It was with the utmost reluctance that I relinquished my copy of Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, my audio ticket from good girl to bad seed, to a man I knew I would never again let press himself on top of me.
I met him the summer I turned sixteen, in 1995, both of us working on a team of groundskeepers at Long Island’s Jones Beach. He, infamous for his noncompliance; me, moving my way up to a supervisory role. The fact that he slacked off most of the day intrigued me. His disdain for direct orders was both amusing and alluring. And his lascivious eye toward me, a complete novelty. No one had ever said that my petite frame, tawny skin, doe eyes, and bobbed hair were anything but cute. Nothing more. On the cusp of my womanhood, I was curious about something more.
So when we stood on the boardwalk and he pushed his ashtray tongue into my virgin mouth, I held my breath and kissed him back. And when he asked if he could come over on our day off, knowing no one would be home, I let him. There was more kissing, and touching, and undressing. I discovered a prominent scar on his abdomen, lengthy and dotted on both sides, from some long-ago sealed-up injury he was not interested in discussing — maybe surgery to remove an appendix, or perhaps a knife wound from time in prison, I imagined. I had no idea. He was twenty-one years old and used to not answering to anyone. That was partly why I found him appealing.
But as he pushed his chest against mine, toppling me down onto my mother’s couch, the connection I felt to him began to unhinge. When we kissed, his cigarette-darkened lips danced with mine and when his slender fingers squeezed the contours of my unpadded bra, my hardened nipple rose to his touch, but I suddenly felt nothing for him. And I sensed he felt the same about me.
He could have been trying to have sex with any girl. Had I been another, I knew he would have lain atop her with the same quickness, unbuttoned his pants with the same fervor, panted heavily in her ear, attempted to goad her into intercourse with the same unguided pokes and prods, and completely ignored her lack of interest. I wasn’t special. My body, with all the necessary female parts, just happened to be the one in front of him at that time. And as a man — who was not even my boyfriend yet — he thought he was entitled to it.
Bored with pretending I hadn’t figured this out, and ashamed I’d let him get that far, I stood up from the couch, fixed my clothes and walked to my bedroom at the opposite end of the apartment.
“Where are you going?” he asked with a tense disappointment settling into his voice.
“Over here,” I answered, making tracks down the hallway and distancing myself from his groping hands.
“Aight. Hold up a minute.” He rearranged his clothes and began to follow. But from either what I said or did, or what I didn’t say or do, his energies shifted. He stopped pursuing me. Realizing I would not provide him with the release he so passionately felt he was due, that I somehow owed him, he detoured into the bathroom. With a smirk and one hand hoisting his unfastened calf-length shorts, he admonished, “Yo, you can’t do that to a nigga.”
When he re-emerged with shorts zipped, buttoned and buckled several long minutes later, he was back to his playful self, teasing me and inspecting everything in my room. He rummaged through the papers and notebooks on my dresser, looking for something to distract us both from his sense of rejection, and wound up at my desk inspecting a pile of cassettes.
The selection was a testament to my growing up on New York hip-hop and coming of age during its “golden era” in the early to mid-1990s. I had the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn, Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411?, Naughty by Nature’s 19 Naughty III, and Method Man’s single, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By” — but my newest favorite was Mobb Deep’s The Infamous.
I used to slide it into my stereo’s tape deck while my mother was out; she never knew what the rappers were saying but had no trouble making out the profanity. I pumped the music so loudly I could still rap along while I washed dishes or fixed myself a sandwich in the kitchen down the hall.
“Son, they shook/ ‘Cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks/ Scared to death or scared to look/ They shook, ‘cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks…” I’d chant, waving a butter knife in the air.
“Oh, you got that Mobb Deep?” my visitor said, excitedly eyeing the two unsmiling faces staring back at him from that cassette’s cover. I’d just gotten it not two months before. The first single, “Shook Ones Pt. II,” had proven a sensation on the radio and at the teen parties my friends and I often sought out. The second single, “Survival of the Fittest,” was practically my anthem.
“Yo, let me hold this,” he said with the tape in his grasp.
Though I’d heard and understood the man’s words clearly, I didn’t answer. I didn’t believe what he was asking me, really.
Mobb Deep was my favorite rap group. Havoc and Prodigy, who make up the duo, were just scrawny twenty-year-olds, only a bit taller than me when their second album, The Infamous, came out. They represented Queens, where I was born, but Prodigy was originally from Hempstead, where I lived then. Their music was dark, violent, and full of braggadocio. Someone like me — timid, quiet, gentle — wasn’t supposed to like it but I could relate.
I could identify with being a product of one’s environment, with developing a protective exterior, with being underestimated. I admired their bravado in spite of their stunted size and relative youth, and fell in love with their production. It sounded like the city at midnight under threat of a riot while under police lockdown; bleak, sinister even, it was full of brick, concrete, and imminent danger. With Mobb Deep rhythms pulsing through me, it felt okay not to smile or be polite; it felt good to spew curses and intimidate passersby with crass behavior. I felt free not to be the girl everyone expected me to be.
So when my friend — who, with every word and gesture was making himself my former friend — asked to borrow my Mobb Deep tape I stared at him with raised eyebrows and an upturned lip.
“Come on, shorty, I’ll give it back,” he said, his tone betraying the growing disdain he felt for my wanting to keep what was mine. “What you know about Mobb Deep anyway?”
Clearly, he didn’t understand my sense of ownership over that album, or the connection I felt to those songs. What’s more was his disapproval of it, as if a young lady couldn’t possibly understand the music and therefore, had no business liking it.
“I just want to copy it and then you can have it right back,” he said, moving the tape from his hands to his pocket, out of reach. Although I might have been able to turn him down for sex that afternoon, I could tell the man was determined not to leave without taking something from me. Maybe while he was pleasuring himself in my bathroom, he’d resolved to benefit somehow from being there. And so I relented. Confident that I would never again let him touch me, nor did I wish to see him anymore, I bid a regretful farewell to my Mobb Deep.
Several weeks or months later, missing the time I’d spent with my boys, I bought another copy of The Infamous, that time on CD, which I still own today. It is the only album I’ve ever bought twice. I never spent another moment with “my friend.”
In 2014, nineteen years after I lost my Mobb Deep tape, my husband bought me two tickets to a Mobb Deep show. It was a Mother’s Day gift. An unconventional way to celebrate being mother to our then three-year-old son, but a welcome one. In the years since The Infamous was released, through their CDs Hell on Earth, Murda Muzik, Infamy, and Free Agents: The Murda Mix Tape, I’ve stuck with the Mobb.
And my husband, never judging me for my musical tastes, nor showing disapproval of any of my choices — as fitting or unfitting as they may have been — gave the group back to me. In fact, he brought me closer to Hav and P than I ever had been.
In a half-packed Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., I danced my way through hit after critically acclaimed hit from the duo’s two decades of testosterone-laden material. Hearing the music live, though, forced me to reconsider my attraction. The end of every song — from “Up North Trip,” to “It’s Mine,” to “Quiet Storm” — was punctuated by the sound of gun blasts; not real ones, thankfully, but from an audio track the DJ played. Havoc, most frequently, gestured with his hand in the air pretending to fire.
At first, I thought nothing of it. The gunshot sound effect has been a common interlude on dancehall and hip-hop mixtapes for years. Rhapsody, Spotify, and iTunes all have gunshot tracks available as part of a sound effect offering for DJs. But wait, I thought, the blast of gunfire has now become an acceptable, even enjoyable, musical interlude? It was disturbing.
“There could be a shooting in here right now and no one would know it,” I yelled above the bass into my husband’s ear after listening to the simulated dhoosh, dhoosh, dhoosh for nearly an hour. But I didn’t leave. I took more notice of the songs’ lyrics and was reminded of just how rife they are with gunplay.
“The Mobb comes equipped for warfare, beware/ of my crime family who got nuff shots to share,” Prodigy raps at the beginning of one verse. Then later, “Cowards like you just get they whole body laced up/ with bullet holes and such.” A little further into the verse, “Your crew is featherweight, my gunshots will make you levitate.” And at the end, “If I die, I couldn’t choose a better location/When the slugs penetrate, feel a burnin’ sensation.”
A little bothered, I still jammed to the rest of the May 23rd show. When it ended, my husband and I got home after midnight and eventually, as is our habit, turned on the news.
“Wait, there was a shooting tonight?” I asked, considering the irony as I spotted the red “breaking news” banner across the bottom of our TV.
A college student named Elliot Rodger had shot and killed three people and wounded fourteen more near the University of California, Santa Barbara, after stabbing three men to death in his apartment. According to a video he made and his own writing analyzed after he’d shot himself to death, he staged this killing spree as a response to the sexual rejection he said he faced.
“Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men but never to me. I’m twenty-two years old and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl,” Rodger said. “I do not know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it.”
I had to do a double-take. The arrogance astounded me. If I’d heard the news correctly, Rodger had been murderously upset because the girls he was attracted to weren’t attracted to him, because they hadn’t had sex with him in the timely fashion he’d wished them to. I’d have to say that every man who’s ever pursued a woman has suffered the same frustration.
But more than that, I was dumbfounded because according to Rodger, and a community of men with no game who, I would learn, congregate in cowardice online, women are not entitled to choices. We are not allowed to say no to a date, to a kiss, and definitely not to sex. We are not allowed to discover for ourselves which guy is the gentleman and which is the asshole. We are not permitted the freedom to evolve from liking Saturday night club music, such as Mobb Deep, to Sunday morning gospel, such as Hezekiah Walker, or both at the same time.
Men like Rodger, like my friend from Jones Beach, make it difficult to be a young woman coming into her own, getting comfortable in her own skin. Because while we’re figuring out who we are and what we do and do not want, we’re still expected to give our whole selves over to any man who asks. We’re already being judged, scorned and despised for our choices, right or wrong, hastily made or well considered. That isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to the women who are the target of such contempt, nor is it fair to the contemptuous men who will eventually transform, I hope, into a mellower, live-and-let-live breed, if they would only give themselves the chance.
Leaving the Mobb Deep show — pleased that I’d seen it but thankful to be rid of the blare of feigned gun blasts — I harbored no desire to rush out and buy the group’s latest album. I haven’t bought one since 2003. I’d attended the performance mostly out of nostalgia, but also to get back something that had been taken from me by someone who believed I owed him.
Having accomplished that, I doubt I’ll make an effort to see Mobb Deep this month as they return to the Howard Theatre on their tour to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of The Infamous. But if I do, the choice will be mine and mine alone to make.
As a grown woman, I have the right to make up my own mind, regardless of how any man believes it should be made. Every woman can claim this truth, including any who might prefer simulated gunfire over public displays of the real thing; or those who might have decided to go along with my Jones Beach friend’s advances; or those who, if given the opportunity, might have kept rejecting Rodger until he was forty-four years old. Those women — all women — deserve the freedom to choose for ourselves whatever it is that we want.
Sufiya Abdur-Rahman is a writer and teacher in Prince George’s County, Md. Follow her on Twitter @MrsAbolitionist.