Harlem’s own Mook is best described as the rapper nobody – not even today’s hottest emcees – wants to step into the ring with. That’s because the young street phenom has annihilated nearly every opponent who’s battled him over the last six years, most notably, the 2004 clash against Harlem’s beloved Jae Millz in which an 18-year-old Mook decisively defeated Millz in front of hundreds of spectators.
“At the time, it didn’t really hit me as to how important winning that battle was,” recalls Mook. “I was just a kid, and it was my first battle ever. I was just trying to prove to myself that I could do it. But then about a month or two later, everything changed.”
Born John Ancrum, Mook grew up on 116th and Manhattan with his mom and great-grandmother until the age of 12, when he went to live with his great aunt, Yvonne. “My aunt had the biggest influence on me to do positive things,” says Mook, who was given the nickname “Mookie” as a toddler. “I was in the streets a lot when I lived with my mom, but my aunt stayed on me and taught me how to do the right thing.”
Like most 80’s babies, Mook loved hip-hop. He listened to Wu-Tang Clan – Ghostface Killah was his favorite – and watched his cousins, Demont and T-Rex, recite rap lyrics around the house. It wasn’t long before Mook decided to try his hand at rhyming. His skills were impressive for a 12-year-old, but Mook’s main interest at the time was basketball. A high-scoring point guard at Fordham Prep, Mook had his eyes set on the NBA. Yet, it was his basketball coach who, after hearing Mook rhyme one day at a tournament, introduced the multi-talented teen to a friend named “Pop.” Pop eventually became Mook’s mentor, father figure and manager. “He gave me the confidence to rap,” says Mook. “I didn’t think I was that good at first, but he used to always tell me, ‘You can be one of the best. You just gotta work at it.’”
Mook began to take rap seriously, writing and rehearsing his lyrics whenever he wasn’t on a basketball court. Pop grew so sure of Mook’s skills that in 2004, he made a $5,000 bet with Jae Millz’ manager that the unknown emcee would beat Millz in a battle. Mook had never battled anyone before, but he knew he had a shot at winning. And win he did. Over 500 Harlemites flooded the State Building that day and witnessed Millz’ verbal beat-down by a rookie armed with verses like:
“We don’t wanna hear no mess about how you spray steel/ ‘cause in the pen I heard they told you to stay still/20 niggas in the shower waiting to j millz…”
Murda Mook’s name was on the lips of everyone who attended the legendary battle that night. But it wasn’t until the video of it was released on SMACK DVD a month later that Mook’s reputation really took off. He spent the next four years building his rep by challenging numerous well-known battle rappers such as Loaded Lux, Party Arty, and Serius Jones. Various record labels began approaching Mook, but no deals materialized. “I wasn’t really recording anything at the time and didn’t have a lot of material out there other than the battles,” he says. “That was a mistake. I was young and didn’t know the business. I was just out there battling.”
Part of the reason why Mook wasn’t recording music was because he had received a basketball scholarship and had enrolled as a full-time marketing student at Elms College in Massachusetts – a fact few people knew. To keep his name relevant on the streets, Mook battled rappers on the weekends. Then in 2008, he left college and moved to Atlanta with Pop, who had a studio in his home. Mook began recording songs and working on an independent album project. However, the momentum slowed when Pop was suddenly arrested and went to prison.
Picking things back up, Mook returned to NY and connected with longtime friend, Ronald “Blackface” Ashley, who became Mook’s manager. Not long afterward in 2009, Mook ran into Ruff Ryders CEO, Joaquin “Waah” Dean, at a club in downtown NYC.
“I’ve known Dee and Waah since I was about 13 or 14,” says Mook of the brothers who’ve led the hit-making Ruff Ryders label since 2000. “They used to hang in Harlem and were on fire at the time. I would come up to them, basketball in hand, and be like, ‘I rap.’ So I’d spit for them and Dee would be like, ‘Yo, you nice. Keep rapping.’ I’d say, ‘Sign me.’ And Dee was like, ‘Not yet, but you nice.’”
Mook finally got his shot at a Ruff Ryder deal years later after that chance encounter with Waah in the club. A meeting was arranged the next day, and after hearing several records, Waah signed Mook to his Ruff Ryder Indy label in May 2009.
Now, with high expectations in front of him, Mook knows his music has to defy the general wisdom that battle rappers can’t make albums. But Mook isn’t phased by the pressure. He’s confident that his upcoming, still-untitled, album project will offer the kind of diversity, introspection and originality that will take many by surprise. “I’m a street rapper,” says Mook, “but by me going to college, I also know the more educated lane. I intertwine the two sides in my music and tell stories that people can relate to.”
Murda Mook’s journey is indeed just beginning. And if his past triumphs, luck and coincidences are any indication, this legend-in-the-making is exactly where he needs to be.
“I just want people to feel me and appreciate my work,” he says. “I take this seriously. I don’t do this because people get paid from it. I really want to change the way music is done.”