It felt like Christmas came three times in 12 months. Between April ’94 and April ‘95, hip hop was blessed with three classic albums: Nas’ Illmatic, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die and Mobb Deep’s The Infamous. After Nas’ iconic debut, no one expected a duo from Queens to come even harder. But a year later, Prodigy and Havoc emerged from that same Queensbridge housing development with blunts, 40-ounces and a 16-track masterpiece. Sure, a couple of years earlier we heard their singles, “Peer Pressure” and “Hit It From the Back,” off their debut, 1993’s Juvenile Hell. But The Infamous was different. Way different. It forced you to sit up and listen. At least I did.
I was a 17-year-old college freshman when the album released twenty years ago. I remember sitting on the radiator in my dorm room, looking out of the window and singing along to “Shook Ones Pt. 2.”
I'm only nineteen but my mind is old /And when the things get for real, my warm heart turns cold/ Another n***a deceased, another story gets told/ It ain't nothin' really/ Ay yo dun, spark the Phillie.
It suddenly dawned on me that we were about the same age, but they seemed so much older. Being forced to face death daily has a way of turning our boys into men prematurely. The odds were stacked against Albert and Kejuan, but I guess they were against me too. I grew up in Jamaica, Queens — just a few train stops from Queensbridge. The zip code was different, but the scene was similar (though admittedly not as disadvantaged). Drugs, guns, crime and police brutality were prevalent. But I had escaped in a sense. Unlike the lyrics in “Shook Ones,” my heart was not cold, none of my friends were dead, and I had no idea who “dun” was (I had in fact sparked a Phillie — it was college after all), but somehow it all resonated with me. It wasn’t my story, but it was a familiar story. A story many newscasters only partly told on nightly broadcasts.
Mobb Deep provided the other side of the story, through vivid tales of poverty and all that comes along with it: theft, murder, fast money, and an occasional reflection for God’s mercy. It wasn’t just the hood’s soundtrack; it was also hood cinema.
Prodigy, in particular, had an ability to paint a picture and string ghetto tales together that played out like a movie. Sometimes a crime thriller. In fact, there were countless references to the judicial process and criminal jargon like jakes, bids, violations, up-north trips and probation were sprinkled throughout the entire album.
My second favorite track, “Just Step Prelude” featuring Big Noyd (FYI, my No. 1 pick is “Give Up The Goods”), taught me everything I needed to know about New York City’s criminal process. Just a year earlier — during my 12th grade government class field trip — I visited the Queens Court where I learned about central bookings. The next time I heard that phrase, it was out of the mouth of Big Noyd: "Sometimes I wish I had three different faces/ I'm going to court for three cases/ in three places /One in Queens Manhattan /one in Brooklyn /The way things is looking, I'ma see central bookings."
As a young girl I was always attracted to the bad boys, and Mobb Deep definitely fit the bill. But more profoundly, as a writer, I was always drawn to good storytelling. I was taught early on “tell, not show.” In other words, use descriptive language to convey the sentiment. It was something that QB’s Finest did so matter-of-factly with overly stimulating street tales of impending doom. They didn’t just rhyme about how to kill someone. M-O-B-B went further than that: What was on the mind of the killer as he approached his enemy, what type of violation deserved this type of punishment and the biggest question in my opinion: what is already inside of a man who is able to kill so unapologetically?
They delivered this type of detail and layering in every song (though I always skip “Up North Trip”). And Havoc’s exceptional production pulled it all together with snaring, piano and kick drum beats. I didn’t just hear the songs on The Infamous; I could see and feel them. And that’s what good art is all about. I doubt that Prodigy and Havoc — who were practically kids at the time — had any idea that their almost entirely self-produced work of art would create a fan base that would span 20 years and become a hallmark of New York hip hop. In fact, some of the biggest publications in hip hop didn’t get it at first either. In 2004, The Source re-rated the album, giving it five mics and XXL magazine gave it a classic "XXL" rating in its retrospective 2007 issue.
Mobb Deep wanted out of hell, but until that day came, their guns were blazing and their middle fingers were up. In fact, the idea of “against all odds” tied the whole project together. While many of the lyrics on The Infamous were riddled with violence, poverty and self-worthlessness, if you listen closely it was Mobb Deep allowing the thoughts that were tucked deep away in the dusty parts of their mind a chance to escape and roam free. In their music, there was a huge learning and revelation about the Black experience. It was as if they were declaring, with smirks on their young faces, “You say I can’t have it, but I’m going to take it anyway. And I’m going to take it all while being young and Black.”
The Infamous was ultimately the narrative of two Black boys who were reckless survivors. Twenty years later, the story is still both beautiful and ugly.
And most definitely infamous.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)