Interview: Mobo Joe
Mobo Joe is a rapper and entrepreneur from Harvey, Louisiana. He’s best known as the founder of Mobo Records, as well as for his work, alongside Ace Nitty, in Lower Level Organization.
Can you describe what growing up in West Bank was like?
Matter of fact, this is my neighborhood right here where I growed up. I growed up in Harvey, Louisiana. My neck of the woods, they call “Manhattan" because it’s right off of Manhattan Boulevard, which in Harvey is a pretty big sub-division. But growin’ up for me, I grew up a normal kid. Went to school, played sports in the neighborhood. I had a mother, father at the house, big family. The whole neighborhood was like family. I loved the way I grew up because I didn’t grow up in the city; I was able to hunt, fish, have a life that a boy would dream of havin’. People in the city, growin’ in the project, it’d be different. A lot of people never get the opportunity to see that part of life.
Were you going into New Orleans a lot, or was Harvey kind of separate?
I ain’t gon’ lie, when I was a kid I always hung with the older guys. So I was able to move around. I had a bike and the older guys rode bikes, so I used to follow them around. I started going to Marrero, Gretna, different areas in Harvey. Besides with my dad, I never went in the city a whole lot. But I got my license when I was fifteen, and I got a car when I was fifteen; around that time, that’s when I started really going into New Orleans a lot.
How did music feature in your upbringing?
For me, I liked all kind of music. We had a big family, and I was in a medium-class family - we had a big house, so for the holidays everybody came to our house. My mama had records, like 45s, for days. I was a kid - we just had fun, you know what I’m sayin’? But I always did love music: the message, and how music made you feel. Sittin’ around listenin’ to them old folks talk they stories and drink, just havin’ fun.
When I really knew I had a special gift for music was when my sister bought me the “Rapper’s Delight" record by the Sugarhill Gang, and I spin it ‘til I couldn’t spin it no more. Rest in peace to Big Bank Hank, he just passed away. But that album right there, it was like I was in love. I was in love with hip-hop, it was something I wanted to do.
When did you start actually performing or recording?
My first release I put out was me and a friend of mine from back in the neighborhood, He was Notorious A when we first started, then he switched his name to Ace Nitty. At that particular time, I was telling a friend of mine that I was thinking of getting into music, and he told me that Ace - we used to call him Tuna - can rap. He said that he good, he talkin’ about killin’ the police and all kind of stuff! So I said let’s go back there, I heard him, and I asked him what we had to do and all that. He told me that this guy Ice Mike was makin’ tracks, to contact him. His first release was “Portrait of a Villain," and then we went from just playin’ rappin’ to writing together. So that first release with him was Lower Level Organization, Wanted By Five-O Feared By Most.
Did you already have the label going?
No, I started them at the same time. Once I started doing music, I was on my own label. Years later, I was working at Peaches Records after my incarceration. That was like 2000. But I had a record store also, way before that and before I went to prison. But I started the record label like, 1990, in my early-to-mid 20s.
What was working with Ace Nitty like?
Well, first thing is - I hate these people who want to tell our story without gettin’ the facts. He’s not dead. Matter of fact, he live right there. I had this discussion with one guy before who had put that stuff out. It’s for us to tell it, when I’m ready to tell it. But Ace Nitty, man - to me, he was one of my favorite rappers. He was real good. He don’t rap no more, he have a chemical imbalance in his brain. It cause him to - he be hallucinatin’. I don’t know how you get it, where it come from, but that’s what he dealin’ with.
Who were the big rappers in West Bank at the time?
Kind of right before I started it was Tim Smooth, Bust Down, MC Thick, and stuff like that. Tim Smooth was really a lyricist, he would rap on anything. MC Thick, he came out from Morrerro and wrote it straight off the streets. I was livin’ in the streets, selling drugs and all that, so we came from that approach. Tim Smooth and Bust Down, they came from more of the New York rappers; they really was rappin’, we more was tellin’ our life stories. Everybody out here wore Ballys; Bust Down had a song “Putcha’ Ballys On." At that time, everybody would shop at Rubensteins; Tim Smooth made a song “Rubensteins." So they would rap about things like that, then when we came to the scene we rapped about the lifestyle that we was really livin’.
Mobo Records had a kind of similar divide, right? The Mobo Click records have the gangsta halves and the bounce halves.
It was a different audience. I know talent, and when I heard Ricky [B] music and the stuff he was doin’ I liked that too. It was good music, and it also was tellin’ a story from a different angle. Then Cheeky [Blakk], she was doin’ the bounce thing when that was blowin’ up. At that time, a lot of rappers kinda didn’t believe in bounce. But it was something that was created in my city, I know where it came from, so I wanted to support it too. I knew if it didn’t really take off here, eventually it would go somewhere else.
How did the audiences differ, in your mind?
Really, when the bounce first started it was kind of like a gangsta bounce. You had Lil Elt “Get the Gat," you know what I’m sayin’? You had Pimp Daddy, he was rappin’ about the women and stuff like that. It was fun, because that’s what moved the club. The gangsta rap, it was good, but when you wanted to rock the club you needed the bounce to get the club jumpin’.
If bounce was more of a club thing, what kind of live appearances would a Lower Level Organization type of group make?
You can go to the same club - that was experience that I learned, too, because when I did the Lower Level Organization bounce wasn’t really… it was there, but we didn’t do it. So when I did the Ruthless Juveniles, I just did one bounce track to get us the extra platform for when we did do the clubs. But the bounce, you just couldn’t beat it because of the reaction you got in the club.
How were you distributing cassettes and singles as the label got a little bigger?
My first project, I did CDs and cassettes. We did a lot of distributing through the mom and pop record stores. We had a distributor called Gonzales, and they got to the chain stores. It was kinda regional, you got a few sales here and there but mainly we got our sales in our area of Louisiana. We had a lot of support in Houston, eventually we got some stuff in Atlanta that was goin’ on, but at that particular time the local was outsellin’ the national ten-to-one.
Mobo always had a ton of groups signed - did those usually exist before joining the label, or were you putting people together?
The Ruthless Juveniles, Dog House Posse, those didn’t really exist before… they never had nothin’ out. Most groups I put out, I put out their first release. They was doin’ music, doin’ shows, but they never had nothin’ out. Dog House Posse was already together. Ruthless Juveniles - at a particular time when I first started, I was hangin’ with this guy Kenny Ray who knew this girl that was kin to Brandon, Lil Badness. He kept tellin’ me that he was good, and he was tryin’ to get with me. I picked him up and heard him, and he was good, so we linked up to put some stuff together that night. I think he was goin’ to L.B. Landry at that time, so the next day when I picked him up from school, that’s when he had 4-Shob with him. We didn’t have the name Ruthless Juveniles, but they’d had a little run-in with police and the police was just callin’ ‘em like - “what you Ruthless Juveniles doin’?" So they told me and we ran with it, formed the group from there. And then we had Death, who was Joe - I had bought all the equipment, and he started learning how to work it to make the beats and all that. Dog House Posse, they was cousins - it was Battle Dog and Slim Dog, they were already going around to little parties rappin’. But I knew them from when they was kids, playing a little ball in the park. I knew Battle Dog mom and stuff like that. When they heard about Ruthless Juveniles, they went looking for me, and we linked up and Joe did their tracks too.
So you weren’t even looking for artists so much as they were coming to you for a deal.
Exactly, exactly. It started with just me and Ace Nitty, havin’ fun trying to do something different, get out the streets or whatever, and when we started makin’ noise people started comin’ to me.
What kinds of volume were you doing on these early releases?
Man, it started out with the few hundreds and went to the few thousands. It was doin’ pretty good - I think Mobo Records was a little before our time. New Orleans was gettin’ recognition, but no major was really ready to take a chance at that time. So we was doin’ independent units, and a lot of shows too. Lafayette, Alexander, stuff like that.
Was this all out of the one studio? What sort of equipment had you set Death up with?
I bought a whole set-up, but he basically was working on a keyboard. I wanna say it was Ensoniq, a 16+, that mainly the tracks came off of. We was recordin’ at my other house, I had made a whole studio out of a room. I bought the mixing board, all that, but he made the tracks from scratch on the 16+.
Did you jump in on production at all?
The credits I had were work-for-hire tracks that was stuff that I paid for. I had input on the tracks, but I didn’t actually do any tracks. I might give ‘em a concept for raps or something, but I wasn’t on the track.
Were you trying to cultivate any specific label identity?
At that time, I’d come up listenin’ to a lot of hardcore rap. So that’s where I was at, at first. And then before that, I’d come up on the era of the ‘70s music that my mama listened to. When I used to go to shows way, way back like LL Cool J, they were performers. So I started looking for people that really can perform, who really can rock the crowd. There’s rappers that can sell records, but at the same time they can’t really kill the show with their performance. So that’s when I started gettin’ into the Cheeky, the Ricky, the [MC] Spud, and all that type of stuff.
What was the atmosphere like at those shows?
Crazy. It was fun. Sometimes it got chaotic, things happened, but overall I enjoyed doing shows. It was different sorts of people - I was probably eight, ten years older than Ruthless Juveniles, and they crowd would have people older than us. People wearing Dickies suits, Buffalinos, Ballys, animal soles.
Where were you going for cover art? All those Mobo releases are so distinct.
I had a lot of ideas, I liked stuff that looked good - my album covers, when you see it, I want you to get an idea of what you’re about to listen to. And at this particular time, they had a guy who was in the East named Kyle, Kyle Lewis. We’d do a photoshoot, and then I’d go sit there with him and tell him about what I’m seein’ and where my photos shot at. That’s the main thing - where you get the footage from. He’d sit there and cut it out, paste it, then call me over and go over it until I was satisfied. He did a lot of work back then, I don’t know what happened to him.
I know later on in the label Tim Smooth came over to do an album after his Rap-A-Lot deal - how did he come to join?
I’d been on Tim, because he grew up on the West Bank too. I used to always see him a lot, and when he did his first album we’d used to get a lot of love in Houston. This was when I was really in the streets, before I was doin’ music. I would be in Houston in the clubs, and they would be performin’, and they would see me and my partners and say what’s up. We was on vacation, and then I might go and take care of business or whatever I was doin’. Him, Bust Down might be there, Everlasting Hitman, Mia X - they all used to perform out there, and I’d see them because I would always travel. His Rap-A-Lot deal didn’t work out, and he was kickin’ it with Big Boy, doin’ a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, but about ‘97 he had came because he had a project already done that he wanted to put out for the West Bank. He had it together, I just put the budget behind it and put it out.
Everlasting Hitman was someone else I wanted to ask about, just because of the conflicting information out there.
Everlasting Hitman? That was like my little brother. I knew him before music. He was a little younger than me, but he was out in the streets young too. He always did battle with his little drug thing, in and out of jail a lot, but he was purely talent. Matter of fact, if I’d been doin’ music when he did his first project, it would’ve came out with me. He had that song “Bounce Baby Bounce," and the first time I seen that his music came out, we was in Houston in a club called Jam City. It was about three thousand people in there, I’m just walking in the crowd and walk right up on him. He said he was about to tear this hoe down, said he wanted to mess with a record, next thing he’s back in jail again. He don’t get a lot of props for his stuff, but he was a big part of the bounce music. He was a writer, man - I have five hundred songs, on paper, that he wrote in jail. He lived at my house and everything; he loved his music, he was just fightin’ that era that they flooded us with the drugs. That’s all that held him back - his goal was to take his music and put the city on. That was everybody’s goal, but he didn’t have bounce raps; he had real raps, reggae raps, everything. He was a real entertainer, man, it was sad the way he was lost.
What was your relationship like with some of the labels elsewhere in town?
The relationship was pretty cool, we was pretty cool with Cash Money, Big Boy Records. At that time, you had a bunch of street dudes trying to escape from the streets. Everybody was trying to get money and put theyself in a better position. In New Orleans, if you or your clique ain’t personally cross that other clique, it’s really no problem.
With the business you were doing in Houston, was there any kind of kinship between the two cities or were they pretty separate?
I sold records in Houston, I had relationships with a few record stores out there. Matter of fact, I had a distributor out there too, Southwest. But I was going to Houston way before the music - all I can say on that note, Houston was the drug capital at that time. I used to go to Houston a lot, Galveston and the beach and all that for the fourth of July. The first time I heard UGK, I think I was in that same club Jam City and there was two guys on the stage singin’ “tell me somethin’ good!" That was when they had the cassette out, and I bought the cassette and jammed it all the way home. UGK, Ganksta N.I.P., K-Rino, that’s how I was able to be up on that. I had a cousin who was from Fifth Ward, Houston.
Outside of your obligations in different groups, what would inspire you to hop on somebody’s track?
A lot of the time, it was my artists wanting me to get on a track, because they knew the knowledge that I had. I didn’t have rhythm, but I was more like a poet, and I knew a lot of stories. It was kinda hard for me, ‘cause damn near everything I said was true stories. So you’re trying to fit this real story, how it happened, to the beat. It was hard, ‘cause I ain’t want to lose it. Like I said, me comin’ up with my moms and them listening to music - back then, music had a message in it. Them older folk was tellin’ you, like The O’Jays “For the Love of Money." They was tellin’ you that people will do these things when they love money this much. Listen to blues, they’ll tell you how women will break your heart. So I’m trying to take a chapter out my life so you can get through your life without making the same mistakes I made.
What had brought the initial Mobo Records run to a close? There’s a break in releases around ‘99 or 2000.
Well, I went to prison in ‘98 and got out in 2000. And at the particular time that I got out, the distributors wasn’t there. Everything was turning to digital, the burnt CDs was taking effect and all that. But I wound up puttin’ out the Federalli record, and there was this bounce song on there that ended up being a hit. It was called “Ooh Na Na" by this guy called Lt. Yell, and right around ‘05 it got hot. Then I lost my oldest son in May of ‘05, and once I lost my son… that was my first-born. I just wasn’t feeling the music. Some people call it depression, I don’t know how to describe it. The way I grow up, the way a lot of black people grow up, you lose a lot of people - friends, homeboys, stuff like that. And it takes a toll on you, bro. And then when it comes that close to home, it makes you see everything different. At that particular time - it was like five years I’d come out of prison, I had another son that was two years old, raising him myself. Music wasn’t really paying the bills, so I had to go out here and build a whole other income for my son, my family. My mom still livin’ with me, and I lost my dad when I was fifteen. So at that time, I just didn’t want to mess with the music. I just questioned a lot of stuff about it, a lot of stuff I did in my life, just trying to figure it out.
When did you start noticing this resurgence of interest in New Orleans rap and the Mobo catalog?
Tell you the truth, man, I’m old school - I really wasn’t on the internet and all that stuff. I had started my trucking business up, right. I was dealing with this one broker, she was in Dallas, and the guy that worked over her was from New Orleans. So my trucking company is Mobo Camp Enterprise, and when I booked the load through her, he knew who I was. So he’d go on the internet and pull some of my art or whatever off, then send it with the paperwork for the load. I knew this girl was too young to know my music, so when she’d send it and say something about the music I was like “where you gettin’ this from?!" She had gone on the internet and searched me, and started asking me about different platforms that I was on that I wasn’t even very much aware of. So after that, I came home and started googling stuff and seeing how all these people had found my music. Some was good, some… I won’t say they was bad, but they didn’t have the story right. But I was impressed myself when I read some of the stories.
People always used to see me and ask about the music and all that, but like I said at that time I wasn’t… where music had really started, we got way away from. Music was supposed to help you, not always talking about killing and all that. Gunshots, drive-bys, I was questioning all this stuff. So I wanted to come back, but I didn’t want to come back with all that. Plus I’m older now, I don’t live like a cowboy no more. Some stuff you just outgrow. When it touch home like that, you see the damage.
Where had the Mobo name come from originally?
Nah, it was very creative. Like I said, I used to hang with older guys, and I was always on the go. I used to ride my bike a lot, and I had a friend at the time that had been looking for me when people told him I was in Marrero. So the next morning, we had to catch the bus on this corner and he said “man, we gonna make up nicknames today. I already got yours." Back then, everybody would say “whoadie" or “bo." What’s up bo, what’s happenin’ bo? My middle name is Joe, so everybody would call me Joe. He said he was gonna call me Mobo. The “mo" came from, at that time, there was this phone company out called BellSouth. Their slogan was “BellSouth Mobility on the go." So he took the “mo" from BellSouth, ‘cause I was always on the go, then the “bo," and then we put Joe, ‘cause I’m Joe. So Mobo stand for on the go: wherever the money, I’ll go.