“I’m not even going to front…he got me,” snickered an unusually self-deprecating Albert Johnson. While it was true that the all-too-serious Hempstead, N.Y. born emcee known to millions as Prodigy of the revered Queens rhyme duo Mobb Deep wasn’t much for jovial displays, the sneering lyricist, who shockingly passed away on Tuesday (June 20) at 42 after a long battle with sickle-cell anemia, knew when to laugh at himself. And so in the fall of 2001, as he and his partner/producer Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita geared up for the release of their fifth album Infamy, Prodigy sat in a cramped Midtown Manhattan recording studio across from this writer to face the music.
To be frank, when Brooklyn hip-hop giant JAY-Z flashed a big screen shot of a pubescent Prodigy wearing a leotard and shiny Michael Jackson-esque jacket at Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam concert just a few months before, the now infamous moment fueled by Hov’s scathing Nas and Mobb Deep-aimed diss track “Takeover” would have destroyed the careers of most high-flying rappers at the time. But as his friends and cohorts would say, Prodigy—who as a child was enrolled in his grandmother’s celebrated Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center—was a different kind of cat. “Why would I be upset with something like that?” Prodigy mused. “It’s kinda funny. And real talk, Jay knows in his heart he can’t f**k with me.”
No, this wasn’t some cheap swagger manufactured to hide behind the stinging reality of defeat. This was P being P. Throughout Mobb Deep’s sneaky artistic and commercial ‘90s run, no other emcee epitomized the street-injected, hardboiled, Timberland boot and Pelle Pelle leather jacket-rocking New York rap sound and energy than Prodigy. He was as unapologetically East Coast as Snoop Dogg was West Coast and UGK (Bun B and Pimp C) were Dirty South.
Let’s roll the tape. Nas, the most revered lyricist of the ‘90s and quite arguably of all time, did indeed drop the quintessential New York album with 1994’s landmark Illmatic. But could you ever imagine Prodigy doing this? The late iconic Notorious B.I.G.? The supreme Brooklyn rap deity was not above wearing shiny suits (thanks Puffy) to achieve crossover appeal. The great Wu-Tang Clan weirdly mixed ‘hood aesthetic, off-the-wall Kung Fu flick references, and mind-bending Five Percent Muslim ideology that got as much run on the boulevard as it did at Comic Con conventions.
Buckshot and the Boot Camp Clik were too Brooklyn even for New York. Native Tongue’s A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul took turns composing exceptional thinking-man’s rap that you could play for your dad to prove the artistic merits of hip-hop. There was no such goodwill, however, with Mobb Deep. Prodigy’s aim was to stab your brain with your nose bone (his words, not mine), literally be the last gun standing in a shootout, slap the holy hell out of wack, posing rappers, and represent for Queens to the fullest. You know, normal life goals.
Platinum queens Lil Kim and Foxy Brown at various moments found themselves distracted by their cover girl ambitions (hey, don’t blame them. Selling sex appeal is as American as cheating on your taxes). Hov simply picked up where Biggie left off before finding his own music mogul-embracing, event-album releasing, Coachella-headlining groove. And DMX at times came off as a caricature of the prototypical East Coast rapper.
But Prodigy was ‘90s New York hip-hop boiled down and hardened to its purest form in his barely 5’6,” pole skinny frame as if he were cooked with baking soda in the back of a bodega that advertised “LOOSIES FOR SALE” right across the street from his beloved Queensbridge projects. If the criminally underrated Havoc (who deserves to be mentioned in the pantheon of great post-Golden Age, East Coast producers such as DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Prince Paul and RZA) proved that clean, boom bap beats could be distilled into gutter, ethereal and menacing orchestrations, Prodigy showed he belonged with the best of his era’s street poets.
You would be hard pressed to find a more pronounced lyrical jump than Prodigy’s startling evolution from Mobb Deep’s uneven 1993 debut Juvenile Hell to their landmark 1995 breakthrough The Infamous. Within two years, he had transformed into a feared wordsmith who wrote one of the most memorable opening lines in hip-hop’s highly competitive canon. “I got you stuck off the realness, we be the infamous, you heard of us, official Queensbridge murderers,” Prodigy proclaimed on Mobb Deep’s glorious, two-fisted classic “Shook Ones Part II.” There was a reason why fights routinely erupted at clubs during Mobb Deep songs. They were the true soundtrack for New York hustlers and gangsters.
And a fearless Prodigy was not one to shy away from a battle (for better or for worse) as proof of his litany of rhyme face-offs with Tupac Shakur, Death Row Records, the aforementioned Nas and JAY-Z, Redman and Keith Murray. There would be more classic Mobb Deep albums (1996’s even darker Hell on Earth and 1999’s one million selling statement Murda Muzik) and singles (“Survival of the Fittest,” “Give Up the Goods (Just Step),” “Back at You,” “Front Lines (Hell on Earth)” and “Quiet Storm”). And it was all anchored by Prodigy’s no-bullsh*t, unwavering prose that always sounded like payback for what KRS-One did to MC Shan and the entire borough of Queens back in the mid ‘80s with “The Bridge Is Over.”
When Prodigy went solo with his gloriously bruising Alchemist-produced 2000 track “Keep It Thoro,” you believed him when he threatened to “throw a TV at you crazy…” The ever resourceful rapper even turned a three-year prison bid for criminal possession of a weapon in October of 2007 into an acclaimed career as an author with 2011’s My Infamous Life: The Biography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and 2016’s unlikely success story Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Prison Cookbook.
Indeed, even after a very public and nasty breakup with Havoc in 2012, Prodigy took it all in stride. A year later, he reunited with his Mobb Deep brother-in-spirit. “Me and Hav got a different type of relationship man,” he told MTV in 2013. “We been through a lot of stuff growing up, just personal stuff. When you dealing with somebody for that long every day, you’re gonna have your little squabbles or whatever, it’s nothing.”
It was nothing. But the same cannot be said for Prodigy’s immense impact on hip-hop culture. It’s a realization that even the man’s biggest former rival had to admit. “For a period of time he was close to being the best rapper in the game,” JAY-Z said of Prodigy a few years later following their beef.
Actually Mr. Carter, for a brief moment, Prodigy was the best.