ABOVE: MOBB DEEP'S PRODIGY (LEFT) AND HAVOC. PHOTO COURTESY OF JESSICA LEHRMAN
Before hip-hop's pervasive mainstream popularity, before its parceling of countless subgenres and mass commercial viability, there were artists like Mobb Deep, who injected the harsh realities of street life into the narrative of American music. Nearly 20 years after the release of their 1995 album, The Infamous Mobb Deep, emcees Prodigy and Havoc have reissued the classic, offering fans remastered tracks, brand-new material and unreleased sessions, featuring hip-hop mainstays like Nas, Snoop Dogg, and Ghostface Killah.
Following a very public falling-out and Prodigy's three-year prison sentence for gun possession, the emcees are in a more constructive place, both personally and creatively, pursuing different projects with a renewed sense of autonomy and tireless ambition. Having put their differences behind them, the hardcore East Coast duo have secured their place as one of the most prolific forces in hip-hop, not only within the genre but the cultural movement that defines it.
Currently on their 20th Anniversary Tour, Mobb Deep will be performing at Irving Plaza this Saturday, May 24. In anticipation of the show, we spoke with Prodigy about old feuds, new music, and wiping the slate clean.
LEA WEATHERBY: Since you and Havoc started out, you've never really compromised when it came to your music; what has that been like in terms of your career and your success?
PRODIGY: That's probably the key to our success and our longevity, sticking to our formula and what we do best, the hardcore Mobb Deep sound rather than chasing trains. But we're always experimenting with the art and the creativity of hip-hop.
WEATHERBY: Has it been difficult trying to juggle your own expectations as well as expectations of fans and record labels in the past?
PRODIGY: No, we always had creative control with every single Mobb Deep album, since day one. Even when we were signed to other labels, they signed us because of what we had to bring to the table, never the other way around. They would always say, "Here's the budget and the door to the studio, do what you have to do."
WEATHERBY: So you've basically had free artistic rein?
PRODIGY: Yeah. Since day one, too, so that's been a blessing.
WEATHERBY: Recently, Mobb Deep was on hiatus, but you and Havoc decided to continue working together; have past issues interfered with your process?
PRODIGY: No, because from day one, me and Havoc always had issues. Any relationship, business or personal, will have that. If no issues come up, then someone is being fake. So we always had our little issues, but they never spilled out into the public. With social media that we have now, between Twitter and everything else, certain things were said and got out to the public that shouldn't have, that's all that really happened. So, these things have been going on since day one except people never heard about it, but we always know that the music and our relationship is more important than any bullshit arguments or disagreements we have.
WEATHERBY: After you got out of prison, you were extremely ambitious, and tackled a number of different projects. How did you stay focused and driven during that time?
PRODIGY: I went in with a plan, and that's what a lot of people don't do. I went in with that plan already in my head, which was to get my shit together, work hard, work out, work on music, work on books, work on everything, and to prove myself as much as possible, and that's what I did.
WEATHERBY: With the new album, how did you come to the decision that you wanted to not only release brand-new material but also release unheard sessions along with it?
PRODIGY: Well, April was the 20th anniversary of the Infamous album. So what we did to commemorate that was we found 10 unreleased songs from the Infamous masters and we added it to the new album. Whoever gets the deluxe version will get a bonus, 10 unreleased songs, new songs from the new album and a re-mastered version of the original Infamous album. We're selling it three different ways, you can buy the regular album by itself, you can buy the two-CD set or you can buy the three-CD set, but we know that some people don't have money to spend on albums like that, so that's why we wanted to offer different options.
WEATHERBY: When you picked those 10 unreleased tracks, did you have a lot of other material that you could have included or had you been holding on to those specifically?
PRODIGY: It was actually songs we didn't even know we had, 10 unreleased tracks just sitting there!
WEATHERBY: Wow, really? I can't believe that!
PRODIGY: Yeah! I couldn't believe it myself! I was shocked, when I went back and went to the masters, I was like, "This can't be true, this is perfect timing." It was like a time capsule, I heard the songs and I was just in shock. I didn't know that we had that. I remembered doing it, but I hadn't heard it since 1994. It just fell into place. It was crazy.
WEATHERBY: Snoop Dogg appeared on the album, and you and Snoop had a sordid history. How was it working together?
PRODIGY: Yeah, the track with Snoop is dope, it made the album. We resolved that a long time ago, around 2001. It's a funny story how we resolved it. One day I was going to The Alchemist's crib in Manhattan. As I'm walking over, I see a limousine pull up in front of his crib and Snoop and Tray Deee get out the car and I'm looking at them like, "Is that fuckin' Snoop? In Manhattan? Oh shit! That's Snoop right there, what the fuck?" Then I realize we're going into the same building. We're in the elevator together and I'm like, "Yo what's up?" and they're like, "Oh shit, Prodigy! What's up? Yo, we love Mobb Deep!" I was like, "Yeah, we fuck with y'all too, man." We was kickin' it in the elevator and pressed the same floor and I'm not thinking because this was before The Alchemist became famous, he was just beginning his production career, so I never thought, "Yeah! They must be going to Alchemist's crib!" [laughs] Nah! I wasn't thinking, "Where the fuck could they be going?" [laughs] They're like "We're going to see the weed man, we're going to buy some weed!" So we get off at the same floor and go to the same door and I'm like, "Hold up..." Then Alchemist looks through his peephole and sees me and Snoop standing there [laughs]. That was during our hustling days.
WEATHERBY: [laughs] I am really happy you just shared that story with me. Beyond music, you've taken on a lot as an artist, do you plan on continuing to do that and keep exploring all kinds of creative outlets?
PRODIGY: Yeah definitely, I just want to stay busy and focus on work and everything will be all right.
WEATHERBY: Are there other genres or artists that are inspiring or impressing you right now?
PRODIGY: I like a lot of the new artists but there's only one I can name that stands out to me the most, Kendrick Lamar. He's got the best album and he definitely did his thing. I'm a big fan. But it's just like back when we were coming up, it's really the same thing, a lot of the shit is garbage and a lot of the shit is dope.
WEATHERBY: It's a new era for artists and for listeners, especially in terms of distribution. Do you think this is a good time or a bad time for music and what direction would you like to see rap going in?
PRODIGY: I just want to see it progress, I like the direction it's going in now. I like what the Internet is doing, I like everything that's going on, man. Hip-hop basically controls the world, through fashion, through music, through language, through culture. It's basically running the world, no matter what anyone wants to think, and that's just the way it is.
WEATHERBY: What is it about the genre that makes it so impactful?
PRODIGY: It's like when rock-'n'-roll first came out, rock-'n'-roll was rebellious; but then hip-hop came out, and hip-hop made rock-'n'-roll look like Peter Pan music, and then rock-'n'-roll isn't so rebellious no more because hip-hop is here.
WEATHERBY: Over the last 20 years, you and Havoc have stayed true to your sound and identity as a rap group, what will always define Mobb Deep?
PRODIGY: We'll never change the fact that we are hardcore hip-hop and we make rebellious hip-hop music and we're going to keep doing that and progress with our production, progress with our lyrical styles, be creative and just have fun with it.
WEATHERBY: What did you want to accomplish with the production of the new album?
PRODIGY: We just like good music. We got Havoc doing production; we got Alchemist; as far as outsiders go, we got Illmind because he's got dope music and we got Boi-1da and Beat Butcha on there. It could be any style of music, it doesn't really matter as long as it sounds dope to us because we like a lot of different genres of music, you would be very surprised by the different types of songs we like. We're music people, not just rap people, when it comes to good music we can just hear it.
WEATHERBY: If you could do it all again is there anything you'd do differently?
PRODIGY: Nah, I wouldn't do anything different, I wouldn't do anything different at all. If I had to change one thing, we'd be independent because, man, we made a lot of these companies rich, but other than that, no regrets because all of it made us who we are.
THE INFAMOUS MOBB DEEP REISSUE IS AVAILABLE NOW. THE DUO IS CURRENTLY ON ITS 20TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR AND WILL PLAY IRVING PLAZA TOMORROW, MAY 24.