Classics: The Infamous by Mobb Deep

I previously misunderstood Mobb Deep and had no interest in them. The reason being is that I initially wrote them off as frauds.

In 1994, a group that called themselves South Central Cartel, released their sophomore album, ‘N Gatz We Truss, that I was a big fan of. South Central Cartel was composed primarily of the performing duo, Havikk & Prodeje. At face value, my brain couldn’t process the notion that Mobb Deep, composed of “Havoc” and “Prodigy”, who released The Infamous in 1995, were completely different, yet very similarly named, artists. I assumed this was no different than the reinvention tactics used in professional wrestling.

Please realize that I hadn’t touched the internet yet and did not have access to information that would have cleared this up immediately. My resources, limited to mall music store employees just trying to get their hourly nut, and persons who owned hip hop music shops (drug fronts in many circumstances in my hometown) were of little to no help for these types of queries.

I was also in my late teens, and life had not smartened me up yet.

Purchasing a cassette before hearing it was always a gamble. Sometimes it had a huge payoff and gave you the satisfaction of discovery. And sometimes you blew precious funds earned by sorting beer-soaked returnable bottles & cans in the back of a grocery store, on a worthless piece of plastic because it had a cool cover.

So, I figured Mobb Deep was a face turn for South Central Cartel and they had switched to a New York gimmick. This made logical sense to me as far as rebranding was concerned because SCC was on Def Jam out of New York, who typically didn’t produce West Coast acts at the time.

It wasn’t until the mid 2000’s when I moved to Brooklyn that I truly started to understand New York hip-hop from a personal perspective. Growing up in Michigan, local hip-hop music leaned closer to a West Coast sound. The 1991 single “Ain’t No Future in Yo Frontin’” by Flint’s MC Breed had garnered strong West Coast radio rotation, which led to him working with 2Pac, Warren G, and The D.O.C. on his third album, The New Breed, released in 1993. Tunes out of the Mitten trended much more “G-Funk” than “Boom Bap”.

You can also see this taken a step further when Breed’s associates, DFC, released Things in tha Hood in 1994, expanding their West Coast social circle by bringing in MC Eiht and Nate Dogg.

I should mention that MC Breed’s vocals from “Ain’t No Future in Your Frontin’” are sampled on “Ya Getz Clowned” off of South Central Cartel’s 1992 debut, South Central Madness.

All of this led to the “Michigan sound” becoming more like the “West Coast” sound and the culmination of this led to a “West Coast” sound being more pleasing to my ears.

Perpetually riding the New York subway system with headphones in, I dove into acts like KRS-One, Nas, Gang Starr, and Mobb Deep on my aging second-generation iPod because they sounded connected with the rhythm of the L or the 6. They sounded connected to the sidewalk while strolling to get an inebriated 2am slice on the Lower East Side. The prevalent Boom Bap and swirling, dreamy, piano samples made a connection with me as being the heartbeat of the city. It was naturally built into the music by the artists who lived there.

The Infamous is a sonically scary album. It’s not the most explicitly violent like an early Geto Boys record, but it’s dark, eerie, lacking a hint of sunlight, and feels like you’re alone in a neighborhood that you didn't belong in as a kid. It feels like you’re in the woods alone at night, and if something happens, no one is coming to help. The Infamous leans more “psychological thriller” that’s stuck in your brain when your head hits the pillow, as opposed to “red corn syrup slasher” you forget about five minutes after you throw your empty popcorn bucket in the trash on the way out of the theater. I use the term “scary,” because it feels very real.

The lyrical storytelling is very compelling and complex. It’s confident enough to pull your attention, instead of chasing you with gaudy fanfare.

There’s integrity to creating art like this. From the artwork, to the audio, to the artists, there are no readily apparent gimmicks. It’s Timberlands, a sample machine, mics, a record player, a mixer, killas, and five dolla billas. There aren’t 17 guys in the group with a kung fu theme, no laugh-out-loud comedy skits, Puffy isn’t dipping his head in every few minutes, and it’s certainly not meant to be “fun”. If you’ve ever been rolled up on by a car at night, and the guys inside aren’t stopping by to say “hi”, that’s what The Infamous feels like.

Why is it so good? It’s “so good”, just because it is. Along with my confusion as to who Mobb Deep actually was, there’s also a possibility that in 1995, I wasn’t mature enough to fully appreciate an album without being brought in by a hook or a familiar clique affiliation. Every song is a chapter in a novel, and my brain was more accustomed to listening to comic books.

To be fair, one actual reason as to why The Infamous might be “so good” is that Q-Tip, who had taken a shine to Mobb Deep, became involved and served as a mentor/producer. The Abstract consulted on several aspects of the record that gave it such a cohesive brooding aura, without sacrificing its ability to fill a space with enormous sound, by surgically adjusting mixes and drum placements. While the vibe of The Infamous was certainly not Tribe-esque, it’s my opinion that giving talent a space to create outside of their comfort zone sometimes provides the secret spices to make a recipe jump from being very good to being outstanding.

Appearances by Nas, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Q-Tip didn’t hurt, but I don’t think it was what moved the needle on the record’s success.

To be fair, even The Source had to revisit their original review of The Infamous. Originally given 4.5 mics for the debut in 1995, it was reappraised and given a prestigious 5 mics in 2002.

One last thing: To my chagrin, 1992’s South Central Madness by South Central Cartel, which is pretty good, is available on Spotify, while ‘N Gatz We Truss is not.

If you’d like, please enjoy the accompanying playlist made by the author for this article.

Mike Burns

Listen to POWER MOVES with Mike Burns wherever you get your podcasts.

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