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Mobb Deep’s ‘Juvenile Hell’ Turns 20

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“Our rap comes from the streets,” exclaimed Havoc, one half of Queens-bred hardcore rap duo Mobb Deep, in a 1995 TV interview. “It’s about reality — straight up.”

You couldn’t help but believe him, either. Two years earlier, on April 13, he and his longtime sidekick, Prodigy, released ‘Juvenile Hell’ — a debut LP of bat-toting, nerve-shaking tracks that all but drowned their predecessors in pools of dark truths and nihilistic attitude.

‘Juvenile Hell’ was less than a hit, though; in fact, the only track to generate real buzz was ‘Hit It From the Back,’ which was clearly about what you already know it’s about. East Coast rap circles began branding the group as irrelevant, while other acts like Onyx, Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg — all of whom uniquely expressed their own realities — managed to garner critical acclaim and play ball with the mainstream.

“We’ll just form our own label,” said Havoc in the same 1995 interview when asked about the mainstream’s unwelcome arms. “We’ll all get together and do it on our own.” It never happened; instead, that same year, the duo released their second LP, ‘The Infamous,’ on the Loud label, scored a knockout with ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and finally found notoriety with their rugged, rusty-nail style.

Which makes it funny, if not somewhat tragic, that ‘Juvenile Hell’ never climbed greater heights. Tracks like ‘Peer Pressure’ and ‘Locked in Spofford’ seemed immature yet similarly threatening, with storybook musings such as, “So while I’m in here, don’t forget my name / Ain’t s— changed, I’m still the muthaf—in’ same,” and, “I walk the streets with a f— you attitude / And when it comes to my peoples you ain’t half as rude.”

Queensbridge emcee Big Noyd got into it as well, handing out verbal nods (“Blowin’ n—-s out the frame / Yes it’s part of the game / If your style ain’t a fit / You need to flip the script”) on ‘Stomp Em Out’ while producers Large Professor and DJ Premier contributed catchy thumps with subtle, new jack cues.

Keeping it real in hip-hop is always relative. And for two teens trying to sell their own harsh realities in the highly-competitive early ’90s, the risk behind ‘Juvenile Hell’ was pretty great. The album may not have gone down as a definitive classic (especially in comparison to ‘The Infamous’), but it was most certainly the foundation for Mobb Deep’s bright future, and insight into boys who, above all, wanted to be men.

Watch Mobb Deep’s ‘Hit It From the Back’ Video

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