On Tuesday (June 20), the hip-hop world received the unfortunate news that rapper Prodigy died at age 42. He passed away from complications with Sickle Cell Anemia, which he battled for most of his life. He even touched on this in songs like “Rock That Sh*t,” and “You Can Never Feel My Pain.”
Although much of P’s pain was rooted in his sickness, the rapper’s vexation, and–what seemed like– a lust for violence also spoke to deeper issues–pain from profound poverty and a stifling frustration of feeling hopeless. Yes, Prodigy was fortunate to get a record deal as a teenager, which furnished him with a very comfortable lifestyle. But Prodigy was so embedded in Queensbridge Housing Projects– the largest projects in America–that the underworld language and baggage never left him. Regardless of where one is from, ghettos cover every space in the U.S.
Even down south in Laurel, Mississippi.
I have always connected lyrics to my personal experiences. And while I have never been a violent person, I have definitely experienced violence and agony up close thanks to two of my homeboys back in the ‘Sip–one of whom loved Prodigy’s music.
Out of respect for my dawgs, their names will be changed to O-Dog and Don. Both men carried the same unwelcoming aura–if you didn’t know them–as Prodigy did. Sh*t, they even had permanent ice-grills plastered on their faces like Prodigy.
I remember when O came home from the Mississippi State Penitentiary. O-Dog served five years of a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. In fact, O and Don came home from prison around the same time. Don served a ten-year sentence for armed robbery. Both were around 25-27 years old when they came home — still young and wild. I was a baby-faced 17-year-old when I started running with O, who is also my cousin. He guided and schooled me to the rules of the underworld. I met Don through O. He wasn’t a hustler like me and O, but Don was still official. The kid was a shooter.
Not long after O-Dog came home from prison, he was shot with a 12-gauge shotgun, which took out a chunk of his left leg, and he was even grazed in his head with a buck shot. O was angry and violent before the shooting, but the attempt on his life only gave him a shorter fuse.
I remember we’d ride around listening to P’s H.N.I.C. album or Return of the Mac. “Mack 10 Handle” was one of Don’s favorite songs by P. We’d even listen to Mobb Deep’s Infamy album. O and Don loved P because the Queens native expressed agony and described the violence that we saw every day. In a way, P’s violent raps were Bible verses on how to survive in the streets. Now, I don’t advocate the street life but it’s a fact that many young black men are stuck in the streets and they have to survive. Unfortunately, violence is used as conduit to survival in criminal spaces. When one is in such an environment and chooses to partake in the street life, it becomes imperative that people understand how violent one can be. Or as Prodigy showed, it’s important for one to inflict severe pain on your enemy so they can understand that you are not for the games. Lives are stake here. That’s what Prodigy did in his raps. He was hurting, so he wanted his enemies to hurt as well.
There were many nights when O-Dog and I would ride through the streets of Laurel while talking about life’s discomforts. To deal with my uneasiness I read black history books or listened to music. Not O-Dog, though. He was from the school of Prodigy. O-Dog like P, wanted you to feel the pain that he felt. One night, I watched O-Dog beat a young man so bad that O cut his knuckles on the poor guy’s teeth. After the vicious beating, O went home to show his son his bloody knuckles. “Wake up,” he said. “You see how I beat a ni**a? This is how you beat a ni**a for getting out of line.”
When O-Dog’s bullet wounds would ache, he often talked about driving to Atlanta to make “that ni**a’s” mom feel what he felt. If you listen to P’s raps, he was so vicious and vivid in describing how bad he’d hurt an opponent. Describing this part of life in the ghetto is just one of the many reasons that made P a potent lyricist.
But there’s one particular event with O-Dog and Don that–maybe in some ways–traumatized me. O-Dog and I were hustling in my ’94 Crown Vic. We spotted Don on the block. At this particular moment, Don had an evil gleam in his eye, and he was teary-eyed and very upset. I’d never seen Don look so uncertain and evil.
“Man, them bi**hes offered me ten years. I can’t do no fu**ing ten,” Don said as he hopped in my car. Don had recently caught another armed robbery charge. “Man, put in the Prodigy, D, and O give me some powder.”
With “H.N.I.C.” blasting from the Crown Vic, and Don yelling that he’s tired of “bi**hes” playing with him, he snorted all of the cocaine that O gave him–in one sniff–and more tears fell from his eyes before telling me to let him out. Even today, it’s hard for me to describe all of the emotions that ran through my soul with seeing my friend in such a disoriented state.
But this story gets worse. The very next day, Don stabbed a man to death and even licked his victim’s blood off the knife. He was high on cocaine and drunk on liquor. He’s now serving a life sentence in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
With all of this, P’s pain and violent raps represented not just my friends O-Dog and Don, but Prodigy spoke for an entire nation of thugs, who lack the stability and resources to get the help they need. There have been studies that prove that men who come from violent neighborhoods have PTSD, which in most cases go untreated for various reasons.
This is why us hip-hop journalists need to do a better job at exposing the deeper issues that MCs rap about as opposed to basic questions or searching for answers that will serve as click-bait. The violence comes from a real place–especially for those who really live that life. Some rappers aren’t just throwing words around. Pain, as Prodigy showed us, is a real issue.