is the biggest projects in America. It’s 96 buildings, and it’s just a lot going on out there, man. And there’s so many styles and slang, it was just like a breeding ground for uniqueness out there.”

RBMA: And you were also interested more in the production end back then, right?

PRODIGY: Yeah, you know I was just trying my hand at it back then, that was when I first started really getting into it. I think Hav inspired me to do it because we used to go to his crib, I think it was the one in Ravenswood. And you used to have the records, with a stereo cassette deck, with record on it. Yeah, and he used to do record and pause, record and pause, record and pause, and loop a beat up on cassette. That was the first time I ever seen something like that, and he was actually making beats on it, you know what I mean. He would record, like, songs from the radio. He would listen to radio shows late at night and catch some ill samples. And Hav’s pop was a DJ, so he had a lot of records and I seen him, that was the first time I seen somebody sampling and looping like that, and it got me into wanting to try that, too.

RBMA: Tell us, I mean, your pops was an artist, a DJ, tell us about him.

HAVOC: Artist, DJ. You know, we fell asleep to banging music, you know what I’m saying. You know, we like five years old and the music is just banging in the little ass apartment. So, we was just so used to music, you know what I’m saying, and, you know, after Pops bounced, he left the records. So, you know, I kept them shits, you know what I’m saying, they just, put some use to it.

RBMA: So, language is a big part of what you guys do. I’m from Queens, and different boroughs have different ways to express, you know, where they come from. You guys were big proponents of the done language. And, you know, English obviously is the foundation of how we speak, but you guys are architects of your own language, and that’s an important part of Mobb Deep is, because that also travelled, and had an influence, and helped to create different dialects based on what you guys created. Talk about language. I mean, I know it’s a little all over the place, but I think it’s a big part of what you guys bring to the table.

PRODIGY: Yeah that, that really like came from, like Queensbridge, period. Like, Queensbridge is the biggest projects in America. You know, it’s 96 buildings, and it’s just a lot going on out there, man. And there’s so many styles and slang, it was just like a breeding ground for uniqueness out there. So when I first came out there, I seen all that immediately. The way they dress different, talk different slangs, different you know, and you know like you say, each neighbourhood, each region got their own way of talking. Down south they’ll say something, Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, they got different slangs everywhere. So, Queensbridge just had a real unique slang and dress and all that. One of our friends from out there, his name’s Bumpy. You know, he had a speech impediment, and every time he used to say ‘son’ – you know everyone was like, “Yo, what up, son?” He used to be, “Yo what up, dun?” He used to talk with a lisp, you know what I mean. So, we started all just saying it, “Yo, what up dun, what up, dun?” You know what I mean? And it just all came from there. That was like a part of it, and then we turned it into a whole, like, our version of pig Latin. Like we wanted to talk to each other, and if we didn’t want somebody around us to know what we were talking about, we be like, “Yo dun, dorty over there got the datty,” Like you know what I mean. So that’s where that came from, the dun language.

RBMA: I mean, that’s a serious cultural McNugget right there, where that came from. Who knew? Speech impediments. But Queensbridge, during that era when you guys where making that music, what a lot of people don’t understand – you know, I did an article for Vibe, I think it was about ’95, I interviewed everyone from Queensbridge and what was going on then. And a lot of guys who were down with these guys are no longer with us. And the climate and the intensity that you feel on this record, if you understand where they come from, you understand when this guy says there’s a war going on outside, there literally is a level of intensity that, I can’t say it’s necessarily on par with someone that is in the Middle East or something right now. But for a lot of these black and Latino individuals, it was a very intense time. So, talk about what you remember, sitting on the park bench. Talk about some of the cats who aren’t with us anymore, who are integral to what created that album.

HAVOC: I mean, it’s a lot of situations out there like, you got six blocks out there. Each block is like it’s own neighbourhood, and [that] just makes Mobb Deep. I mean Queensbridge, you know what I’m saying. So, you might have dudes from, you know, one block, two different blocks, that might used to have been friends. And now the next thing you know, they beefin’ over who can sell drugs on the hill. And next thing you know they’re just shooting at each other, killing each other like, you know, my man Draws, God bless the dead, he used to gun it out all the time, and um my brother, Killer Black – rest in peace, God rest the dead – he was one of the wildest dudes out there, you know what I’m saying. And he used to hang with dudes from the other block, like, the opposition block. And our block, where we was from, was where he was hanging with them. So, he used to have to come home to where the beef was at. You know what I’m saying, and niggas used to have to come to me like, “Yo son, you know you brother, he’s from the block,” but they knew not to touch him, you know what I’m saying. So, the thing is, when you’re going through things like that, where you could just come outside, and your brother got beef with somebody, he shoot them, and the next thing you know, you gotta watch yourself, because your brother done shot somebody in the face, and you sitting in your car, nigga wetting your whole car up, you know what I’m saying, what other kind of music you gonna make?

RBMA: So what is it, so when you look back now, looking at, literally, you guys were in a war. You know, when you look at that album, what do you think it represents, in terms of where you guys were at in your lives at that time?

HAVOC: I mean, it just, it represents the struggle, you know what I’m saying, the hunger, the will to make a better situation for yourself and get up out the projects, you know what I’m saying, to make a better living for your family. But to make it out of there is nothing short of a miracle, because you don’t have to leave out of there, and then just any kind of circumstances could just put you in the grave. You know what I’m saying? From police, you know, planting stuff in your car and in your pockets. Putting you in jail from the dude that’s jealous of you cuz you shining a little bit more than him, you know what I’m saying, so it’s just, like I said, it’s nothing short of a miracle, making it out of there. In that era right there, the album that we did, it just describes just that. If you listen to it word for word. You know, you got a lot of rappers out there, that they be rapping, and they just be saying that, they be lying a lot, you know what I’m saying. But the shit that we went through is just so real, it’s just a blessing that us two is still here, you know what I mean?

RBMA: And to bring it full circle, I mean, this is the same cat on that album who said no matter how much loot he gets, you know, he’s never leaving, I mean he’s staying in the project forever. You know, that’s how you felt.

HAVOC: Yeah, that was metaphorically, because people always come to me, they like, “Yo I thought you wasn’t leaving the projects.” What I meant was my heart would never leave the projects. It’s like, I always will remember where I came from. You understand what I’m saying. So, when people take those words literally, I be like, “Damn, what grade you graduated from? What school? Oh, you didn’t finish, just like me. No doubt, it’s all good.”

RBMA: And then you took it to another level with the imagery, using the sort of Queensbridge, you know, “Welcome to Queensbridge”.

HAVOC: The housing authority sign, yeah. We just took that and just put it as Mobb Deep, you know what I mean? Word.

PRODIGY: It was like, using it was just like, welcome, you know, to our world. Just like it say welcome to whatever houses all over New York for the projects.

RBMA: Queensbridge is the largest housing project in America. He said with great glee, “The 41st side, get bent, run wild.” Now, for those that don’t know, Queensbridge is separated in two sections in terms of streets. These gentlemen represent the 41st side, Nasir Jones is from the 40th side. Tell us about the differences between, are they more thorough on the 41st side?

HAVOC: I mean, you know, I love the whole Queensbridge, but the 41st side was the real side. The 40th side was like the corny side. They didn’t really know how to dress really on that side, you know what I’m saying. But they just got one ace card and that was Nas, you know what I’m saying. It was all good, you know what I’m mean.

RBMA: Poet and Hot, isn’t Hot Dave from the 40th side?

HAVOC: Yeah, yeah, yeah, Hot Dave’s from there, too. But we got Marley Marl, Roxanne Shante, MC Shan, we got all of them on our side, you know what I’m saying, so go figure.

RBMA: Well, explain to the young folks here who don’t have the same kind of club experience that us older gentleman might have had. Tell us what it was like in the clubs, like the Tunnel, the Muse, how you could get cut, stabbed, shot up, knuckled down, or one or four of those options. Tell us about the intensity of being in the club back in the days.

PRODIGY: Oh yeah, New York, period, man. New York was a different place back then. You know, it’s still definitely wild right now, you can get killed in New York right now, you know what I mean. But it was very different back then, because there wasn’t a lot of cameras back then. It wasn’t so much, the police wasn’t on it, on it like how they on it right now, you know what I mean, with all this terrorist talk and all this stuff. It’s crazy, man. It was crazy back then, you know. And clubs, you know, it was just wild, it was off the hook back then. The music was different, you know what I mean. The music was wilder, you know, so it just amped the people up even more. You know what I mean, so, just all around, period. The environment was definitely more intense and more dangerous in those days.

RBMA: But you were on, your music was on. You’re with your crew, you got your new whip, you got your cell phone, pager, whatever. You’re hyped. Like, talk about that experience of feeling that, being in the moment, people knowing who Mobb Deep is, people wanting to test Mobb Deep. All of that goes with the territory. Talk about that.

PRODIGY: I mean to tell you the truth, the first one, two albums, we was taking the train to ours. You know what I’m saying, like, we would all, there’d be like 30, 40 of us, and we would all hop the train, you know, get on the train or whatever, go to the show. After the show, hop the train, go back to the projects, you know what I mean. That’s how we were moving for a little while. And we was just having a lot of fun. And a lot of it is just, you know, being high as hell, drunk as hell, you’re 18, 19. You got, you know what I mean, a nice record playing on the radio, videos, you’re feeling yourself, you got all your people with you, it’s just a big celebration. And not to mention who we our, where we come from, the lifestyle that we living, we just bringing all that baggage to the celebration.

“They come with this fake persona, and trying to be, like, the rapper, and they’re not really living it. Cuz this ain’t a game to really play with. Music should be fun, but this is street music, so we not going to fool ourself.”

HAVOC: Yeah, but it wasn’t too many people trying to test us, though. You know what I’m saying, cuz when you see like 30 dudes, you know what I’m saying, coming up in the club, you know what I’m saying, niggas just show their respect. You know what I mean, it wasn’t too many people really, you never heard us really getting into too many altercations like that, because you know where we come from, they know it was real. So, real recognise real, you know what I’m saying. So we ain’t had many problems like that.

RBMA: So why do you think so many rappers are in the, aren’t so realistic about what it is and where they come from? Why do you think there’s such a disconnect?

HAVOC: Cuz a lot of people’s just in the game to make money. They’re not really real artists, you know what I’m saying. And then they come with this fake persona, and trying to be, like, the rapper, and they’re not really living it. But then when they go somewhere and get smacked in the face by somebody, then they know that it’s really real. Cuz this ain’t a game to really play with. Music should be fun, but this is street music, you know what I’m saying, so we not going to fool ourself. So, if you, you know what I’m saying, rhyme about a certain thing, you know what I’m saying, dudes is gonna test you, you know what I’m saying. And a lot of dudes is coming out here, you know what I’m saying, rhyming about, “Yo, I sold drugs on this block” and this, that and the third, and as soon as they get stepped to, they fold. You know what I mean.

RBMA: So tell us a bit about the making of “Eye For An Eye”. A lot of legendary cats on there with you guys.

HAVOC: Yeah, Nas and Raekwon. Yep.

RBMA: Tell us about the song, how it came together, what you remember about it, being in the studio...

HAVOC: Well, that was like, towards, like, the middle of the album. It was a lot of good energy going on at that time. We was labelmates with the Wu-Tang, and we clicked with Raekwon and them really good, like we really gelled with them. And Nas is from around the way. To this day I can’t even really remember how we got all of them into the studio, because it’s hard to get dudes in the studio all at one time.

PRODIGY: I remember. Scott Free used to work at Loud, with Matty C. They were the two A&R’s up there that signed, Scott signed, got Wu-Tang signed, and Matty signed us. Um, Scott wanted us to meet Raekwon and them, so he took us to Staten Island one night, and we got drunk and high with Rae and Ghost, and some other niggas out in the harbour.

RBMA: Were you smoking some dust? That’s big out there.

PRODIGY: I think they might have slipped some dust in one of our blunts or something like that, cuz I was feeling higher than I ever felt in my life.

HAVOC: Yeah, when I got home I was walking in slow motion, like this. They put some shit in my shit.

PRODIGY: Yeah, and that night I remember Raekwon, he drove us back to Queensbridge, cuz we had took the ferry out there. And on the ride back, he was like, “Yo, what’s up with that dude Nas, man? We trying to do a song with him, I want to put him on my solo album.” And I was like, “Yo, we gonna hook that up.” So then the next day we hollered at Nas, and through that conversation we ended up just all doing the song together.

RBMA: So you had to go do the song past 40th side to talk to Nas?

PRODIGY: I don’t even know how we reached out to everybody, I think Hav reached out to ‘em.

HAVOC: You know, I be fuckin’ with, you know, both sides anyway, you know what I’m saying. But, you know, I was already hanging with Nas before all of this anyway, so I guess, you know, we must have made that happen, or whatever, but, you know what I’m saying. But, it happened.

RBMA: So, you have the line, Prodigy, “You watch me while Jake’s tryin’ to knock me and lock me.” Bringing it back to the dun language, explain here to our friends in the audience, who’s Jake?

PRODIGY: Yeah, Jake is the police. That’s a slang term that come from Queensbridge for the police, from that TV show, Jake And The Fatman. It was a cop show, so we used to call the police Jakes. You know what I mean, yeah, “You watch me while Jake’s tryin’ to knock me and lock me.” That means the police trying to arrest you and lock you up.

RBMA: Speaking of Jake, talk about the relationship between the police and cats in Queensbridge. It’s, you know what I mean, it’s complicated.

HAVOC: I mean, like you know, we all know the D’s, you know what I’m saying, the D’s knew us. We used to know the D’s by they first names, you know what I’m saying.

RBMA: ‘The D’s’, as in, for those who don’t understand, the detectives.

PRODIGY: Or the ‘dicks’.

HAVOC: It was like a cat and mouse game, you know what I’m saying, it’s like they’ll see you, they say what’s up, they be friendly, but in the meanwhile they looking at you like, “You know Imma get you, you know Imma have to get you.” So, it was like that.

RBMA: “Temperature’s Rising” [is] one of my favourite songs on the album. It shows a level of sensitivity that I think is important in hip hop, in terms of creating. What they, go back to what they’ve been saying about reality and being honest, you know, and I think that is one of the reasons this album has stood the test of time. Do you remember where you recorded it, or…?

HAVOC: Yeah, Q-Tip helped us do that song right there. He actually came up with the sample, and the drum pattern and all of that. And he was in there just kinda guiding us through, you know what I mean. Cuz the sample was “Temperature’s Rising”, that was the original sample, was “Temperature’s Rising”.

RBMA: By who?

HAVOC: The one now is with Patrice Rushen, but the other one, the “Temperature’s Rising” that actually had the “Temperature’s Rising” sample in it, I can’t remember at this time. But the original one said, “temperature’s rising,” actually in the sample, and that’s what made us reflect on what we was going through, because it just fit so well in what we was going through, and then later on we sample – we did it over, and we sampled Patrice Rushen. I can’t remember the song, but it was Patrice Rushen.

Lecture: Mobb Deep (RBMA World Tour 2011) from Red Bull Music Academy on Vimeo.

RBMA: And, talk a bit more about Q-Tip’s influence, working with him at that point, you know, overall on the record. I know he was instrumental early on with your careers.

PRODIGY: Q-Tip, we use to cut out of school and we used to look on the back of the cassettes for the address of the record labels, after we made our demo out in Coney Island. You know, we used to cut out of school and take the train and go to the different labels. One of our main labels that we wanted was Def Jam, you know what I mean, so we used to just stand outside the door at Def Jam, you know, and just wait for like the rappers to come out, or wait for somebody to come out the door, and just be like, “Hey, excuse me. You listen to this song real quick, man, we’re a rap group,” you know what I mean. So, a lot of people was like, ‘yeah, fuck outta here’, or just act like they ain’t hear us or whatever. Q-Tip actually came out the building and was the only one that stopped, and actually was like, “Alright, let me check it out.” And he put on the headphones and he listened to us, listened to our demo. He sat there and listened to a few songs, actually, and he was like, “Yo, I like you dudes.” And he’s like, “Imma bring you into the office and introduce you to some people.” So, from that point – you know it was like three years later when we was working on The Infamous, maybe three, four years later. We just reached out back to him, like, “Yo man, you know, we got this new sound that we created, you know what I mean, it’s real hot, we got these hot records, we about to drop this hot album. We want to bring you in as a producer, and help us out with the sound.” To make our sound that quality shit, that quality level like he was doing for A Tribe Called Quest. We was always a fan of his and Tribe’s music. So, yeah, he came in and he blessed us, man, with a few tracks, and tweaked up some of the beats, and, you know, did the bass drums and all that, yeah.

RBMA: So, when you guys went to wait outside of Def Jam, how long did you wait until someone was nice enough, like Q-Tip, to say, “Okay, I’ll listen to your demo.” Were you out there for days?

PRODIGY: It probably took us like two or three days of going over there and just chilling, you know what I mean, until we finally caught a break.

RBMA: I mean, would you pack a lunch, did you have headphones, like---

PRODIGY: 40 ounces, man. 40 ounces and butter crunch cookies, and a dream.

RBMA: And just the two of you, not the whole Queensbridge?

HAVOC: Nah, just the two of us, that’s it. Thirsty.

By Sacha Jenkins on July 11, 2012

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