Mobb Deep

Six Beats: Godfather Don

Described by Immobilarity1 as “an evil, dark version of Large Professor, production-wise,” Godfather Don fits into one stream in the 90s NY underground associated with Kool Keith (The Cenobites, Ultramagnetic MCs), but is also known for his solo releases as producer and MC.

Despite some Godfather Don tracks tolling thousands of clicks online - “Status” has notched up 1.2 million views - the music I’m seeking out rolls in the tens, or hundreds, if lucky (okay this is a slight exaggeration, let’s say low thousands on average). Much if not most of his music seems to be overlooked. So this is written in part as a desire to balance things out, amid all of the hip-hop hagiography that exists of the usual suspects. Now and always, I’m interested in the artists who get lost in the mix.

Unlike Large Professor though, Godfather Don’s music is not trying to recreate a song in a conventional sense, with the exception perhaps with the first beat included here (and a few other examples of the same). There is nothing remotely symphonic, or lush and orchestral or even “jazzy” (as the genre is commonly misunderstood when applied to 90s-era beats). Nor is there anything slick, or too refined about Godfather Don’s instrumentals. This is music made of clay then perfected into object of beauty.

None of this is to suggest that the music if simple is basic or unskilled. In fact, this music is art because it doesn’t try to be something different to what it is - a hip-hop beat recorded and conceived in a certain environment, within a certain mindset. It sounds genuine, as if you sense the character of its maker (but this might be projection on my part). Added to this, as I will mention below the sound quality is beautiful in itself.

Most of Godfather Don’s music is instrumental hip-hop as deep soundscape, highly introspective dominated by two sonic impulses; speedy and manic, as heard in the delicate, skittery drums and then the broader ponderous weight of other samples, sounds that might be a vibraphone, or an organ (it’s hard to make them out). Added to this the mastery of key hip-hop elements, his drums are especially inventive – very rarely are they pushed to the forefront as you’d expect, usually they’re kind of evasive, hiding out in the recesses - and the quality of the recording of his music, and you have a fine producer; someone to return to, to rediscover.

None of his music is chilled-out, relaxing lo-fi in the slightest thankfully, it’s music with its own energy and personality. Within its parameters it is bold and intense. And yet on first impression, Godfather Don’s music is so unassuming, especially when you remember that it came out of that era of uber-producers, staking out territory and reinventing the form. It is anti-epic, anti-saga. Some of these beats might have been included in my writing on hip-hop quiet if I had been listening to them at that time.

Narrowing this selection down to six was difficult; six is my self-imposed limit now and into the future (I’m not a great believer in all-encompassing, everything-ever-recorded-by-one-particular-artist lists that proliferate in music journalism, I find them tiring). Be aware, though that there are many other Godfather Don instrumentals I wanted to add to this group, I hope that if you like these beats you will be inspired to go looking for more online.

Other decisions were made too, whether or not to include his humour (see the apparently linked beats following a theme, “My Driver’s Downstairs,” “Call Me A Cab”) or the beats that were retro-80s (“Just Mix it Yourself” or “Video Taping,” say) or to focus in on the work he did with Kool Keith

but decided against all of these ideas. Best to keep it direct and focussed, simple even, like the music itself.

“Born Rodney Chapman, Godfather Don is a Producer and emcee from Bushwick, Flatbush, New York.

Godfather Don first appeared in 1991 with Hazardous, released on the Select Records. The album established the Godfather as an MC influenced by the blatant, hard-hitting style of Chuck D. A few years later, the Don appeared on and produced the Ultramagnetic MC’s' The Four Horsemen, which led to a collaboration with that group’s standout, Kool Keith. He has also provided remix work for likes of Nas and House Of Pain as one half of The Groove Merchantz, whom he shared production/remixing duties with Vince “The Mighty V.I.C.” Padilla. Aside from his Hip Hop based repertoire, Godfather Don is also a professional saxophone player, and regularly plays improvised Jazz music with his band The Open Mind.”

From Genius listing on Godfather Don 

Not sure about the reference to Chuck D, which is repeated on Godfather Don’s Wikipedia page; for me the approach of the two MCs, style and content, are oceans apart. Okay some Godfather Don tracks - see this 1992 “Pull da Trigga & Step” - is Chuck D-esque, maybe, but the parallel seems like a bit of a stretch, to me.

 “The Don appeared on and produced the Ultramagnetic MC'sThe Four Horsemen, which led to a collaboration with that group's standout, Kool Keith. The Cenobites EP was issued on Fondle 'Em Records, which was started by New York b-boy, DJ, and man about town Bobbito Garcia. The material on the EP had originally been recorded as gags or promos for Garcia's underground hip-hop radio show on New York's WKCR. The Cenobites EP was then reissued by Fondle 'Em as a full-length LP. Throughout the 1990s, Godfather Don continued to work as a producer, working on tracks from Kool Keith, Hostyle, and Ayatollah, among others. In 1999, he released his second album, Diabolique, on which his flow was very similar to the bludgeoning raps of his 1991 debut. The album included cameo appearances from Kool Keith and Sir Menelik, and appeared on the Hydra Entertainment imprint, for which Godfather Don continued to record, releasing several 12" singles and Instrumental hip hop albums.

In the 2000s, Don was known for his work with Screwball, a Queensbridge hip hop group, producing much of their 3 albums.

In 2007, Don resurfaced with 'The Slave Of New York E.P.': an EP of previously-unreleased archive material in association with hip-hop website Diggers With Gratitude who tracked him down and worked on putting this project out. 150 copies of this six track vinyl E.P. were released, with the first 45 copies having signed sleeves. The material used was recorded before and during his time with Hydra, with the title track coming directly from a cassette that Don had given to Bobbito to play on WKCR. Due to the resurge in interest, Don was then asked to release a CD compilation of material by another label, titled The Nineties Sessions, out now.

On May 21, 2011 Don dropped another EP of previously unreleased material titled "The Reformation Circa. 1999" a collaborative effort between Mic-el The Don, (who featured on tracks from the "Diabolique" album) and Godfather Don. The EP was recorded sometime in the late 1990s, it is one of Godfather Don's last full bodies of work in the hip-hop genre before he moved on to a career in Jazz music.”

Wikis, Godfather Don

1. “Styles By the Gram” 12”(Properties of Steel, Hydra Beats, 1996) plus “Slave to New York” (The Slave of New York, Diggers with Gratitude re-issue 2007)

To start with what may be my favourite Godfather Don beat, though as you’ll see I had trouble narrowing it down to six here – it kept getting extended so the self-imposed limit means nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all, or very little let’s say. Here’s the track with the rhymes.

It could be said that this beat sounds like many other instrumentals from that era and location. There’s nothing so radical or surprising about it, but the sound of the recording is superb and I love the way the music comes back with a minuscule inversion after the moment of the silence; there’s something very smooth about the way Godfather Don manipulates these (familiar) details.

Added to this the layered horns and sound effects, billowing and echoing all around it. WhoSampled states that the three-track Godfather Don release samples the Pete Rock/CL Smooth instrumental “It’s on You” (The Main Ingredient, Electra, 1994).

The site also claims that the Pete Rock track sample comes in at “0:00 (and throughout)” on the Godfather Don Properties of Steel release, not sure how that works. It’s true that from my online search it seems Godfather Don had some favourite samples that he returned to, but it’s unlikely he repeated just one sample throughout the entire release. Here it is with other tracks on this 2010 reissue, dubbed with a very cute retro promo styling, the “definitive Godfather Don singles collection” on its cover sticker. It has one of his better-known tracks “World Premiere” on it.

Here’s the full The Slave of New York ep.

2. “Burn” (Diabolique &/or 12”, Hydra Entertainment, 1998 - release info unclear if either includes instrumental version)

“1997. Produced by Godfather Don” – info below the video, that’s it.

What’s interesting about this instrumental is the contrast already mentioned above between the two kinds of sounds; the nervy, speedy insistent drums/percussion that skip along and sheer weight and heaviness of the other sounds. I really like the way Godfather Don allows for this contrast in his music between the lightness of drums (in itself kind of surprising, remember how many/most instrumentals from this time made the drums super-imposing and dominant, indeed it’s seem to be a characteristic of the era’s signature sound, at least on the East Coast) and then the other darker elements.

Apparently this instrumental includes a sample from Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?” - this is something else I noticed about Godfather Don the repeated sampling of his peers, or almost peers amid the more predictable 70s picks:

If true, and it may not be, it adds another - funny - dimension to Godfather Don’s title. Remember Biggie’s lines: “I burn baby burn like Disco Inferno/Burn slow like blunts with yayo/Peel more skins than Idaho potato …”

3. “Stuck Off – The Realness” (Hydra Entertainment. 1995)

Another perfect piece of music for me, I would have definitely been a good fit for my essay on hip-hop quiet if I had heard it back then. The beat samples Mobb Deep/Havoc’s “Shook Ones II” instrumental (1995):

and … Big Daddy Kane’s “Just Rhymin’ with Biz,” feat. Biz Markie (1988) - apparently - this song came up a few times in the WhoSampled information on the Godfather Don beats included there:

You can’t get more divergent sources of inspiration than the two above (if it is accurate) - splicing the two up, putting them alongside each other reflects a sense of humour not always it seems associated with Godfather Don’s musical output.

Compare the Godfather Don/Havoc beats to get a sense of the personal style of both producers. The Havoc beat is built from a small number of sonic elements, as is the Godfather Don, but has a dramatic sense of building towards something, developing and transforming as if it were a fragment from a movie soundtrack; some moment of drama, close to the cliff’s descent where the sea is swirling ominously below. The sounds are sharp, expertly judged in terms of the choice and the execution.

In contrast, the Godfather Don is shockingly simple, apparently undeveloped. The sounds are muffled, but carry within this a warmth and resonance – as if this is the principal goal of the music. A lot of music writers use the term “minimalist” when referring to hip-hop, without exploring what it might mean outside of being simple, or unadorned. Minimalism is about turning attention to the sounds, a small number of sounds; turning the focus inward (for some composers it might have been to encourage a depth in the listening, a form of contemplation as the elements become the most important aspect of the music, rather than the execution overall).

For me, all of the above makes sense when listening to American composers, especially, associated with minimalism (Riley, Adams, Reich) even if they did not embrace the term for their music, but the pieces that I return to are intense; they carry within them a force often lacking in the so-called-lo-fi hip-hop beats I think are frequently mislabelled in this way. For this appellation to make any sense the sounds themselves need to be “simple” – as in the Godfather Don beat - you can’t have a flashy jazz horn sample lodged alongside a loud basic boom bap beat and then call the music minimalist just because the producer chose to leave it like that for the duration of three minutes or less. It needs to be understated in all senses and yet touch you in a profound way.

Here’s a useful very short introduction to minimalism in music with an excerpt from an interview with Reich and mention of his piece, “It’s Gonna Rain” from 1965/1968. Check out too this interesting Reddit music theory thread debating whether or not US minimalist composers influenced hip-hop as a genre.   

4. “Yeah”/” Where'z the Skillz” (The Ill Funk Freaker EP, One Leg Up Records reissue, 2009 - not clear again if includes instrumental versions)

No information that I could find online about the samples, listen to those beautiful drum sounds that sound close to a bassline and so kept back. All the elements coming forward, but receding constantly and the “jingle bells hi hats! So 90s!” in the words of one listener. The drums in this are really something special; I listen to a lot of New York instrumentals from the 90s, with vocals and without and it’s rare to find beats this creative in terms of the core elements that sound so strong too, after all this time. Here is it with the rhymes over it, the recording is a bit unbalanced with the beat as the key element, the vocal line hard to make out, but this makes it kind of interesting too.

5. “Fame” (Da Bomb single, Hydra Entertainment, 1998)

This is a pure beauty. It’s surprising that there isn’t more of a Bowie/hip-hop overlap, especially considering how deeply immersed Bowie was in Black American source music (his album Young Americans that featured this song, his least favourite on the album was a love letter to these musical roots). As always, it’s the odd details in the beat that make this so special, that shift in the drums sound just over 35 seconds in, for instance and the way one sample from the original track is repeated at the start then disappears entirely to be replaced with another swathe from the song. Godfather Don shifts the hook to make it a critique of his peers, sounding lifted from 80s rap. It was released on the “Da Bomb” record.  Here’s the Bowie original instrumental from the Young Americans album, 1975.

And from the same year, Bowie looking high and malnourished, impressing the Soul Train dancers with his stylish moves (in all his emphatic lip-synch glory, caressing the mic):

Below the YT video there’s this comment on his performance: "I'm very drunk in this" David Bowie told Russell Harty in 1975 referring to his Soul Train TV appearance. "I was very nervous so I had a couple of drinks, which I never do and I really shouldn't have. It's lovely. It's very funny."


6. “Creepin’” (Hydra Beats Vol. 3, Hydra Entertainment, 1997)

(That noise just before 1’30” makes it for me).

Coda:

*Six Beats.

Not a best-of list, not a list with any kind of broader import, six beats, six tracks, six songs by an artist that click with me. Zero significance outside that metric.

"Killaz Theme," writing on Cormega, betrayal and justice in hip-hop and other genres

[Intro]
Heh heh, yea
Hahahaha, right
Part the crowd like the Red Sea
Don’t even tempt me

Genre: Hip-Hop Style: Thug Rap, Conscious


Towards the end of a 2015 interview with Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) that’s equal parts monologue and free-form talk, New York rapper Cormega says that remaking his début album The Realness was always an option, but that he wanted to do something more, something different to reflect his changed perspective. The man who made the music more than one decade ago was not the same one speaking today. “If we go back to the year of The Testament, (2005) I would have had at least 14 more friends physically still breathing, I would have no kids ...” Not only that, throughout the interview the Queensbridge MC stressed how he was aware of his position as a role model, as someone who could show others ways to move forward in their lives.

One of the DEHH team had suggested that his album Mega Philosophy was “preachy” in parts, then later clarified that he missed the “charismatic Cormega” (before listing all the tracks he liked). “If you speak truths, I don’t consider it preaching, maybe I’m wrong but I don’t,” Cormega replied. “Everything else I said was to uplift us, to say we’re not at the bottom, we’re more than ni**as standing on a corner dealing, jail is a business trying to employ our children, and destroy our mental; every day we’re more conditioned to conform to ignorance …” Starting to rhyme, momentum building as he interspersed lines about how he sees the world around him today with references to African lineage and references to pyramids in Egypt and Sudan to conclude that Black Americans “came from something great.”

Another DEHH host added that Cormega’s serious lyrical intent was “good preaching … (The word) preachy is now given a negative edge so when he says it sounds preachy it sounds like an insult … I say make it preachy as possible because we need that.”


Writing about an artist always involves multiple, sometimes contradictory, impulses: your motivation is greatest when writing on something that clicks with you, but you also need to be true to how the artist sees themselves and their work. Not to reproduce their perspective so much as show respect to the artist’s vision, otherwise the project doesn’t make much sense. Still choices are made. Rather than me unpicking Cormega’s recent more philosophical work, my interest here is to focus on “Killaz Theme,” with “Unforgiven” as the coda.

This is a partial – even personal – perspective on Cormega’s work. It’s not an overview of a career, but writing inspired by some of his music, and possibly work that he would like to transcend. (This is speculation on my part, which may be wrong: he’s said that “Killaz Theme” is a favourite track of his, but also said in the DEHH interview that he never wanted to glorify crime, which “Killaz Theme” and “Unforgiven” might do to a certain extent).

This work flows from questions and thoughts about the way the desire for justice – and the associated themes of betrayal, injustice, the quest for revenge – are represented in various musical genres, starting with dub reggae, but also all forms of Black American music to end with hip-hop. There is so much talk of “the struggle” in hip-hop (and reggae), what I’m interested in thinking about here is how those forced to endure such conditions might reflect the emotional toll such oppression takes on their private selves in their music.

Around the same time I (first) listened to “Killaz Theme” on repeat, I’d broken my typical rule of keeping it eclectic and kept my focus firmly fixed on dub/reggae. Listening to the Cormega/Mobb Deep track, within this space came as a jolt. Not only for the work’s poetic intensity, but the way it undermined reggae’s dominant conceptual framework; that is a belief that wrongdoers will be judged, that Jah sees all. Despite the image of reggae as the genre extolling “one love,” underpinning much of the lyricism is righteous anger and faith that on the final day of judgement the inhabitants of Babylon will be punished. Frequently dub/reggae lyricism builds on clearly defined polarities, between those leading a godly life and those committing all kinds of crimes, encouraging listeners to choose the right path.

This is deeply “biblical” - Old Testament in nature – and tough, even if the denunciation of the devil and longed for day of judgement is sung in the dulcet tones of Twinkle Brothers or Carlton and the Shoes.

Belief that the world’s wrongs will be brought to justice is equally deep in Black American tradition and musical culture; the other day I watched an interview with bell hooks where she slipped a casual reference to “Babylon” in her reply, not skipping for a breath, but it’s been there from the beginning, in the Spirituals in the Blues.

Think too of gospel, even if frequently there is space for contemplation and a questioning tone, amid the bombast of the chorus, where the soloist makes such themes personal. See, for instance, this really beautiful piece, “Do you believe” by the Supreme Jubilees (It’ll All Be Over, Sanders & Kingsby, 1980/81) that includes the rhetorical question: “What if you live a sinner’s role, at the end of time you must surely lose your soul.” Or Aretha Franklin’s sweet medley “Precious Lord You’ve Got A Friend” which is deeply comforting, providing solace; both the way the music of the chorus rises and the amazing vocal performance of Franklin, urging us to “meditate on him.” This is far removed from the stark clarity of dub reggae’s fire and brimstone call for reckoning, despite the religious roots of both.

Late 60s/early 70s jazz includes many implicit/explicit meditations on judgement and racialised justice: too many to detail here. Indeed the oeuvre of certain artists embody this territory, in terms of their work’s lyrical content, but also in their pure being – see Nina Simone:

Within Soul/R&B the general, all-encompassing shifts to the personal so that critiques of “smiling faces” and “backstabbers” abound: see the Undisputed Truth’s classic song of 1971 that was covered by David Ruffin three years later with an incomparable introduction. For the most part the “judgement” aspect of the lyricism remains personal, spelling out betrayals, the feelings of regret and loss linked to relationships between lovers and friends. While the genre’s political songs from the ‘70s favour a descriptive approach that rarely condemns those perpetuating the system or the injustice: see the Stevie Wonder penned “Heaven Help Us All” that has been described as the song expressing the essence of Motown or Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Want to Holler).”

With this in mind a song like Gil Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” is striking, the slowed-down groove and song’s lyricism focuses on the “we” - and the potential loss - not the “they “ responsible for causing the narrowly averted environmental disaster; the only lines registering the malfeasance links it to greed: “That when it comes to people's safety/money wins out every time.”

One of Curtis Mayfield’s greatest songs, “Stare and Stare” conveys a typically nuanced perspective while tackling social issues; the target of the critique remains multiple, fluid. Sadness and despondency dominate here, as Mayfield expresses his disappointment that doing good and brotherhood mean nothing, noting that on the shared space of the bus “a sister is standing and no-one even cares” and that “some people boarding, different color than us/They hate to mingle but no one makes a fuss/The thing about it, there’s no one here we can trust ...”

II.

“Killaz Theme,” Cormega, feat. Mobb Deep, prod. Havoc (1998)

“That’s my favorite song I’ve ever done with Mobb Deep. I just had to have that on my album. The reason I called it ‘Killaz Theme’ was because Havoc had a brother named Killa Black, God bless the dead, he died. When I heard the beat and I heard the chorus where Havoc’s saying, “We wanna kill you,” I just imagined his brother smiling and singing that type of shit. It reminded me of his brother, so I basically named it after my brother. I named it after Killa Black.

“I leaked that shit in ’98 because it was just too dope and I was on the road. I was on the shelf [at Def Jam] but I thought my album was coming out that year and it didn’t, so I just leaked that song to see what people thought of it, and people went crazy.

“I think Havoc did some beat for me and then he used it for something else. So ‘Killaz Theme’ became the make-up beat and oh am I glad he used that fucking first beat, because it was way better than what he did for me originally. When he did it, I came to the studio and Havoc was asleep behind the big studio console. He’d been drinking so I remember he was asleep and when I came he woke right up, pressed the button on the machine, laid back down and all I heard was, ‘We wanna kill you.’ And the beat came on and I was blown the fuck away. I was like, ‘Whatever the fuck Havoc just did, he needa do it again. Go to sleep all the time.’ That’s one of my favorite tracks ever out of my entire catalog.”

Hip-hop/rap as a genre is awash in lyrical violence; MCs frequently recount acts of violence they’ve witnessed or committed against enemies, friends who have betrayed them and former lovers while including boasts of their ability to cause physical and other harm. Rhymes also recount systemic violence; police profiling, murders, mass incarceration, the denial of the means of economic survival, schooling and housing segregation.

Most of the time such themes, including the more abstract/political frameworks, are presented in first-person narratives, encouraging us to see the stories as an extension of the artist and their lived experience; notions of truth, being authentic, keeping it real are ways people judge the worth of the rhymes. All this leads to an interesting doubling, or tension. In an art-form that is extremely artificial (see the emphasis on language/lyricism) the MC is frequently judged in terms of how true they are to their personal experiences.

Alongside the personal struggle narrative and MCs boasting of their skills, the other key lyrical theme in hip-hop – maybe even the key theme – is seeking revenge against those who’ve betrayed you. This also plays out in all the media-friendly “beefs” between the MCs (something that is almost unknown in other musical genres) - a major source of entertainment for all those looking on.

All this operates on the level of the interpersonal and the individual gripe, rather than some imagined Armageddon hailing justice on the maintainers of the corrupt, racist system. Of course there are exceptions: Public Enemy brought the noise in 1988 and warned of the current white supremacist neurosis so evident today in the United States, maintaining a clear-eyed desire for justice that would not be out of place in any of the most ferocious reggae songs of this ilk, other artists too mined this territory: from Paris to Dead Prez to Killah Priest to Ras Kass to Geto Boys, the list goes on.

“Killaz Theme II” - recorded in 1998, included as a bonus track on the 2001 The Realness album (and also Cormega’s 2005 album, The Testament ) reworked some of the lyrics from “You Don’t Want It,” prod. Godfather Don and later inspired the Lloyd Banks tribute and was used as a sample on a Conway The Machine track, “Mandatory” feat. Royce 5’9”.

In the comments below the YouTube video for “Killaz Theme” there’s speculation about who is the target of the repeated threat - We want to kill you (that's right)
We want to kill you (no doubt, that's right) … Is it Nas, the subject of a famous beef with Cormega that inspired some of his best songs, or someone else, or no person in particular?

The fact that the target of the threat is not identified is central to the song’s power. The important thing is not who suffers, but the desire (among the victims) to cause damage and inflict the harm on those who have wronged them. Despite talk of forgiveness and letting go, those who are victimised and expected to bear the brunt of it on a daily basis inevitably feel angry and long for justice; heard above a whisper it might sound just like this. Such music enacts the elemental voice of those forced to live in the shadow of persecution. Havoc in the final moments intoning “We want to kill you” has an almost meditative quality that sounds extremely real, as if we’re hearing voices from the underground.

Notice the way the song is put together, from the three MC verses to the instrumental. The beat by Havoc, all swirling strings builds at certain points as if the soundtrack of some kind of twisted romance where certain words are doubled for emphasis (“armed robbery”). Listener comments say the beat borrows from The Twilight Zone soundtrack (I haven’t been able to check or disprove this). There’s something erotic about this music. Not in the conventional sense of two people, but something more general and elemental: it sounds like a lust for revenge, as if it is all that these MCs desire, above all else (“that’s right”).

Prodigy’s verse ends on the lines:

Put this in heavy rotation
Overdose music,
it’s therapeutic to the user
Drive awhile under the influence of this
Careful cause you might just crash and shit
Total your whip and still pull my tape out your deck
Me and Mobb tryna connect,
like thirty-thousand dollar links
Unpopable, unstopable, topple

Maybe because of the fact that it is so raw and unfiltered, as Prodigy notes, this “overdose music” is “therapeutic to the user.” Something lost in all the condemnations of rap/hip-hop violence is the fact that listening to this kind of music allows those who feel stepped on, disrespected and worse to feel vicarious power; the rousing music of Havoc’s instrumental reinforces this.

That said, I know that there’s a risk in me over-stating the universality of the track and its impact, especially since Havoc’s verse suggests that it might be specific to the three MCs and conflicts they face closer to home:

Got drama with my clique
I’mma take it to the source QBC representative,
I’m just tryin to live
If I can’t get to you,
I’mma take it to your kids
Spray your crib, fuck it son, somethin’ gotta give If I can’t live,
then ain’t nothin’ gonna live

I’m just tryin’ to live.

Coda:

Cormega, “Unforgiven” The Realness, prod. Gold Fingas (Spank Brother)

“I just wanted it to be gutter. There’s a certain raw Mega that people used to really like. Even now people say they wish I would do some shit like that and be that raw person, but I’m not that person anymore in life. I wanted that record to be hard and I’d already released a hard edge song, but I wanted something new that no one ever heard, so that’s what ‘Unforgiven’ was.

“That was a raw fucking record. The producer’s name isn’t actually Spank Brother, it’s Gold Fingas. What happened was at the time he didn’t have a producer name back then, and The Realness was a rushed album, so the credits and the artwork needed to be turned in early because it takes a certain amount of time for the album to get printed. So I needed a name for him and at the time he ain’t have no name. I was trying to get in touch with him but I couldn’t so I didn’t know what to do.

“So Spank’s brother produced it…it was the last day to turn the album in and we still didn’t have a name for him yet, so I was like fuck it. Put Spank’s Brother because that was my man Spank’s brother. So that’s how that name got on there. And when I do the sequel to The Realness, I’m gonna try to bring every producer that was on the first one on the sequel, so when he appears on the sequel, God willing, he’ll be Gold Fingas.”

The track includes the unforgettable sample from Yusef Lateef’s Symphonic Blues Suite, Fourth Movement : Passacaglia (Suite 16, Rhino Atlantic, 1970),

The same sample was used in IAM’s 1997 track “Un bon son brut pour les truands” (L’Ecole du micro d’argent, Delabel, 1997)

***

You swimmin' with the sharks and the water is tainted
If you feel it in your heart (bring it)

In praise of: Havoc/Mobb Deep (“Apostle’s Warning,” Hell on Earth, Loud Records, 1996), notes towards an essay, part 1*

Exiting the office to rue de la Chapelle, near Marx-Dormoy on the city’s northern edge, I notice the drop in the weather. Even if the change won’t last and the unseasonable sunshine will soon return, I’m happy to see the “grey” that Henry Miller once wrote is full of meaning for a French person, or Parisian.

Mobb Deep instrumentals capture the constricted atmosphere of Paris for me, even if the music is indelibly tied to its city of origins, New York. This is music for Paris when it’s cold, not raining so much as cold; the chill that comes in through badly sealed windows of (my) our apartment/s, entering our bones as we wait outside. It’s music of faces in my neighbourhood, in and around Château-Rouge and Barbès, immigrant locations where the hotels advertise the fact that they have rooms with hot running water, shared showers in the hall.

I’m writing this fully aware that no other group better conveys the essence of the city New York in the 90s than Mobb Deep. If you wanted to re-visit that era in a social or psychological sense, this music takes you there. Mobb Deep’s music lets you feel what it was like in the city and boroughs, to imagine what it was like walking around the streets, steam spiralling up from the lower depths of the subway.

And as with any great art, this music while individual is part of a continuum. Listening to the “Apostle’s Warning” instrumental, I hear Lou Reed’s skittish ad libs during 70s live performances, spiking a vein, pulling a tourniquet sharp by his teeth, and the dense wash of Suicide: it’s punk-ish, unreconstructed, keeping things hidden, below the water-mark. The precise becomes universal. Music which represents New York comes to evoke Paris in the imagination of an Australian and so it goes.

This is the music of big cities, weighed down by history, where our shadows and ghosts co-exist.

Not so long ago I listened to an interview with Robert Wyatt where he said that his career has been devoted to recreating a certain sound, over and over again in all its permutations, that expressed something of his character and was personal to him. One sound over and over again, returning to the source. This is something I also believe in terms of how I hear and write about music. As even though I became an adult in a diametrically opposed environment to that of Prodigy and Havoc (on the other side of the earth, in another time-zone), returning to listen to Mobb Deep some years back convinced me of the rightness of this path as a listener and writer (as this early excitable almost-giddy-fan-missive shows). None of this has changed.

Mobb Deep’s music also has another deep personal significance, as someone who went to the 2015 show at The Bataclan, only weeks before the massacre took place; a shared trauma that remains deeply felt here in Paris, even if it is rarely mentioned.

(See this essay on Prodigy that I wrote following his death last year that explores this more ….)

Often it’s said that Havoc gets overlooked in all those best-of-producers-lists. This is true. It’s not my place to make an assessment of his career, since the 90s or in terms of its influence on others. Such assessments tend to miss the point anyway. No-one would compare novelists like this: no-one would bother saying that J.D. Salinger, a writer whose one masterpiece influenced all U.S. writers in his wake is less important/worthy than Saul Bellow. To do so would be a disservice to both, denying the achievement of one, when diminishing the other.

There are few albums from the same era that master the symmetry or strange mood of his music (let alone the adventurous use of samples). Yes, there are other New York 90s-era producers who are more inventive, risk-taking or elegant, who might be more skilled in terms of their creations, who have had more varied careers, but few create music that sticks with you in the same way. There’s something deeply affecting about the simplicity and control of Havoc’s production. Then, judging it from a European perspective, this work can be heard at the very foundations of French rap and there is a direct line between it and the sound of London rap, and grime.

I.

“Apostle’s Warning”

Two things impress me each time I hear this instrumental; first the extraordinary depth and beauty/weirdness of the first 20 seconds or so that originally reminded me of a kind of cowboy “Raw Hide” cry, à la Wu-Tang Clan, but in fact is a super-clipped sample of Michael Jackson’s version of “People Make the World Go ‘Round” from his 1972 album, Ben.

For this alone the track would be impressive, just on the basis of the way the sample is used. The second thing is harder to express in words, but relates to the way expectations are up-ended in terms of how the sounds are placed; where are the drums here, in relation to the bass-line; which is more dominant, and what, in fact, is that bass sound? It’s so rare and strange and intense.

[Verse 2: Prodigy]
Yo, my empire strikes with the strength of poisonous snakes
My entire unit loaded up with snake ni**as that hire stakes
We pull off a high stakes, great escapes, expand, shift team downstate
Dreams of growing old with my son to live great
Little man I'm plannin' to enhance your mindstate
The rebirth, a ni**a who lived an ill life
The one before me was of an even more trife
My understandin', I'll raise you with precise plannin'
And put you on to the whole game of this planet
But I gotta survive in order to follow through
Plans to live lotto, me and my little kicko
Any man tryin' to stop us, he get wet tho
He couldn't withstand the snake bite, there is no antidote
Don't you put your hands too close and try to approach
I won't snap at you I'm goin' for throats
And when you feel my bite, ya sing high notes
I peeped you from deep and then you got cut close
My formulae: I live life do or die
Stare into the eyes of a deep wiseguy
Prodigy, turnin' ni**as to protegés
My protegé, I advise ya ass to make way
Make way...for fully-auto gun spray
You're small prey, I'll easily bait and trap game
This man is half mad scientist-half sane
Create a rhyme labyrinth like poisonous cannabis
Here, take a toke of this deadly rare vocalist
Overpower y'all, tiny noise like locusts
Like sunlight thru a magnifying glass I'll focus and burn
A hole straight thru ya brain and leave ya open (Oh shit!)
And let the venom soak in
You start sweatin' and goin' thru convulsions from dope shit I writ
Leavin' ni**as stuck, I let stick
Trapped up in a web of a ni**a that's sick
I'll wrap you up in cocoon, get caught up in the midst
A dangerous, it's risky business fuckin' with this
Contender number one I put you on top of the list
You're the best challenger so far, I'll give you this
But peep this (What?) fatal shots that solar plex
Man Down...now who dares to go next?
Like General Monk Monk orders to chop necks
I send a message to my whole clique to bomb shit
Atomic, no time for calm shit
We hyperactive when it’s time to Vietnam it
Ya whole alliance gets singlehandedly bombed-ed
Take heed to the Apostle's Warning
Word up!

*My plan is to write more on Mobb Deep instrumentals, this is just the start of it: and to write on the ones that get less attention, this is why I started with “Apostle’s Warning” here, so this is just an intro again for a project that’ll be returned to at some point.

Related article: “Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/”Up North Trip” (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995) published 21st June, 2017

Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/’Up North Trip’ (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995)  

Prodigy, the hard-nosed Queens rapper who kiln-fired New York hip-hop into a thing of unhurried attitude and stoic elegance as half of the duo Mobb Deep, died Tuesday in Las Vegas. He was 42.
— Jon Caramanica, New York Times, June 20, 2017
My handicap took its toll on my sanity
My moms got me at the shrink at like 13
And doctors called the cops on me
’Cause I be throwing IV poles and they ignore me
I’ve gotta try to calm down and breathe
I can only hold it but for so long — put me to sleep.

'Ladies in the house say yeah,' so Prodigy says, as he saunters the Bataclan stage. Yeah, comes the expected reply. 'Check that out,' he says, feigning shock and surprise, 'We're Mobb Deep, not Common or Mos Def or some shit.'

One month before the famous Paris venue, The Bataclan was the site of terrorist attacks in November 2015, I went to see Mobb Deep's two-decade anniversary show marking the release of their Infamous record. 

During the set Prodigy stops everything to ask the support staff to change the lighting, to make it red, like the interior of a sweaty bordello - more dramatic than the previous natural-style lighting scheme, as the group goes from one hit to the next. 

Very, very early on, one of my first pieces of writing on hip-hop, published on this site, was on Mobb Deep. When writing it, I wanted this piece to be similar in style to a letter, directed to someone like me – looking in on a culture that was not hers: both faux-naïf and directive. Part of it went like this: 

If I were asked to recommend an album to a hip-hop novitiate, I’d suggest they listen to Mobb Deep’s ’The Infamous’ ... Or maybe something from Big L 

(Maybe I’d choose this one - big l Harlem’s finest vol 1 & 2 full album - for the urgent delivery ... and smarts). All this might seem perverse for two reasons; well, none of the records above provided the déclic moment for me as I started listening to hip-hop seriously (second time around) last year. None of these records were what first made me think I should spend a bit more time here with this music, making connections that made sense to me (…) Being authentic is often discussed in relation to hip-hop; this notion of the MC being real, or representing his/her life and then the fans think about this when assessing the quality of the music.

For obvious reasons then this is impossible for me to do - how could it be otherwise? So, what then appeals to me when I listen to these records? The sound, basically. This music still stands up, unlike some of the wittier, more literary, more sonically adventurous hip-hop from the same era (some of which sounds really twee to me now, even though I liked it a lot then). 

Besides, as a woman liking art that is foreign in terms of my experience is nothing new - I think one of the key aspects of being female is living this, on a daily basis to the point where your appreciation of something includes an expectation that it won’t be something you know personally. And this is no problem - not everything you like, or appreciate, needs to be a mirror. 

Here is part two of the same interview with Prodigy …

Since the 60s so many people have spoken about love being what the world needs now etcetera. I disagree, what we ‘need’ – if you favour such expression - more than anything, and especially now, is curiosity about those who are different to us, driven by respect. This is how I relate to Mobb Deep – and others in the constellation; ‘there are no stars in the New York sky
They're all on the ground …’

What interests me then, as now is how we can engage with – and even love – art that does not speak to our experience; how the genius and sheer clarity of certain voices can cut through bringing people together through the shared appreciation of art, whether it be music, or literature, or film.

Now, I know about issues relating to appropriation – and am starting to feel just a bit awkward, where is the late Prodigy in all of this, the apparent subject of this writing? But in my world-view this is the highest compliment to offer an artist, as E.M. Forster famously stated: ‘only connect’.

The scene in Howard’s End that introduced this phrase was a stolen kiss between two of the novel’s characters that becomes part of an internal monologue:

It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

When I think back to the time when I started listening to Mobb Deep, again in earnest, there was no intellectualising/no theorising required: I just liked it. I liked the sound; the way it seemed like we had a direct line to the artist's brain, with all the intelligence and humour to be found there and the way this music summed up a particular moment in music, the way it typified a city and an era.

I liked the way the wordplay never seemed forced, while it expertly buttressed the immediacy of the story to be told. This notion of story-telling in hip-hop often rankles with me, especially when it becomes overly smart, arch and knowing, but within the Mobb Deep universe you had both: amazingly constructed narratives that were filled with intense feeling.

And then if you believe that hip-hop as a genre is distinctive in the way it offers a voice to the unheard, in Mobb Deep you had this, in excess – and yet this was music that could cross borders, with ease: I mean, contemporary European rap is drenched in a Mobb Deep influence.

As with the greatest art in any genre, the intrinsically specific could make sense to people with no immediate life experience that resembled what they were hearing/or seeing because it was personal, located and true - just like a diary written by someone in an occupied zone, or during war-time. At its best, Mobb Deep’s music could offer everything, at once. See, for example, 'Trife Life’ – a Mobb Deep song that initially triggered my interest for its wit, self-confidence and extraordinarily smart construction of a narrative, with suspense and momentum:

(Just love those early rhymes: 'It's just another day, drowning my troubles with a forty
That's when I got the call from this brown skin shorty
She asked me where's my crew at, said we could do whatever
She got a crew too and said that we should get together
I said, "Aight, just call me back in a hour
So I can take a shower and gather up the manpower"
Then I hung up the horn
And I thought to myself that it might be on
Cause this trick isn’t pick up the phone to call me in years (Why?)
Ever since I left the ho lonely in tears…'

It’s so exact and funny, it makes me laugh every time I hear it, you can imagine the expression on his face during the phone call and the shift from excitement to trepidation – when he remembers how it ended last time - as if it were a scene in a film. You can hear the youth in the expression, how it was pure and essential.

This could be the voice of any pretend-macho young guy who is feeling nervous in New York, Cleveland, Marseilles – any place, the world over, it is individual and universal at the same time. No games; this music is funny, in parts, while expressing deep feeling related to a specific situation: ‘complete’ – as the French say. It was that simple.

Just like a woman standing beside me at The Bataclan that night, singing and screaming and shouting pretty much every single word of every single song, despite not even being born, or maybe just a little kid in 1995, the year that Mobb Deep released The Infamous.

This young woman, just like me, probably wouldn’t feel the need to explain her preference and give it form, all she knew, and knew deep in the core of her being that there was something about this music that clicked. She liked it, it was that simple – and that complex.        

Mobb Deep’s the Infamous is as bold, as clear as The Stooges’ Funhouse : it has the same force and desire to be heard, to stake out territory. I love the simplicity of it, the complete nature of the aesthetic; there are no weaknesses, no gaps.

By simplicity, I mean simple like a meditation; or simple like anything that matters in this world, in fact. Simple like a kiss, or a decision to act; simple like a thought, a memory. The music I grew up with, the nasty guitar music of the Melbourne underground scene was similarly ‘simple’ - focussed on the impact, not showing off fancy technique. There was no need.

***

"UP NORTH TRIP" TRACK INFO

Written By Prodigy of Mobb Deep & Havoc

Recording Engineer Louis Alfred III

Mixing Engineer Tony Smalios & Q-Tip

Mastering Engineer Leon Zervos

Executive Producer Matt LifeScott Free & Mobb Deep

Recorded At Battery Studios (New York, City)

Release Date April 25, 1995

Verse One: Prodigy

It all began on the street, to the back of a blue police vehicle
Next come the bookings, the way things is lookin
It’s Friday, you in for a long stay
Gettin shackled on the bus first thing come Monday
Hopin in your mind you’ll be released one day
But knowin, home is a place you’re not goin for a long while
Now you’re up on the isle
And the position that you in got you refusin’ to smile
But keep in mind there’s a brighter day, after your time spent
Used to be wild, but locked up, you can’t get bent
Thought you could hack it, now you’re requestin PC
You’re fragile, it ain’t hard to see
Niggas like that don’t associate with me
I’d rather, get busy to the third degree
Cause the war in population’s on infinitely
If this was the street, my razor would be a mac demon
Hit you up, leave your whole face screamin’
What you in for kid - bustin nuts?
Cats heard of me in street stories told inside this trap
Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight...

Here’s a description of the making-of the track,  published in Complex, 2011 

Produced by: Mobb Deep

Prodigy: “That song is basically a song dedicated to our people going in and out of jail back then. A lot of niggas would get locked up, come back home, get locked up, and come home.

"Niggas were selling drugs and if you’re out there on the block selling drugs, you’re constantly getting caught. You can’t get away with that shit for long, especially if you’re a small-time hustler for clothes and sneaker money.

“That was probably one of the ones that we started writing in the projects at Hav’s crib. He had a couple things. Our first sampler we had was an EPS 16 plus. It was a big-ass keyboard.

"We had that for a little while, and when the MPC came out we bought that, and that was it. A little record player, a little mixer, and that’s all we needed. We had the big ass cheap speaker with the carpet on it, like block party speakers.”

Havoc: “You don’t have no job, you’re trying to eat. And it could be somebody that you got beef with, so you might have to shoot a mothafucka because you not gonna let nobody play you. So it’s just all sorts of challenges growing up in the hood. That’s just one of those songs that brought that fact out.”

Matty C a.k.a. Matt Life (Executive Producer and A&R for Loud Records): “Q-Tip enhanced the drums on that lovely. If you listen to ‘Up North Trip’ you’ll hear the snare kind of bouncing a little bit. Cracking a little more [than normal]. Tip gave it a real nice crack compared to what it originally was. He just beefed the drums up on that one.

“Tip also worked with me closely on recommending certain engineers that were great for mixes. Hav and P would always do their own drops and Hav would always—and I would always encourage him—be the producer and do the final check on his own shit.

“The way that Tip contributed to the project was so cool because he wasn’t in there trying to say, ‘Yo, I’m the mixer for this, I’m taking credit for this.’ He was doing great in his career and he had mad love for us.

"He was just in it to help out and make sure it comes out right. Obviously, he got a nice deal. But it was really just trying to see Hav come up and really steer this ship with this group of emcees that he’s got.”

To choose one to represent the whole: ‘Up North Trip’ from the breakthrough, The Infamous record from 1995. Constantly playing with contrast, starting with the use of 70s schmaltz for the samples - ‘I'm tired of giving’ Spinners From the LP "8" released in 1977 on Atlantic Records. 

Even if there is a similar territory in the lyrics, expressing one man’s despondency: ‘When the truth becomes in question standing right before your eyes moving on to something better keep the strong alive I'm tired of giving but its you that keeps me hanging on So tired of giving (so tired of giving) can't get from falling down So tired of giving can't get up from falling down’ it's far from the same kind of psychological mood.  

The track also featured 'To Be With You' by The Fatback Band, later known as Fatback - love that detail - from a 1973 single; apparently the group had 'substantial success in South America, especially in Brazil with 'Money' and 'Backstrokin'.

You can see the depth of Prodigy’s lyricism when you compare his two verses in 'Up North Trip'. The first starts by setting the scene, using a ‘once upon a time’ beginning almost and the second person to involve us in the story and intensify a sense of proximity. He addresses us directly, using ‘you’ as if the action he is about to describe is our story as well.  

Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight

All of this suggests that what is to follow is a kind of cautionary tale, but there’s a degree of venom there, attacking his audience almost: who are you to judge me?

This subject matter and approach reminds me of first-person narratives from the past, say convict narratives, where the narrator is ready to share his vile and malicious deeds to spare others the same cruel fate, and yet it’s not that easy, mono-dimensional, because he is not seeking our absolution.

In Prodigy’s final verse, the perspective is quite different: 

Then I pause... and ask God why
Did he put me on this Earth just so I could die
I sit back and build on all the things I did wrong
Why I’m still breathin, and all my friends gone
I try not to dwell on the subject for a while
Cause I might get stuck in this corrupt lifestyle
But my, heart pumps foul blood through my arteries
And I can’t turn it back, it’s a part of me

This is amazing for the depth of feeling that comes through, the self-doubt and questioning tone, as he states:

Too late for cryin, I’m a grown man strugglin
To reach the next level of life without fumblin
Down to foldin, I got no shoulder to lean on but my own
All alone in this danger zone

But rather than offering his Soul up to God, as might have been the case in one of those 18th or 19th narratives of wrong-doing and repentance, Prodigy then reiterates his criminal, or outsider mindset: ‘Time waits for no man, the streets grow worse
Fuck the whole world, kid, my money comes first.’