Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 66 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re breaking down Mobb Deep and one of the best songs in rap history, “Shook Ones, Pt. II.”
I would like to read for you, now, three brief passages, from the book My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy. Came out in 2011. He wrote it with the journalist and filmmaker Laura Checkoway. The Illuminati comes up for the first time like one-third of the way through the book. FYI. This book is wild, dude. OK.
Passage no. 1. He’s explaining how he just took a young lady to Pebble Beach. Quote, “We called all project roofs Pebble Beach because they’re lined with pebbles and it sounded better than, ‘Let’s have sex on the roof.’” End quote. Four passages, I’m reading, from this book, I just added that one, sorry. OK.
Passage no. 2. This one’s a little longer. Quote. “I prefer a savage mind over a square one, because without money, expensive houses in safe neighborhoods, cars, and the other materialism that gives a false sense of security in their little fake-ass world, a square couldn’t survive in the real world where poverty and savages are king. Just imagine for a moment, the apocalypse hits. Armageddon. Babylon (the corporate world) is falling. No electricity, bank accounts, gas stations, no calling 911, because there’s no phone service. Who will survive longer, if at all? Mr. and Mrs. Square-Ass Lame with their master’s degrees and Prada suits? Or Mr. and Mrs. Savage Mentality, who are used to having nothing and are close friends with all the neighborhood criminals? I suggest you read the Book of Revelation if you’re confused about the answer.” End quote. OK. The Book of Revelation comes up for the first time one-sixth of the way through the book. The Book of Revelation precedes the Illuminati. The UFO appears about two-thirds of the way through. Rad book, dude.
Prodigy’s solo catalog was not available on streaming for the longest time—it’s like 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, 50 records and mixtapes, rap discographies intimidate me—but he’s back on streaming now, so everyone can once again enjoy, say, his last album, 2017’s Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation). Here are the first seven seconds of the song called “Mafuckin U$A.”
OK. Sorry. Passage no. 3. Upon the birth of Prodigy’s firstborn son. Quote: “It was truly the most amazing and nastiest thing I ever saw.” End quote. I couldn’t sleep last night, and I read that line at like 12:45 a.m., and I laughed for 20 minutes. I very well might’ve woken up my own children. That is the definitive word on childbirth, my friends. “It was truly the most amazing and nastiest thing I ever saw.” Unbelievable.
Finally. Passage no. 4. Okay. Havoc was born in Brooklyn. Prodigy was born in Hempstead, on Long Island, and bounced around quite a bit: He lived in another part of Queens, in LeFrak City, for a while. But these two guys, as rap royalty, are synonymous with the Queensbridge Houses, the public housing development in Queens. Six blocks. 96 buildings. More than 3,000 units housing roughly 7,000-plus people. Largest housing project in the United States. Havoc had already lived there a long time. Prodigy, it’s clear, this is the first place that’s really felt like home to him, even though he’s not living there yet when he and Havoc first meet. Prodigy’s commuting to a high school in Manhattan. The High School of Art and Design. He’s in a photography class. He’s discussing his rap aspirations with his buddy Derrick. And Derrick says, “You should meet my man Havoc. He’s a rapper too. You should partner up because you’re both the same height and have a similar style.”
Prodigy and Havoc are both between 5-foot-3 and 5-foot-6, depending on what you read. 5-foot-6 is high end for either of ‘em. It’s not very intimidating until you think about it for a while and then suddenly it gets super super intimidating. OK. Quote. “After school, I waited outside for Derrick to introduce me to Havoc. A crowd of people came running out the front door. A short kid about my height was getting ready to fight a taller dude. Derrick walked up. ‘That’s Havoc, right there, about to fight,’ he said. The tall kid pulled out a knife and tried stabbing Havoc in the stomach, missing by inches. A few people from the crowd rushed over and took the knife. Havoc proceeded to beat the shit out of the dude.”
End quote. Then Prodigy and Havoc get to talking. Prodigy says “Nice fighting,” and Havoc says “Did you see when he tried to stab me?” Just to review: (a) Prodigy and Havoc met at a knife fight, (b) a knife fight in which Havoc was participating, and (c) a knife fight Havoc won despite not being the guy with the knife. Prodigy and Havoc join forces and start a rap group called Poetical Prophets, which is a terrible name for a rap duo that met at a knife fight. Unbelievable. They cobble together a 50-song demo which is way too long for a demo.
Slingin’ rocks on the corner, slingin’ rocks ‘cause I wanna
The little Don Ho drug dealer plus performer
At my height, I’m described as a midget
But it ain’t about height, it’s about, “Can I Kick It?”
That’s Havoc, on an early version of the song “Flavor for the Non Believes.” Poetical Prophets did get written up in hip-hop bible The Source magazine, in the hallowed Unsigned Hype column, super influential, helped get several future-superstar rappers their record deals, the Notorious B.I.G. got written up there, and DMX, and Common, and Eminem. This glowing review of Poetical Prophets reads, in part, “Straight outta Queens, New York, these two little 5-3 16-year-olds are fast making a big name for themselves in talent shows and radio stations in the New York area. Yes they’re young, and they look even younger, but understand that this is no ABC. Poetical Prophets rhyme from the hardcore perspective of two little street soldiers who like to bug out, puff blunts, and sip forties.” End quote. It’s very funny, to me, having read a lot of rap history, about truly, how important and influential The Source’s Unsigned Hype column was, and then you actually read an old Unsigned Hype column and it’s like, These adorable little short fellas are really short!
Anyway then Havoc and Prodigy changed their name to Mobb Deep, with an extra B, that was Prodigy’s idea, he says, “It just looked better with the extra B. It looked even.” Mobb Deep gets a deal with 4th and Broadway Records, which put out Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full. The first Mobb Deep album, Juvenile Hell, comes out in 1993. Both these guys are very much still teenagers, and it sounds like it.
That’s fun, right? That sounds like a beguiling combination of the Sesame Street theme, and very much not the Sesame Street theme. This record got three-and-a-half mics, in The Source, which called it “solid throughout, both musically and lyrically.” Zero references to height. OK! Eh, look at this, this next song’s called “Locked in Spofford.” Shout-out Mike Tyson.
This song’s called “Hold Down the Fort.” This intro also makes me laugh for 20 minutes straight, every time.
I can’t decide if that makes me more likely to make a New Year’s resolution, or much less likely.
Juvenile Hell is absolutely the last record where Prodigy and Havoc sound as old as they actually are, or, I should say, it’s the last record where they sound as young as they actually are. The only 19 but my mind is old aspect of this operation is gonna kick in real soon. But here and only here, they sound like kids even on the song called “Hit It From the Back.” Maybe they sound like kids especially on the song called “Hit It From the Back.” Their voices blend together quite well, don’t they?
Prodigy mentions in his book that this song was very popular on the Playboy Channel; he might not be joking. The fellas made a video for “Hit It From the Back,” it’s a dance party, let’s leave it at that. Havoc is wearing a San Jose Sharks sweatshirt, the Sharks had recently joined the NHL, dope logo, the shark biting the hockey stick in half, just thought I’d mention it. The fellas also made a video for the best song on Juvenile Hell, which is called “Peer Pressure.”
In the “Peer Pressure” video Havoc and Prodigy roam around Queensbridge carrying around scythes, the farming implement slash Grim Reaper accessory. Havoc’s holding a scythe on the Juvenile Hell album cover as well. For my whole life I had pronounced this word, S-C-Y-T-H-E as skaith, that is incorrect, the correct pronunciation is scythe, I am very upset about this. Mispronouncing words for decades to my great embarrassment has somehow become central to my brand. Anyway the scythes scare the hell out of me in the “Peer Pressure” video because both Havoc and Prodigy are gesturing with the scythes, waving them around, et cetera, and I’m legitimately terrified somebody’s gonna get accidentally slashed with a scythe. Prodigy’s shirt is actually ripped, across his chest, as though he has already been slashed with a scythe. This video is tremendously stressful for me.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.