I offer the demos from Infamous as an olive branch to the hard heads aghast that Sach would defend Nicki Minaj (I have not yet listened to Salmon Friday, nor am I in a rush to do so). Unlike more polished classic records, the rough unfinished versions tilt in Prodigy and Havoc’s favor. While some artists benefit from refinement and high-priced engineering, the Mobb’s greatness always existed on a sliding scale corresponding to the level of dirt and distortion. These demos sound like they were recorded in an abandoned subway station filled with ghost train cars, thieves, and a sewer filled with evil slime. Mobb Deep were the sort of rappers who seemed unable to exist in the world of light and oxygen. Hence, Phonte’s reaction when they dropped Blood Money seemed more rational than ridiculous.
It’s reductive to say that Prodigy and Havoc were one-note. Though they mastered the art of simple menace, there was always a complexity brewing beneath the braggadocio and broken bottles. Lines like, “I’m only 19, but my mind is old,” spoke volumes about their upbringing and the scars scarcely concealed by the North Face and Timbs. It’s part of the reason why P never recovered after Jay showed pictures of him in a ballerina outfit. We took the news in the same way that a 5-year old would react to learning that not only is the mall Santa Claus a fake, he’s probably a drunken pervert who you should not accept gifts from under any circumstance.
Listening to these demos a decade and a half later is a reminder that teenage rappers weren’t graded on potential but on actual output. They received competent A&R’s and apprenticed under those who knew the way (the Large Professor’s tutelage reveals itself in Havoc’s crowbar thump). Juvenile Hell was widely regarded as a disappointment, and no one was patiently waiting for follow-ups from Illegal and Da Youngstas. The Infamous was a redemption that secured their status as supreme gutter dwellers of the grimiest generation, it proved that they were the purest manifestation of what Rimbaud had observed a century prior: “I believe that I am in hell, therefore I am there.”