Mobb Deep rapper Prodigy, who died Tuesday at 42, leaves a hip-hop legend behind: “Shook Ones,” the grimy classic he created with partner Havoc, contains one of the most-passionately debated and mysterious samples in music history.
And it only exists because Prodigy stopped Havoc from throwing it out.
When “Shook Ones Part II” debuted in 1995, there was no debate that the Queens duo had devised an instant rap masterpiece, in part thanks to the dense, precise lyrics Prodigy delivered to kick off the song: “I got you stuck off the realness, we be the infamous/You heard of us, official Queensbridge murderers/the Mobb comes equipped for warfare, beware/of my crime family who got ‘nough shots to share.”
One reason the song’s lyrics carried such a sense of chilly menace was the melancholy, strangely passive notes that played beneath them, propped up by almost mechanical-sounding drums. The beat was cold, ponderous and sparse, giving the lyrics nowhere to hide. That made the “Shook Ones” beat perfect for freestyling — one of the reasons Eminem used a “Shook Ones” sample for a climactic MC battle in the movie “8 Mile.”
But almost no one knew where the beat originated. What started as a debate between DJs and hip-hop die-hards became an internet mystery.
Check message boards from around the “8 Mile” era — the movie was released in 2002 — and you’ll find far-flung debates about not only who Mobb Deep sampled, but also what instrument was playing. Havoc and Prodigy never broke their silence.
The internet mystery was solved on the internet. In 2011, Timon “Bronco” Heinke, a member of the hip-hop forum the-breaks.com, finally broke it down. From the Los Angeles Times:
Heinke cracked the code of “Shook Ones Part II” while listening to “Jessica,” a 1969 recording by Herbie Hancock. It turns out that Mobb Deep rapper-producer Havoc took a piano melody from the song and slowed it down at two different pitches to create a two-bar loop more reminiscent of a bass guitar than keyboard. After Heinke announced his discovery, another Internet denizen, “Hawkeye,” created a sound file (now on YouTube, natch) that re-creates that transformation process.
Prodigy revealed in a 2015 interview that Havoc almost erased the beat, but that he stopped him just in time:
“Hav was upstairs makin’ beats. We had went upstairs to check on Hav real quick just to see what he was doing and this beat was playing. We were like, ‘Yo what the f— is that? That s— is crazy, son.’ He said, ‘Aw, that’s some bulls—, you know what I’m sayin’? I’m about to erase it and start a new one.’ ‘Whoa whoa whoa. Don’t erase that beat. You wildin’, son.'”
Hip-hop history was made. Rest in peace, Prodigy.
Here’s Bronco and Hawkeye’s breakdown of “Shook Ones”:
And Prodigy telling the story of “Shook Ones”: