It’s been twenty years since Mobb Deep released “The Infamous” and “Hell on Earth” on to the masses. While many things have changed with the Queensbridge duo, these albums only seem to grow more legendary with each passing year. The two album set is considered by most fans as hip hop gospel and a must have in anyone’s catalog. Now is a good time to look back at a seminal time in hip hop history. A time when so many artists were sprouting their roots, and review the impact of Havoc and Prodigy. Many consider “Hell On Earth” a darker continuation of “The Infamous.” We will look at how the albums compare to each other and if “Hell On Earth” is actually the better record.
Mobb Deep From Poetical Prophets to “The Infamous”
Mobb Deep found themselves without a record deal or a hit album in late 1993, shortly after the release of their debut “Juvenile Hell” on 4th & B’way Records. Even with production from DJ Premier and Large Professor, the album failed to garner a hit and so the record label dropped them. In stepped Loud Records, who were looking for artists to join the Wu-Tang Clan on their roster, and signed Havoc and Prodigy. Over the course of 1994, the group recorded the tracks for “The Infamous” with artists Nas, Q-Tip, Big Noyd, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. The noticeable change on the album was the shift in production, aside from Matt Life, Schott Free and Q-Tip assisting on a couple tracks (Listed as The Abstract in the liner notes), Havoc and Prodigy handled the beats for the record themselves.
“Right Back At You” ft Ghostface Killah & Big Noyd
Havoc being the main producer created a sound all their own. He was quoted as saying that he was sick and tired of the bullshit in dealing with other producers. After observing and learning the craft himself it was easier to make the beats on their own. The dark ethereal piano mixed with deep bass and hi-hats formed a sound that would not only be a synonymous with Mobb Deep, but with much of New York rap in the late 90’s.
The album was an instant hit, debuting at #15 on the Billboard 200 and #3 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. “The Infamous” spawned three singles; “Survival Of The Fittest“, “Temperature Rising” and the all time classic “Shook Ones Pt. II“. The reviews were positive and helped to propel the group into the upper echelons of the New York hip hop scene. Artists such as Biggie, Nas, and Wu-Tang were blowing up, and along with Mobb Deep, were swept up in the East Coast vs. West Coast feud. Havoc and Prodigy were thrust to the center of this after supposedly dissing Tupac’s crew The Outlawz at a concert.
From “The Infamous” to “Hell On Earth” Mobb Deep Make a Powerful Duo
Many found this album to be stylistically better than “The Infamous” and an equal partner when placed side by side. Either way, the two albums (28 tracks in all) could go up against any of its contemporaries. The beats off of these albums are some of sickest you will ever hear. Even if you somehow never heard these albums, many of these tracks have been freestyled over by countless other artists. “Shook Ones Pt. II” may in fact be the best beat ever in my opinion. It is with out a doubt one of the top 15 greatest beats of all time. So many of their tracks become fixtures in your mind, whether it be the eerie intro to a song or the looped beat just running as the track plays out. When asked, I put Havoc above most when ranking producers and if you look at just the work put into these two albums. Havoc has to be placed in the top 10 producers.
Hell On Earth (Front Lines)
Lyrically Mobb Deep has never been considered, no pun intended, deep. Much of that I would contest, is due to the less than stellar releases the group has put out over the last 15 years. “The Infamous” and “Hell On Earth” however really do spill forth with detailed stories of ghetto life and gang activities. From “Trife Life” to “Trife Life II“, Havoc and Prodigy spit grimy tales of double crosses and set ups. “Survival of the Fittest” and “Eye For An Eye” are songs more about trying to get by in the Queensbridge projects. “Bloodsport” and “Apostle’s Warning” are diss songs for the West Coast or a rival click. Further songs like “Up North Trip” (Dealing with incarceration) and “Drink Away The Pain” (Dealing with the repercussions of life’s decisions) clearly display the vocal talents of the duo.
After Tupac released “Hit’Em Up“, Mobb Deep answered back with the track “Drop a Gem On “Em“. “Hell On Earth” peaked at #6 on the Billboard 200 and #1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. Havoc further enhances the “Mobb Deep” sound creating an album that is even darker and grittier than “The Infamous”. Many of the tracks on the album are similar to “Drop A Gem On ‘Em”, subtle diss tracks to West Coast artists showcasing Prodigy’s thug poetry.
Shook Ones Pt II
The true abilities of Prodigy are forever etched in my brain with the lyrics from “Shook Ones Pt. II”
“You all alone in these streets, cousin/Every man for theirself in this land we be gunnin’/And keep them shook crews runnin’/Like they supposed to/They come around but they never come close to/I can see it inside your face/You’re in the wrong place/Cowards like you just get they’re whole body laced up/With bullet holes and such/Speak the wrong words man and you will get touched/You can put your whole army against my team and I guarantee you it’ll be your very last time breathin’/Your simple words just don’t move me/You’re minor, we’re major/You all up in the game and don’t deserve to be a player/Don’t make me have to call your name out/Your crew is featherweight/My gunshots’ll make you levitate/I’m only nineteen but my mind is old/And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold/Another nigga deceased, another story gets told”
“Hell On Earth” was the first of these two albums that I ever heard. It was amazing, I remember listening to it and having a chill run down my spine. It was so dark, almost evil and it was lonely, which is ironic considering the name of the group. I felt like I was in alley, at night by my lonesome no weapons, scared. “Bloodsport”, “Drop A Gem On “Em”, or “Extortion” just sick beats with dead-on hard lyrics, along with “Front Lines (Hell On Earth)” and “More Trife Life” are my favorite tracks from the album. If you had to ask me at this point I would say that it would take an almost perfect album to beat “Hell On Earth”. “The Infamous” did not seem at first to be that superior album to me. It was good but at the time I just liked the more mature feel of “Hell On Earth”.
Well as time went on the album grew on me, the whole album, every song every beat, one of those albums not measured on 5 or 6 good songs but an entire album listenable from front to back. “The Infamous” is a benchmark album for many artists who came after, something they listened to and were inspired by. As we look back 20 years we must remember the immense impact this album had on hip hop and the view of rap groups from New York. “The Infamous” along with “36 Chambers” may be the two most important releases from a rap group in the 90’s.