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It was the “Boogie Down Bronx” long before KRS-One adopted the name for his Bronx-based Boogie Down Productions posse. Spike Lee was certainly not the first to dub Brooklyn “Crooklyn,” but the publicity didn’t hurt. New York City’s most metropolitan and commercial borough is still occasionally and appropriately referred to as “Money-Makin’ Manhattan.” Thanks to the emergence of the Wu-Tang empire, Staten Island residents have seen their borough across the harbor reborn as “Shaolin.” Even the more conservative and relatively less hip Long Island was christened “Strong Island” by Public Enemy’s Chuck D back in the early ’90s. And now, Puff Daddy’s protege Mase has given new life to “Harlem World.” It seems that hiphop has successfully re-titled every spot in New York—except one borough, ironically its largest.
Manhattan keeps on makin’ it, Brooklyn keeps on takin’ it
Bronx keeps creatin’ it, and Queens keeps on fakin’ it.
—Boogie Down Productions, “The Bridge Is Over”
Since before KRS-One ever dissed the borough on wax, Queens has had trouble getting the type of respect easily bestowed on Brooklyn or the Bronx. As is unfortunately often the case in hiphop, violence is associated with credibility, and Queens is somehow perceived as being more suburban and less “hard.” Young men in the various small communities that make up the big borough with all the cemeteries have always fought back against what should probably be taken as a compliment. And no one defends Queens’ reputation better than the rappers whose careers depend on it. Donning “Timberland boots and Army-certified suits” and adopting fake scowls, people like Onyx from South Jamaica and Noreaga from the Lefrak (now “Iraq”) City housing project spew irresponsible gangster nihilism to keep their borough on the subway map. And, of course, there is Mobb Deep.
You catch a chill when you hear the Mobb bang through your stereo.—Mobb Deep, “Allustrious”
Mobb Deep represents the Queensbridge housing projects, the original target of BDP’s “The Bridge Is Over.” Also known as “the Infamous,” the group is far and away the most convincing purveyor of the Queens thug mentality. Prodigy, aka “P,” the Mobb’s primary poet, takes after fellow Queensbridge rep Nas in his ability to tell ghetto tales visually. While he never raises his voice like other thug rappers, P’s low-key, almost lazy delivery manages to convey a reckless attitude that is eerie and nothing short of seductive. His frequent hospitalizations for sickle cell anemia help buttress his fatalistic attitude. Over the course of four albums, from song to song and victim to victim, he has assured us that he and his “dunns”—Mobb Deep’s coinage for “sons”—from the 41st Street side of Queens don’t give a fuck. “He was a thumper ’til he met the 40 thunder/Now it feels strange when I walk by his mother—it’s fucked up/That’s how the ball bounces, the cookie crumbles/That’s what the guns do” he says on “Spread Love.”
Mobb Deep’s lyrics appeal to the kid in all of us: The kid who watched WWF wrestling and Kung Fu Theatre on Saturdays and prayed for more blood. The kid who would dash across the schoolyard just to see another kid catch an undeserved beat-down. As we get older, the feeling of excitement caused by violence comes with a stab of guilt, but it doesn’t go away. We get it from the nightly news, the Godfather movies, and Mobb Deep.
On “What’s Ya Poison” Prodigy asks, “What y’all niggers know about the turmoil?/What y’all know about the blood-soiled clothes and little holes/in the legs of pants? Slugs crack the shin bone/The other shots blast through your left clavicle/Melt swish suits and paint the avenues.” Nothing. If we’re lucky, we know nothing of it. Most of us have never seen a man shot firsthand, much less shot him ourselves. That’s why we buy Mobb Deep albums. Havoc and Prodigy do know, or at least that’s what they say: “Murder music, real-life situations placed on paper.”
But let’s keep it real for a moment. Havoc and Prodigy are rappers. Ever since they moved out of the projects—which they once foolishly said they would never do—their enemies have not been the gun-toting murderers and back-stabbing bitches that they write about in their rhymes. Their enemies are the pirates of the recording industry.
I was in New York for the Puerto Rican Day Parade this past June. That weekend, I watched my best friend buy a full CD version of Murda Muzik from a street vendor outside the Queens Center Shopping Mall on Queens Boulevard. The album was released this month. Apparently, the album’s release was delayed since April because the whole thing had been leaked and bootlegged. A Loud publicist told me that five new tracks have since been added to combat the piracy. And sure enough, when I received the official copy of Murda Muzik, there were five additional songs, including collaborations with Nas, Lil’ Cease, and Raekwon. Of course, three songs had been removed, two of which boasted some of the better production on the album.
Mobb Deep’s theme hasn’t changed over the span of four albums. Just look at the titles: Juvenile Hell, Infamous, Hell on Earth, and Murda Muzik. The second album is a classic, both lyrically and beatwise. Havoc, the producer, pioneered a sound that was simplistic and sample-heavy but smooth and soulful. Many of the loops were R&B, but Havoc managed to filter and tweak them just enough to give them a sinister quality. He also added drum kicks that sounded like hammers falling. Combined with P’s unapologetic ghetto rhetoric, Havoc’s work was, quite simply, death and self-destruction done to perfection.
Since then, however, Havoc seems to have reshaped the group’s image. His tracks have become much more disturbing and gothic. At the same time, they are spare and too repetitive, like “Streets Raised Me” and “Thug Muzik.” They fit the grim rapper lyrics, but they don’t provide much to groove to. “Quiet Storm,” Murda Muzik’s first single, features a menacing, thumping reworking of Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s “White Lines” bassline, where P promises to “put my lifetime in between the paper’s lines.” Just like the song it samples, “Quiet Storm” is a successful party jam with subject matter that’s ironically far from festive. Nothing else in the collection matches the power of this cut, however. Mobb Deep may have caught the first big commercial buzz of its career with “Quiet Storm,” but there’s nowhere on Murda Muzik to go from here.
Prodigy and Havoc are lyrically consistent, but how long do they expect us to believe in their thug exploits? Four pieces deep, by now they must be more dedicated to creation than crime. The true nature of their hustle is revealed in Prodigy’s verse from “It’s Mine”: “Rap author, made millions off of/Melodic, hypnotic productions/That’ll fuck with your conscience and touch your emotions/You feel me? I write a graphic page.” At one point, Havoc lets the whole scam slip: “Record execs don’t like it, come up with new rhymes.” Oh yeah? Sounds like Queens might be “fakin’ it” again. CP