Prodigy’s 25th Hour

A Queens rap icon scrambles to prepare for life on the inside

When he got to the station, Prodigy says, he was told he'd been brought in for failing to pay a ticket that he received for talking on his cell phone while driving a few months before. "Never in my life," Prodigy says, "have I heard of police looking for someone who has a ticket for talking on their cell phone!"

It isn't breaking news that the Rap Intelligence Unit is a specialized task force that's been targeting rappers since the spring of 1999, when Chief Louis R. Anemone, known as the "Dark Prince" of the NYPD, promoted Detective Derrick Parker to the Gang Intelligence Unit to investigate hip-hop. But the NYPD still publicly denies the existence of the task force, and after more than a month of inquiries, the department offered the Voice no formal response whatsoever. Reached for comment, spokesman Sergeant Reginald Watkins couldn't make an official statement. "I don't know of any task force that targets rappers specifically, and I've been here for 23 years," he said. "But you're going to always have police looking out for people who are in violation of the law."

I've always said, 'Listen, there's no reason to deny it anymore,' " says Derrick Parker, who now runs a private investigative agency. Scott Leemon, the attorney to rappers Busta Rhymes and Tony Yayo, who are both facing multiple charges, agrees: "Everyone knows it's there. Every time I have a rap case, I deal with the same sergeants and lieutenants, and they usually act as liaisons for the local precinct."

Albert "Prodigy" Johnson is facing three and a half years for gun possession.
Chad Griffith
Albert "Prodigy" Johnson is facing three and a half years for gun possession.

I don't know how they can still say that it doesn't exist," Prodigy's lawyer, Irving Cohen, laments. "But what can I tell you . . . "

Five months after that first incident in May, on October 26, 2006, Prodigy says he noticed members of the same police team waiting outside of the Show nightclub near Times Square, where he and his crew were celebrating his producer Alan "Alchemist" Mamon's birthday. After leaving Show, and not wanting to miss a parking spot near Alchemist's Chelsea apartment building, Prodigy made an illegal U-turn, and he says that officers of the NYPD immediately swooped in on him in a yellow cab. They searched his Chevy Suburban—illegally, Prodigy insists—and found a .22-caliber gun inside a box.

The Borough Crime guys in the cabs are also involved in hip-hop; those are the guys that got Prodigy," clarifies Derrick Parker. "They're the ones that are hunting the rappers at night. They know who runs with what crew; they're waiting at certain clubs, and if they see you get in a car with an entourage, they pull 'em over. . . . Prodigy's been set up before. Of all the rappers out there, he's someone who should be concerned about going out without protection."

Prodigy carries a gun. It's how he was raised. Though Albert Johnson comes from a long line of influential men—his great-great-grandfather, William Jefferson White, founded Morehouse College in the basement of his Baptist church in Augusta, Georgia; his grandfather was world-famous jazz musician Budd Johnson—it's his father whom Prodigy looks up to the most. Budd Johnson Jr. had a thing for heroin and guns, and spent much of his life in federal prison for weapons and robbery charges, ultimately dying of AIDS in 1997. "Pops was a very intelligent person, but as smart as he was, this nigga had a criminal gene in his DNA," Prodigy says. Along with his DNA, Budd passed down his love for guns to his son, who recalls spending afternoons as a boy shooting birds with BB rifles alongside his pops in the park near their home in Lakeview, Long Island.

After the gun was discovered, Prodigy and Alchemist were arrested and interrogated, though each claims he was barely questioned about the weapon. " 'We'll let you go right now if you help us get a bust on 50 Cent,' " Prodigy says the police urged him. (50, another Queens product, was famously shot nine times in 2000, rose to superstardom three years later with his multi-platinum debut Get Rich or Die Tryin', and is believed to be the NYPD's top hip-hop target because he's basking in the limelight while linked to several unsolved murders.) " 'Help us set him up. Get him to buy some drugs from you. Plant something in his car.' I was sitting there bugging. They want to bring 50 down because he's filthy rich, and they're pissed off because he used to be involved in all kinds of street shit."

They asked me all kinds of crazy questions and knew all types of stuff about rap," Alchemist says. "They were like, 'Do you know anything about who shot Fabolous? Do you know anything about 50?' It was just ridiculous." (Nine days earlier, the Brooklyn rapper Fabolous had been shot in the leg, then stopped by the police for running a red light en route to the hospital and arrested when two unlicensed, loaded guns were found in his Dodge Magnum.)

During an interview last year, New Orleans rapper Lil' Wayne, the most prolific and productive MC of 2007, concurred, launching unsolicited into the story of his own highly publicized arrest after his first-ever show in New York, held in July at the Beacon Theater, wherein both he and Queens rapper (and 50 Cent rival) Ja Rule were pulled over separately and taken in upon leaving the performance. "When they locked me up in New York, they asked me about 50 Cent, G-Unit, and no fucking gun or weed like they made it look like on TV," a heated Weezy explained during an interview for Vibe magazine. Reports claimed that both rappers were in possession of .40-caliber pistols, and that one of Wayne's associates was found flushing half a pound of marijuana down the toilet. But at the time, Wayne says the cops didn't consider that important. "They ain't ask me a damn thing about no gun or no weed. That could have been the gun that shot Kennedy, they didn't give a fuck! All they wanted to know was, 'So what's the beef with you and 50 Cent? You and Jay-Z?' "

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