From the opening song where Havoc declares “You know how we did on The Infamous album, right? Aight, we gonna do it again son”, you know you’re in for a Hardcore Hip-Hop treat. Hell On Earth, the third album by Queensbridge duo Mobb Deep, was another instant classic when it was released in November 1996. This LP was much darker than their previous offering, and despite the fact that this aforementioned line acknowledges their previous classic, Hell On Earth didn’t feel like it was trying to emulate The Infamous in any way. This album wasn’t treading old ground or repeating itself, it felt different, much darker in tone whilst staying true to what the Mobb represented; violence, crime, and street-centric rhymes straight out of QB.
The opening song “Animal Instinct” paves the way for the rest of the album, it contains atmospheric orchestra strings for a taste of their new and updated sound. The song contains all the hardcore lyrics you’d expect but there’s also some introspective content such as “I’m tired of livin’ life this way, crime pay, but for how long? ’til you reach a downfall”.
The next song “Drop A Gem On ‘Em” is not only a satisfying track with its piano sample of The Whispers’ “Can’t Help But Love You”, a vocal sample of Aretha Franklin, and head-nodding rhythm, it also serves as a response to Tupac Shakur who, almost out of nowhere, began to name-drop and diss Mobb Deep during his feud with The Notorious Big. Tupac’s diss tracks “Make Something” and “Hit ‘Em Up” forced Havoc and Prodigy to retaliate and both rappers give some deserved disses back to Shakur in this song. Firstly, Havoc mentions Tupac allegedly being raped in prison…
“You yell my name, that’s only givin’ me props. Plus the fans that you got, wonderin’ what’s got you hot. It’s too not, knocked out the box and got rocked, got raped on the Island, you officially got. Kick that thug shit, Vibe magazine on some love shit. Yo, keep it real, kid, ’cause you don’t know who you fuckin’ with”
Prodigy also gives some lyrical retribution to Pac and he mentions him getting shot in the head in 1994 as well as his self-inflicted gun shot…
“Rikers Island flashbacks of the house you got scufted in, you would think that gettin’ your head shot’s enough but then. Now you wanna go at my team, must have been drunk when you wrote that shit. Too bad you had to did it to your own self, my rebellion, retaliate, I had the whole New York state, aimin’ at your face at the gate. Bottom line off top soon as you came through, shots flew, don’t even know the half of my crew. I got a hundred strong-arm niggas ready to rock your shit, clocks tick, your days are numbered in low digits”
Aside from the embarrassing references to Tupac getting raped in prison and the time when he shot himself in the groin or leg, this final line from Prodigy was quite ominous. The song was recorded earlier than the album’s release date of November 19th 1996 and of course Tupac died a month earlier on September 13th (after being shot on the 7th) but unlike today where an artist and studio would remove a song due to a tragedy, back in the day there was no wussing out of a subject. This is a perfect example of deserved lyrical retaliation and being unashamed to say something even after someone is deceased.
“Bloodsport” is next, and it sports a more mellow sound juxtaposed against the Mobb’s typical violent lyrics. When Prodigy declares “This ain’t rap, it’s blood sport”, you perfectly understand the song title, and when he lays claim to “Me and my man pioneered this violent nigga rap shit”, you believe it.
Then comes “Extortion” which contains a stirring sample and a Method Man feature. There’s also a memorable verse from Hav…
“Extortion is the key I got the key for extortion, spend your fortune, dead your shorty like abortion. Take precaution, Infamous laws enforced in, you married to the Mobb, kid take it then divorce it. ‘Cause I ain’t got no time for them domestic disputes, if you scared get a dog don’t got a clique then recruit. You’re weak troop, lost battalion in the mist, on your name I shit, take it like a man you little bitch”
“More Trife Life” is a sequel to the song “Trife Life” from The Infamous album, this time with Havoc rapping a solo narrative about visiting a conniving girlfriend for sex that results in a violent set-up. There’s a haunting sample, the sound of wind, and a creaky rocking chair sound and this sparse production is not only very unique, it lends itself to the impending doom of the story…
“Got into convo, how you been over the years? Neglected, stressed out, and living in fear. What you mean? I thought you left that cat, which was true, I’m not talkin’ about him, another dude. Been wit’ him for a year and had a baby by him (word?), Matter fact you saw him, downstairs, you walked by him”
Then comes “Man Down” featuring Big Noyd and it references the skit “Infamous Prelude” from The Infamous album in which certain lines were taken by Def Squad member Keith Murray as a diss (“To all them rap-ass niggas with your half-assed rhymes, talking about how much you get high, how much weed you smoke, and that crazy space shit that don’t even make no sense”). Prodigy himself later mentioned his beef with Murray (on the same song no less) in the 1995 LL Cool J single “I Shot Ya (Remix)” where he rapped “Some Def kids feeling guilty ’bout the space shit, the truth hurts baby girl so just face it”. This is again mentioned here in “Man Down”, this time by Noyd in his memorable verse containing the lines “First of all, them tight/dyke niggas with that spaced-out shit, I stick a rocket up in they ass and give em a lift”. Prodigy then brings his own Def Squad diss “Live at the main event, may I present, And scream it out loud for any Squad that’s Deaf”. All these lyrical blows are laid over a sinister string sound which also goes well with the simple hook (repeating the words “Man Down” with an echo). There’s then a short skit at the end about playing with guns.
“Can’t Get Enough Of It” featuring General G aka Illa Ghee sports a more atmospheric and warmer sound thanks to the subtle string in the background. The song contains a vinyl crackle but the overall sound is dynamic and crisp. There’s a brilliant simile from Havoc (“we bang like the Tunnel and jam like broke gats”) and the chorus “I can’t get enough of it, either fuck with it, or don’t fuck with it” is unforgettable.
“Nighttime Vultures” featuring Raekwon begins with the sounds of birds screeching. The echoing violin sound is very effective against Prodigy’s fantastic opening verse…
“Yo I rose early mornin’, spread my wings yawnin’, vague memory of last night now it’s all dawnin’. Look down and see dry blood all on my garment, It stained all my Guess farmers, kevlar-d enormous. I hopped up, outta my bed holdin’ my head, flashbacks of gun shots shot past my head. I can recall, an eight man brawl three men fall, bullets flew I had to [drug] my man behind a wall. Left a wet trail, delivered these slugs like Air Mail, directly at the cat that made my man blood spill. An eye for an eye you know my science of life, is you man or mice, thugs, or the cowardly type?”
“G.O.D. Pt. III” begins with a very long intro that leads to a shooting from a tower block window. The song which simultaneously references the third Godfather film and fellow Infamous Mobb member, is a brilliant song. The sample used is from Giorgio Moroder’s Scarface soundtrack (so it’s a bit confusing considering the title) but regardless of influence, when you hear that hook alongside the sample it brings chills down the spine. Even the remix which featured a sample from the film Phantasm was a brilliant track (slightly better in my opinion) but regardless which version you hear, both were Hip-Hop classics. P gives a great verse but Havoc’s verse is the one that sticks in my mind…
“Given an overdose of this rap potent, potentially dangerous, fatally left open, for the vultures. Scavengers, that’s EMS, funeral homes, anticipating your death. That’s the dead truth, check in the morgue, you’ll find proof, enough to make you think and stop before your ship sink. To the bottom, like hourly the Mobb’ll spot him, you know the routine, face up before I shot him”
Original version above, Remix version below
“Get Dealt With” is next and it contains a looped piano sample with another vinyl crackle. Prodigy once again brings vivid violence to the table with lines like “I throw him up against the wall and put a hole in his face so big, It almost took his whole face off. We got the team positioned, ready for face-off”
“Shook Ones Pt. 1” is next on my disc but apparently this song only appeared in the international version of the LP. Whether this song is on subsequent releases or not doesn’t really matter, but if you have the original UK version, then it at least adds to the overall tone of the album and revisits one of the group’s classic songs from their second LP.
The title track “Hell On Earth (Front Lines)” contains a more sedate soundscape thanks to its sombre melody. This was a very influential track that was referenced and sampled by other MCs. Some of the lyrics for instance were sampled by Jedi Mind Tricks in “Heavy Metal Kings”. The third verse includes Prodigy calling himself the “Phantom of Crime Rap” and he also has time to bring some personal, slightly introspective lyrics…
“Regardless blow for blow, let’s find out who wear hardest, this rap artist used to be a stickup artist. Sometimes I test myself, see if I still got it. A live nigga stay on point, never disregard shit. Or forget the essence from which I emerged, P is sick, so save that bullshit for the birds”
“Give It Up Fast” featuring Nas & Big Noyd uses the opening theme from the film King Of New York. After the sound of an aircraft taking off fades out, the strings fade in and Nas raps over the head-nodding rhythm. And Nas being Nas, he can’t help but mention the movie Scarface at every opportunity (“The World Is Yours written all over the blimps”).
“Still Shinin’” features a Soul vocal sample from Willie Hutch and a never-ending string sound against another head-nodding beat. Like many of the other joints on this LP, this once agains contains some great Hip-Hop quotables such as “Get your spot took, we rob land like white man. Plans to overthrow your whole shit while shaking your hand”. Prodigy also laces the track with this impressive verse…
“Science and numbers is how I live, if we ain’t getting mathematics something got to give. Broke all your fuckin’ life with no will to live, that’s no way to live. Resort to Plan B, start to sticking, strong arm robbery and ice picking. It’s sneak vickin’, it’s cold outside, I think it’s past time for me to grab the clapper and take mines, you follow what I’m saying, it’s like leading the blind. Trying to voice a clear picture of this life of crime, you slow learners’ll understand in due time. Up the ladder of success with Tecs, we trying to eat, and put that fly shit on my back. And bless my feet with some new and improved, spectate or make a move, hesitate or regulate it’s on you”
The album ends with “Apostle’s Warning” which contains an angelic vocal sample from Michael Jackson’s “People Make The World Go Round”. Prodigy closes the song and album with “I send a message to my whole clique to bomb shit, atomic, no time for calm shit. We hyperactive when it’s time to Vietnam it. Ya whole alliance gets singlehandedly bombed-ed, take heed to the Apostle’s Warning”. When the song finishes, it leaves you wanting more rather than being overfed. At just over 1 hour 3 minutes long, Hell On Earth is kinda like a Goldilocks album in terms of length; not too short, not too long, just right.
This LP introduced the listener to some more Mobb-affiliates such as Ty Nitty, General G, as well as Big Noyd (who we already knew from The Infamous and his solo LP). There are quite a few featured artists on here but they don’t overpower the album, it doesn’t feel overdone. This is definitely a Mobb Deep album with only a smattering of Infamous Mobb and Wu guest spots.
When it comes to the beats, Havoc once again delivers with his flawless, stripped-back production; from the unnoticeable sampling, the classical, sinister soundscape, it perfectly compliments the “crime raps” that Hav and P bring. This combination is what made Mobb Deep stand out from the crowd in the 1990s.
I can’t say the usual “these are the standout tracks” because every single song here stands out. Listen to any of the tracks and they’re classics in their own right, listen to them together and the album is an obvious classic too. Speaking of “classic”, the Source gave this LP 4.5 mics out of 5 (the same as The Infamous) but other publications were less generous which proves that mainstream, wannabe-alternative magazines don’t know anything about Hip-Hop (especially when you consider the shit they give flawless ratings to). Contrary to what all the interloping magazines originally said, Hell On Earth is a flawless album, an upgrade of sorts from The Infamous LP. Every single song here is worth listening to, you don’t skip a single track from “Animal Instinct” to “Apostle’s Warning”, this was the kind of golden era album that was instantly a classic as soon as you inserted the disc. The only thing wrong with this album was the simplistic, almost amateur-looking album cover, but the music made up for that small issue.
While I’m reviewing this album, specifically the CD that I own, I’ve also got to mention the audio quality, which is second to none. I don’t know whether it was the recording or mastering process or something to do with the Enhanced CD itself, but Hell On Earth was one of the best sounding compact discs around and it still is. The sound quality was and is superb, I don’t know if it’s the same with re-pressings of this album but the original 1996 release was full of depth and clarity. Even the vinyl crackle which is used by Havoc in a few songs, strangely added to the high-fidelity audio. To this day I use this album to test out new audio equipment.
On the topic of “Enhanced CDs”, this was one of a few Loud Records releases that contained a kind of gimmick, an extra element in an ever-growing internet-connected world. The Hell On Earth disc, when inserted into a computer drive, contained some extra content such as videos and in this case an extra track titled “In The Long Run”. For a couple of years this particular disc would not work for me, I recall that there was something called “Track Zero” technology that if not supported by a CD drive, it would not read the “enhanced” portion of the disc. It wasn’t until a good few years later when I found a Mac with a compatible drive that I finally got the .mp3 of “In The Long Run” off the disc and into my music collection. “In The Long Run” is another satisfying track and it contained yet another Tupac and Keith Murray diss with mentions of the movie Juice starring Pac. It is simply another brilliant song…
“Now analyse these cats, a live nigga rap, you seen strapped, came outside all hype with gats. Got juiced up, now Bishop think he thuggin’ it, black pimp. Let’s rap a taste, you get your little head pinched off. Brooklyn touched you, then left you for Queens to finish off. Fuck a (screech) Keith Murray and his whole click, yeah, you snuffed me in front of the cops, that[s] bullshit. Told you come around the corner, no police and no witnesses. Little to your knowledge, you almost got shot. But that’s aight though, I’m ‘a catch your ass again, you fuckin’ immigrant”
Two years after their classic debut and Mobb Deep became a little older and a lot darker. This album along with The Infamous and Murda Muzik is the trilogy of perfection that Hav and P will be remembered for. From Infamy onward (and especially once the duo signed with 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records) they lost the edge that they once had during the “Loud” years. Now that Prodigy has passed, it’s all the more important to listen to their music from 1994-1999 because there will never be another duo or group that will ever sound like them.
Dropping in November, Hell On Earth for me, actually sounds “wintery”, and because I listened to it so much during the time it was released, it will forever be associated with the end of Autumn and start of Winter, the time the clocks go back and the nights begin closing in. I’ll also say that this LP doesn’t necessarily sound like “1996”. Alongside other albums by Crucial Conflict and Master P which now sound dated, this has aged very well. Hell On Earth has been blessed with longevity because of its dark, gritty, echoing sounds (which weren’t necessarily the “in thing” in 1996) it is therefore still as appealing today as it was over two decades ago.
Having consistency in terms of both production and lyrics is something you rarely hear these days in Hip-Hop, everybody is trying too hard to appeal to every single demographic and style. This was something that many mainstream Hip-Hop albums began doing during the mid 1990s, but Hell On Earth was a big “fuck you!” to radio-friendly, crossover Hip-Pop and R’N’B-infused bullshit. This album was non-stop hardcore from start to finish, no singing hooks, and no Pop samples. Mobb Deep stuck to their guns (probably literally as well as figuratively) but they still went Gold. Like the line “either fuck with it, or don’t fuck with it” from “Can’t Get Enough” – if you don’t like crime rap, then don’t listen to this LP – simple as. For anybody tired of Hip-Pop, this was and will forever be an example of Hardcore Hip-Hop done right; a perfect example of the genre, a perfect album.
Give ‘Em Hell