NYC rapper Prodigy, best known as half of the influential hip-hop duo Mobb Deep who created such classic records as …The Infamous and Hell On Earth in the 90s, spoke last night at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. On tour supporting the release of his autobiography, My Infamous Life, Prodigy had quite a bit to say during the roughly 60 minute Q&A, hosted by AJ from 92Q’s Rap Attack.
I’ve been a fan of Mobb Deep since 1995, when I moved to NYC and was exposed to their sophomore album, …The Infamous. I still consider this to be one of THE classic records of the 90s and it’s one of my favorite albums of all time. He also has a successful solo career as well with albums such as HNIC and 2007’s underrated Return of the Mac. In recent years though, Prodigy is more well know for a series of beefs, an abortive signing to 50 Cent’s G-unit label, and his 2007 gun possession conviction which led to him being incarcerated for 3 years.
Prodigy talked about this all, and more. Some highlights:
– When asked if, at the time he felt that he and Mobb Deep were ahead of their NYC MC competition in terms of talent: “As far as Biggie, Jay-Z, everyone… the only person I was nervous about was Nas. I was young-minded, real cocky, arrogant… I was feeling myself.”
– Speaking of Nas, when asked what the first thing he did when he was released, he had this to say: “The main thing I wanted to do [when I got out of prison] was squash the beef with Nas so we could make music again.”
– His surprising musical family history. His grandfather was Budd Johnson, who is in the Jazz Hall of Fame, taught Quincy Jones how to write sheet music, and who used to sneak young Prodigy into his shows. His grandmother was a dancer at the world-famous Cotton Club, was good friends with Lena Horne, and owned her own dance school. His mother was in the Crystals, a popular doo-wop group whose music should be familiar to anyone that has ever seen a Scorsese movie (“Then He Kissed Me”, which features prominently in Goodfellas, among others).
– HNIC, the name of his first solo record, came from his grandmother, who had a sign on her desk at her dance school that said “Head N—- In Charge”.
– On Sickle Cell Anemia, the disease he has suffered from his whole life, and how it influenced his mindset coming up: “It’s like… serious pain. I used to be mad at God, it caused me to have doubts in my mind. It made me a really angry person growing up… there’s a lot of pain in it. It took me til my mid-twenties to realize that God wasn’t punishing me.”
– He met Havoc, his musical partner for almost 20 years, at Manhattan High School of Art & Design, because a student in Prodigy’s photo class found out he rapped, and knew another guy who was the same height (short) who also rapped, and thought the two might look good together on stage. Their first group featured a very tall DJ, who he said they had to get rid of because “it just looked weird”.
– After dropping out of a deal with Jive under the name “Lord T the Golden Child” (the name was influenced by the Eddie Murphy movie The Golden Child, which came out around the same time) because they wouldn’t include Havoc, the duo recorded a demo and scored a meeting at Def Jam by waiting outside their offices day after day, hoping to pass the demo to someone who could get them signed. Constantly ignored, they finally managed to grab the attention of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, who liked their work ethic and their music and got them a meeting with Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam.
– Before the meeting, Prodigy wanted to leave his gun – which he says he carried to protect himself from a Brookly gang called the Decepticons! – in one of the offices, because he didn’t want to have a gun on him when he met Russell Simmons. The meeting ended up being with Lyor Cohen, another very powerful music exec, who decided they were too young and if they put out their music, which was very dark and adult in it’s subject matter, they might get sued.
– On the way back to collect the gun, Havoc somehow accidentally shot a Def Jam staff member! But the staff member “understood” and knew it wasn’t on purpose, so nothing came of it…. wow!
– They eventually managed to score a deal and released 1992?s “Peer Pressure”, a juvenile album that still managed to have several stand-out tracks. This writer managed to score a copy from his college radio station’s collection, since it was a hard to find album in the 90s. The rap music director had inscribed it with the review “Soundtrack for shorties, 3 stars”. Prodigy’s assessment? “We didn’t care about making an album that could stand the test of time, we just wanted the Gold teeth… We were young and dumb…” He noted that right after this album was released, Nas came out with the classic, and critically acclaimed, Illmatic, which made them want to focus more on production, beats, and lyrics, and craft a classic album of their own.
– On why he thinks the East Coast/West Coast rivalry happened: everyone from the NYC hip-hop scene was at the first Source awards, where Death Row had a showcase. During Snoop Dogg’s set, the crowd was watching, but was subdued. Snoop became angry, stopped the show and started yelling at them, and they reacted by booing. Not long after, Snoop released the “NY, NY” east coast diss video, which inspired the response track “LA, LA”, and it went on from there… however, Prodigy maintains that the crowd was just subdued in a New York City way, they were enjoying his show, they just were not as wild as the West Coast crowds that Snoop was used to. “We wasn’t trying to start some trouble, we was like ‘what are you doing, dog?'”
– Further, Tupac stirred the pot by making his robbery and shooting in NYC an east coast/west coast issue when he knew who was responsible, and that it was a simple robbery. When he released the Biggie Smalls and Mobb Deep directed diss track Hit Em Up, he knew none of them were involved, but just wanted to get media attention, according to Prodigy. And the media ran with it. “It was read sad how it ended… It shouldn’t have went that far… Me and Pac had friends and didn’t even know it at that time.”
– He talked about, how in the early 2000s, he cleaned up his life, stopping drinking, doing drugs and acting badly. He noted that he had been working in the music business since he was 16 and never had a chance to grow up for real, so he was still acting like a teenager and it was time to change that and act his age. The renewed energy allowed him to focus on business, write 4 albums of material at once, write a screenplay, and led to Mobb Deep getting signed to G-Unit. “Because my mind was focused and clear… It was the power of God… Because my spirit was clean and strong.” At this point, he had so much material, he decided to release his first solo album, and make a movie from his screenplay, called Murder Musik.
– Sadly, this led to his downward spiral. He spent $400k of his personal money on the movie, then got in a legal dispute with the director, who he says held the project hostage. He talked about how he literally wanted to kill the director, and how the negative feelings led him to drink, smoke, do drugs again. He had to hide his behavior from his wife and kids, and he started becoming self-destructive, carrying a gun. “It was back to the old me all over again”. Getting signed to G-Unit didn’t help, since, against 50 Cent’s advice, he tried to live a lifestyle like the G-Unit crew, with expensive jewelry, bulletproof trucks, and other extravagances, which only stressed his finances more and hurt his state of mind… factors which contributed to his carrying a gun, and his arrest with said gun.
With that, Prodigy had to break so he could head back to NYC, but he let us know there was a lot more to read about in the book, and paused for enough time to sign copies of his book. He also spent a few minutes with a young Baltimore boy who has sickle cell, and his father, who wanted him to see an example of someone with the illness who had accomplished alot in his life, a touching moment. I had picked up his book anticipation of the event, and spent a moment getting it signed and talking with him. I asked if a Mobb Deep album or tour was in the works and he said to expect both in 2012, that he has been in the studio nonstop since release and they are spending a lot of effort to make it a classic album. A lot to look forward to!
(Here’s a photo of me getting my book signed, purloined from the Enoch Pratt Library twitter, I didn’t even notice them taking this!)