Those of us who grew up in the golden age of gangster rap, and are now entering our 30s, have begun to wonder whether we’ll always listen to this stuff. When we’re filling old folks’ homes and wishing Social Security still existed, will the oldies stations be banging Wu-Tang and Nas and Ja Rule?
Some signs point to “yes,” like the 20th anniversary tour for Mobb Deep, New York’s most talented 1990s rap game enfants terribles. They bring that tour, and two decades of tracks, to Belly Up on Saturday, May 11.
The duo — natives of Queensbridge, N.Y. — is made up of Havoc and Prodigy. The pair have been rapping partners since high school at Graphic Arts, and their friendship has weathered through a prison term for Prodigy, a public feud with one another, and many hard knocks since their 1993 debut, “Juvenile Hell.”
But their rhyming skills have endured, and Havoc’s record production has remained some of the hardest hitting and elegantly understated in hip-hop.
The MC, now 38, has produced most of their tracks over seven albums and helped define the simple signature aesthetic of East Coast rap in the '90s. The basic drum and piano backbeats of their early work perfectly complemented the gritty lyrics about street life.
“I’m only 19 but my mind is old / And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold,” Prodigy rapped on their classic “Shook Ones Part II.”
That song, ranked among the 50 best hip-hop songs of all time last year by Rolling Stone, was for many the introduction of the world to the form we now know of “gangster rap,” which Mobb Deep defined alongside the Wu-Tang Clan and Notorious B.I.G.
It’s still shocking to listen to now, hearing these teenagers spit wordy, flowing rhymes about murder, drugs and the harsh conditions of inner city life.
The thing that’s made the music last, though, isn’t the novelty of bad boys bragging about their bad boy deeds. It’s the fact that there’s no pose in there, no real bragging, just a raw nihilistic vision and complex rhymes over head-bobbing beats.
Uncompromisingly dark and confrontational, Mobb Deep didn’t aim for pop crossover hits the way others did as rap made its way into the mainstream.
Their two classic albums, 1995’s “The Infamous” and 1996’s “Hell On Earth,” helped set the tone for hardcore rap and their echoes can easily be heard in 50 Cent and rappers that followed in Mobb Deep’s footsteps.
If you grew up around New York City in the '90s, as I did, there was a time when Mobb Deep’s street anthems were inescapable and when you knew every winding turn of the lyrics in “Drop a Gem On ‘Em.” That 1996 single is now best known as one of the tracks in the tit-for-tat song battle in the East Coast/West Coast rap feud that ended with Tupac Shakur and B.I.G. dead. A song-long diss on Tupac, it features a sample of of “Can’t Help But Love You” by The Whispers and Mobb Deep in top form.
As the millennium turned, though, Mobb Deep fell out of the spotlight and rap evolved into its long love affair with bling, big rims and champagne. More savvy and commercially palatable rappers ascended, giving up street cred for pop stardom — rappers like Jay-Z, who dissed Mobb Deep in aptly titled 2001 track “Takeover,” which claims Prodigy used to be a ballerina and that Jay has “money stacks bigger than” the 5-foot-6 rapper.
So the rap game evolved, and then Prodigy went to prison for three years on a weapons conviction. Released in 2011, he reunited with Havoc and they’ve been releasing a steady stream of singles and a handful of mix tapes since.
Havoc released “13,” a new solo album, earlier this month. It shows the rap great is at the top of his game, and bodes well for this weekend’s performance in Aspen. Its first single, “Favorite Rap Stars,” has Havoc trading rhymes with fellow East Coast rap legends Styles P and Raekwon over a simple bassline loop.
It's been 20 years, but Mobb Deep hasn't missed a beat.