By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
The cell door clicks shut, and Albert "Prodigy" Johnson is stuck inside. He tries to get used to the idea, but before long he's had enough: "Get me outta here, man! I gotta spend enough time in this motherfuckin' shit!"
Prodigy, one-half of legendary Queens rap duo Mobb Deep, is shooting a video for "Real Power Is People," an introspective warning from his forthcoming solo album, H.N.I.C. 2, at the Queens House of Detention in Kew Gardens. "Money's worthless, real power is people/Real strength is in the street where everybody's equal," Prodigy raps. "Fuck jewelry, fuck rims, let's spend on our protection." It's the first Saturday in January, three days before Johnson is scheduled to begin a three-and-a-half-year prison term for illegal possession of firearms in New York. "It's just a regular day shooting a video," he insists, after noting the filthy condition of this prison, which has been non-operational since 2002. "But at the same time, it's definitely on my mind, like, 'Damn, I'm about be in one of these motherfuckers.' I think about it for a minute, and then I snap right out of it."
He's trying not to give himself any time to think. As Prodigy leaves Queens House to deliver some last-minute tracks from H.N.I.C. 2the follow-up to his gold-selling 2000 solo debut, H.N.I.C. (for "Head Nigga in Charge")to his engineer, he's suddenly back in front of the jail, shooting a scene for another video. "We went nuts with it," says "Real Power" director Dan the Man, who's helping ensure that every track on the record has a video ready for release while Prodigy's away. "We did a video last weekend, one the weekend before that, and two this weekend. Meanwhile, we finish this video, I'm walking downstairs, and he's doing another video right there with Jordan," he adds, motioning to another director who's been shadowing Prodigy around the clock for a documentary about his last days as a free man. "We don't have Prodigy for that long, so we want to put him in different environments and have him frozen in time. So that's the work ethic."
In the final week leading up to his incarceration, Prodigy has woken up with a jagged chip on his shoulder. But he shakes off the anger and heads out from his home in Edgewater, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife Kiki and three children. All the work he's put in since his conviction three months agojoining up with indie label/technology company Voxonic Inc. as an equity holder; finishing two albums' worth of material (including a special edition of H.N.I.C. 2 featuring a cappella tracks, commentary, and a bonus DVD, all scheduled for release next summer); launching his interactive Web community, hnic2.com, and the "FREE P" campaign; filming videos for every track on the new album, and video blogging for the online hub kyte.tvhas all been leading up to this. "I gotta leave things well prepared for my wife," says the pint-sized father of an eight-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son, and 16-year-old stepdaughter. "I'd be mad as hell if I didn't. So while I'm in, everything's set upall she's gotta do is call the shots. Kiki's gonna be Prodigy while I'm gone. We've been together for over 15 years. It's nothing. We can get through this."
Kiki concurs: "We're going to act like he's on tour," she says. "They'll visit me," Prodigy adds. "We'll talk on the phone. I'll write them letters. It's like a long tour, basically. My kids is smart; they don't believe in all that fairyland shit. They deal with reality."
Though he'll never feel like he's done enough, the race against time has helped to breathe new life into the 33-year-old rapper, who was in his prime at 19, when he and his partner, Kejuan "Havoc" Mujita, used their hardcore street stories to forever change the rap game alongside fellow NYC titans Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, and Wu-Tang Clan. "It was the changing of the guard," Prodigy reminisces about the mid-'90s glory days, when Mobb's cautionary classic "Shook Ones Pt. II" was bumping on Every Block, USA. With lines like "I'm only 19 but my mind is old/And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold," Prodigy transported listeners to the merciless, murderous hallways of the Queensbridge housing projects, where he migrated from Long Island as a youngster. "We were making ground-breaking hits for the 'hood and quickly becoming the most elite rappers in the world," he says.
A decade later, Mobb Deep were no longer among the world's most elite rappers, so instead they signed with one, inking a deal with superstar 50 Cent's G-Unit Records in June 2005. 50 Cent had "MOBB DEEP" tattooed on his wrist, and Prodigy had "G-UNIT" inked on his hand. But Prodigy endured his unofficial initiation into that crew the following year, when he says he was pulled over and arrested after the release party celebrating Mobb Deep's G-Unit debut, Blood Money , at the Roxy nightclub. The arresting officer, a young black undercover that Prodigy says "looked like he could be one of our friends," refused to explain why they were bringing him downtown. But on the way there, he issued a warning. "He said, 'You might as well get used to seeing us now, because we've been assigned to you guys,' " Prodigy recalls. " 'Our squad has been assigned to G-Unit, and the team in this car is assigned to Mobb Deep.' "