Happy 20th Anniversary to Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth, originally released November 19, 1996.
It’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel to make a superior album. Music is filled with artists who claim that they are trying to redefine the art form’s boundaries to create something next level with every outing. Sometimes they succeed. But all too often, it’s little more than a lot of talk. There’s something to be said for an artist sticking to their strengths and improving on what made them good in the first place. It’s an approach that served Mobb Deep well on Hell on Earth, their third album, released twenty years ago this week.
Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita and Albert “Prodigy” Johnson met while attending New York City’s High School of Art and Design. They started recording music while in high school under the name Poetical Prophets, a pair of straight-laced 16-year-old “kid” rappers, and appeared in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column back in 1991. They switched up their image shortly thereafter, fashioning themselves as street-oriented rappers, signing with 4th and Broadway Records. In 1993, they released their debut album Juvenile Hell, which focused on rhyming about street life, surviving in the Bronx’s Spofford Juvenile Center (aka one of NYC’s kids jails), and dealing with the pressure to sell drugs and live illegally. The album was a commercial failure and met with lukewarm critical praise.
Mobb Deep rediscovered its groove in late 1994, after signing to Loud Records. The duo didn’t so much as reinvent themselves as they stopped rhyming about being teenagers, but kept on rapping about making a living through illegal means. They joined the ranks of Wu-Tang, the Boot Camp Clik, Fat Joe, and childhood friend and Queensbridge compatriot Nas in crafting New York-based street music. They paired their rough subject matter with dark, brooding production, handled largely by the group itself.
Their sound was immediately distinctive, and evocative of a particular time and season. Whereas, say A Tribe Called Quest made music for the summer and early fall, Mobb Deep made music for dark, cold winter nights. The beats featured hard, neck-snapping drums, sinister sounding basslines and pianos, and often warped vocal samples. The sound was simultaneously bleak, yet almost ethereal.
Tracks like “Shook Ones” and “Shook Ones Pt. 2” exploded into the growing East Coast mixtape scene, building hype for to the release of the duo’s second album The Infamous in the spring of 1995. “Shook Ones Pt. 2” became one of the most emblematic tracks on the mid 1990s and is on many a list of all-time best rap songs. Havoc and Prodigy followed it up with similarly anthemic singles like “Survival of the Fittest” and “Give Up the Goods (Just Step).” Though decidedly non-commercial, the album earned a solid audience, and was certified Gold by the RIAA. It’s still considered a classic of its era.
A year and a half later, Mobb Deep released Hell on Earth. At the time, street rap was still very much the flavor of the industry for NYC artists, as hip-hop was still about six months away from the Puff Daddy/Bad Boy takeover. By then, Prodigy and Havoc knew their strengths as rappers and producers, and crafted the album accordingly. It is every bit as desolate and jagged as The Infamous, with subject matter that covers crime, betrayal, drug sales, and extreme violence. Copies of Hell on Earth could very well have been sold with Carhartt jeans, a pair of six-inch wheat Timberlands, and a razor blade to hide under your tongue.
I’m also of the opinion that Hell on Earth is Mobb Deep’s best album. Prodigy and Havoc both had become sharper as emcees, with Prodigy in particular contributing one of the greatest lyrical performances ever on this album. Behind the boards, Havoc is just that much better, refining and perfecting his distinctive sound. Mobb Deep doesn’t break any new ground here, mind you, but they still create upper echelon East Coast “thug” rap. In what was a veritable sea of crime-oriented east coast hip-hop, Hell on Earth still stood out as one of the best albums of 1996. It may not have possessed a universal hip-hop anthem like “Shook Ones Pt. 2,” but the quality of its components is more consistent overall than its precursor.
Tracks like “Bloodsport” fit expertly into the pair’s wheelhouse, with Havoc and Prodigy rhyming about preparing to go to war with their enemies over a slow, haunting string sample. “Can’t Get Enough of It” is the album’s highest tempo track, featuring Havoc, Prodigy, and Brooklyn-ite Illa Ghee trading rhymes about their domination of the streets over an expert flip of Gary Burton’s “Las Vegas Tango.”
The beat for “Extortion” is also built around a string sample, this time courtesy of the Jackson 5’s “Can You Remember,” but slowed down and distorted to almost beyond the point of recognition. Wu-Tang member Method Man joins Mobb Deep on the track, and once again contributes his signature 5-star guest appearance that he became so well known for throughout his career: “Official to the bone gristle / It don’t matter if you bust rhymes or bust pistols / Remember me? Burn a nigga to the third degree / Don’t act familiar, motherfucker, you ain’t heard of me.”
Hell on Earth dropped in the midst of the mid ’90s East Coast vs. West Coast beef that consumed the energy of so many New York and Los Angeles-based artists. Mobb Deep drew the ire of Tupac Shakur, possibly because of their association with Capone-N-Noreaga’s notorious 1996 “L.A. L.A.” track (a response to Pac’s Death Row label mates Tha Dogg Pound’s “New York, New York” track released the year prior). For whatever reason, Tupac delivered a low blow towards the duo, particularly Prodigy, mocking his sickle-cell anemia on the 1996 B-side “Hit ‘Em Up.” “You fuck around and catch a seizure or a heart attack” he famously boasted on the track.
“Drop a Gem on ’Em” serves as the group’s vicious response. Tupac is never mentioned by name, but it’s not hard to read between the lines: “You got a gat? You better find it / And use that shit, use that shit and get reminded / Of robberies in Manhattan / You know what happened / 60 g’s worth of gun clapping / Who shot ya? / You probably screamed louder than an opera / New York got ya / Now you want to use my mob as a crutch? / What you think you can’t get bucked again?”
Hell on Earth really finds its groove in its second half. On “Nighttime Vultures,” a somber string-driven track, Prodigy leads off with a harrowing tale of waking up soaked in blood, slowly recalling the previous night’s gun battle, then taking a few bars to celebrate his status as a superior story-teller. Raekwon, the second Wu-Tang Clan member to appear on the album, follows up with a complex story of escaping a potentially fatal robbery.
Next comes the menacing “G.O.D. Father Pt. 3,” which is bolstered by a sample from Giorgio Moroder’s Scarface soundtrack and one of Prodigy’s signature lead-off verses: “Professor at this rap science up in the laboratory / That’s why your small rhymes bore me / Your store bought rap ain't shit, my category.” Havoc is in fine form, warning his enemies to “Never second-guess a cat who hold gats / Concealed, but easily revealed and fast / Body casting raps to get your back snapped in half and severed / Impossible pain beyond measure.”
The album hits its peak with “Front Lines (Hell on Earth),” a track that served as the album’s second single, but is in no way airplay friendly. With the beat, Havoc opts for a smoother approach on the production side, but with the overall feel of the track remaining dark and dusty, while he and Prodigy contribute some of the finest verses they’ve ever recorded. Prodigy is truly in rare form, first leading off with the classic, “The saga begins, begin war / I draw first blood, be the first to set it off / My cause tap all jaws, lay down laws / We taking what's yours, we do jux, rush the doors.” He also finishes the song with a marathon verse that may be his best ever, kicking rhymes like, “I was born to take power, leave my mark on this planet / The Phantom of Crime Rap, niggas is left stranded / Shut down your operation, closed for business / Leave a foul taste in your mouth like Guinness.”
The album finishes on a strong note, particularly with “Give It Up Fast,” Mobb Deep’s collaboration with Queensbridge residents Big Noyd and Nas, with all four rocking over a sample from the main theme of the King of New York film. The duo wraps things up with “Apostle’s Warning,” another expert exhibition of lyrical braggadocio over a re-worked vocal sample of Michael Jackson’s “People Make the World Go Round.”
Mobb Deep’s straightforward approach to creating quality, gritty New York rap still resonated with their audience, leading to Hell on Earth being certified Gold. They followed up the album three years later with Murda Muzik, their most commercially successful album (it sold 2 million units), which featured their return towards creating anthemic tracks, most notably including “Quiet Storm,” which remains one of the group’s signature hits.
The duo has largely persevered to the present day. They’ve continued to record and release albums, eventually working with outside producers and linking up with various collectives. Their affiliation with 50 Cent’s G-Unit was notable, but didn’t really produce that much in the way of memorable music. Both Havoc and Prodigy have recorded numerous solo albums over the past decade. Havoc’s collaboration with long-time associate The Alchemist, Silent Partner, is one of the more enjoyable albums of 2016. Meanwhile, Prodigy’s Untitled EP, featuring his experimentation rhyming over EDM production and released for free this past August, is borderline unlistenable.
Hell on Earth represents the near pinnacle of a bygone era, before hip-hop artists got too caught up in the glitzy slickness that mainstream had to offer. It might not have been flashy, but it was steeped in quality craftsmanship that’s held up over the years, and was successful on its own terms. And it showed that great groups can successfully grow simply by becoming better at what they’re good at, rather than attempting to broaden their appeal because it’s expected of them.