The Fool's Gold founder discusses working with the late rapper and the New York duo's impact on hip-hop.
Photo courtesy of A-Trak
Last week, it was announced that New York rapper Prodigy had passed away at the age of 42 after being hospitalized in Las Vegas following complications of sickle cell anemia. As one of half of trailblazing Queens duo Mobb Deep, the man born Albert Johnson was responsible for helping define a raw new East Coast hip-hop sound in the 90s, most notably on the group's albums The Infamous (recorded when he was only 19), Hell On Earth, and Murda Muzik.
He also had a prolific solo career, working with producers including The Alchemist, Just Blaze, and Knxwledge, and releasing the best-selling autobiography My Infamous Life in 2001. Among the many artists deeply impacted by Prodigy's discography is Fool's Gold Records founder and producer A-Trak. Here, he recounts growing up in Montreal as a teenager listening to Mobb Deep with his brother, Chromeo's Dave 1, working with the rapper, and the duo's ever-lasting impact on hip-hop.
I grew up in Montreal and I got into hip-hop around 93. I was 11 then and listened to a lot of music with my older brother Dave [Macklovitch]. Montreal being so close to New York, and this being an era where rap was still very coastal, the New York mid-90s aesthetic of hip-hop was the holiest thing in music. This wasn't a radio thing at the time, this wasn't a TV thing at the time, it was a real discovery process. Montreal didn't have an urban radio station—there was one or two rap shows on college stations so you'd wait one week to hear some songs—but for the most part, we would go to record shops and go through the 12"s. Between that and monthly magazines, we would try to figure out what the new records were, and it's in that time that I remember discovering Mobb Deep.
Even though they had that Juvenile Hell album that they put out when they really young, for a lot of people The Infamous was when Mobb Deep really made their stamp, and that's when I first heard them. I really remember those singles, "Survival of the Fittest," "Shook Ones," and "Temperature's Rising," and most of their singles had a cappella versions on them. Prodigy's voice was so unique, and every DJ used to make blends with those, scratch, and just memorize them. When Hell On Earth came out, that's when Prodigy really started really hitting his peak as far as him being Top 5 rappers. On Hell On Earth he was spitting some shit, the level of graphic, grimness of what he was saying, but the calm in his voice at the same time. That balance between that really deadpan voice and hoarier descriptions, but it being reality too. And him having this very particular slang and a lot of odd adverbs, he had his own take on words, and started to rhyme words that don't rhyme.
It's interesting, because specifically as my experiences being in Montreal, I really feel Hell On Earth on a production level became a huge influence on the sound of French rap. You had Prodigy's rapping that's just untouched, and at the same time, sonically French rap—whether it be homegrown Quebec or even the stuff that people were doing in France that we were listening to—sounded like Havoc's beats too. The thing that was really particular with Mobb Deep too is that their music would never get old. A song like "Shook Ones," even five, six years after it came out, every DJ would play it in their sets. It's one of those records that as soon as it comes in, you recognize that hi-hat, you recognize that verse.
Murda Muzik was an album that I loved too. It started with "Quiet Storm" being a single, a lot of people don't know this, but "Quiet Storm" was supposed to be a Prodigy solo record. By that point, I was starting to make trips down to New York, I was traveling more, I was buying mixtapes, I was getting even more of a pulse of what was going on. That was Prodigy's record and he was fucking insane, nothing sounded like that, and it got so big that they needed a marquee record. They made everyone anticipate Murda Muzik and everything on cemented them as rap royalty.
I'm pretty sure the first time I met him was when I went to record with him. He went to jail and by the time he got out I was working on this project. Duck Sauce as most people know is a house music project, but it's a house project that is very connected to hip-hop, whether it be with our samples or production techniques, which are closer to what hip-hop producers do than EDM. Duck Sauce was always a project that was very rooted in New York street culture, and part of the twist of that project in the first place was to take that identity, and make house music with it. When we made the "Barbra Streisand" video, it was a conscious decision to put DJ Premier, Questlove, Smif-N-Wessun, and more hip-hop artists in that video.
As we were working on the album, there was a song called "Charlie Chazz & Rappin Ralph" that has this old-school rap part. I had this idea to prepare a remix that I thought I would release later on with other verses. I wanted to try to get P and got in contact with him, and he was really cool and responsive, and I went to meet him at his studio. It was a breeze recording a verse with him. Getting that album out ended up being a bit of a complicated operation with a lot of sample clearances and cost delays, so we didn't put out a remix. I consider myself blessed to have had that studio session regardless, to get to record with one of my idols. A couple years would go by, I'd run into him at an event or something, and he would always remember me. For someone that I'm sure meets as many people as him, when you remember someone it means that there's an impression made, and a certain attitude comes with that.
[Mobb Deep's] influence is undeniable, and one thing that I think really should be mentioned is even though they were from New York at a time when the coasts were sort of separated, they had beef with Tupac on record, etc., I feel like Mobb Deep were one of the New York groups that was very embraced on all sides of hip-hop. You ask anybody from the South, anybody from the West Coast, from the Midwest, everybody loves Mobb Deep. In fact, on Murda Muzik they had 8Ball from 8Ball & MJG on a song, and they had his producers produce that song. I remember at that time for a New York group to do that, it was a surprising move, but the song was great and I think it shows their vision. Now they're such a part of the canon, just one of those groups that you can't not know about if you claim to be into rap. There's certain songs that are classics when they come out, but are part of a sound that a lot of artists participate in, and those can become dated. But Mobb Deep, the same as Wu-Tang, those groups are so unique and impossible to imitate that they never sound dated, because no one was able to do what they did.
Rap has obviously changed a lot, and I have my own interpretation on how some current artists can evoke a similar thing to what an East Coast rapper did at the time. The fact that New York rap hasn't been the dominant sound of rap in the last 10-plus years, that makes that comparison maybe a little less obvious, but to me there's artists from other coasts and other parts of the country that might have a different sound on the surface, but stand for something similar to Mobb Deep. To me, 21 Savage is actually very reminiscent, not similarly sonically, but in intention and tone and graphicness. I'm not saying he raps like P—he doesn't—but in terms of the shivers you get from those kind of records, maybe that's a current updated comparison to the feeling Mobb Deep used to give.
Max Mertens is on Twitter.