Prodigy (aka Albert Johnson) is a Grammy Award-winning rapper. He and his collaborator Havoc founded the seminal hip hop duo Mobb Deep. His new autobiography is My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep's Prodigy.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest, Prodigy, is one of the fathers of hardcore hip hop. As a teenager in the early 1990s, he and his partner Havoc, found an East Coast answer to the emerging West Coast gangster sound. As Mobb Deep, their tone was dark, eerie, and minimal; and their lyrics cold and brutal. Let's take a listen to Prodigy's opening verse from Shook Ones Part II, the apical single from the apical record, The Infamous.
Prodigy was recently released from three years in prison on gun charges, and he's just put out an autobiography called My Infamous Life and a new free digital record called The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP.
Prodigy, welcome to The Sound of Young America, how are you?
PRODIGY: How you doing, man? Thank you, I'm doing good, I'm doing really good.
JESSE THORN: I usually like to start off with something happier than this, but one of the key issues in your book and in your life is that you have sickle cell anemia. I wonder if, before we start getting into the story of your life, just tell us for starters what that is.
PRODIGY: Sickle cell anemia is a hereditary disease that's passed down from your mother and father, and is basically a rare blood disorder where your blood cells change from a round shape, a normal, round blood cell shape, to a sickle shape. They start interlocking with each other and causing clotting, and it causes pain where that happens. It's like a domino effect, it spreads throughout your body, and the pain increases and it gets progressively worse if you don't take care of it right away; as soon as you feel the pain you're supposed to go to the hospital or take pain medication for it.
JESSE THORN: What's the first time that you remember having a sickle cell attack?
PRODIGY: I was really young, so I didn't really have a full understanding of what I was going through. I knew I had something, I wasn't like other kids. My parents told me I had sickle cell. All I knew was that I was in crazy pain, that's all I knew was that pain, and that I wanted to get better. I want to feel good.
JESSE THORN: How did it affect your life, especially as a kid?
PRODIGY: It made me a real angry kid. I was angry at God. I used to sit there and pray to God, please, take this pain away. It was nothing magical happening, there was nothing there. I felt like my prayers were not being answered. It made me real moody, I had an attitude problem growing up as a young child.
JESSE THORN: You grew up in an interesting circumstance; you grew up in a bunch of different worlds all at once. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your grandmother and grandfather with whom you spent a lot of time, and also about your mother and father.
PRODIGY: Yeah, my grandmother and my grandfather actually met at The Cotton Club in Harlem. My grandmother was one of the first Cotton Club dancers, and my grandfather was a jazz musician; he played in a band at The Cotton Club. That's how they met, and they got married. My grandmother actually started a business in the basement of her home in Jamaica, Queens, she started a dance school business, and my grandfather had a lot of jazz albums, he was in a big band with Quincy Jones.
JESSE THORN: He's actually a member of the Jazz Hall of Fame.
PRODIGY: Yeah, he's in the Jazz Hall of Fame. Growing up I just saw a lot of famous people come into the house to see him, famous jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Foster, different people like that. I grew up around all of that show business.
JESSE THORN: Your folks had both also been in show business and in the music industry themselves. Your father sang with a doo-wop group called The Chanters, and your mother was a member of the Phil Spector group The Crystals, although she joined shortly after they had their biggest string of hits.
PRODIGY: Yeah, yeah. It was definitely crazy to hear all the stories that my mother used to tell me about touring with The Supremes, Diana Ross, and the snakes in the industry that would try to rob you for your credit and your money and all that.
JESSE THORN: She worked for Phil Spector, who's basically one of the all time kings of the questionable music industry guys.
PRODIGY: Yeah, exactly. She been through doing a lot of work and getting a little for it. My father was in that group The Chanters, they had a couple of lukewarm records, they never really took off like that. They still had the experience in the music industry. The whole business was always in my family, and I grew up around that. I saw a lot, I learned a lot at an early age about show business and about how to put on a show; how the behind the scenes works to put something like that together.
JESSE THORN: Your dad was a heroin addict, and you write in the book about finding out about that. How old were you?
PRODIGY: I had to be about seven, around six or seven years old when I started noticing certain things about my father. Little strange ways; staying in the bathroom too long, going to a friend's house and telling me to wait in one room while they go in another room, just little strange things I started noticing. He finally came out and told me one day of what he was going through and what he was doing. That was kind of crazy to see all of that, and for him to tell me that. I was just like, wow, okay. Yeah.
JESSE THORN: Did you even understand it as a little kid?
PRODIGY: Yeah, I did understand when he explained it to me. Other family members explained it to me also, what was going on. They explained it to me in a way where I definitely understood what was happening.
JESSE THORN: I want to play this verse that you wrote about your dad in a song from one of your more recent solo albums. The song is called Veteran's Memorial Part II. Let's hear a little bit of that.
So this is a scene that you also describe in the book, and it's something that I could - - I can wrap my head around the idea of your dad, you know - - being a general low to mid-level criminal about town, doing the occasional robbery and so forth, but I can't imagine the idea of him packing his kid in the passenger seat while he does it. Tell me about what was going on with your dad that he robbed this jewelry store, and dropped the bag of jewelry in your lap in the passenger seat of the car.
PRODIGY: My father was a drinker, too. He was a real heavy drinker. His favorite drink was Schnapps. Peppermint Schnapps, Peach Schnapps, he loved all that. The only way I could really make sense out of it is, I think he might have been drunk that day when he did that. It just seemed like, that's not normal, why would you do that? He was an intelligent individual. I think maybe he was drinking that day, and he just took it a little overboard and forgot who he was with and didn't think about it until after he did it, like, wow, I'm buggin right now.
JESSE THORN: It seems like with your sickle cell and you being small, especially as a kid, and having to be in different worlds at all these different times. Your mom lived in more than one place, you went to a variety of different schools, that you had to be tough from when you were very young.
PRODIGY: Growing up I couldn't always get involved with the activities with all the other kids because if I overworked my body it would trigger my pain. There were definitely times growing up, especially in Long Island, Hempstead, where other kids wanted to challenge me; they wanted to see if they could push my buttons and see if I could fight or what have you. Taking my kindness for weakness or taking my quietness and laid-back style for weakness. I've been dealing with that for basically all my life.
When I was young, all the way up to today. I got into a few fights when I was a young kid, when I was around that same age, six or seven years old. My father was a karate sensei; he had his own karate school. He told me a few things about fighting, and he would always push me and make me fight people, like, go fight that kid, and take a knife with you too. Don't let him beat you up, stab him. My father would tell me things like that, and that's what I did. I would go outside, he would make me fight, and I would beat the kid up because I ain't trying to get beat up in front of my father; I was scared of my father. That's how I was growing up. The sickle cell definitely made it that I had to prove myself a little bit.
JESSE THORN: You started when you were about eleven, twelve years old, getting into two things, and those were hip hop and crime. As you describe in the book, just kind of a real grab bag of various low to mid-level crimes. Tell me a little bit about where you were at at that point in your life when you were eleven or twelve years old up until you were thirteen, fourteen years old. When you were fourteen years old you bought your first car. What was going on with you in that period of time?
PRODIGY: That period of time was probably my most rebellious time. My pops was on the run for awhile, and so he wasn't around for the discipline. My mom tried her best, but I was hanging out in the street making new friends. I went from living in Long Island to moving to Queens in LeFrak City. I was making new friends in different neighborhoods and learning new things. I started hanging out a lot with my new friends, and we started getting into a little more mischief than ever before. I started selling drugs when I moved to Queens, because I noticed that everybody in that neighborhood out there were doing that, and most of them were my friends. I wanted some of that, too. I wanted to get some of that easy money and have the nice clothes and the jewelry that everybody I saw was having.
I started doing things like that, and I actually got caught the second day of me selling some drugs, being a crack dealer. The second day I was out there selling some drugs I got caught by these plainclothes detectives. They actually let me go, they took the drugs from me and let me go, because I was like, twelves years old or around that age. I looked like I was seven or eight, I looked real little and young. So they said give me that, get out of here, go home. That kind of shook me up, I was scared after that to go out there and sell some drugs after that, so I was like, I'm just gonna chill from that. I was getting in to other trouble things; started drinking beer, started smoking weed at an early age, about twelve. Hanging out real late, going to parties, having sex, just out there and getting in all kinds of trouble. I was just manipulating things into my advantage. Rob a few people or do whatever we had to do, or whatever we thought was fun to do to get some money. That was my bad ass age.
JESSE THORN: How did you get into Mcing?
PRODIGY: Around that same time there was a producer from Queensbridge named Marley Marl, and he had put out this album called In Control. It was a compilation album of different Queensbridge artists and artists from Queens, and I think a couple of artists from Brooklyn. One of the most popular songs on that album was a song called The Symphony. When I heard that, that was the first song that really made me stop everything. Whoa, this song is incredible. The lyrics that they were saying, and the beat, it made me look at rap differently. Hold up, this is something that I really want to do with myself. I want to do that, too. I wanted that. So I decided to chase after that.
JESSE THORN: You started working towards a career as a professional musician when you were still a relatively young teenager, in part because you had these family members who had some connection in the music industry so they knew what the deal was; they knew how someone becomes a recording artist. The first song that you ever recorded that was released was when you were fifteen or sixteen years old, and I want to play a little bit of it. It was on the Boyz n the Hood soundtrack on a song from an R&B group called Hi-Five. It's called Too Young.
When do you feel like as a teenager, or did you feel all along, like you became you as an MC? You got past that point of wanting to be Kool G Rap or wanting to be Craig G and started projecting your own real self onto your songs?
PRODIGY: It had to be right after that Boyz n the Hood soundtrack came out. I went to go visit my father while he was on the run in California for another crime he had committed. While we were out there Boyz n the Hood was released to the theaters, so we went to see it on, I think it might have been the premiere night. We're in the movie theater watching it, and I had no idea about movie soundtracks; I didn't know how it worked, I didn't know they were going to play it in the movie or none of that. While we're sitting there watching the movie, the song comes on and me and my pops just jump up like, Yo! We got a song in the movie, a song in the movie! We were really excited about that and hyped, that felt good. It felt like I accomplished something. I really got to see the results of trying, when you try hard enough to get at something it feels good when you see some results. That makes you want to go further.
JESSE THORN: You had some seriousness of purpose about you. It seems like one of the big turning points in your career is, you had already hooked up with Havoc who you knew from school and was a talented MC and became your partner in what became Mobb Deep, originally called Poetical Prophets if I'm not misremembering that.
PRODIGY: Yeah, that's it.
JESSE THORN: You were trying to get a deal for this group essentially by hanging out around record companies.
PRODIGY: Yeah, mainly Def Jam.
JESSE THORN: When I say around, I mean literally down at the bottom of the stairs or whatever, or right outside the front door.
PRODIGY: Exactly, right outside.
JESSE THORN: You had a demo tape that I guess you had on a Walkman. Tell me about when you finally got someone to listen to it who got excited?
PRODIGY: What we used to do was, we made this 50 song demo tape when me and Havoc first met, we went ahead and made a demo tape.
JESSE THORN: That's good, because every A&R is going to want to know that a new artist can record 49 or more songs.
PRODIGY: Yeah, exactly. We made all these songs - - it's crazy, when me and Havoc make songs, we just make a lot of songs, that's how it's been ever since the beginning when we first met. So we had this 50 song demo, and our next stop was, how are we going to get it to be heard? So we looked at the back of the albums, and they had the address to all these labels. We were like, alright, which one are we going to pick? We picked Def Jam to go to first, because that was the best thing popping at the time. We took the address down, cut out of school, hopped on the train, and went down to Def Jam. So now we're standing outside because they're not letting us in, of course. We're standing outside waiting for artists to come out, waiting for whoever walks out this door we're just going to stop them and say, could you please give our music a listen real quick. We're rappers, we got some music, we're trying to get signed to Def Jam. We did that for awhile, and a lot of people were just like, I don't got time for that shorty. They walked away, some people just looked at us and ignored us and kept walking.
Then one of these rappers that was affiliated with Def Jam at that time, a rapper by the name of Q-Tip from a group called A Tribe Called Quest. So Q-Tip stopped and was like, alright, I'll give y'all a listen. He listened to the music, and actually listened to a couple of songs out there. He took it off and said, you know what, I like you guys, where you all from? We said we were from Queens, he said he was from Queens too, so he was like, alright, look, I'm going to bring you inside the office and introduce you to some people, I'm gonna try to help you out. That was a major turning point for us. Now we were inside, we had a connection inside, you know what I mean? He brought us and made us insiders, that's how we felt.
JESSE THORN: When I was reading that part of the book, I was imagining Q-Tip - - this is the early 1990s, I was imagining Q-Tip as Tribe dressed in 1991 or 1992, in like, African print baggy cotton pants and a dashiki and all that kind of thing, and you I was imagining my image of you maybe from the Shook Ones video, which came a couple years later, but a little skinny kid in the street fashion of that time, which was more about looking grimy than anything else. I was imagining the two of you going up there, and what an unlikely pair you were.
PRODIGY: I still wasn't too different at that time, because at that time our name was Poetical Prophets. That was a little phase we were going through. You had this rap group called the X-Clan, you had this rap group A Tribe Called Quest. A lot of it was this real conscious rap about the black culture and being aware of your culture and all that. People were rocking African medallions and different stuff.
JESSE THORN: Were you rhyming about that kind of stuff?
PRODIGY: No, we weren’t actually rhyming about that kind of stuff, but that was the style at that time. We had African medallions. That was the trend at that time, that was the most popular trend was the African medallions and certain shirts and African canes. A lot of people had that back in the days. We wasn't too far from what Q-Tip was doing, but we were definitely different. We weren't that style really, we would just throw on some of the trendy stuff at the time, but that wasn't really our style, what we were about and what we represented in life and our actions in life didn't really match that.
JESSE THORN: You signed a record deal as a teenager and put out an album that flopped. It didn't flop colossally, but it was not a success and you got dropped not that long after it came out. You had some minor regional hits and so on, but you were essentially back at zero. I wondered as I was reading your book whether you thought about doing something else with your life, or whether it was always the plan that it was going to be you and Havoc and Mobb Deep and the music industry that was going to be your future?
PRODIGY: When we put out our first album and we had got dropped because it didn't do good, it was devastating to us, we were like, no, no, this can't be happening. Why did this happen? We really had to recalibrate ourselves and really pull ourselves back down to Earth and figure out why that just happened to us.
Once we figured it out, it was like, okay, this is how you fix it. This is what we did wrong, and this is how you fix it. So that's what we did. We immediately got to work on fixing it, because we knew this was what we wanted to do with our life. This is the music that we love and that we live, and we didn't want nothing else. It was this or nothing, that was our attitude at that time. It was this or nothing. We didn't want nothing else. We had to fix the problem.
JESSE THORN: You ended up making this record called The Infamous, and we heard earlier Shook Ones Part II, but let's hear another one of the most noteworthy tracks from that album, Survival of the Fittest.
As I was revisiting The Infamous, I was thinking about how different it felt from other things that were out at the time. By the time this record dropped, there were other people talking about street life on record, especially West Coast, at the time so called gangster rappers. But there was something very different about the tone of what you guys were talking about in that if I listened to a West Coast gangster record from the early 1990s, it's sort of gleeful in a way. It's like an adventure. It's like a movie that's exaggerated, like a blacksploitation movie or something. When I listen to your records from that time, they're dark and kind of sad; they feel kind of sad to me.
PRODIGY: It definitely had that element to it. I think the reason behind that was because the environment that we were in and that we came up with and where we spent our time at, where we lived basically, is serious. There's a lot of crime, murder, drugs, poverty; it's crazy. Poverty pushed people to do a lot of wild things.
So coming from that whole element there, and also Queensbridge, that project's right there, that's the biggest projects in America. It's something real special about that hood is that a lot of trends came from that hood. We started a lot of trends. We created a lot of slang, styles of dress, even the way our beats sound. When we really got down to it and mastered our sound and our production skills, our sound was real sinister and dark and evil sounding almost. Because of that, the lyrics that go on top of it, we're gonna write something that matches the sound of the beat, it's only natural that it's going to come out matching that sound and the whole lifestyle that we were living. And of course the new slang that people had never really heard, and all the new styles, and all the stuff that we were doing that was basically unique to that neighborhood. That gave it the whole feel like, this is something new right here. They're doing something new. Like when Nas came out, and then The Infamous dropped after that, it was just like, wow. These dudes is on another level right here.
JESSE THORN: I want to play a song that you recorded just a couple of years ago, sort of jumping forward in the time line ten years or so. It's from one of your solo records, and it's called Mac 10 Handle.
JESSE THORN: I wonder if you can tell me a little bit about the place you were in when you wrote this before we hear it.
PRODIGY: When I wrote that song I was just thinking of a concept where - - it's a revenge song. Like somebody out for revenge, you know what I mean? It's payback time. Like James Brown had that song The Big Payback, that's what this song was like. It was a payback record, a revenge record.
JESSE THORN: It's definitely more carazy than it is karate.
PRODIGY: Yeah, exactly. Hahaha!
JESSE THORN: Let's hear my guest Prodigy and his song Mac 10 Handle.
You were pulled over making an illegal U-turn by undercover police. They searched your car, found an unlicensed pistol, and you ended up with a plea bargain that put you in prison for three years. What kind of head space were you in before you went into prison?
PRODIGY: I was in a bad, bad head space. I was heading in a self destructive direction. I was drinking a lot, smoking a lot of weed, real arrogant and cocky. My priority wasn't together, wasn't in order. I was in a bad place at that time. So me getting locked up was actually a blessing for me; I look at it like a blessing. It helped for me to see the light. Once you get the rug snatched from under you - - I had my career and family snatched from me, and I was forced to just sit there in that box for three years and think about what I did and how selfish I was, and how foolish I was, it made me really see things with new eyes, like, hold up, why was I doing that? What the hell was I thinking about? I put all this in jeopardy, put myself in jeopardy. I gotta change. Something's got to give. I can't ever come back in this place again. So that's what it was.
JESSE THORN: Three years is a long time. Did those changes take a long time to take root in you?
PRODIGY: No, actually. I started on that immediately. My plan was to clean myself out mentally, physically, spiritually. Come out physically stronger, working out every day and getting my body in shape so I could be in excellent condition. Read a lot, get my mind sharp, work out that brain muscle. And just to repair my relationship with God, and cleanse my spirit a little bit. I needed that. I was always real back and forth about the whole religion and God. That comes from me just dealing with that pain when I was younger, and just growing up, living that particular street lifestyle. It brought my relationship with God into question many times. I wanted to repair that and fix that, and that's what I went in and did. I did all of that. I wrote many albums and all that kind of stuff, but the most important part was fixing my mind, body, and soul; getting it together, really getting it together where I could have a future, and a successful future.
JESSE THORN: I want to play one last song, this is from the new EP that you just put out. It's called Stronger. It's a beautiful song; a really pretty sample from one of my favorite Nina Simone songs.
Tell me a little bit about writing this record.
PRODIGY: That record right there was my way of showing people that I could overcome any obstacle; I had a strong heart, strong minded, strong willed. That regardless of anything that happens, any obstacles in my way, I'm gonna make it work.
JESSE THORN: Prodigy, I sure appreciate you taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.
PRODIGY: Thank you, I definitely appreciate you having me.
JESSE THORN: Prodigy's new book about his life is called My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep's Prodigy. He also has a brand new digital EP which you can download for free, it's called The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP, and he's working on the next Mobb Deep release right now.