There’s no blueprint for becoming a popular rapper, but these days it usually begins with a SoundCloud account and a social media presence—look at Lil Yachty, Post Malone or XXXTentacion. Back in the ’90s, however, aspiring emcees had to git up, git out and git something, often hustling their music to strangers on the street in the hope that that one guy who knows another guy will give them a shot (take a stroll through Manhattan and you’ll quickly discover this is somehow still a thing).
At least that’s how a young Prodigy and Havoc (before they were known as Mobb Deep) met Q-Tip and kickstarted their career.
“When me and Hav first met and started doing our demo tape, we’d get the address off the back of albums and go stand outside whatever company with our headphones on and our Walkman and wait for celebrities or somebody that we recognized to come out like, ‘yo, could you listen to our shit?’” Prodigy recalls in a new interview with Mass Appeal.
The young Queensbridge duo faced their fair share of “no”s until the creative force behind A Tribe Called Quest lent them his ear, liked what he heard and helped them get their foot in the door of the music industry, literally.
"Nobody would stop for us. Everybody was like, ‘I ain’t got time for that shit.’ Q-Tip came out the building, we asked him to listen to us and he stopped and he was like, ‘aiight.’ Listened to our shit, he was like, ‘yo, where y’all from?’ ‘We from Queens, yo.’ He was like, ‘yo, I like y’all. Come in the office, I’ma introduce y’all to some people.’ He introduced us to Chris Lighty that day and a bunch of people in the Rush Associated Labels in the Def Jam office — that’s how we met everybody."
It wasn’t until a few years later, following their forgettable debut album Juvenile Hell and a short-lived deal with 4th & B’way Records, that Mobb Deep began working with Q-Tip on their breakout sophomore LP, The Infamous. Tip appeared on “Drink Away the Pain,” produced two additional cuts including “Temperature’s Rising” and “Give Up the Goods,” in addition to mixing and mastering a good portion of the project. “Pretty much he was just a mentor,” Havoc said of Q-Tip’s involvement.
Mobb Deep also turned to another Queens hip-hop hero for inspiration while making The Infamous. In the same interview with Mass Appeal, Prodigy reveals how Nas’ Illmatic—released a little over a year before The Infamous—helped Prodigy and Havoc find their voice and tell their story.
"When 'Juvenile Hell' first came out, it didn’t do well. We were just learning how to make beats. We were young kids. We ain’t really know what we were doing. We were still figuring out what Mobb Deep is, how we should present ourselves to the world, how the music industry works.
"Right around the time that album came out, Nas dropped 'Illmatic,' and 'Illmatic' was just…incredible; a work of art. Sonically, lyrically — everything. It was just like, ‘wow.’ It made us look at ourself like, ‘what the fuck is we doing? Listen to this masterpiece this kid just made. We with him damn near everyday!’
"We didn’t tell our story correctly and Nas, with 'Illmatic,' helped us to realize that. He told his story so perfect, so we was like, ‘we gotta come correct, dawg. We gotta really dig deep and tell people who we are: share your pain, your fears, everything.’ We was like, ‘yo, we ain’t gonna get another chance after this. If we flop again, it’s over.’
We regrouped, we went in the crib — mad 40s, mad weed — and started grinding, really focusing on the production — that came first. What did we want our sound to be like? The lifestyle that we was living, the lifestyle that we grew up in. The beats just naturally came out as some dark, sinister-sounding shit, so the lyrics was easy after that."
Thank you, Nas and Q-Tip, not just for making classic albums like Illmatic and The Low End Theory, but for shaping Mobb Deep’s magnum opus, too.
22 years later and The Infamous still has zero skips.