In Praise Of Addictive Throwback Hip-Hop (And Maybe In Praise Of Hardcore Mobb Muzik, Too)

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When it comes to a genre as broad as hip-hop, cutting through the weak beats is a full-time job. In each installment of Mean Muggin’, Ethan Padgett spreads some shine to the cats who deserve it and hates on those who don’t, whether they’re underground or overground, superstar or indie darling. This time out two very different groups, gangsta formalists Infamous Mobb and underground players Celph Titled and Apathy, take him back to ’95.

Every couple years I go through a hardcore Mobb Deep phase that ends with me doing stupid shit like buying Bars and Hooks DVDs and saying “dunny” a lot. None of this foolishness detracts from the fact that Mobb Deep are basically the greatest group of all time. But Havoc and Prodigy’s b-list hangers-on can leave you pretty drained. Infamous Mobb are clock-punchers in the Mobb Deep industry, as derivative in their way as headwrap cats jazz-rapping in ’94 or Mims bouncing on hi-hats in ’07. I’m pretty sure a lot of people see their albums and think, “Mobb Deep…The Infamous…oh, this is Havoc and P.” And I doubt Infamous Mobb are too interested in clearing that up.

Because Infamous Mobb never touch the widescreen precision of their mentors. I hate to kick them while they’re down–Infamous just broke up a couple weeks ago, leaving 200 nerds heartbroken–but their third album, Reality Rap, just broke my Mobb Deep spell. I’ve dropped a lot of bills on generic hood tales over Nino Rota strings and Scarface synth-washes. But it’s 2007, and I find myself playing that mediocre Timbaland album more than Havoc’s lackluster Kush. Prodigy’s Return of the Mac is a worthy, but overrated comeback from Mobb Deep’s time spent swinging on 50 Cent’s nuts. And if Infamous Mobb in 2002 were relative to the quality of Mobb Deep circa ’95, then Infamous Mobb in 2007 are relative to the Mobb Deep of the G-Unit era. As the weed goes, so goes the carrier.

So Reality Rap dropped on Nov. 6, after getting pushed back from its initial March release date, and there’s a definite runner-up vibe here, perpetual Bravehearts struggling to get on the level of Sunz of Man or Group Home. Infamous Mobb comprises three MCs–Ty Nitty is the dorky Keith Murray, Godfather spits like Prodigy, and Gambino sounds like he uses Drano for mouthwash. That’s also pretty much the reverse order of preference right there, with only Gambino having some woodgrain in his voice, that hickory-throated Freddie Foxx thing. At least the beats are consistently fire–cinematic bangers, chicken fat, and gunshots, recorded deep in the sewer. Erick Sermon stops by to produce the flute-driven “Betti Bye Bye” and drop a mealy verse on the genuinely hot “Streets of NY”. The rest is handled mostly by Sid Roams, the distinctly non-supergroup duo of Joey Chavez and Tavish Graham (best known for instrumentals for Agallah and Phil Da Agony), and skinny, weird-lookin’ cats Alchemist and Evidence.

Still, used to be that you could put any dude with faded tats rocking a wifebeater over fake Havoc beats and I’d be feeling it. Sometimes Infamous’ anonymity adds to the icy coldness of the Mobb template. But you can only rap about attending your own funeral so many times before it gets old. Who knew “reality” was so dull? Dudes who spit at knifepoint on Mobb Deep’s “Drop A Gem On ‘Em” have lost the will to live and all but 50 words of their vocabulary and this is supposed to show how the 41st side gets down? After you jacked your name off a Big Noyd joint from ’96, you may have something to prove. After jamming this a number of times, the most memorable line turns out to be “Responsible for the increase in the crime rate/ My music will you put you in the criminal mind state”. There’s something mad depressing about shouting at everybody how they’re sleeping on generic thugging–and then realizing they might have been right to be sleeping on it.

Infamous Mobb [MySpace]

So there’s Infamous Mobb–credible if rote Mobb muzik that I’m somehow proud to rep even when it bores me to tears–and then there’s corny but highly enjoyable underground rap like Celph Titled and Apathy’s No Place Like Chrome. Just like Reality Rap, this has been delayed forever, first getting a European release first like it’s a DJ Cam joint, and finally dropping Nov. 6, according to the rap authorities at cduniverse.com. Cuban-Floridian Celph has been crewing with Philly’s grimy Army of the Pharaohs clique, while Apathy, a mean-muggin’ white dude from Connecticut, has been in label hell on Atlantic for years, and releasing confusing mixtapes where he raps over Depeche Mode. Despite their appeals to gangsta pioneers like Project Pat and Kool G Rap, these are two goos are still more likely to get on a track with Jedi Mind Tricks than Pimp C.

It’s no coincidence that one of Apathy and Celph’s early freestyles was over the Beatnuts’ “No Escapin’ This.” Like that duo, these two sound best when talking ignorant shit over funky, cartoonish beats, and this 40-minute time capsule feels like it dates from before every underground rapper had to go hardcore or headwrap. Celph, inspired by fellow Floridians J.T. Money and 2 Live Crew, shines trading boozy punchlines with the Alkaholiks on “Drink Specials” and reuniting with partner-in-pimping J-Zone, who he paired with for last year’s compulsively playable Bo$$ Hogg Barbarian$ album, on the rude disco-rap swagger of “Nut Reception” and the punchline-heavy “SMD.” Apathy takes it a lil’ more serious, alternating between sneaker boasts, irreverent golden-age wordplay, and KRS-One style voice projection. Fun and addictive, every mid-’90s DITC scratch on No Place Like Chrome is zigged in the right place.

Celph Titled [MySpace]Apathy [MySpace]