Legend: Albert “Prodigy” Johnson

“You’re going to Queens today,” said with a matter of fact tone by my editor. The year was 2006; I was a hungry music editor for Complex magazine taking on an assignment to interview Mobb Deep. I was a young scribe about to get my weight up by going in the field to interview on the subject’s turf. This was my first time talking to Havoc and Prodigy. To be honest, I was nervous. But I was nervous about every interview I did, and I had already done a lot of Q&A’s over the phone as a Staff Writer. This one with the MOBB was a bit different. I journeyed into the depths of Queens to the Infamous Studio, where there was no access to train, or bus. It could have been Long Island. I don’t remember. I can’t even begin to tell you how late I was. After one too many detours on a Queens bus, I finally found a cab that would pick me up. In that part of town, in the blistering summer, it was sheer luck if you found a cab, much less one that would stop for a young Black man. It was a real sleepy part of town. There was no one on the street and the cab driver didn’t have change for a $20. At every possible turn, I was faced with a reason to just say “fuck it” and go home. The last straw was the bodega, which ripped me off as I tried to cop a bottle of water with a $20-bill so I could pay the rookie cabbie. My mind was racing trying to put the drama behind me and focus on getting quotes for this album review. Luckily the Mobb was recording pretty much all day. This was their home, the same place they had recorded every studio album thus far.

This was a different Mobb Deep. They had recently signed to G-Unit after getting dropped from Jive Records. Their future seemed bigger and brighter because 50 Cent was backing their next release, Blood Money. Except, there was an elephant in the room. A year before Blood Money, in ruthless 50 Cent fashion, made a diss record aimed at his foes, one of which poked fun at Jay-Z’s feud with Prodigy. Fif and P put aside their differences so 50 could build an army that consisted of Mobb Deep, M.O.P., Spyder Loc, Olivia, Tony Yayo, Lloyd Banks, and Young Buck. I saw Mobb Deep’s pledge of allegiance with “G-Unit” tatted on their hands; 50 Cent had reportedly tattooed “Infamous” on his wrist.

Fans, including myself, were skeptical of them being picked up by G-Unit. It looked like a money grab. The music didn’t have the bite of their early anthems that narrated the gritty side of New York. The Queensbridge griots of ghetto life became what Phonte of Little Brother dubbed, “Club Mobb.” He said in his review, “I always thought “Outta Control” was dope, because it felt like a natural progression for Club Mobb…..it was the grown and sexy Club Mobb and it knocked. The same can’t be said for “Give It To Me” and “Backstage Pass.” They are club attempts that sound forced and honestly, are downright laughable.” I wasn’t mad at it. He also forgot to mention “It’s Alright,” an R&B record featuring Mary J. Blige that resurrected Alchemist’s beat for “Tick Tock.” “The Infamous” and “Give It To Me” were cool because I DJ in nightclubs. To be fair, Mobb Deep were kings of The Tunnel nightclub in its heyday. Why should they be vilified for that?

Our interview was tough. I was still new to the game, so I had a battery of questions prepared from all the research I did. My homie Toshitaka Kondo had also interviewed the Mobb for VIBE magazine around the same time to discuss their signing to G-Unit. With all that in mind, I still didn’t really hit it off with Hav and P. I rambled, prefaced questions in ways that yielded very short answers. The worst part was talking about recently watching Match Point and made a horrible, convoluted explanation of it. Ugh…. We made a solid review (below), and salvaged the interview.

Soldiers of Fortune

The newest G-Unit recruits learn scared money don’t make none.

The Bridge is not over. Fans of Mobb Deep feared the worst when, after being dropped by Jive in early 2004, the perennially gold Queensbridge gangsta rappers joined 50 Cent and G-Unit. Besides more references to their bank accounts and a couple of G-Unit tats, the sudden label shift has not significantly changed Mobb Deep’s commitment to make thug music. Pretty easy to pull off, since they have not completely left the ‘hood. Nestled in their Queens studio between a grimy bodega and barred-window two-family homes, their minds stay on seeing big dollars from their 50 Cent executive produced seventh album, Blood Money. Believe in luck? They surely do.

Redemption came a year later for a quick interview with Prodigy. At Complex we did this easy-to-read feature called Celeb Poll. We’d ask anything, so I didn’t have to take this interview as serious as my first with the Mobb.

What do you remember about your first date?
Prodigy: Me and my cousin went ice skating in Central Park with these twins. We was poppin’.

How do you get your sneakers?
Prodigy: Fuckin’ with Alchemist, he had me buying $450 Air Force 1’s.

What gets you sex, money or fame?
Prodigy: Money. You can buy some pussy with money.

What movie describes your sex game?
Prodigy: Octopussy

For this interview, I went to KOCH Entertainment, the label that would release Return of the Mac, the collab album between Prodigy and Alchemist. Prodigy was in a great mood: he was smiling at every chance he could get especially because he just got a new set of pearly veneers. He was dripping in jewelry and a black fur coat.  He smelled like money. And the album they were about to release together was a priceless work of art. My advance copy of Return of the Mac was in rotation between me and my other editor homies. We played it like it was gonna save our life. It was arguably Prodigy’s best solo effort. The album’s cover, photographed by Rayon Richards took inspiration from legendary Harlem New York, gangster Bumpy Johnson. Alchemist played organized crime mobster Dutch Shultz, the Jewish-American counterpart to Bumpy. The outlaw lifestyle was epitomized in the dusty texture of Alchemist’s beat construction sampling obscure 1970s-era soul singers like O.V. Wright, Intimate Strangers, and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Return of the Mac also created a domino effect of releases by Al and P respectively: Chemical Warfare, H.N.I.C. 2, The Bumpy Johnson Album, Albert Einstein. Through that string of releases, if we had an opportunity to get Al or P in the magazine to promote their work, we would find a way to make it happen. I soon had opportunities to interview Alchemist. One was to promote Chemical Warfare, and others were at his apartment a bunch of times where he played me a bunch of rough cuts of songs. “You Ain’t Got Nothin'” in its early stages was one song that only had verses from Fabolous and Cassidy, but would later end up on Lil Wayne’s album, swapping Cassidy for Juelz Santana. P was at the crib once just hanging out, when I interviewed Ca$his, one of Shady Records’ fledgling acts.  Al’s apartment had it’s own history. Some of the greatest rappers of all time recorded there, from The L.O.X., Cormega, and of course Mobb Deep. It’s also the central location in Al’s Chemistry Files DVD which documented studio sessions at parties with the Mobb Deep extended family Twin Gambino and Illa Ghee. The more I interviewed these cats, the more comfortable I was knocking out stories.

I have a bunch of other random memories where my career orbited Mobb Deep. Nothing to brag about. The first time I went to Puerto Rico interning for Complex, me and my old friend Richie Cruz went some crazy reggaeton event headlined by every major Latino artist at that time (Daddy Yankee, Wisin & Yandel, Tego Calderon), plus Mobb Deep were the special guests from NYC. Crazy. We went to the club on the first night, and it was as if they opened the club just for us: Me, Richie, the Mobb, and bunch of ladies who seemed to just be there to fill the V.I.P. area of an empty club.

I formed some of my closest friendships listening to Mobb Deep. I’m forever grateful for Prodigy as an ambassador of what we as New Yorkers represent—resilience. He overcame the impossible coming from a place where you’re not supposed to become famous, much less survive. P’s battle with sickle cell throughout his lifetime should inspire us all to endure. He was a fighter, with a gifted power to speak his mind poetically. Those are life skills in the battlefield of life. He never sugarcoated the truth. I am grateful for his wisdom through music, his interviews, and his trendsetting. I will miss Albert “Prodigy” Johnson. He may be gone, but never forgotten. His energy was alive yesterday. Hours before I found out the news of his passing, I put on the T-shirt Supreme made with him in 2011. I had to sit down for a second because it was like a sign of a higher power at work. Spiritual energy is something P was very vocal about. He spoke on it for Genius. That energy rippled through the universe on a fateful day.

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