Backpacks, Wristbands, and Derby Caps: Mobb Deep
Clouds of marijuana smoke ripped high into the heavy air inside the House of Blues, on the Sunset Strip, packed thick on this Saturday night with a wild mix of people all there for one reason, a lack of common sense that allowed them to pay $45 a ticket to go see Mobb Deep in the year 2006. Sure, I could rattle off a whole list of the personality types that showed up, but why bother when one word can describe the crowd with such simple poetry. A word that I don't use all that often. Simply put, if you're showing up to a Mobb Deep show, there is a high probability that you are gully.
I am not gully. What I am is a non-practicing Jew. And by virtue of being a non-practicing Jew, there are certain tenets non-practicing Jews are obligated to follow: talking a lot, enjoying delicatessans, never paying for valet parking, and most of all, having an intense love of all things that are free. So when my editor-in-chief at Rap-Up magazine, e-mailed me to ask if I wanted Mobb Deep concert tickets, I informed my girlfriend that rather than the quiet evening at home that she had tentatively hoped for, we needed to go to the Mobb Deep concert. Quite frankly, to a female, there is no sweeter sentence in the English language than, "baby...go with me to a Mobb Deep concert. It will be awesome...oh yeah...and don't wear anything too revealing."
I added the too-revealing part because of several near-incidents that once occured with an ex-girlfriend at a Wu-Tang concert a very long time ago. She was a very nice girl but lacked the common sense to realize the quite simple mathematical equation: pretty girl+see-through shirt+3/4s gully Wu-Tang audience=Bad Times Had By All. (Don't worry, I have been assured by top-flight mathematicians that this theory is true).
Which brought me to the current moment, where the smell of blunt smoke taunted my sobriety, but surprisingly the music did not. The DJ seemed to have read my guide to DJ-ing , playing classic tracks from Camp Lo, Biggie and Tribe Called Quest. Perhaps, the night would exceed expectations. Perhaps Mobb Deep would stick to hits from their old catalogue, perhaps I might avoid seeing Curtis "Million Dollar Budget" Jackson
A new record came on. Common's "I Used To Love H.E.R.," off of his epic "Resurrection" album, the track where he used his love of a woman for a metaphor for hip-hop, that he felt had strayed from its conscious and light-hearted beginnings into a morass of studio gangsterism, violence and drug stories. As if on cue, a vicious fight broke out to the left of me. Arms swung in complete abandon, bodies leapt over railings to join in. Finally, the Security Guards finally barelled out and broke it up And as if he was watching over the proceedings, Common's voice rang out:
"And on some dumb shit when she comes to the city/ Talking About Poppin Glocks Servin Rocks And Hittin Switches/ Now she's a gangsta rollin' with gangsta bitches/
The absurdity of the situation became even more real and I thought about the song for a moment (because god knows Mobb Deep were running well past their supposed 12:30 start time). When Common wrote that song, it was the year 1994, and rap was at the beginning of an unprecendented five-year run of greatness .Common may have lamented the rise of gangster rap that began with N.W.A. in the early 90's, but his jeremiah against the state of mid-90s hip-hop was unwarranted.
The period between 1993-1998 was the rap analogue to the period between 1964-1969 in rock music, a five year stretch when many of the genre's classic albums were spawned (this is a different post for a different time). I'm not a believer in direct comparisons between different genres of music and readily acknowledge that rap music has never produced anything worthy of "Bringing It All Back Home," "Forever Changes," "Are You Experienced" et. al. But bear with me for a second and think about the hip-hop albums that dropped during that stretch in the mid-1990s.
Just check out the years 1994, 1995 and 1996 alone.
1994 marked the release of the aforementioned "Resurrection," Wu-Tang's "Enter the 36 Chambers" Digable Planet's "Blowout Comb," Bone Thug's "Creepin' On Ah Come Up EP," Notorious BIG's "Ready to Die," Organized Konfusion's "Stress: The Extinction Agenda," Outkast's "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik" Warren G's "Regulate...The G Funk Era."
1995 had Genius' "Liquid Swords," Goodie Mobb's "Soul Food," ODB's "Return to the 36 Chamber's," Raekwon's "Only Built For Cuban Linx," Redman's Dare Iz a Darkside," The Roots' "Do You Want More," and Jay-Z's "Reasonable Doubt."
Then in 1996, we saw 2Pac's "All Eyez On Me" (for my money the only truly great album he ever made), "Tribe's "Beats, Rhymes and Life," DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing," Dr. Octagon's "Dr. Octagonecologyst," The Fugees' "The Score," Ghostface's "Ironman," Nas', "It Was Written," Outkast' "ATLien's"(my favorite rap album of all time). Redman's "Muddy Waters," The Roots' "Illadelph Halflife," and Xzibit's "At The Speed Of Life."
I list all of these albums not to let everyone in on the content of my iTunes library, but rather as a way of proving to myself that hip-hop did not actually suck in 1996. Sorry DJ Shadow, you were wrong too. But at times, it's easy to engage in moral relativism and become convinced that I'm just one of those old people prone to shouting, "in my day...we had the best of everything...yadda...yadda...etc."
But perhaps the most interesting thing about those albums was that they were all major label releases. In the decade thus far, the only two major label rap albums that can hold a candle to the one's I've previously listed are Jay-Z's "The Blueprint," and Ghostface's "Fishscale" album. And these are rappers that have been around now for almost 15 years.
Which brings me back to Mobb Deep, the reason for my post, the reason why I ventured the gully-infested waters of the House of Blues, in my hopes to catch a train that had long since passed. But first, a little backstory for those not in the know.
In 1995, Mobb Deep dropped an album everyone with any knowledge of hip-hop would certify as a stone-cold classic: "The Infamous." Essentially, an hour long trip through the infamous Queensbridge projects in New York, the album is rife with cinematic detail of a life of crime, violence, and drugs, interspersed with occasional bouts of serious introspection that help to balance the bleak perspective offered by the extremely young members of Mobb Deep. If you listened to hip-hop growing up, it was impossible not to be blown away by not just the rhymes, but the stark and gorgeous piano loops and thudding breakbeats which contributed to its place as one of the most well-produced albums ever.
The next year, Mobb Deep followed up The Infamous, with a worthy successor, "Hell On Earth." "Hell" might not be as brilliant as The Infamous, but it still holds up as a very good album even a decade later. But after "Hell on Earth," Mobb Deep's career seemed to mirror the rest of the mainstream rap world, a decent album in Murda Muzik....and then around 2001...the plummet.
Suddenly, this past year Mobb Deep surprised everyone by signing to 50 Cent's G-Unit label and proceeded to appear on a bunch of mix-tapes, bragging about how rich 50 was and how much money he was going to spend on their album, and how basically they had entered a new Candyshop filled with well...you can judge from the photos below.
I don't want to speculate what the "G" in G-Unit stands for. But let's just say that between all of G-Unit and all of Dipset, they probably have more knowledge about this , then they probably let on.
At any rate, the demise of Mobb Deep has been well-catalogued by both Ian and Joey, here and here, but there was always something that made Mobb Deep a little bit different from the litany of rappers that boasted about their prowess with guns and drugs. Besides, with their latest album debuting in the top 5, perhaps Prodigy might regain some of the spark that he lost when Jay-Z humiliated him several years back on "that Summerjam screen."
Finally at 1:15 a.m. Mobb Deep stumble on-stage, By this point I'm exhausted, after having seen weed carrier after weed carrier perform lackluster set after lackluster set and watching people almost kill each other over smudged Pumas.
Then Havoc and Prodigy swagger out through a large over-sized door erected on stage. Behind it is a faux-brick wall and the words Mobb Deep blaring bright and large. To the left, just back-stage is a 10-man deep posse of weed carriers nearly spilling out on stage, but they stay contained, and I n0tice that Mobb Deep has no hype man. This bears well.
But the lack of the hype man was probably the only good thing about the show, as almost immediately Mobb starts performing cuts from "Blood Money." And I use the word perform loosely. It was more like screaming. There was no rapping involved. And when there was rapping it was off-beat. How off-beat? Enough so that you could hear the album vocals in the background. Yes, just like every pop star you've ever seen, Mobb Deep plays with the album track. Hardcore. And the beats that were once spare and poignant in the mid-90s had been transformed into heavy clap-trap synth monstrosities, reeking of Scott Storch-esque shiny over-production.
20 minutes ran by, with Prodigy and Havoc seemingly more interested in the massive ice-flooded Jesus pieces around their neck, than any concept of performance or art or putting on a show. I've been to a lot of shows, but never before have I seem a performance so dis-interested, apathetic and flat-out lazy. The only non-Blood Money song, they played was "Survival of the Fittest," (just the first verse). Not only did the concert suck, but it seemed to embody everything wrong with mainstream hip-hop in the year 2006. Who can scream the loudest, who can make the most club-ready bangers, who can brag about selling the most crack, seems to be the only litmus test to be considered good in these fallow times. Go look at Pitchfork and the rap artists they continually extol. T.I.? The Clipse? L'il Wayne? I can understand someone enjoying listening to them as guilty pleasures, but to critically acclaim them for spewing poison (derivitive poison at that)? That is just lazy journalism and they are just as complicit in the downfall of the genre as anyone because their positive reviews help to sell records. Period. There should be no such thing as musical relativism.
And as for Mobb Deep? After their 20 minutes on stage, they turned the set back over to their weed carriers. A pair of dudes who just started freestyling about something inane: guns, bitches, whatever. Who cared at this point? One of the dudes was creatively named, Nyce. I waited for several songs for Mobb to return, but at 1:55, it became apparent that they'd called it a night. Fitting. The audience had paid $45 to hear 5 songs yelled cacophonously at them. Without mincing words, it was the worst concert I've ever been to. Bar none.
As I filed out of the venue into the chilly early morning air, all I could think about was about hip-hop, a genre I had loved so much when I was younger. And I realized, that I hadn't left hip-hop. Hip-hop left me. Oh, sure I still listen to new hip-hop, but it' s mainly artists typically considered underground, Def Jux, Little Brother, Rhymesayers. At some point around 2001, a schism emerged in hip-hop music. Whereas, before you listened to rap, now you either listened to underground hip-hop or you listened to pop. Rap as I had known it was dead. Again, Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R." wormed it's way back into my head and I thought about those lyrics:
I might've failed to mention that the shit was creative/
But once the man got you he altered the native/
told her if she got an energetic gimmick/
then she could get money and she did it like a dummy/
I was wrong. Common actually did get it right. Only he was 12 years too late. R.I.P.
Passion of the Weiss Rating: 0 crucifixes out of 10. (Worst. Concert. Ever.)