Mobb Deep Recording Session
Prodigy (L) and Havoc (R) during their Mobb Deep Recording Session at Battery Studios in New York City, New York, United States.
Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Interview: Mobb Deep's Havoc Speaks Candidly On The 25th Anniversary Of Their Classic 'The Infamous' Album

Mobb Deep's The Infamous Album Influenced NYC's Street Core And Shines 25 Years Later

There are many albums that define the grimy mid-90s New York scene, but it will be a hard find that can match the intensity and true feel of what it was like to be a teenager going into your 20s in NYC like Mobb Deep's The Infamous album. Havoc and Prodigy, the quintessential hood dudes from Queens and Long Island respectfully, spoke their own style of speak dubbed the ‘Dunn Language,’ and made the world hip to the goings on of their crew that was hunkered down in the Queensbridge housing projects they were based out of in Long Island City.

Released on April 25th, 1995 on Loud Records,  the album entered the Billboard 200 at #15 and the R&B/Hip-Hop chart at #3 and went on to sell over 500,000 (gold) copies. Musically, the sinister beats and murderous melodies were the perfect backdrop for their venomous rhymes of violence and victory over other squads that had no business being in their way. Their imagery was stark and moody, attitudes on tilt and boozed up from quarts of beer and liters of liquor. Morbid visions of life and those that passed on were in tandem, as the duo and their frequent rap partner, Big Noyd, expounded on the bleakness of better days ahead. Life was of the moment back then, and if you got hit on the way to the future, that would be the start of your ending.

All of this sounds grim beyond belief, how could something so dreaded sounding be heralded as a classic? So menacing from the youth of the times be looked at as great? Because we lived through it to see better days. Havoc explains in this interview that we were lucky to survive those hard times and live to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Even with Prodigy passing on, he was able to live a cleaner, healthier lifestyle in his later years. Going as far as writing books (an autobiography My Infamous Life and jail food recipe book Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Prison Cookbook) and educating people on higher elevation methods and looking into things in the world much deeper than face value. Rest forever in peace, P.

So there is a collective regal status held for this LP (a term for my old heads out there). It’s an album that encapsulates an era of New York City that will never be again. One that brought two men together that gave us their talent in hip-hop form and helped a section of their infamous neighborhood by taking their friends around the world with them. Just check the pics of the dudes all around them in the album packaging, it is a visual 1000 words of what the music represents on this project...just that, the mentality of the project that invaded the mainstream and held down the real in this here game of life called hip-hop.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the magnum opus album, a reissued release titled "The Expanded Edition" is here and it has five bonus tracks including two instrumentals for all you DJs out there. Hearing the original "Shook Ones" and the feel of previous rare leaks are glorious offerings to Mobb Deep fans. Here, Havoc talks more about the times and people surrounding the project. Thank you for your service, Dunn.


VIBE: A lot of the extra tracks that are on the special edition were leaks on various underground radio shows of the time for us that grew up with this album over the years. There are a few that are super rare though.

Havoc: Yeah, definitely. You know how it is.

But it was cool, 'cause by the time the full project came out the tracks were sounding a lot tighter and polished.

Right and that was the assistance of [Loud Records executives of A&R] Matty C and Schott Free. They were kinda making us go in there and doing things over and polishing things a little bit better before it was album worthy.

I was already a fan as your first album, Juvenile Hell, came out while I was in high school just like y'all. The album cover had yall with sickles and shit. If people didn’t know about your Queensbridge alliance they might have thought y'all were on the emerging horrorcore wave of the time.

We were trying to find ourselves, trying to find a little niche, something that would make us stand out. You know Treach [of Naughty by Nature] was running around with the machete, we were like, “Aighit, let’s go get some sickles (laughs).” You know? But it was all done in the name of trying to be different and trying to find ourselves. 

My girlfriend back when Juvenile Hell came out is my wife now and she couldn’t stand when I’d play “Hit It From The Back” when she came over…

(Laughs uncontrollably) Riiiight!!

Anytime that record comes on she says, “I hated you when you would play that.” I used to do it, being stupid! But that’s why y'all made it, for dudes that were our age back then and that’s where our minds were. Which is crazy to me now…

(Laughing still) Just some young teenagers full of testosterone, just trying to, you know, get busy! We were like, “yeah, let’s make one of those.” It was a Queens thing at the time.

Y'all worked with Large Professor on that first album a bit more so and DJ Premier did some as well.

Yep. Preemo made “Peer Pressure” and Large Professor came and remixed it.

At that time were you heavy in production? 

Not at all. I was just more trying to learn how to do it and figure out the elements to it. I’m just fresh watching Preemo make beats. Watching Large Professor make beats. Not asking questions, but just observing, ya know? My production game was in its infancy. I wasn’t even confident enough to say, ‘Let me do a whole album.’ No.

But then going into The Infamous, you were like, ‘let me go ahead and get busy.’

Yeah, because at that point, the Juvenile Hell album was sort of a let down for us. A learning moment…

I thought it was hard through bro. I hear you say that in a lot of interviews, but I love that album.

Thank you. I appreciate it, but I loved it too, 'cause it was our first piece of work that we tried to do and it was an attempt. But I say it was a let down in a commercial sense. It didn’t get the video plays, it didn’t get the radio spins. I don’t know whether the music wasn’t good enough for the people or whatever it was...but it definitely wasn’t promoted. [The record label] 4th & Broadway was probably on their last leg. They didn’t know what they was doing. Yeah, they had Eric B. & Rakim at one point, but that was then. Now we in the ' was sort of a letdown, but we needed that let down to give me the boost to say, “you know what? If anything f**k up again, it’s gonna be on our watch, our fault.”

How were yall living at the time of The Infamous being put together? What was life like? Where were y'all staying?

During that time we were back and forth from Prodigy’s crib to Queensbridge. We came up with the notion of let’s just take all the equipment to Queensbridge, hopefully, to just have that vibe. We didn’t have a lot of money. P comes from a good family. They had money, the [family] dance school, and all of that, but it wasn’t his money, personally. So he kinda opted to live in Queensbridge with us. So we lived out there, we partied, we worked on the music. We didn’t have all the bread like that, and a lot of drama was still happening. It was a real humble time.

When you hear the rhymes, aside from the music 'cause y'all describe the music in that one interview on the extended track as the underground sound...that sound was starting to come with Nas establishing it, Wu-Tang, all that. But y'all rhymes were about taking, "this is ours, yall coming for it we hurtin’ you and, if we like what YOU got we hurtin’ you."

Right, lay down or get down...get down or lay down. That was the mood of the hood, period. We just translated it to the songs and that’s how it was. Unfortunately, if somebody had it, we were coming to get it.

It was a different era. 

It really was a different era. I think a lot of us need to give ourselves a pat on the back for even surviving that era. 'Cause a lot of things could have just gone wrong, but the stars were lined up for us to even be talking today about it.

I look at your career, outside of it with Prodigy, you were the foundation angry as you sound in those days, you are on top of the beat. You are on top of them. You can hear a different kind of vigor within what you’re saying. You also seem like the one that would tell everybody, “yo, yo, yo, chill, chill, I got something to say.”

You know why? 'Cause everybody wants to listen to the calm one. Everybody has their own personality and muthafu**as ain’t trying to listen to nobody [laughs]. But when they see sense being spoken and a goal that needs to be approached...dudes listen. They’ll be like, “yo, let’s not f**k this up. We all have an opportunity here.” So brothers kinda calm down. I mean there were a couple of incidents where we were at radio stations and shit got stolen (laughs), but for the most part people adhered to the goal like, “Aight, let’s just do this.” I’d be the one like, “Let’s not get kicked out of this studio.”  I’m thankful that brothers kinda paid attention.

That’s commendable. I also have to give it to you for allowing Big Noyd aka The Rapper Noyd, to come into the crew. I felt like he was the third member for real and I felt like he played a major part in balancing out you and P. Whenever he would come on it would be like a good addition, rather than, “oh, here go their man…” He was actually dope.

We were lucky enough to even have him be in the circle for us to tap him at some point. As soon as we heard him we were like, “What?! This is a diamond in the ruff right here.” He’s not your average homie jumping on a record that don’t really have that many skills. He brought energy to the record. Me and P were calm, a little bit, but he brought that energy.

He was like the cool hood dude that you could talk to, he might be a hothead, but at least he could be talked to.

Exactly! You just described Noyd to a T. Noyd was that hot head. That kid that, you thought he listened to you, but then went somewhere and shot somebody over something, you know what I mean? Like, “Yo bro! What you doing?!? You a rapper now!!”

His acapella rhyme on the album, "Just Step Prelude," “I’m going to court for three cases, in three places/one in Queens, Manhattan, one in Brooklyn/the way shit is looking I’ma see central booking,” every kid in New York was going through [some form of] that…

Right! He just embodied the whole probation system in one freestyle. He didn’t just make this up.

How did y'all meet Noyd?

Noyd and my mother were best friends, forever. My mother would go over to Noyd’s house, Aunt Patricia - his mother, and I would have dinner over there. Noyd would come to my house, so we always had that connection. We might have not hung with each other all the time, but it was a personal connection where him and my Moms were cool. So when it came time for this hip-hop stuff and Noyd lived in the building next to me...we were all hanging out anyway and it was just unspoken. His Moms and my Moms were mad cool. It wasn’t something that we always had to talk about. We knew, the closeness of the was like, the universe just working in that way. Like years later, me being 11 years old, seeing him at the age, I wasn’t a rapper at that time. I’m sure he probably wasn’t either. Then you fast-forward to like 17-18 years old and it’s like, “Oh sh*t, you rhyme? Oh yeah, I rap.” Boom. I don’t know man, some things are just meant to happen.

His name is wild and a lot of people might not know where his name comes from but was it the “Noid” from Domino's Pizza commercial?

[Laughs] Yes. He’ll laugh about it. 'Cause of his nose, they’ll be like, “Noyd!” The kids today probably think it comes from paranoid or, no, no. That’s the Noid, the character from Domino’s.

Another noticeable theme of the album was the R&B tints it had without it being full-on R&B, especially with the vocals of Crystal Johnson on some tracks.

 Absolutely. That was a total created idea brought to the table by [A Tribe Called Quest’s] Q-Tip. We were making the album and happened to be doing “Temperature's Rising.” The original sample I did, they were saying, “Temperature’s riiiiisiiing...and it’s not surprising.” I believe it was a Quincy Jones record or something like that. For whatever reason, Q-Tip brought in Crystal Johnson and she just sung over it and we just were like, yeah, that’s the element we kinda need even though it wasn’t an R&B sounding track. Q-Tip had that ear.

At what point do you feel like Q-Tip came into the album process?

He came in from the start, from the inception. Ok, we get the record deal. We got the budget. I made like one or two songs. We were like, “this is cool, but maybe we should hit up Tip and have him come and assist you and like help you out.” And I was like, “Heeellll yeah. I can do that.” It wasn’t one of those things where I was like, “No, no, I’m doing it all by myself.” Nah, I was looking for somebody that could come in and kinda guide me and show me. 'Cause he was a vet, not too much of a vet, but he was seasoned already. And [in 1994] Tribe Called Quest was still poppin’. To get Q-Tip was just an honor man and a blessing. He was just so humble with it, I couldn’t even ask for more.

He gets shouted out 'cause he helped on the music side, was there a point where he helped on some of the rhymes as well, as far as suggesting things? Like with “Drink Away The Pain” he was converting to Muslim and people were wondering why he was rhyming about clothing brands while y'all rhyming about drinks…

For me it was more of...he just sounded like somebody that came from his group, A Tribe Called Quest, was working with Mobb Deep and didn’t want to compromise his sound or try to change just because he was rapping with these two kids who were cursing all the time. I felt like he was just being him on the record. And then he was in transition [on becoming a Muslim] at that time, but I felt like it was more of a thing where he was confident in who he was and what he brought to the table, and didn't... It would've sounded phony anyway if he would have tried to have been like, "Yo, I shot this dude and we're going to rob you." We would've been like, "Nah-" You know what I mean? So, he rapped about the clothes, and me and P kind of scratched our heads, but it was such a beautiful thing just to have Q-Tip on the record. So we did not complain at all, and it just turned into one of those songs that, yeah, just... I can't say classic, but it's just one of those different songs.

It's a classic, Hav.

That's right.

You have way too many classics.

What I'm trying to say is that it's one of those songs that... You know, artists need to try to make something different sometimes and not be scared to do it, because it will withstand the test of time. People might be like, "Wow, where did that come from?" Or, "Why did you do it?" Just like, no, no, no, no. Sometimes you got to do different things, and that was one of those records.

And y'all made it seamless, man. When you think about the fact that there's a photo that's just infamous, no pun intended, of you, Nas, Raekwon, I think Ghostface Killah is in there, P, at that legendary studio session when y'all were recording the joints. I've heard different stories like y'all do two or three tracks that night?

I don't remember doing two or three joints that night, but it's definitely possible. It's definitely possible because when you got that kind of energy in the room, just to do one song would be a travesty. So I'm sure we probably did do a few songs in there. But one thing I do remember about that session, it is making the track that ended up on the album on the spot that night, in front of everybody, was something that I rarely do now, but it was just of the time, like let me just make this beat.

“Boom, I'm going to do it now.”

Yeah, like fuck it. The pressure was no, but the pressure was welcomed.

Yeah. And a lot of that happened because y'all already had a relationship through the label, which was Loud Records at the time.

Yeah, pretty much. They were label mates speaking on Rae and Ghostface. They was already label mates. We already clicked ahead of time, so that was a no-brainer, and Nas was from QB. So those element was a recipe for that to happen.

Yeah, man. And your relationship with Nas, did it go from childhood friends to industry guys going through stuff, and then it got fixed in the end? Just being able to go through all that, how has that been in that relationship with Nas?

Childhood friends, industry peer, industry relationship, but also had a personal side to it always. And though we might not have hung out as much as we did before we embarked on the artist thing, every time we saw each other, it was that silent "I know you, you know me," the personal, the struggle, the come up. I knew his Moms. I knew his Pops, [the] jazz musician. His Moms was the nicest lady, to this day, I ever met. And that always was in the background. I didn't have to say anything, in particular, to remind him of that because just the look was just like, “what up.” It's just love, and wow, look what we did. You know what I mean?


So yeah, it was two different relationships there, but they all were kind of combined in some kind of weird way, like industry dude... I'm not going to take advantage of the fact that I know him personally and ask him for a million fucking favors.


And vice versa, but I always kept that artist respect there. Like yeah, he's an artist. Because a lot of dudes haven't even tried to do a different kind of relationship with it. But nah, I treated him as an artist, knowing that I probably personally could ask him for more of him, but I always kept it like that.

And I would imagine, man, that sensibility came from also understanding you being in that same position with other people like that. Because I was going to say, Queensbridge is its own world. You could have that particular instance just in Queensbridge, forget the rest of the industry.

Right, and that's facts. We had a lot of MCs out there that was dope. You got Nature, you got Tragedy. You got Nas.

Yeah, Mega. You got-

Cormega, you know what I'm saying? So we could have just featured alone with that, and been good. You know what I mean? In-depth. 

All the way.

And it was just... Man, I don't know. It was a beautiful time, and I definitely felt blessed to be a part of that, you know?

When do you feel like you and P were clicking at your highest level, what was y'all highest level to you?

Oh, man, the highest level of us clicking? Sh*t, man. It would have to be... I would say Hell on EarthI would have to say Hell on Earth. Because at some point, sometimes it's inevitable for industry shit just to get in the way, egos and ambition. They come through and nobody's not trying to hurt anybody on a personal level, but different elements just start coming in. And then not to mention that time creates a different person. It's the same person, but you start growing into your own. So the most time that we mostly... our clicking was at its highest was Hell on Earth. And the reason why I say that is, we just came off The Infamous album, we were like, "We can do this." So we working on Hell on Earth, and these tragedies just start happening.

Oh, man.

You understand what I'm saying? Which naturally will bring people together to console one another, and say look, we are upset, we're angry, we're sad, but we still got to keep this train moving. And in order for that train to move, you have to be clicked up at its highest level.

And I feel as though y'all did that, man. Y'all had the 25th anniversary of Loud Records a few [months] ago it was dope to see the whole Mobb come up. And y'all actually killed it. The highlight for me was seeing you rock with P's children.

That was me paying homage to P, that was me not trying to take over the narrative of Mobb Deep. That was me incorporating his full legacy, and that was the family being active in wanting to be a part of it. You understand what I'm saying? They wouldn't have let me leave them out if I wanted to, and I never would.

Of course.

So it was like one of those moments where I felt like I was looking at my own kids on stage. And I know that even though they was on that stage performing, and I was blessed to have P's kids on the stage, that you know there is pain behind those eyes. So anything that I could do to help them feel a part of their father's legacy, even though they're part of his legacy without the music. You know what I mean? But to add them, to make sure, to solidify that, “Yes, this is your father, and get on that stage,” was priceless.

It was amazing to see, man. I stood up the whole time, I rapped every word. They was like, "Yo, man, we thought you were from Brooklyn, man." I was like, "I live in Queens now though too." [Laughs]

Not to cut you off- whenever Mobb Deep performs a song, I think everyone in the crowd becomes an honorary Queens member.

Yes. Automatic. And that was dope that you had Lil’ Kim and Dave East come out. It was just beautiful, man. I guess to wrap up, we have these [Instagram] battles that are going on right now. All the greats are coming out. Everybody's throwing these names around. Yours came up as well...

Yes, yes. Yeah, I see. I see it. I see it.

One, do you feel as though you're going to do it at some point? And two, who do you think people are trying to line you up with the most?

Okay, number one, I already hit Swizz Beatz. I seen this stuff going around. I said, "I want to be a part of that conversation." So I hit Swizz. I gave him my 20 songs. I said, "Here's my paperwork." He responded back, he said, "All right, I got you." So I'm just waiting. I told him, I said, "Put me against anybody. I don't even care who it is." 

Ah, yes, my man Hav!!

Not to be arrogant or cocky! I don’t even care...I don’t think so, but even if I lose, it’s for the sportsmanship. Like if I battled a DJ Premier or a RZA...I don’t know! Just to be honest with myself [laughs] I think it would be fun to just be like, “Hey, remember this? Remember that? Remember this?” Whoever he puts me up against is fine, but if he don’t put me up against somebody soon, Swizz better know, I’ll start my own version called, “Dat Smoke! They don’t want dat smoke!” (Laughs)

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Kirk Franklin And Fred Hammond's 'The Healing' Was More Than A Verzuz Event

Verzuz has been helping fill the void for live musical entertainment and, to an extent, live sports for two months now. On Sunday (May 31), the newly launched platform provided us with a digital worship service by way of gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.

As the online music battle has grown from producers to artists, Swizz and Tim have been transparent about their efforts to make Verzuz musically inclusive, starting first with giving women some much-needed representation and now expanding into different genres — because Black music is more than rap and R&B.

In April, contemporary gospel greats John P. Kee and Hezikiah Walker organized their own matchup that Timbaland (a COGIC kid himself) and Swizz cosigned and promoted, proving the desire and demand for a Gospel Verzuz outing. Fans have also requested to see Kirk participate because of his hip-hop based productions and his mainstream familiarity. But Sunday’s Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond pairing, while full of the progressive gospel sound both men are famous for, was straight-up church.

Between the time Timbaland and Swizz announced the special event earlier this week—billed as “The Healing” and featuring opening words of prayer from Bishop TD Jakes—and Sunday, escalation of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has literally spread like fire to cities across the country and world. Video and news reports are coming in with furious speed. Peaceful protests are morphing into violence at the hands of agitators. People are furious and scared.

Franklin and Hammond had a large responsibility on their hands yesterday; a delicate balance to maintain. These are moments when even the churched don’t necessarily believe the church can help. But the men of God met the task, setting the tone from the very beginning by appearing in shirts that said: “I Can’t Breathe” (Franklin) and “I Can’t Breathe - Again” (Hammond). Over the course of the event, they mixed straight talk, spiritual encouragement, prayer, and proper acknowledgment of the chaos waiting for us all after we eventually clicked out of the Instagram Live.

Even though Kirk came with and maintained a good-natured “battle” energy, this was ministry and fellowship, not a match. So instead we’re going to review each round with an “and” instead of a “vs.” These two brothers in music ministry were building on and adding to each other’s energy over the course of 2.5 hours. Much like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer's session, this was more a concert than a competition. And the spirit in the room (plus the anointed sound quality) blessed our souls so much that we were willing to forgive the slight social distancing infractions. Even Instagram (allegedly) sent a message for them to ignore the 90-second copyright restrictions and let the spirit move.

ROUND 1: Fred Hammond's “I Am Persuaded” and Kirk Franklin's “He’s Able”

Both Fred and Kirk pulled out early signature songs to set the tone; Fred with the title track from his first solo album, and Kirk with one of the singles from the Kirk Franklin and the Family album. Both songs highlighted how each artist were trendsetters in the contemporary Gospel sound with their music’s early ‘90s New Jack Swing influence.

ROUND 2: Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ's “When the Spirit of the Lord” and Kirk Franklin's “Brighter Day”

Everyone knows Kirk Franklin has jams, but Hammond’s music is mostly known by those who put in years in the youth and young adult choirs, and those who came up in strict households with no secular music. But on Sunday, everybody learned that Frederick also has jams that will make you “dance like David danced.”

Kirk followed with another classic Family joint, and the tenors watching from home stepped up in their collective living rooms to hit that “brighter day” with their chest.

ROUND 3: Fred Hammond's “Awesome God” and Kirk Franklin's “He Reigns/Awesome God”

Kirk and Fred were working from a list, which suggested they coordinated at least parts of their lineups, leaving room for head-to-head rounds like this. If this was a scored match, however, Franklin would get this point. “He Reigns/Awesome God” isn’t his original work, but he flipped and updated it as only he can, and it instantly inspires whatever choreography listeners learned in the afore-mentioned choir 20 years ago.

ROUND 4: Commissioned's “Strange Land” and Kirk Franklin & Georgia Mass Choir's “Joy”

Again, this Verzuz wasn’t just about music, it was about music ministry, and both Franklin and Hammond wove moments of preaching, proclamation, and encouragement throughout. As Kirk had acknowledged at the beginning of the event that some people didn’t even want to hear about Jesus right now, Fred addressed the thought that Christians are just waiting on a “kumbaya moment.” He “(took) it back to Detroit” and played the first song of the night by Commissioned—his former gospel group—“How Can We Sing (In a Strange Land),” which spoke to the seeming futility of something like today’s Verzuz: singing for help in the midst of crisis.

If you're asking How can we sing When we're in a strange land How can we face adversity whoa whoa How can we stand in the midst of trouble When the enemy laughs at our beliefs Won't you take some time to realize You're His own that's why He died

Kirk also reached back to a foundational record; the first song he ever wrote as the young music director of the Georgia Mass Choir. “Joy” is probably the most traditional song in Kirk’s catalog, prompting him to declare that folks probably wouldn’t know it “if your grandmama ain't got peppermint wrapped up in pieces of toilet paper in her purse.” (If you didn’t get that reference, he’s right.) “Joy” is also one of the few songs Kirk actually sings lead on, which is probably why he didn’t play more than a short clip.

ROUND 5: Fred Hammond's "Prelude" (from Love Unstoppable) and Kirk Franklin's “More Than I Can Bear”

Hammond, who provided most of the afternoon’s solemn notes while Kirk mostly kept the energy up, chose a prelude his son and daughter recorded to open his 2009 album as an avenue to share his concern about his own son, a 6’2”, 22-year-old Black man. Kirk picked up the acknowledgment of pain, fear, and uncertainty with The Family’s “More Than I Can Bear,” and then jumped on the keyboard to follow it up with a reprise. This was the first shouting moment of the day.

ROUND 6: Commissioned's “King of Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Looking for You”

When Franklin and Hammond announced surprises at the top of the first hour, it was a safe assumption that some collaborators were spread out throughout Franklin’s house. First up; Hammond’s former Commissioned group member Marvin Sapp. When the group was already well established, Sapp joined the Commissioned in 1990 and his voice fit right in. The two shared the first single, featuring the then-22-year old, which is now one of Commissioned's signature songs.

This was a turn-up round, so Franklin followed up with the high energy, Patrice Rushen sampled “Looking for You,” but first...

BONUS: Marvin Sapp's “Never Would Have Made It”

Marvin ain’t break social distancing just to sing over the radio track for “King of Glory.” Franklin introduced him with a quick note of “Never Would Have Made It,” Sapp’s powerful 2007 testimonial praise and worship anthem. Sapp feigned reluctance to sing the whole song, but we all know that’s what he was there for. That was the second shout of the day.

ROUND 7: Fred Hammond's “Glory to Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Hosanna”

This was the praise & worship round: songs with relatively simple and repetitive lyrics that are often used to set the tone in worship. Gospel music contains and or reflects scripture; praise & worship is exactly what the description says and what the lyrics of Hammond and Franklin’s respective selections express:

Let the people praise Him, rejoice in all His goodness, and be thankful for all He has done. - "Glory to Glory"

Hosanna forever, we worship you - "Hosanna"

ROUND 8: Fred Hammond's “Please Don’t Pass Me By” and Kirk Franklin's “Something About the Name Jesus”

Kirk and Fred were a perfect pairing for this Verzuz edition because they both bridged gospel and secular music in groundbreaking—and at times controversial—ways. Fred and former group Commissioned are credited with influencing a generation of male R&B singers; he mentioned later how church elders and gospel traditionalists wouldn’t support Commissioned because they wore jeans on the album cover. Similar to Kirk, Fred’s been known for music that sounded more like something you’d hear on mainstream radio than anything you’d hear in church. Case in point: the music bed for “Please Don’t Pass Me By” brings R&B group 112’s “Cupid” to mind.

In contrast, Kirk responded with the old-school-styled “Something About the Name Jesus” featuring gospel OG Rance Allen and gospel Men of Standard from Franklin's 1998 The Nu Nation Project.

ROUND 9: Fred Hammond's “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and Kirk Franklin's “Love Theory”

Rounds 8 and 9 illustrated how this was more of a digital concert than battle; selections that felt more like a well-curated playlist than a back and forth of comparative tracks.

Perhaps taking a cue from Kirk and “Something About the Name Jesus,” Fred shared some of his influences before offering his rendition of gospel standard “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me.” Even though the song is now a standard for church elders, the singers who first popularized it—original writer Sam Cooke with legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, soul crooner Lou Rawls with The Pilgrim Travelers (the version closest to Fred’s), and Supreme’s influences The Meditation Singers—were all known for toeing the line between R&B and pop and traditional gospel in their time.

Kirk followed with the lead single from his most recent album, 2019’s Long, Live, Love, a bop (a whole bop) that sounds a million miles away from “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and in fact complements Fred’s choice; It’s also about Jesus being a protector. And Kirk blessed us with a little choreography.

ROUND 10: Commissioned's “Love is the Key” and  Kirk Franklin & The Family's “Now Behold the Lamb”

Even if Kirk hadn’t announced what song he was about to play, hands would have shot up in preparatory praise as soon as he played the opening keys of “Now Behold the Lamb.” Originally on The Family’s 1995 Christmas album (Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas) and featuring vocals of original members-turned- TV-stars David and Tamela Mann, the song still has the power to quickly bring listeners to tears, 25 years later.

ROUND 11: Kirk Franklin's “Revolution” and Fred Hammond's “Let the Praise Begin” 

Before starting this round, Fred and Kirk took a minute to say the names of the Black men whose lives have been unjustly cut down by police or self-appointed vigilantes. (They took a moment later to add the Black women they neglected to initially include.) As protests rapidly grow across the country with many having morphed into riots, Kirk Franklin's Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution” hit even harder than usual.

On Fred’s turn, he demonstrated his secular influence again with “Let the Praise Begin”—which Chance the Rapper sampled on his Coloring Book mixtape, “Blessings”—a track the rapper used for an unofficial altar call at the end of his live performances.

ROUND 12: Kirk Franklin's “Silver and Gold” and Fred Hammond's “All Things are Working”

As mentioned earlier, the primary difference between traditional gospel songs and praise & worship songs is the lyrics. “Gospel” is, by definition, from the actual gospel: scripture. Kirk and Fred are both part of a generation of contemporary gospel singers that have been somewhat chided for gospel music’s transition into more of a praise & worship space, but both also have deep foundational gospel roots. These two songs are each prime examples, both taken directly from scriptural influence:

“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” - Acts 3:6

“And we know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” - Romans 8:28

ROUND 13: Kirk Franklin's “Imagine Me” and Commissioned's “Ordinary Just Won’t Do”

If these rounds were themed (I’d love to see their notes), Round 13 was about finding unconditional love and trust in God.

Imagine me, being free, trusting you totally, finally, I can Imagine me I admit it was hard to see You being in love with someone like me But finally I can Imagine me - "Imagine Me"

The ordinary just won’t do I need a love that's pure and true I can always find it in you Jesus The ordinary just won’t do I gotta have a touch from you I can always find it in you, Jesus - "Ordinary Just Won’t Do"

ROUND 14: Kirk Franklin on Kanye West's “Ultralight Beam” and Fred Hammond on Kanye West's “Hands On”

Some collective digital groans went up amongst those in the house solely for Fred and Kirk jams during the round devoted to tracks each done with Kanye West. For Kirk, the rousing “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo, which also featured Chance the Rapper and R&B/gospel singer Kelly Price. For Hammond, a track from West’s hotly debated “gospel album” Jesus is King. It did make sense: Verzuz started as a hip-hop-leaning platform. Fortunately, though, both seemed to know this round would change the energy if they let it and kept the moment brief.

ROUND 15: Kirk Franklin's “The Reason Why I Sing” and Fred Hammond's “Running Back to You”

Heading into the home stretch, the men each offered their break-out hits. Franklin’s “The Reason Why I Sing” broke records on gospel, Christian, and R&B radio and set him on the path for mainstream crossover. Commission’s “Running Back to You” is one of many templates the groups inadvertently created for male R&B groups that came along a few years later, having come of age singing and studying the Detroit vocalists’ music. Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey even ad-libbed part of the chorus, “(My) arms are open wide, and I don’t have to cry no more…” on the torch 1992 track “I’m Still Waiting” from the group’s debut album, 5 years later.

ROUND 16: God's Property's  “My Life is in Your Hands” and Fred Hammond's “They That Wait” feat. John P. Kee

“My Life is in Your Hands” by Kirk's gospel choir, God's Property, feels like a sequel of “The Reason Why I Sing,” so it made sense as Franklin’s next choice.

Hammond’s selection was a collaboration with contemporary gospel great John P. Kee. Even though Kee already had his own Instagram Live match, it was plagued with a muffled sound, so he deserved a moment.

ROUND 17: Kirk Franklin's “I Smile” and Fred Hammond's “You are the Living Word”

Before playing the bouncy “Smile,” Kirk acknowledged that in a week that feels like we’re in a civil war, the idea of smiling is likely difficult (the guys did a solid job of reading the room.)

Hammond in turn played fan-favorite “You are the Living Word” but cut it off just as listeners at home were getting into their parts of the three-part harmony. Kirk knew it was too soon and jumped on the piano keys again so Fred could get to the bridge and we could properly get our sing-along on at home.

ROUND 18: Tamela Mann's “Take me to the King” and Fred Hammond and Radical For Christ's “This is the Day”

Tamela Mann just casually strolling into the studio from making the potato salad for post-battle repast in Kirk’s kitchen or wherever she was didn’t fool anybody. Real ones have known what’s up since we were introduced to her voice over 25 years ago as an original member of Franklin’s Family. I knew she was about to make us cry when memes hit our Twitter timelines before she even opened her mouth. Her live rendition of “Take Me to the King,” a song about those moments when prayer just doesn’t feel effective enough, was so powerful and resonated with the times of right now. If you listened carefully, you could hear her shouting for minutes after she left the room.

ROUND 19: Kirk Franklin's “Melodies from Heaven” and Fred Hammond's “No Weapon”

Kirk had a sense of humor about his reputation as a “secular” gospel artist and called his gorgeous wife Tammy into the room to dance as he played “Melodies from Heaven,” a song that’s been played in many a club and has been remixed with Junior Mafia’s “Crush on You,” a mashup that Kirk himself performs in concert.

Hammond used 2007’s “No Weapon” to bring the tempo down as they prepared to close. After Franklin took a minute to call Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmad Aubrey, Hammond extended a prayer of invitation and salvation for listeners. If there’s one moment that defines this Verzuz event as a ministry rather than just musical exchanges, that prayer is the moment.

ROUND 20: Kirk Franklin's “Stomp (Remix)" and Fred Hammond's “We’re Blessed”

The men held their strongest jams for last: Kirk with his 1997 career-defining and genre-changing “Stomp (Remix)" (again, former choir members watching the live stream broke out their choreography without even thinking), and Hammond with 1995’s “We’re Blessed,” a track that runs almost six minutes in length that almost all of us would have been happy for him to play in full.

BENEDICTION SELECTIONS: Kirk Franklin's “Strong God,” Fred Hammond's “Alright” and "My Desire"

As everyone filed out of the digital church and tried to figure out where to go for dinner, Franklin and Hammond each offered one last song.

Kirk played “Strong God” another single from his latest album and announced the video’s Monday release (see below). Hammond also rendered a selection from his most recent album, the title track from 2019’s Alright.

To close it out, the men played their first collaboration "My Desire," off Franklin's The Nu Nation Project.

THE WINNER: While The Healing drew fewer numbers than most of the Verzus of the last month, peaking around 277K, the positive responses were overwhelming. Viewers shared that they felt lifted, renewed, and energized. Some expressed that they felt hopeful for the first time in several days. We all won. But if we have to list specific winners, that run down includes Black folks, church kids, music lovers, the audio, and our collective and communal spirits. And Tamela Mann.

Watch Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin's The Healing over on Verzuz's official Instagram account.  

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Courtesy of DubShot Records

Boomshots: The Unstoppable Rise Of Dre Island

"We rise to the top," Dre Island sings on "We Pray," his massive collab with Popcaan, "cause we know what it takes."

Building on that theme of musical and spiritual elevation, the multi-talented musician—singer, deejay, songwriter, producer, and pianist—has just released his debut album Now I Rise. The project features the aforementioned "We Pray" as well as crucial collaborations with the likes of Jesse Royal and Chronixx. "Ah mi family dem deh," says Dre Island, who has toured Europe backed by Chronixx's band Zincfence Redemption. A graduate of Kingston’s Calabar high school—alma mater of both Jr. Gong and Vybz Kartel—Andre Johnson aka Dre Island is a living link between the vaunted “roots revival” movement and the sound of the Jamaican streets.

“The revival is really within the people," he says. "Reggae music never stop. Reggae artists always been touring. So it’s just the people’s awareness.” During a time when reggae and dancehall stand at a crossroads, Dre Island has emerged as one of the few artists capable of bringing together dancehall vibes and the ancient roots traditions—not to mention outernational connections like "People" his collaboration with UK talents Cadenza and Jorja Smith. “An island is a small land mass surrounded by water,” the artist told Boomshots correspondent Reshma B in their first interview. “But if you read further it’s also a place where you go to find yourself.”

Released through a joint-venture partnership with New York-based DubShot Records and the artist's own Kingston Hills Entertainment imprint, Now I Rise is a 13-track set that includes the hit single “We Pray” featuring Popcaan, “My City,” as well as the recently released “Be Okay” feat Jesse Royal. Never-before-heard tracks include “Days of Stone” featuring Chronixx and “Run to Me” featuring Alandon as well as tracks produced by the likes of Jam2, Anju Blaxx, Teetimus, Winta James, Dretegs Music and Barkley Productions. The artist is now managed by Sharon Burke, founder of the Solid Agency in Kingston, Jamaica. Earlier this month, Dre Island premiered the official music video (directed by Fernando Hevetia) for the last song on the album, “Still Remain.”

“This album speaks of arising, growth, new beginnings and emerging from the ashes," Dre Island states. "At this time, these are all the things we need based on what is happening right now. The truth is, since 2015 I have been advertising that the album is coming. It has been five years and the time is right. As an artist and person Dre Island move different. I embrace Rasta and this way of life, but I am not part of any group like Boboshanti or Twelve Tribes. Everything I do is inspired by the father. I am moved to drop this album at this time because I am divinely inspired to do so. When you look at a song like “We Pray” I can take no credit for a song like that. Yes I wrote the lyrics and built the rhythm and I voice the track, but it's a prayer, not just a song so how a man fi tek credit for something that come from above.”

Dre Island and Boomshots have been linking up from early in his musical journey. During a recent trip to New York City, he sat down with Reshma B to speak about the new project and his unstoppable rise. Check the reasoning:

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Carlos Perez

Anuel AA Breaks Free

In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.

Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”

A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”

Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.

“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”

On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.

Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”

Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”

Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.

“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”

While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”

Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”

“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.

Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.

For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.

Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.

“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”

Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”

Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.

Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.

“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”

The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.

On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”

I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?

— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018

“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”

“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”

Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.

“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.

Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).

Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.

“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”

Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:

Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important? 

“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”

This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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