Stuck Off the Realness: Prodigy’s Dark Poetry Defined the Grimy Soul of 90s New York Rap
"Vision the canvas I paint a picture
Similar to Ernie Barnes, nigga
But mines is more ghetto, more guns
More drugs, mostly thugs
All my duns, their baby moms, daughter and sons
Dark blocks, with streets lamps shot the fuck out
Park benches is broke, a nigga stretched out
Jumped off the roof and fell to his death--it's real
Handball walls displayed with R-I-P murials
Those who sling, play the shadows by the building
Devils spring, keep em going while the snows blowing
Grams get dipped, 50's is moked, cookies is broke
And spliced in large pieces for the fiends to smoke
The sunset looks beautiful over the projects
What a shame, its ain't the same where we stand at
If you look close you can see the bricks chipped off
Sometimes niggas miss when they lick off--don't get clipped off..." Prodigy ("Streets Raised Me" by Mobb Deep)
Prodigy of Mobb Deep's death reverberated far and wide. The Queensbridge-reppin' (though Long Island born) rapper's work with his partner Havoc in Mobb Deep touched a generation of East Coast hip-hop fans and many more. Teenage Albert Johnson and Kejuan Muchita met in high school battles, formed a duo and decided to forge their own destiny. After a false start with Island Records yielded the unnoticed 1993 debut Juvenile Hell, Prodigy (Johnson) and Havoc (Muchita) would become unlikely stars of East Coast street rap with a label switch to Loud Records and the release of their classic sophomore album The Infamous in 1995.
Unlike Wu-Tang Clan, who's quirky kung-fu fixation and status as a pop culture phenomenon eventually somewhat forced it out of its initial grimy aesthetic, and Nas, who seemed to consistently have crossover ambitions--particularly post-Illmatic; Mobb Deep's perspective was unapologetically dark and bloody. The Infamous was the soundtrack of the 1990s New York projects, and the theme music for young Queens knuckleheads livin' the life. Prodigy and Havoc gave listeners a ground-level view of the hopelessness and nihilism that was defining a generation coming of age in the post-Reagan age, living amongst the economic and cultural devastation that the crack era and War On Drugs wrought.
"At that time there was nothing like it at all, it was in a class of its own," Prodigy recalled in 2015. "It stood out from everything else that was out yet, we definitely were something new that the world never heard or seen before. It was attractive to people: the life style, the style of the beats, the style of the lyrics, the dress code, slang, everything that we did was really attractive to people because a lot of that stuff they had never seen before."
Prodigy and Havoc were young and brazen; introspective but unrelentingly grim. The lightest moment on The Infamous is the Q-Tip-assisted "Drink Away the Pain"--an ode to alcoholism as self-medication. This was not a "feel good" album. Havoc, one of the best hip-hop producers of the era, was never a slouch on the mic, but there was something about Prodigy's pensive wordplay, his world-weary flow that sounded like he'd seen too much, even barely out of his teens--it was a highlight of Mobb records.
"Actually doing a song, going to the studio and just getting out on paper your anger makes you feel a little better sometimes," P explained. "It’s like punching the heavy bag in the gym to get your frustration out instead of punching someone’s face."
With the success of The Infamous, Mobb Deep somewhat unexpectedly became mainstream stars. The Queens duo represented a grittier side of New York City than the Notorious B.I.G., one wouldn't have seemed likely to reach a wider audience. Hardcore NYC crews like Boot Camp Clik never landed that kind of visibility (and never seemed to want it), but with Mobb Deep's commercial success, a blueprint was forged that artists like The LOX and DMX would follow near the end of the 1990s: dark, street rap with just enough sheen to reach further than the blocks of the 5 boroughs without shiny suits and Cristal-poppin' tropes.
Prodigy's point-of-view was always cerebral, behind all of the menace and confrontation in his lyrics, there was a shrewd mind; he picked harsh realities apart with a cold pragmatism. But Prodigy also had his eyes on broader concerns. He famously rapped "illuminati want my mind, soul and my body" back in 1995 (on LL Cool J's "I Shot Ya" remix) and decades later, hip-hop fans would become obsessed with dissecting the secret society blamed for everything from 9/11 to autism. His fixation would inform his worldview and solo work.
Prodigy spoke often about his studying Malachi York and his belief in diabolical conspiracies. He even appeared on controversial conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' InfoWars to discuss the Illuminati.
“To me, it’s definitely not a joke," he said in 2011. "There’s a lot of real stuff going on out here, in this world. Secret societies are real. It’s definitely really obvious that they’re at work and it’s at play in the music industry, in the food industry, politics, everywhere you turn, it’s everywhere. You just gotta read the signs, the writing on the wall. It’s right in front of your face. Once people just learn about it and do a little research about it all, they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I understand what’s going on.’”
Prodigy's rhetoric regarding the Illuminati earned as many scoffs as co-signs, but controversy was always a part of his persona. The rapper was famously outspoken and drew more than his fair share of adversaries. Throughout his career, P engaged in some biggest feuds within hip-hop with high-profile rivals; most notably Mobb Deep's beefs with 2Pac and JAY-Z. Prodigy was a target in Pac's "Hit 'Em Up" back in 1996, where the famously volatile Pac insultingly called out P: "Don't one of you niggas got sickle or somethin'?"
Prodigy was famously wounded by the diss when it was initially released. In the 1996 VIBE cover story about the feuding, Prodigy made it clear that he'd been offended by 2Pac's attack. “I was, like, Oh Shit. Them niggas is shittin’ on me. He’s talking about my health. Yo, he doesn’t even know me, to be talking about shit like that. I never had any beef with Tupac. I never said his name. So that shit just hurt. I’m, like, Yeah, all right, whatever. I just gotta handle that shit.”
Mobb Deep would respond to "Hit 'Em Up" with "Drop A Gem On 'Em" from 1996s Hell On Earth. But the song would arrive around the same time that Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas, and Mobb Deep didn't publicize things further.
"We just went in and made that song after we heard Tupac saying some things about us because of our ‘L.A., L.A.’ song," Prodigy shared in a 2011 interview with Complex, reflecting on how things turned sour. "We heard somebody playing ‘Hit Em Up’ on the block and we were like, ‘Oh word? Niggas wanna make songs about us? Aight, cool.’ As soon as we heard Tupac saying anything about Mobb Deep, we went in and made that shit about him. We were like, ‘Fuck this nigga, we going right at this nigga and whoever the fuck he’s down with.’"
"That’s why we took offense when Jay-Z came out years later," Prodigy would recall also in 2011. "After everything died down—and people lost their lives—he came out with that song ‘Money, Cash, Hoes,’ where he had that line ‘It’s like New York’s been soft ever since Snoop came through and crushed the buildings.’ We took offense to that like, ‘How you talking now? We was out there risking our lives.’"
JAY famously took shots at Prodigy on "Takeover," with Prodigy firing back at the superstar on Mobb Deep's "The Learning (Burn)." There was ongoing bad blood between Prodigy and Keith Murray, Saigon and even Havoc; P never soft-soaped his dislike or disdain for whomever, and Havoc notwithstanding, it was part of who he was to not always care about mended fences.
And on a more personal level, Prodigy never shied away from discussing his illness openly. "Nigga, my pain's in the flesh," he rapped on 2000s "You Can Never Feel My Pain." "And through the years that pain became my friend; sedated with morphine as a little kid/I built a tolerance for drugs, addicted to the medicine."
"Every day I wake up like, 'This might be my last day, and I'm not scared of it. I'm gonna go out there, do what I gotta do; I ain't gonna let nothing stop me,'" he would reveal in a 2008 DJ Booth interview. "Nothing puts any fear in my heart. [I’m] never scared to bite my tongue about something, or never be scared to come out and speak about something—that's what I mean. Like, I ain't scared of death. What you gonna do to me?"
From 2007 to 2011, Prodigy was incarcerated at Mid-State Correctional Facility in New York after pleading guilty to felony weapons possession charges. Nonetheless, he was one of the more prolific 90s rappers throughout the 2000s--recording two albums before prison and two after he was released. He would also write a cookbook for prisoners.
"I went in with a plan, and that's what a lot of people don't do," Prodigy told Interview magazine in 2015. "I went in with that plan already in my head, which was to get my shit together, work hard, work out, work on music, work on books, work on everything, and to prove myself as much as possible, and that's what I did."
Prodigy seemed to be in a good place in what would turn out to be his final years. He wrote and published My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, reunited and reconciled with Havoc, and recorded two albums with The Alchemist. He died while he'd been performing on the Art of Rap Tour with his longtime partner. He spent his last days doing exactly what he loved doing the most. Through all of the darkness and pain and nihilism, Prodigy found a light. And he carried it with him.
Albert Johnson died at age 42 this week, after rocking a crowd alongside other rap vets like KRS-One, Ghostface Killah and Onyx. Performing in Las Vegas, it has been speculated that the record-breaking Nevada heat (the numbers were consistently in the territory of 118°F) was too much for his body to handle. The loss is major. But in celebrating Prodigy, you have to celebrate the fact that he stayed true, stayed focused even after missteps and stayed on his own path.
"I think me going away to prison and doing three years and then coming home, I feel blessed that I’m able to jump back into the career that I had before I went to jail," P told Red Bull Music Academy in 2013. "A lot of people come home from jail and they can’t get a job. A lot of them homeless, they families turned on them because they was locked up. They were convicted for a crime they didn’t commit and exonerated later on and they families turned on them thinking they guilty and they raped somebody or killed somebody. People come home twisted from prison. I feel blessed to have a job to come back to and I can just hop right back in. But we worked hard for that too. We worked hard for that. We met God halfway and we always do. Word."
Watch Mobb Deep's "Survival of the Fittest" Video:
Watch Mobb Deep's "Give Up the Goods (Just Step)" Video: