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.
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 ’90s…it 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 of…as 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 family…it 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 p-noid…no, 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.
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 Earth. I 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.
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.
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)