On June 20, 2017, Albert Johnson, better known as Prodigy of Mobb Deep died in a Las Vegas hospital where he was being treated for sickle cell anemia. Prodigy was a legend in New York rap and a vital source of inspiration for rappers across the country. From Mobb Deep’s classic ‘Shook Ones, Pt. II’ to Prodigy’s own blog, Claire Lobenfeld looks back at the Queens legend’s legacy.
Elements of ’90s New York hip-hop often have their influence overlooked in favor of the city’s pop stars (Puff Daddy, Jay-Z) and the monumental legend of The Notorious B.I.G. But New York rap didn’t really die until June 20, 2017 when Prodigy, né Albert Johnson, passed away in a Las Vegas hospital, where he was being treated for complications of sickle cell anemia, a disorder he had been suffering from since he was a child.
Music was a large part of Prodigy’s youth. His mother, Fatima Johnson (then known as Frances Collins), did a brief stint in the legendary girl group The Crystals (known for songs like ‘He’s a Rebel’ and ‘He Hit Me (But It Felt Like a Kiss)’) from 1964-1966 and his grandfather was Budd Johnson, a renowned jazz player from the bebop era. P’s father Budd Johnson, Jr., was a part of the doo wop group The Chanters, as well.
Prodigy first pursued music under the moniker Lord-T (the Golden Child). He appeared on the soundtrack for John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood with an opening salvo on Hi-Five’s ‘Too Young’. “I flirted with the women at Jive and one of them, Kim, a good-looking heavyset black woman, got me on the soundtrack for a movie coming out that summer called Boyz N the Hood,” he wrote in his autobiography. “After that first big break, Jive wanted to sign me up for a real contract.”
Jive, unfortunately, wouldn’t sign Prodigy with his rhyme partner Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita, but the two received acclaim in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column before releasing their debut album Juvenile Hell in 1993. It featured production from Large Professor and DJ Premier. Prodigy and Havoc were still in high school.
Mobb Deep’s real star-making moment came on the heels of an appearance on Nas’s Illmatic. The duo released ‘Shook Ones Pt. II’, the grimy and evocative lead single from their album The Infamous. Over a searing beat, the song is primed for listeners “who ain’t got no feelings” but it is really for those full of mud, overwhelmed by feelings, but with no idea what to do about them. Prodigy offered up a solution: “Rock you in your face / Stab your brain with your nose bone”.
His words elsewhere on The Infamous, from ‘Up North Trip’ to even the album’s prelude, were brutal, but acerbic. Violence was the core of so much of his music, but he was acutely aware of that violence’s pathology. Prodigy didn’t just solve lyrical problems, he showed his work. He could have just as easily been a novelist – and not in the hokey rap-is-just-another-form-of-poetry way – he was in love with words and finding new ways to use them. Until very recently, the slang usage of “shook” was defined by Mobb Deep: “scared to death, scared to look”. Prodigy was not just a dexterous rapper, he embedded his icy bars with palpable pain. His lyrics were cherry-picked to be evocative and if there wasn’t a word for what P wanted to express, he made one up.
Both his mind and his tongue were sharp and he was the type of writer who was not content to use his pen only in the confines of his chosen medium. P wrote raps, but he was prolific on paper, as well. He released two books in his lifetime (My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Prodigy and Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Prison Cookbook, both co-written by women, Laura Checkoway and Kathy Iandoli, respectively) and claimed to be the first rapper to have a blog, where he shared thoughts on the government and the Illuminati and defended his place in hip-hop history. “How dare you question my trendsetting. Look at what I bring to the table,” he wrote.
Sadly, in a canonized itemized list of his contributions to hip-hop (including popularizing Timberland work boots, drinking Hennessy and “putting words together that don’t rhyme and making them rhyme”), he included “demerol [and] morphine raps”. He wasn’t talking about “dope dick” lyrics, but hazy, drugged up meditations from a hospital bed – a place he spent a lot of time because of his sickle cell anemia.
But he knew the power of the internet and he was supportive of the younger generation of rappers. “It’s not lyrical or whatever, they doing them, just having fun,” he said of artists like Soulja Boy and Waka Flocka Flame. “When I look at that, I compare it to like how rap started. The Sugar Hill Gang, the Cold Crush and all that. It was fun. It wasn’t really about being too lyrical.” His respect for rap music was vast.
P also influenced one of our biggest pop stars. When Kanye West holed up in Hawaii with his friends and collaborators to work on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he kept a sign in the studio that read, “What Would Mobb Deep Do?” But there was no need for that motivational totem to give evidence for Kanye’s love of Mobb Deep, there had been glimpses of it years before through his Prodigy pantomime, whether it was his use of slant rhymes or his all-caps blog Kanye Universe City.
P and Havoc released two more albums in the ’90s, Hell on Earth in 1996 and Murda Musik in 1999. While both are considered Mobb Deep classics, Murda Musik gave the group one of their biggest crossover hits: ‘Quiet Storm’ featuring Lil Kim. The hook’s repetition gave it appeal outside of the street rap world, but what gives the track an extra layer of grit is the room it gave Kim to be more than a sex object. She may be dressed in lingerie in the video, but she is Brooklyn brash throughout. P knew what toxic masculinity was and that a lot of what Mobb Deep rapped about was a product of it. But his reverence for women shined in his work, whether it giving Kim a platform to explore her inner Teflon Don, or collaborating only with women on his books.
P released his first solo album H.N.I.C. in 2000 and the group eventually disbanded in 2011 (and briefly beefed) after Prodigy returned from a three-and-a-half year prison sentence for possession of an illegal firearm. Prodigy was no stranger to scuffles in his time: he staunchly defended New York in the East Coast-West Coast rivalry; bumped heads with Keith Murray, calling his Def Squad crew “Deaf Squid” throughout My Infamous Life; Jay-Z famously projected a picture of very young Prodigy in his finest Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson costume, attempting to dismantle the hard-boiled mythology of P’s past. “We don’t believe you, you need more people,” Jay-Z rapped, accusing Prodigy of making up his hard past.
If the outpouring of love, admiration and genuine inspiration felt on the day of his passing tells us anything, it’s that whoever Jay-Z was looking for is inconsequential. P doesn’t need more people now. He has everyone. Mobb Deep drew the blueprint for the overcast, soot-ridden sound we associate with New York rap. Despite the backlash toward the city for seeing itself as too important or stuck in the past, Mobb Deep have never sounded dated, only seasoned. P is the forebear to someone like Future who raps in detail about the pleasure of his own pain and is a firm reminder that our legends are still relevant even at 40. Rap won’t be the same without his open heart and his razor-edged personality, but it will be forever influenced by it.
Here is a personal story I’d like to share that is indirectly about Prodigy. In August 2015, I was interviewing Lydia Lunch and Weasel Walter about the Teenage Jesus and the Jerks retrospective album they had just curated together. At some point in our conversation, I mentioned that something about how my primary journalism beat was rap. She wanted recommendations about who was new and worthwhile, mentioning that she really liked Future and this one other guy whose name she couldn’t remember. She offered some song lyrics to see if I could help her remember the name: “I sit alone in my dirty ass room, starin’ at candles, high on drugs, with my hand on my Mac 10 handle”. It was, of course, Prodigy. That song, ‘Mac 10 Handle’, was released in 2007, almost 15 years after the release of ‘Shook Ones Pt. II’ and its potency is a testament to P’s endurance.