Fondle 'Em, Official Recordings, Dolo, Rawkus, etc.
When the topic of New York independent rap rears its head in discussion, the aforementioned labels of the mid-late '90s always garner praise for paving the way. While those labels and their flagship artists undoubtedly put their stamp on the niche, the D.I.Y., out the trunk, fuck-a-sample clearance, low budget aesthetic was done earliest and best by Harlem's own Mob Style (which featured MCs Azie “AZ” Faison, Pretty Tone Capone, Gangsta Lou, and Whip Wop).
Circa 1989, independent full-length rap albums were as scarce in New York as New York natives are in Brooklyn today. NWA and Too $hort brought some major attention to the west coast, Luke Records planted the seeds for the movement in Miami, and Rap-a-Lot was setting up shop in Texas, but the locals from those regions were still churning out tapes independently. The mid-west was even more dependent on self-sufficiency. When it came to major labels and big time indies, they were all dipping in the rotten apple. The need to manufacture and distribute your own shit out here was years away, so chances were if you were decent, you eventually got some type of record deal. Despite New York's stranglehold on trendy A&Rs, Mob Style's rogue approach to music and presentation was more like their counterparts from less coveted regions. Grabbing the bull by the horns and breaking his neck is as old school New York as it gets, but by taking their product to the streets, Mob Style were entering uncharted territory and setting the early stages for a method that wouldn't blossom until almost a decade later. And even then, the independent boom was primarily a vinyl “12 single phenomenon – independent full length albums didn't become common in New York until the turn of the century.
Let's not forget, Mob Style were also New York's first ever (and one of only a few) bonafide gangster rap group.
Content and overall aesthetic surely played a role in Mob Style's lack of appeal to label A&Rs. Gangster rap is often traced to every region except New York. Even nearby Philly (Schoolly D) got a piece of that rock, but in the late '80s, New York rap primarily evoked imagery of high top fades, running man dances, Afrocentrism, Dapper Dan outfits, Al Sharpton rallies, and beats that clocked in at 115 beats per minute. New York City's crime rate peaked in 1990 and all associated tensions peaked with it, so Mob Style's whole approach shouldn't have been such an anomaly.
By 1993, Winnie from The Wonder Years was most likely flagging a red bandana and talking about “doing a drive-by on a buster.” There were enough drive-by shootings and “buck buck” chants on record to match every low calorie Pete Rock or Dr. Dre beat imitation that made its way to tape. MC Lyte, MC Hammer, LL Cool J and others traded in their signature styles to get a piece of the gangster pie. With the smorgasbord of hip-hop trends and fads coming and going, Mob Style came in to the music business hard, left the music business hard, and still sound harder than anything to come out of New York (or anywhere else) today. Body counts may be higher and violence may be more exaggerated when others did it, but there isn't a group in rap history that was more authentic and honest than Mob Style.
Urban legend can cross-match real life events to the ruggedness of Mob Style's music. On-wax beefs with the west coast (namely NWA) were as far from shits and giggles entertainment as can be. The thought of Pretty Tone Capone boarding a plane with a pistol to fly to the west coast and dismember NWA (read about that here ) in a skit (before Swiss-cheesing the stewardess for good measure) seems exceedingly far-fetched today, even hilarious. Especially considering that I can't board a God damn plane with more than one piece of carry-on luggage. But beef in New York during that time was far from a ploy to sell records that could be patched up on Twitter a few days later. The all out brawl between Double XX Posse vs Live Squad was evidence of how thick shit got in the early '90s.
AZ's “Don't Dis Nobody” was one of about seven Mob Style-related records that echoed the non-WWF nature of the NWA beef (which has long since been let go and outgrown).
Pretty Tone was the Ghostface Killah of Mob Style, in terms of animation and personality level. He chose not to speak in codes and never concealed the identity of his targets, either:
Faggot ass nigga nigga nigga Eazy-E
Ya haven't heard of murder til ya heard of Pretty T
MC Ren, the pussy, quiet as kept
Dr. Dre, ya soft and gay, straight up and down
As soon as I'm meetin ya clown, I'm beatin ya down
Faggot niggas squeeze triggers on water guns
Hide ya moms, hide ya pops, daughters and sons
- - from Mob Style's “God Bless Ya Soul”
Tough talk was one aspect of their approach and actually living the lifestyle was another, but truth be told, the hardest element of Mob Style's approach was their refusal to glorify that lifestyle. AZ's heartfelt stories of watching crack and violence destroy NYC in the late 80s and his non-fiction downfall as a drug dealer came to life songs like “Crack the Mack”, Mob Style”, “What's Going On Black?”, and “The Pipe”.
By the time the major labels went gangster, their radar only spotted one-sided, image-driven, Hollywood-themed shit. Mob Style had zero to prove in terms of being gangsters, so the honesty of their approach was hard to market, as was their low budget approach to production and presentation. They straight jacked the beat for “Live and Let Die” from the kingpin of beat jacking himself, Ice Cube. The song mixdowns sounded like overly loud high speed tape dubs and were choc full of hiss. Rarely were 12" singles and videos released to promote the albums. It took me two years to find The Good, The Bad, The Ugly on cassette after hearing “Untouchable” on the radio. In fact, both the aforementioned and Street Wise (AZ's cassette only and void of distribution solo album) I bought at Music Factory in Jamaica, Queens, a shop that AZ himself admitted selling the music directly to (I had the pleasure of interviewing AZ for London's HHC Magazine in 2008).
Unless you were looking for Mob Style in broad day with a flashlight, you weren't going to find them. If you were a studio gangster, though, they were looking for you. That could be why until the movie Paid in Full was released – the movie chronicles AZs life as a hustler pre-Mob Style – even the most die hard rap fan had no idea who Mob Style were. Meanwhile, Harlem's Cam'ron and Dipset (as well as many others) took pieces of the Mob Style formula and reality and put it in a blender with digestible elements of pop culture and waltzed to the bank. By that time, though, Mob Style had already been there, done that, and moved on.
Today, Mob Style's influence still runs rampant through rap, albeit beneath the glitter. Parts of Harlem have since been slapped with gentrification; much of NYC has followed suit. The protocol of rap has done a 180 and become a modern cartoon rife with chatroom threats, gangster correction officers, and onomatopoeia-style violence. The big money and big media buzz generated from gangster rap never fully trickled down to unheralded pioneers like Mob Style, nor did the credit for their role in jump-starting 100% D.I.Y. entrepreneurial efforts in New York rap. However, in the minds of those who know, the importance of Mob Style lives on forever. Salute.
I only know of one other person who owns Pretty Tone Capone's “Can't Talk Too Long On The Telephone.” The song is nil in Google searches, absent from You Tube and was never commercially released. As a rap pack rat, I salvaged my bonus CD from The Source magazine's 1991 Christmas issue, where the song was featured. If the 1991 Wu-Tang video I posted was the rarest thing I own, this is the second rarest. Pretty Tone Capone at his best, enjoy
AUDIO: Pretty Tone Capone: "Can't Talk Too Long On the Telephone" (Promo only, 1991)
Mob Style Discography and Collectables
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (1989)
Initially released on cassette and limited vinyl. Executive produced by Vaughan Mason (of “Bounce, Skate, Rock, Roll” fame). CD re-release appeared on the market circa 2003 (to coincide with the Paid in Full movie release), but was just as scarce as the original.
Street Wise (1991)
Cassette only AZ solo effort.
Game of Death (1992)
Mob Style's most visible album. Featured videos and “12 singles; the album actually made it to a few major chain stores. PT Capone had already gone solo, but returns as a guest.
“Case Dismissed” b/w “Kidnapped” and “Gangster Shit (Part 2)” (1992)
Pretty Tone Capone's first solo single.
“Across 110 th Street” b/w “Sexy” and “Marked for Death” (1993)
Pretty Tone Capone's second solo single.
Pretty Tone Capone song that appeared on a compilation called O n The Down Low (Volume 1) . Coincidentally, the first J-Zone production ever was a track I produced for Preacher Earl; it appeared on On the Down Low (Volume 2) .
Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler (2007)
AZ's book. A must-read for any Mob Style fan.
If I'm missing anything, one of my fellow Mob Style fans drop me a line.